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The Greatest American Rock ‘n’ Roll Band Of All Time: The Velvet Underground

1970: (L-R) Doug Yule, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and  Maureen "Moe" Tucker of the rock and roll band "Velvet Underground" pose for a portrait in 1970. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The greatest American rock ‘n’ roll band never had a hit single. They never had a gold album. Most music fans would be hard pressed to name more than one member of the group. The Velvet Underground completely rewrote the rules of what could be accomplished in terms of music and lyrics for a rock group. They used elements of free jazz, avant-garde, and poetry, but, at their core, remained first and foremost a song band. Lou Reed and John Cale first started making music together in late 1964, their first band was called the Primitives, and the core of The Velvet Underground was finalized in late 1965, after Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker joined the band.

In 1966, Andy Warhol became their manager and he added Nico (a German model whose real name was Christa Päffgen) into the mix. The band’s 1967 The Velvet Underground & Nico move from quiet paranoia (“Sunday Morning”), drug addiction (“I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Heroin”), to simple contemporary rock (“There She Goes Again”). The subject matter, the often droning viola work, and the use of distortion/feedback resulted in a sound that was completely different from mainstream rock. In reality, the band had created the concept of alternative rock at this time. Their second album included the amphetamine driven title track “White Light/White Heat” and the seventeen minute plus litmus test “Sister Ray.” Nico had left the band after the first album was released and John Cale left after the second. A less artistically threatening Doug Yule replaced Cale.

Lou Reed introduced a quieter, gentler side of the band with the 1969 The Velvet Underground album. A soft, almost folk-like sensitivity permeates the quieter songs, with “What Goes On” and “Beginning to See the Light” providing the contrasting rock material. “Candy Says” and “Pale Blue Eyes” were quiet heartbreakers about self loathing and a marital affair that ended with love and regret.

Lou Reed left before the 1970 Loaded album was released but he wrote two absolute classics for the record – “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll.” Doug Yule sadly kept the band going for a few years after Reed left.

In 1985, a batch of unreleased material was released as the VU album. VU was as strong as any of their regular releases and it became their highest charting, peaking at #85. The band reunited for a limited number of performances in 1993, but did not record any new material at that time. There’s a direct line between the work of The Velvet Underground and music that followed from David Bowie to punk rock to college rock.

Critic Greg Kot has argued that in pure musical terms, the band was more influential than The Beatles, stating, “The roots of underground and experimental music, indie and alternative, punk, post-punk and art-punk all snake back to the four Velvet Underground studio albums.”  Hopefully, a few lives have been saved by rock ‘n’ roll in the process.

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