7 aug 2023

The Velvet Underground: 5 Things You May Not Know About Andy Warhol’s Favorite Band

Billboard magazine has just voted the cover of the album The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) by the rock band The Velvet Underground as the most beautiful of all time. The opportunity to look back at the little-known aspects of a band that revolutionized pop culture, whether through its avant-garde music or its arty and sulphurous attitude .

1. It is one of the groups that has aroused the most vocations


In the ’80s, the legendary Brian Eno told the Los Angeles Times : I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he was telling me that the Velvet Underground’s first album only sold 30,000 copies (58,476 copies were actually sold) in its first five years. I think that each of those who bought one of those 30,000 copies founded a band!.” It would be difficult to list all the artists that the Velvet Underground has influenced, whether by its avant-garde sounds mixing rock, folk, protopunk and many other things very freely or its decadent aura. New Yorkers may have seen themselves as an anti-group and often behaved in an obnoxious way with their entourage and fans, but they have become the opposite of their big ideas by earning idol status.


Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Talking Heads, R.E.M., Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Daft Punk, but also many punk, new-wave and indie rock bands have all drawn on the psychedelic melodies, experimental flights or white noise produced by the band led by Lou Reed. In 1996, it was another pioneer, Patti Smith, who inducted the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a An American institution that means that we finally hold our letters of nobility in the seraglio of guitar music. In 2021, the release of a documentary by Todd Haynes on Apple TV+ dedicated to the band, as well as a tribute album entitled I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to The Velvet Underground & Nico Bringing together St. Vincent, Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett showed, once again, that the legacy of this dark and mysterious band is not about to die out. As for fashion, it adores the Velvet Underground. As proof, the house of Celine chose one of the titles (Pale Blue Eyes) of the band for one of its haute parfumerie campaigns dating from 2022.

2. The Velvet Underground’s albums were commercial failures


Like a meteorite, the Velvet Underground’s career lasted only a few years, with only four official albums released between 1967 and 1970. Each of them sold only a few thousand copies. And critical success was not there either, with most journalists of the time calling their dissonant music an attack on the ears and brain. The band’s first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, recorded in Manhattan in 1966 for an estimated sum of between $1,500 and $3,000, was even rejected by several record companies. It was finally signed by the Verve label, which asked these dissidents who were a little too far from the hippie utopia of the time to re-record some of their songs. A year earlier, the members of the Velvet had accepted $75 to play their first concert at a public high school in Union County, New Jersey. Suffice to say that this sound adventure was far from being as bankable as the work of their patron,  Andy Warhol.


3. They cultivated a literary and sulphurous side


The group’s name comes from a book on sadomasochism (among other sexual practices deemed deviant), written by Michael Leigh and published in 1963. The themes of the Velvet Underground’s debut album also revolve around (unbridled) sexuality, addiction to hard drugs and malaise. Lou Reed, who had undergone painful treatment with electroshocks in his youth, approached these subjects with a verve and a crudity reminiscent of Jean Genet. He was inspired by William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Raymond Chandler and Hubert Selby, leading writers of the counterculture to give more poetry and depth to rock. Like these authors, Lou Reed and his gang wanted to bear witness to the dark and marginal side of New York. The New York of the outcasts, of those who hang out late at night in the dirty streets, without a precise path. ““Take a walk on the wild side” would later sing Lou Reed solo, offering an interloping walk in the middle of prostitutes and cameos. Because of the band’s subversive lyrics, the Velvet’s debut album released in 1967 was banned from many record stores and radio stations. Even the magazines didn’t want to run the commercials for the record. In the live performances of the 60s, the Velvet performed, against a background of black and white films, with other artists from Andy Warhol’s Factory, including Gerard Malanga who danced with a whip, spinning the BDSM theme. A provocative staging that once again ensured the dangerous reputation of a band that liked to trample on the notion of morality.

4. Nico: A Slightly Too Charismatic Muse


Nico, a German model and actress with a fascinating beauty, bordering on the unreal, was one of Andy Warhol’s favorite muses in the 60s. He made her appear in his films,  invited her to radiate the silver walls of the Factory with her white suits and polar blonde, and above all, he imposed her on the Velvet Underground as a singer. His goal? To give a glamorous cachet to a band whose members he could not find beautiful enough to be successful. Except that Nico quickly stirred up trouble within the band, forming a romantic relationship with John Cale, the band’s bassist and pianist, but also with Lou Reed. The latter also found that the young woman was a little too much of a shadow for him. The German artist left the band the year of the release of the first album (in 1967) and pursued a long and exciting solo career that was also emulated.


5. Andy Warhol was their Cinderella (and Dracula)


Andy Warhol is credited as the producer of the Velvet Underground’s debut album with Nico, but he did not directly influence their music. Lou Reed has confessed in several interviews that the pope of pop art just sat and listened to them before exclaiming “Oooh, that’s fantastic.” On the other hand, the Velvet Underground owes him a lot, starting with the famous “banana” cover of their first album. Rumors claimed at the time of its release that if you peeled off the phallic  fruit-shaped  sticker on the record, you might find LSD under the glue. If the band very quickly fired their manager who had dreamed of rockers dressed in black playing with their backs to the audience, they kept a certain affection for the one they nicknamed “Drella”  (a cross between Dracula and Cinderella). In 1990, the newly reunited members of the New York band paid a beautiful tribute to the master (who died in 1987) of screen printing by releasing an album entitled Songs for Drella.


The Velvet Underground (2021) by Todd Haynes, available on Apple TV+. I’ll Be Your Mirror : A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico, Universal, available.