The Velvet Underground have inspired numerous artists since releasing their debut album over 50-years ago: Nick Cave, The Strokes, The Libertines, Fat White Family and many more have taken certain aspects from the legendary New York band to better their own music. Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker formed back in the 1960’s to create one of the greatest albums of all-time with the fairly random assistance of Nico.
Criminally underrated at the time, Lou and co sold minimal records which obviously resulted in the band not making much money at all. And While The Beatles and The Beach Boys were singings about your usual cliches, tiptoeing around lyrics to include drug references in their songs, Lou Reed was quite blatantly expressing his interests on taboo subjects such as heroin, sadomasochism and New Yorks seedy underbelly.
So, for no real reason, apart from the fact that I love the Velvets, lets take a look at their top 5 tunes (this is non-debatable).
Oh, Sweet Nuthin’
After the band’s commercial failure, and after sacking his most creative partner John Cale following White Light/White Heat, Lou decided it was time to attempt to appeal to the masses with the bands last album (basically last album, don’t listen to squeeze), Loaded. The move didn’t quite pay off, but the record did produce some great songs such as Sweet Jane, and also showcased Reed’s ability to create catchy pop-songs.
The albums closing track, Oh, Sweet Nuthin’ is the Velvets’ own attempt at a classic Lynyrd Skynyrd like ballad. It features a delicate guitar solo at the end that combines brilliantly with the build up on the drums. This track is not your usual Velvets effort, but it portrays the bands musical ability despite the absence of Cale. And like on Candy Says, Doug Yule doesn’t do too bad at all by replacing Lou Reed on this one with his soft vocals.
This track just about managed to get the nod ahead of Candy Says and Hey Mr. Rain. The latter a song so admired by the Fat White Family they took the riff and altered it slightly to create the track Bomb Disneyland.
Venus in Furs
The sound Reed and Cale created on this song still remains unique to any other this day. The Welshman’s haunting violin plays over Reeds stabbing guitar while Tucker applies her typical heavy tom drum-beat. The music couldn’t be better suited to Reed’s words about dark sexual fantasises regarding sadomasochism which is inspired by the book of the same name.
Pale Blue Eyes
One of The Velvet Undergrounds most popular songs is the ever so delicate Pale Blue Eyes, a song so light it could fade out at any second. Its vintage Lou Red, with that beautiful guitar and alluring melody.
Reed was always a fiend for purposely simplifying his lyrics, never demonstrated better than the tracks opening line “Sometimes I feel so happy, sometimes I feel so sad”. The rest of the song demonstrate some of Reeds personal struggles with relationships, a subject talked about much more later on in the bands career. Pale Blue Eyes features on their self-titled third album, a record that may have also been an effort at shifting their junkie reputation.
I’m Waiting For The Man
Reed always expressed a desire at taking elements from his beat generation idols such as William S. Burroughs and turning it into music, which is portrayed perfectly on Im Waiting For The Man. This fast paced track had Reed echoing Bob Dylan with crooning vocals while he sings about picking up drugs in Harlem. The R&B rhythm guitar is unusually upbeat aided by the constant hit of the piano and snare drum. “So sick and dirty more dead than alive” Reed sings in what would go on to be a punk-esque classic.
Moe Tucker said this was the bands greatest triumph and its hard to disagree. The Velvet Underground were one of first pioneers of punk rock, without really knowing about it. When the Sex Pistols sang about anarchy in the UK there was an audience for it. In late 1960’s New York the chances of getting on the radio with songs about heroin where slim to say the least.
One of the truly unique aspects of this legendary song is Lou Reed’s ability to musically give the listener a good a feel as any (you imagine) at following him on the dangerous journey he experiences. As Reed describes his blood beginning to flow, the drums and guitar quickly build up, perfectly combining with Reeds insight into injecting Heroin. The song continues to change pace and ends with intense screaming feedback that suits the songs subject perfectly.