Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#6)


Ninety-four down, six to go. Now let's find out who lands at #6.

velvetunderground1Whenever I see people in movies guzzle hard liquor like it was tap water (usually hard-bitten gunslingers, or dead-eyed loners with skeletons lining their closet, or John Belushi), I can’t believe it. I’ve never seen anyone take a full shot of spirits without wincing or souring at least a little, and here are these “hard” men downing huge mouthfuls and remaining completely stoic. Maybe when you become a full-blown alcoholic, your gag reflex numbs and it all slides down bland and empty—I wouldn’t know.

I had a similar reaction when I first tried out the Velvet Underground. Fellow music obsessives talk about them constantly as if they’re one of the all-time greats, but my first listen left me shaken and confounded. How could anyone possibly say that the S&M perversions of “Venus in Furs,” the violent short story recitation over violent instrumental rock on “The Gift,” the searing viola screech of “Heroin,” and the seventeen-and-a-half-minute freakout of “Sister Ray” should be filed with the most incredible pop music ever recorded? But I gave ‘em another try. And another. And another. Over the next couple of years, I became a full-blown “alcoholic.”

Today I don’t really understand what it was about them that rubbed me raw. Lou Reed’s graphic frontline reporting, vividly bleak depictions, and uncompromising street poetry were certainly troubling (even bruising), but I usually prefer dark, unsettling reality to cheery nonsense. Maybe velvetunderground4it’s some untapped voyeuristic side to me, but I find the whole “seedy underbelly” stuff to be both fascinating and repulsive (one because of the other and vice versa). John Cale’s atonal electric viola took some time to adjust to, but I had already survived Swell Maps, early Sonic Youth and Spice Girls at this point, so I could handle just about any ear-splitting racket. Sterling Morrison and Reed’s guitar techniques featured lots of sustained chords and dissonance, fostering extended peals, flickering notes, and crunching, jagged riffs, but in my youth, the louder and more distorted a guitar lick was, the happier I usually became. And Moe Tucker’s drums, so simple but effective, found control in the rhythm and married that intensity to more classic pop structure, so it sure wasn’t her. Maybe it was because I started with the group’s coarse, unflinching second album White Light/White Heat, which had excessively sadistic, nihilistic aspects (even by their standards) and was deeply disturbed and chaotic (even by any noise rock standards, which VU practically birthed).

They also gave birth to what would eventually become known as “alternative rock” and all the little niches within, including that noise rock business already mentioned. And though there were no true independent labels in the late-60s, they also defined the ethic of indie music, specifically in their skewing of familiarity in favor of a more unique and identity-driven aesthetic (particularly in the large contingent of indies that try to muffle their terrific, traditional pop chops with lots of dissonance, reverb, and lo-fi mist & hiss). They also more or less created “art rock,” and for all of the obvious reasons, including the band name plucked from a book about a discreet, underground velvetunderground5sex society. Original percussionist Angus MacLise even quit the band early on when they accepted their first paying gig, accusing the rest of being sellouts—how “artistic” of him. And they were managed early on by pop art legend Andy Warhol. Warhol gained them some exposure early on, helped devise the “performance art” aspect of their shows when they toured briefly on the roadshow Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and it was he who suggested German singer Nico as an addition to the group’s dynamic. Nico’s huskily asexual (but still eerily sexual) voice made for a strong addition, especially since she traded off between Reed on that first album, who also had a distinctive way of selling unseemly corruption: unfiltered, untreated.

The tradeoff was not to last, though—Velvet Underground parted ways with both Nico and Warhol by the time the group gathered to record their second album. That record would be the aforementioned White Light/White Heat, which at times sounded like a band already collapsing into ruin, but whatever chaos lay in there was compelled by four people angling together for the same savage assault. Transsexuals, orgies, lobotomies, glorious smack, even more glorious blowjobs—this lyrical stuff is kitten fur soft compared to the squawk and grind of the pre-industrial rock, powder-cut guitars and Cale’s shrieking viola and organ from hell. That organ infiltrates as deep as heart-stopping, spoon-boiled luxury on unf-ckable closer “Sister Ray,” which used to give me a headache when it played but now I only a get a headache when greeted by hollow silence after it concludes.

velvetunderground7Don’t let the Velvet Underground be defined by abrasion, though. Sensibilities were certainly shocking (and shocked) as VU progressed early on, but it wasn’t until radio-friendly jams like “Rock & Roll” and “Sweet Jane” appeared on the album Loaded that the public finally started responding—yet not enough to make the album a big-seller. And though it seems like no one else agrees with me, I actually prefer the relatively subdued and generously melancholy The Velvet Underground album over their more famed and celebrated debut. That album, their third and first with Doug Yule who replaced Cale when he departed following rising tension with Lou Reed, was clearly Reed’s vision, and would be echoed on much of his solo work (several tracks recorded shortly after, but never released until 1985, would be recycled on some of Reed’s 70s albums). If Nico is a masterpiece of drone and experimental, discordant beauty, then Velvet Underground was a tour de force of bare contemplation, arty folk rock, and “bedroom pop.” A number of the group’s most ardent fans, however, pick that White album as top, ahem, banana like hooligan kids huffing spray paint fumes.

