The ultimate New York band — and, arguably, the most influential of all the proto-punk groups — the Velvet Underground were unique among Sixties rockers in their intentional crudity, in their sense of beauty in ugliness, and in their dark and risqu é lyrics. During the age of flower power, the Velvets spoke in no uncertain terms of social alienation, sexual deviancy, drug addiction, violence, and hopelessness, evoking the exhilaration and destructiveness of modern urban life. The group's music and attitude shaped the work of David Bowie, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music, the Sex Pistols, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and literally thousands of other bands.
In 1964 John Cale met Lou Reed in New York City. Both had been classically trained — Cale as a violist and theorist, and Reed as a pianist. By the time of their first meeting, Cale was engaging in avant-garde experimentation with La Monte Young and Reed was writing poems about down-and-out street life. Cale, Reed, Sterling Morrison, and Angus MacLise (the percussionist in Young's ensemble) formed a group that played under various names — the Warlocks, the Primitives, the Falling Spikes — in galleries and at poetry readings around lower Manhattan. As the Primitives, they recorded a series of singles on Pickwick Records, for which Reed had once worked as house songwriter.
In 1965 the quartet became known as the Velvet Underground. MacLise, who frowned upon the idea of playing with the structure of a performing band, quit prior to the rechristened combo's first paying performance. (A poet and virtuoso percussionist who spent years living in Asia, he died of malnutrition in Nepal in 1979. Archival CDs of his raga-influenced solo work appeared in 1999 and 2000.) Maureen Tucker was enlisted to take his place on a per-diem basis, which became permanent when she constructed her own drum kit out of tambourines and garbage-can lids.
On November 11, 1965, the group played its first gig as the Velvet Underground, opening for the Myddle Class at a high school dance in Summit, New Jersey. Within a few months, Reed, Morrison, Cale, and Tucker had taken up residency at the Cafe Bizarre in Greenwich Village, where they met pop artist Andy Warhol. After the band was fired by the Bizarre's management for performing "Black Angel's Death Song" immediately after being told not to, Warhol invited them to perform at showings of his film series, Cinematique Uptight. He soon employed them as the aural component of his traveling mixed-media show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, augmenting the lineup with German singer/actress Nico.
With Warhol's blessing and Nico guesting on three lead vocals, the band recorded its debut album in 1966. The Velvet Underground and Nico languished in record-label red tape for a year before its release, but it nevertheless proved one of the most forward-thinking records of its time and remains one of the most important debut albums in rock history. Number 13 on Rolling Stone's Greatest Album of All Time, the album was stocked with a stunning lineup of songs that expanded the possibilities for rock & roll. The LP sported a Warhol cover with a peelable illustration of a pink banana and included Reed's epic two-chord meditation "Heroin" and "Venus in Furs," a song about sado-masochism whose wailing drones represented what Cale called the band's attempt at a Phil Spector "wall-of-sound" production with as few instruments as possible. Two singles — "I'll Be Your Mirror" b/w "All Tomorrow's Parties" and "Sunday Morning" b/w "Femme Fatale" — were released, and Reed's pop background shone through in the timeless melodies of all four sides, all the more memorable on the LP when juxtaposed with such dark and experimental fare as "The Black Angel's Death Song" and "European Son."
The group had a falling-out with Warhol when it performed in Boston without Nico and the rest of the Inevitable troupe, who arrived late. The Velvets then took on Steve Sesnick as their manager. Without Warhol's name and knack for generating publicity, they faded from public attention. Their following was reduced further with the uncompromisingly noisy White Light/White Heat, which they recorded in a single day following a tour of mostly empty theaters. The extreme sonic palette of the sophomore album ranges from the devilish doo-wop of the title-song to the 8-minute "The Gift," which features the band jamming behind Cale's monotonous and slyly humorous spoken-word short story. "I Heard Her Call My Name" is alternately a catchy garage-rock anthem and a distortion-drenched guitar freakout, and legendary album closer "Sister Ray" is a relentless jam that makes a strong impression on any listener who can make it through the full 17 minutes.
It was quite possibly the sound of the band splintering in the studio: Cale, frequently in a power struggle with Reed, quit soon after White Light/White Heat. The remaining members enlisted Doug Yule, who had played with Boston folk-rockers the Grass Menagerie. The third, self-titled Velvet Underground album, recorded in L.A., was once again an extreme departure from its predecessor, focusing on laid-back melodic rock. The new material proved the astounding versatility of the band — "What Goes On" and "Beginning to See the Light" are passionate rockers, but they're without any trace of the distortion or depravity of the previous album, and the calmer "Jesus" and "Candy Says" are heartfelt and downright tender. The 180-degree stylistic leap cost the group all but the most loyal of its following, and MGM dropped the band, which eventually signed to Atlantic.
