“Only 30,000 people may have bought the Velvet Underground’s first record, but every one of them formed a band.” —Brian Eno, Producer/Musician
Do you need more than that? From R.E.M. to Nirvana, The Pixies to Jane’s Addiction, 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico* singlehandedly gave birth to what future shoe-gazers would dub “Alternative Rock.” When building the foundation of a 21st Century music collection this, my friend, is without question one of the cornerstones.
“Every song we’ve ever written was a rip-off of a Lou Reed song,” Bono once admitted. The Velvet Underground were a wide-eyed 11-year-old Morrissey’s first concert. Johnny Rotten/Lydon claims his friend John Ritchie took his stage name from Lou Reed’s “Vicious.” In fact, the list of bands that cite VU as an influence is so long it is perhaps more manageable to list the bands not influenced by them. There are precisely three: UB40, Hootie & The Blowfish and Right Said Fred. Throw a digital stone at anything else in your iTunes library and chances are they contain a strain of the Velvet’s DNA.
But don’t take your favorite alt-rockers’ endorsements as gospel. Listen for yourself and you will discover the soundtrack to a New York City few knew existed at the time. Influenced more by authors and poets than other musicians, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen “Mo” Tucker and collaborator Nico painted a picture of a Gotham filled with heroin, sexual ambiguity, sado-masochism and nihilism. Not since the Stones had rock music delved quite so dark. And yet songs like “Heroin,” “I’m Waiting For The Man,” and “The Black Angel’s Death Song” somehow work perfectly alongside pop gems like “Femme Fatale” and “There She Goes Again,” revealing Reed’s secret obsession with a well-crafted melody. It’s beat jazz poetry, easy on the jazz; it’s expertly honed pop for those who think pop is a dirty word.
Fusing Reed’s street-level credibility with Cale’s European avant-garde background, their songs were filled with the same beauty and noise as the city their bohemian characters explored. They were truly an alternative to everything that had come before. Case in point: When Andy Warhol revolutionized the status quo’s concepts of art and culture he chose them to be the soundtrack. They were the house band to the alternative nation.
A few years later, punk would take credit for staging a rebellion against the prog-rock pomposity of bands like Yes and Led Zeppelin but, in truth, punk owes its evolution to the Velvet Underground, who did not let their limited musicianship or unconventional vocals stop them from servicing the stories they were driven to tell. You know who’s on the cover of the very first issue of Punk magazine? Lou Fucking Reed.
“One chord is fine,” Reed once said, describing his minimalistic guitar-work. “Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” In his guitar you will hear the eighth-note “drone-strum” R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and U2’s The Edge would fill stadiums with decades later. In Tucker’s simple, tom-heavy pounding beats you will hear future echoes of The White Stripe’s Meg White and Jane’s Addiction’s Stephen Perkins. In fact, both R.E.M., Jane’s Addiction and a host of others would go on to cover VU songs, both on wax and on stage.
“Produced” by Warhol and released to approximately zero fanfare in 1967, VU’s debut The Velvet Underground & Nico now stands as a seminal album easily on par with the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? Named both the 13th Greatest Album of All Time and The Most Prophetic Rock Album Ever Made by Rolling Stone, it would be come the hipster identikit.
“Must have” records fall into a variety of categories: Some deserve a spot because they perfectly encapsulate a particular moment in time, while others earn their keep because of their far-reaching influence or due to their sheer quality. Not only does *The Velvet Underground & Nico” check all three of those boxes, it defines a fourth category: It’s just so damn cool.
Adam Freeman is the former producer of MTV’s 120 Minutes, Alternative Nation, Total Request Live and Gene Simmons Family Jewels. He is now the Creative Director of Thinkfactory Media and the executive producer of 4th & Loud, which airs Tuesdays at 10pm on AMC. He tweets at @mradamfreeman