Deep Dive: The Velvet Underground/Lou Reed

You know those musical artists and bands that are supposed to be super influential but you only know like one or two of their hits? Or the bands that your hipster friend raves about, but every time you hear them on the radio you change the station because all you hear is noise?

I’ve been told I know a ton about music, and yeah I probably do know way more than the average person. But, there are still plenty of artists about which I am ignorant. This year I decided to randomly select one of those artists each month and do a deep dive, reading about them and listening to their songs and albums to get a better sense of who they are and what they are about. And more importantly, to see if I have been missing out on some awesome music.

For January 2020 I chose to do a deep dive on The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. Both the band, and Lou Reed, are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. The Velvet Underground is regarded as one of the most influential bands in rock history. Rolling Stone ranked them as the 19th greatest artist of all time, and Lou Reed is rock royalty. But I didn’t know shit about them beyond a few hit tracks.

The Velvet Underground was active for a short period in the late 1960s and early 70s. The original lineup most notably consisted of vocalist Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and John Cale on bass, keyboards, viola, and anything else he could get his hands on. Maureen Tucker was the primary drummer on all of their albums. The lineup changed a bit over the years.

The Velvets were tremendously influenced by artist Andy Warhol, who was even their manager for a while. They were part of Warhol’s “Factory” community with other artists and performers and they will always be associated with pop art and the New York counterculture scene.

I found the Velvets sound to be hard to listen to. Reed’s harsh voice over acerbic guitar riffs full of feedback, most notably on the faster, louder songs, left me reaching for noise-cancelling headphones. The slower, softer songs were much better in my opinion. That said, I understand how their sound could have been seen as revolutionary in the 1960s when compared to the melodic sound of the Beatles and the rhythm and blues influence of the Rolling Stones. The Velvet Underground sounded nothing like the popular bands of the day and without question they had an influence on the punk and alt rocks bands to come.

I came away from this experiment with an appreciation for what The Velvet Underground accomplished, but still only like their more accessible hits like Rock & Roll and Sweet Jane.

Given that I liked the slower, more accessible Velvets songs it should come as no surprise that I really liked Lou Reed’s solo work. I can’t say I’ve always been a Lou Reed fan, but I definitely enjoyed his well known songs like Dirty Blvd., Walk on the Wild Side, New Sensations, and I Love You, Suzanne. But listening to deeper tracks cemented my fandom. I can definitely see Lou Reed becoming part of my regular rotation, especially when I’m feeling in the mood for something a little on the dark side.

Perhaps no other artist wrote more eloquently about the struggles of people living on the fringes of society, likely because he truly lived among them. His demons have been well chronicled over the years, and decades of drug and alcohol use led to his death from liver disease in 2013 at the age of 71. Over the years he suffered from diabetes, hepatitis, and eventually cancer.

Lou Reed lived hard, but his music lives on.

One thought on “Deep Dive: The Velvet Underground/Lou Reed

  1. That’s an interesting undertaking: “supposed to be super-influential but you only know like one or two of their hits.” I find that with a number of artists like Radiohead, the Clash, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith and several others. However, one name that has come up quite a bit for me is Nick Drake–a wonderfully gifted guitar genius and lyricist who, like many artists of his personality, died way too young. May I suggest “Five Leaves Left”?(1969)

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