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October 04, 2018

The Saga of The Velvet Underground & Nico Groundbreaking LP

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When interviewing rock stars about what were their biggest influences, one of the albums that almost always comes up is THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO. The album was recorded in 1966, but not released until 1967. The startling record was a major departure from the mainstream of Rock music at the time.

Like so many things in life, the stars had to be aligned for it to have even come to pass. The dominoes began to fall in place when Lou Reed decided to leave NYC and go to Syracuse University to study English/Journalism.

Besides being removed from the campus radio station for his taste in music, Lou was thrown out of the R.O.T.C. and grew his rebel roots. One of his major turning points was meeting and studying with Delmore Schwartz. It was Delmore, who himself was at one time considered to be a young rebel in the literary field, who encouraged Lou to follow his heart.

Lou also met and became friends with Sterling Morrison who was to become an original member of The Velvet Underground. They started a band that played frat gigs etc. Forming a serious group wasn’t done until after Lou graduated with honors (believe it or not) from Syracuse.

The first stop was getting a job. That came in the form of writing and recording songs for a small label called Pickwick in his native New York City. It was there that he meet follow writer Terry Phillips. Realizing that Phillips knew the NYC music scene better than he did, he asked Terry to help him put together a band.

One of the first people he found was John Cale. Terry assumed that he was a rock musician because he had long hair. He was not. Cale was a classically trained Viola and piano player and knew little about rock music. He was, however, intrigued after hearing demos of songs like “Heroin” and “Waiting for My Man” and agreed to work with Reed. And The Velvet Underground was born.

They were booked to play at Summit High School in New Jersey. The day before their first playing job, the drummer decided to quit. They had to find someone quickly. It was a friend of Sterling Morrison from Syracuse, Jim Tucker, who recommended his little sister Maureen. They didn’t have time to find someone else. They really needed the money from this job.

As it turned out, when the band got to her parent’s home in Long Island the band was told that she had never played live and didn’t even have a complete drum kit. It didn’t matter, they weren’t going to give up a good paying gig so off they went.

It turned out to be a brilliant stroke of luck. No other rock band had a female drummer and that novelty alone got them lots of attention. Mo Tucker was a boyish looking cute young woman. Her minimalist drumming was perfect for the band. She kept a pumping beat without all the crashing cymbals and fancy snare drums rolls. Tucker even stood while playing and used mallets as much as drum sticks.

The addition of John Cale was the perfect catalyst to the music of Reed. He was not only into classical, but was well versed on electronic music and gave the band a real unique edge with his pugged in Viola. The sound he made with it on songs like “Venus in Furs” and in “Heroin” gives you chills. His driving piano playing in “Waiting for the Man” helped that song became a classic. He also played celeste, viola and piano on the lead track “Sunday Morning”. John deserved more credit that he received for the overall sound of the group.

Before they could record, they had to get a backer. It seemed that the perfect fit was artist Andy Warhol. While Warhol didn’t really like or even understand Rock music he liked the radical approach that The Velvet Underground was taking with Reed’s stark lyrics relating his experiences with the real underbelly of New York City. Andy saw it as more theater than anything.

The contribution of Warhol came at a price. He wanted total control. Control is not something that Lou Reed liked to relinquish that would eventually led to Lou leaving the band.

One of the first things that Andy did was to take the advice of his film maker Paul Morrissey. Paul had a thing for a beautiful model named Nico. Both he and Andy agreed that she was the beauty needed to make the band work. The only problem was that while Nico looked great on stage, she really wasn’t a singer. Still the two insisted on Nico becoming the lead singer.

Reed bit his tongue and wrote three songs for the model to perform on the album. They turned out to be three very strong songs that were perfect for the German accented monotone Nico. She probably carried them off better than he could have.

Once everything was in place, it was time to seek out a record company. Despite the Andy Warhol name as producer, there was no interest in signing The Velvet Underground. Finally it was Tom Wilson who saw some potential in the band. Wilson, who had just moved from Columbia Records where had produced Bob Dylan among others, was now with Verve Records. The label had made a name in the Jazz field in the 50’s and 60’s and was now looking to expand into Rock.

It was Tom Wilson who really produced the LP. Andy Warhol didn’t even come to the recording sessions. Having Tom in charge of the recording turned out to be a bit of a problem. Wilson had also just signed another “off the wall” Group called The Mothers of Invention. Even though the actual recording of The Velvet Underground was pretty much finished by May of 1966, it wasn’t released until March of 1967.

Part of the reason was that Tom Wilson didn’t want two revolutionary bands coming out at the same time. It would be a nightmare trying to promote both at the same time. He insisted that The Mother’s LP FREAK OUT come out first.

It may have been delayed anyway. Andy Warhol, who had no interest in the record itself, insisted that he wanted to design the album cover. His design, that may have sounded easy on the surface, turned out to be very difficult to actually do. First he wanted a wing cover. That is one that opens like a book so that there are four sides to the cover. That was not done for a single album at that time because of the extra cost. That finally was resolved.

Then came an even bigger problem. For the front cover Warhol wanted a plain white cover with only two things on it. One was his name and the other a huge banana. The banana was a sticker that could be peeled off. Next to the top of it was a small arrow and the words peel slowly and see. Those who peeled it found nothing more than a pink banana underneath.

Mass producing this was a problem in itself. The other issue that the record company objected to was that the name of the group wasn’t on the cover. If a person went into the record store looking for the new record by The Velvet Underground, they wouldn’t be able to find it. Warhol insisted that the unusual cover would get plenty of attention on the record racks in the store and sell more than the name.

The album was never a huge seller anyway. It never got any higher than 171 on the Billboard charts, but the mark it left is unmeasurable.

Lou Reed soon left the group he founded and had a long solo career before his death in 2013. During that time he almost seem to take pride in being difficult to work with. On the few occasions that I did associate with him he was not so much difficult as brooding. We got along despite his failed attempt to pick up my girlfriend.

Mo Tucker left the band to have the first of five children. She did return for some solo things as well a Velvet Underground reunion but hasn’t been active since 2017. Nico died too young at age 49. Sterling Morrison also died too young at 53.

John Cale remains very active with solo LPs most in the electronic vein. He has also produced several albums. One of the most recent ones was the Alejandro Escovedo album THE BOXING MIRROR. Alejandro stated that he was thrilled to have Cale produce an LP for him. When he was growing up most of the kids were arguing as to who was getter the Beatles or The Stones. He would have none of it and always said the best group was The Velvet Underground. Many others like David Bowie, Iggy Pop and most of the Punk Rock movement would agree.