BYSLT #1: The Velvet Underground

Once upon a time, it was 1967. The Beatles hadn’t turned into massive hippies yet or started singing vaguely drugs-themed songs like ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’; in fact, drugs were totally lyrically taboo. Then Andy Warhol, he of the Campbell’s soup cans and general pop art fame, took on a band called The Velvet Underground who REALLY LIKED DRUGS. He made them sing with a German model (Nico) and released their debut album 'The Velvet Underground and Nico', which sold fuck all at the time but has since become one of the most influential albums of all time - Brian Eno famously said that "The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band".

l-r: Nico (occasional co-singer), Andy Warhol (manager), Mo Tucker (drummer), Lou Reed (singer), Stirling Morrison (guitar), John Cale (bass/viola)

What's so important about it? Well, it's pretty much the mother/father of punk music, pioneering drone sounds and noise-rock.John Cale, was a classically trained musician interested in experimentation, and Lou Reed - who would later go on to have a successful solo career - was also keen on this, inventing a style of guitar tuning called "ostrich guitar tuning", where all the strings are tuned to the same pitch class - for example, on 'Venus In Furs'.

It also opened up previously unbreached themes like drugs (I said they liked drugs...), particularly on the no-holds barred 'Heroin', and sex - they're named after a novel about masochism, with the subject matter of 'Venus In Furs' being drawn from that same novel.

Their lyrics were also more influenced by literature, poetry and philosophy than predecessors, but also by their surroundings and details, writing about the sort of people that you might expect to find in New York - in 'Run Run Run', he talks about a Seasick Sarah and a Marguerita Passion who have had plastic surgery and a career in prostitution respectively. David Bowie said that "The nature of [Reed’s] lyric writing had been hitherto unknown in rock...he supplied us with the street and the landscape, and we peopled it."

It's not all noise and sex, though; they also had quiet, introspective songs such as 'Sunday Morning' which showed their versatility and ability to adapt their sound to a more approachable, melodic style.

They sacked Warhol and Nico after their debut, moving onto an even more progressive style with their avant-garde second album, 'White Light/White Heat'; featuring spoken word interludes from John Cale and a 17-minute long closing song in 'Sister Ray' featuring Lou Reed singing about "sucking on a ding-dong". The Beatles never did that.

Cale left the band after WL/WH when he fell out with Lou Reed, and was replaced by Doug Yule, who would later go on to front the band after all its members left. Unfortunately, the one album released under his leadership ('Squeeze') was given terrible reviews and has been deleted from their discography by, well, virtually everyone. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.

Their third album, eponymously titled, veered away from the more experimentalist tendencies of their previous albums and took on a more folky sound. Perhaps the best example of their new sound is 'Pale Blue Eyes', which wouldn't sound out of place in a church. Sort of. Anyway, it's commonly regarded as their second best album.

The last Velvet Underground album (sorry, Doug Yule and 'Squeeze'!), 'Loaded', was so-named because their record company wanted it 'loaded' with big hits and pop tunes. Although they remained unknown, 'Loaded' is the closest album they have to a pop one - with 'Who Loves The Sun' and 'Sweet Jane' probably being the most accessible songs in their back catalogue.

All of this in four years. They broke up, reuniting for a tour in the early 1990s before Stirling Morrison died (fun fact: he spent his post-VU years as a professor at the University of Texas), and released VU, a compilation of their outtakes.

Quite frankly, if you don't like them then I can see why - their early stuff is quite abrasive if you're not expecting it. But whatever your opinion, they've influenced pretty much everyone; Bowie, The Strokes, Nirvana, Pavement, The Strokes, Joy Division, Sonic Youth, The Fall, Beck, R.E.M., etc etc etc... so you can't write them off completely. Personally I find that a lot of their songs are 'growers' - listen a few times and you'll be hooked. Also, they're one of the coolest bands you can namedrop, so if you're looking to impress an alt-hipster then just casually ask them whether 'Squeeze' should be included in the VU's discography or not and watch as they throw you into bed for some hot, hot hipster sex. (Answer, incidentally: no, it shouldn't be.)

Oh, and if you're thinking "How have I never heard them before if they're so influential?!", you probably have heard them before:

Hope you like them. If not, stay tuned for BYSLT #2 - David Bowie! (If you do like them, then stay tuned anyway!)
Posted on January 2nd, 2012 at 12:49pm


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