Upon their return to New York to record in the summer of 1970, the Velvets played a month-long engagement at Max's Kansas City (with Doug's younger brother Billy Yule sitting in for Tucker, who was pregnant). These were the group's first appearances in New York since 1967, and they rekindled some interest. But soon after Loaded was finished, Reed, at odds with Sesnick, left the group and briefly took a typing job with his father's accounting firm before moving to England and reemerging as a solo performer. Although he denounced Loaded, claiming it was remixed after his departure (a charge Yule and Morrison denied), the album featured some of the band's most enduring rock classics, especially "Sweet Jane," "New Age" and "Rock & roll."
With Doug Yule now on guitar and new bassist Walter Powers, a Reed-less Velvet Underground toured the East Coast before Morrison dropped out in 1971 to teach English at the University of Texas in Austin. Tucker left following a tour of the U.K. She moved to Phoenix, Arizona, then relocated to southern Georgia, where she raised a family and in 1980 began recording as a solo artist. Yule retained the Velvet Underground name until 1973. Minus any of the principal Velvets, he recorded Squeeze, released only in Britain.
With the success of Reed's solo career and, to lesser extents, Cale's and Nico's, the Velvet Underground generated more interest in the Seventies than it had during its existence. Two live albums were released: 1972's Live at Max's Kansas City, recorded the night of Reed's last appearance with the group, and 1974's The Velvet Underground, recorded in 1969 in Texas and California.
In 1989 Cale and Reed performed a song cycle written in memory of Andy Warhol, who died in 1988; the work was released on the 1990 album Songs for Drella. In June of that year, the best-known lineup of the Velvet Underground (minus Nico, who died in 1988 of head injuries sustained in a cycling accident) reunited onstage at a Warhol tribute in a small town near Paris. Their 10-minute version of the song "Heroin" led to another reunion three years later. With their longstanding differences seemingly resolved (particularly the battling egos of Reed and Cale), the players began rehearsals for several European shows slated for the summer of 1993. Highlights of the tour were documented on a video and album, Live MCMXCIII. That fall, however, the band fell apart once more, reportedly due to a spat between Cale and Reed over who would produce the group's upcoming MTV Unplugged appearance and album.
The members again went their separate ways, Cale, Reed and Tucker all nurturing solo careers. All save Reed performed in late 1994, improvising music for the screenings of two silent Warhol films at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Morrison, who occasionally performed with Tucker, died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1995. The following year, the classic lineup was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Released in 1995, the five-CD set Peel Slowly and See contains the Reed-era albums plus numerous bonus tracks, presenting the solid core of the group's recorded material. The mid-Eighties rarities compilations VU and Another View present lighter riffs on the Velvet Underground motif, and some of Reed's most tender pop melodies. In 2001, Polydor released The Velvet Underground Bootleg Series Vol. 1: The Quine Tapes, a three-CD set of live recordings made in San Francisco in 1969 by amateur audio engineer and budding musician Robert Quine, who would go on to play with Reed in the Eighties. Though at times beset by audio-quality issues, the set shows an important aspect of the group: its proficiency as a performing act. The band is dynamic and adventurous, as purely rock-and-roll as the Who and as improvisational and in-the-moment as the Grateful Dead.
Reed has continued to record and perform, occasionally playing Velvet Underground material, but most recently with a free improvisational outfit dubbed Metal Machine Trio and inspired by an experimental phase of Reed's early solo career. Cale's latest releases include the EMI albums HoboSapiens (2003) and blackAcetate (2005), which lean toward modern alternative pop.
In December 2009, Tucker, Reed and Yule gathered at the New York Public Library for an interview with Rolling Stone's David Fricke. On the occasion, nearly 44 years to the day after that first Summit High School gig, Reed elaborated on Warhol's relationship with the band, saying it would have been "inconceivable" to imagine the Velvet Underground if the artist hadn't managed the group, and calling Warhol "one of the greatest people I have ever known." Reed and Yule also gave the drummer some, discussing Tucker's importance to the VU sound. "I've tried to get other drummers to do what she did and they can't," Reed said.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Troy Carpenter contributed to this article.