I’ll regurgitate that oft-repeated claim here, because though it’s lost all semblance of revelation (and originality) it is still uncannily believable when you look at what came in the group’s aftermath: the Velvet Underground sold hardly any records during their day, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band because of what they heard. VU made it seem like anyone could convert noise into attraction, and it was so attractive to their fans that their method of the avant-garde was as indebted to underground abstracts and free jazz as any of the “pop as art” advances being staked by the psychedelic and baroque pop movements of the era. The Stones and velvetunderground2garage rock started the trend—rock n’ roll that’s separate from show business, making it something of a loose ideologue, something that anyone could do. And the Velvet Underground took it to a whole new level: strange, artistic, unpolished, unapologetic, fueled by harsh reality and stark philosophy more than base emotions. The baseness was reserved to their pleasures, which seemed intertwined with grime, grease, grit and pain (and drugs, don’t forget about the drugs). It was different, it was real, it had a pulse, it was ugly and it was beautiful and it made you want to make something like it and it made you believe that you actually could.

The incorporation of instruments such as violas, celesta, organs, and unconventionally-tuned guitars (specifically Reed’s famed Ostrich guitar) made them sound rather exotic at times, but they couldn’t have been closer to the steamy, seamy streets of New York if they tried. And it became a legacy from them—in few places is scene identification more important today than coming out of NYC, but almost no one in the late-60s outside of Greenwich Village folk seemed to breathe and bleed it. The punk, new wave and art school crowds that circulated through CBGB’s in the mid-to-late-70s solidified the borough passion, but it was Velvet Underground that laid the tracks.

But the Velvet Underground was much more than its myriad influences. Though Reed was the primary songwriter, Cale’s influence on the group’s experimental sound was incalculable—he kept pushing the group further to the abyss’ edge (and maybe “Sister Ray” was the plummet). Yule velvetunderground3brought a “mainstream” power to his bass that helped organize the thrust of their late rockers. Morrison never gets the credit he deserves in Reed’s shadow, but his unique, detailed style was a major force in shaping the group’s translucent, hallucinatory landscapes (Reed even described him as the “architect”). Tucker was a tom thumper and time keeper, hardly using cymbals at all. And she flipped the bass drum on its side and played it standing up, frequently using mallets to get that heavy basement sound, and making the already rare example of a female drummer even rarer with her unusual bearing. And Lou Reed…well, Lou Reed’s frank lyrics and themes were a million miles from what was typically featured in late-60s rock music. They had a severe psychedelic edge, but VU was a far cry from the era’s American “flower child” hippie music; even an antidote, depending on your view. The band was 3,000 miles away from the sunny beaches of California but they were oftentimes spotted wearing sunglasses at shows and in photos ‘cause they were just that damn cool.

And that’s the perfect summation of the Velvet Underground: cool. Which is a lot harder than you think considering how bizarre most of Warhol’s company and hangers-on tended to be. But VU, yeah, they were cool. Not hip or trendy or macho or popular or fashionable or danceable or celebratory—just cool. Detachment isn’t enough, neither is honesty, nor servicing an antithesis, nor being a model to follow, nor having no justifiable precursor, nor intellectualism, nor visceralism, nor minimalism, nor individualism. But combine them all without looking like you’re even trying? That’s cool. I guess in a cultish way, so is the fact that so few were paying attention to them at the time, but in that stuffy logic, they would have lost “cool points” for being so highly regarded and adored today, so we can just sweep that under the rug for now.

What’s really cool about them is their gateway capability. Before I became that full-blown “alcoholic,” I was so overwhelmed by the cacophony and the brutality and the avant garde strangeness of the most feverish, blistered passages that I didn’t easily notice how immediately appealing so much more was. If you come in on the waxy, strung-out pound of “I’m Waiting for the velvetunderground6Man,” the maximum R&B swing of “What Goes On,” the lush, almost idyllic melody of “Sunday Morning,” the spare and hauntingly gorgeous “Pale Blue Eyes,” or the Loaded FM staples, the transition to the rougher stuff will be considerably easier. And once you get a taste, like that heroin coursing through the veins of the characters and musicians, you need more, more, f-cking more, man!

But they didn’t last more than a few years (the Yule-fronted version doesn’t really count, nor do the brief here-and-there reunions); still, they managed in that short span an enormous amount. Not just for the future of so much in popular (and “unpopular”) music, but in their own canon—each album had a different vibe, and yet within each one a surfeit of ideas and styles rise to the surface. But whether you prefer the Cale-driven vision of their early work or the Reed-dominated sound of their third LP or the radio-friendly detours of their final lineup-largely-intact original album, it is undeniably exciting and awakening to navigate it all. And once you do, you’ll probably really want to get a band of your own together. They’re the sordid little gift that keeps on giving.

White Light/White Heat
Lady Godiva’s Operation
Here She Comes Now
Sister Ray
Candy Says
What Goes On
Pale Blue Eyes
Beginning to See the Light
I’m Set Free
After Hours
Who Loves the Sun
Sweet Jane
Rock & Roll
Head Held High
Foggy Notion
…and the album The Velvet Underground & Nico

Also endorsed: John Cale (solo), Nico (solo), Cowboy Junkies

[Intro & Runners Up] [100-91] [90-81] [80-71] [70-61] [60-51]
[50-46] [45-41] [40-36] [35-31] [30-26] [25-21]
[20] [19] [18] [17] [16] [15] [14] [13] [12] [11]
[10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1]

Matt Medlock


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