The Roots of Punk and the New York Rock Scene: The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed’s Early Solo Career

The Velvet Underground

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White Light/White Heat (1968)

Along with other acts during the late ’60s/early ’70s such as The Sonics (Here Are The Sonics, 1965), Iggy and The Stooges (Raw Power, 1973) and the New York Dolls (New York Dolls, 1973), The Velvet Underground proved pivotal in laying down the foundations for what would come to be known as “punk rock”. If you’re a genre kind of guy/gal these artists/albums could be listed under what would be known as “proto-punk” (sometimes simply “pre-punk”). Proto-punk delivered a harsh, unrelenting sound, akin to hard rock and garage rock. It drew on many influences including glam, rockabilly and psychedelic rock while adding a heavier edge. The Velvet Underground and White Light/White Heat (1968) in particular were highly influential in a host of musical movements – experimental, avant-garde, noise and the aforementioned punk.

Although only the band’s second album, it was the last of their classic line-up – Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker – violist and co-founder (along with Reed and Morrison) Cale being the one to jump ship as he was slowly pushed out of the picture. The Welshman Cale famously stated that the album was “anti-beauty” being a far cry from their highly influential debut album The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) which included German-born singer and model Nico to sing on some of the tracks that were written by Reed. It was produced by the eccentric and erratic Andy Warhol who was at the heart of the pop and visual art movement of the time. He was a propelling force in launching the band into the public eye by becoming manager and also utilising his creative image.


The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)

The Velvets were construed as a complete disaster when they first started out due to their unusual sound, controversial lyrics on drug use, sex and sadism along with their appearance of stone-faced, bored rockers with thick black sunglasses worn indoors at all times which created a great chasm between themselves and the hippie movement in America at the time. Warhol promoted the band at his multimedia event Exploding Plastic Inevitable between the end of 1966 and the beginnings of 1967 before the release of their said debut album. Initially, the album only sold around 30,000 copies, but UK art rock pioneer Brian Eno famously stated that “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band”. Tracks such as “I’m Waiting for the Man”, “Venus in Furs”, “Run Run Run” and particularly “Heroin” are key songs which remain stalwarts in the rock world nearly half a century on, revolving around the glorification of drugs and sexual domination with an evocative portrayal of New York.

It’s argued, however, that maybe not considered their best album, White Light/White Heat is actually their most important. The relationship with the band, Nico and Warhol had ended and a new producer, Tom Wilson from Verve Records, was brought into the fold. This album took on a completely new sound and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a completely different band from their debut. The sophomore effort begins with the “conventional” garage rock title track of just under three minutes… then it gets a bit hysterical, if the opener wasn’t enough for you. The second track is a near eight-and-a-half-minute short story recited by John Cale in his wondrous Welsh lingo called “The Gift” which tells the tale of a lad called Waldo Jeffers who has been away from his girlfriend Marsha for a considerable amount of time and longs to see her but can’t afford to fly from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, so as you do, he packs himself up and sends himself to Wisconsin in a massive box. Long story short, Marsha’s friend Sheila ends up murdering Waldo as they are unable to open the box via conventional means. Sheila pierces through the box with a sheet-metal cutter, it goes right the way through the box and through the centre of poor Waldo’s head. The track is ladened with Reed and Morrison screechy guitars and chest-thumping Moe Tucker percussion which flow with Cale’s masterful readings.

The album continues with more brilliant vocals from Cale in “Lady Godiva’s Operation” with brilliant deadpan lyrics and imagery of the infamous Lady Godiva, and then all of a sudden, Reed, almost interrupting the whole situation, jumps in and describes an operation gone horribly wrong – “The doctor is making his first incision… the patient it seems is not so well sleeping”. More examples of The Velvet Underground’s fascination with messy violence and needless death.

Two tracks follow – the unassuming “Here She Comes Now” and the hard-hitting, almost unbearable, but brilliant “I Heard Her Call My Name” with more screechy guitars that cannot be construed as playing but more like scrawling, with battering background percussion once again from Tucker. But this is lukewarm compared to what is about to arrive; the unrelenting, chaotic, sickening, revolting, putrid, deafening and uncontrollable finale, “Sister Ray”. Seventeen-and-half minutes of ear-bleeding noise that was done in one take. The band agreed beforehand that whatever came of the jam they would accept. Reed said the lyrics revolved around drug use and transvestism, a rather fitting end to a beautifully gut-wrenching album. Apparently producer Wilson had to leave during the recording of “Sister Ray” as the noise was too much to handle. It’s hard to believe how the actual band members felt. The song actually starts out “tame” (if you want to call it that) but then the face, ear and soul melting commences once Cale’s organ hits the forefront. “Sister Ray” is highly influential being the catalyst for many musical movements and bands to occur still to this day. UK punk favourites the Buzzcocks formed while attempting to create a cover of the song, and a hero of mine, one Johnny Marr, who would go on to become lead guitarist in (and co-founder of) seminal ’80s indie rockers The Smiths and become a pioneer in modern jangle pop and alternative rock, joined a band from Manchester in the mid-to-late-’70s called Sister Ray when he was only in his mid-teens.

It’s rare for albums to become such influential pieces of art, this one in particular only peaking at 199 on the Billboard 200 at the time. White Light/White Heat can be seen as a triumph and an important one at that, inspiring the New York rock, punk and new wave scenes with bands and artists such as Television, Patti Smith, Ramones and Talking Heads to name just a few. The debuts of Television (Marquee Moon, 1977), Ramones (Ramones, 1976) and the Patti Smith Group (Horses, 1975) would prove highly influential albums in the art rock/punk rock scene of New York in the 1970s. Talking Heads would go on to be one of the first mainstream new wave acts to incorporate African beats and world music in their sound, and were influential in bringing said sounds to western culture and pop with records such as Fear of Music (1979), Remain in Light (1980) and Speaking in Tongues (1983).

download download (3) PattiSmithHorses

The Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album released in 1969, and their penultimate album and last with Reed and Morrison Loaded (1970) were cosmic shifts from their debut and sophomore albums, being far more conventional rock albums with softer melodies brought to the fore via Cale’s replacement Doug Yule. The highly-regarded music critic Robert Christgau stated that their self-titled record was the band’s best album. It may be hard to disagree with tracks such as “Candy Says” and “How It Goes” being a far easier listen than the harshness of the previous record. Loaded contains “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll”, two of the band’s most well-known songs among their prolific arsenal. Although Moe Tucker is credited with being the drummer on Loaded, she actually didn’t play on the album. Her only roles were backing vocals and drums in studio outtakes due to being away on maternity leave. The 1969 self-titled record would prove to be her last with the group. Along with this it was clear to see the band was veering away from its noisy, unconventional “punk” early sound to be a little more commercially viable. After Loaded, Reed and Morrison departed. Their final album Squeeze (1973) possessed Yule alone with some additional players to do the album after the entire original line-up was now no-more. I haven’t listened to Squeeze as it’s supposedly a disaster. I’ll get around to it… maybe. The group disbanded after this but the classic line-up did reform sporadically from 1990 to 1993 and reformed in ’96 to perform at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony minus the late Morrison. Even if the band’s final flourish of albums aren’t regarded by music fans as being part of the rock pantheon, the band’s first two albums are regarded as highly influential records with enduring sounds, concepts and techniques which have inspired many of the heavy sounds that were heard in the ’70s and ’80s and of course today. Punk and other musical movements during the 1970s and ’80s can thank White Light/White Heat in particular and the visionary efforts of The Velvet Underground in laying the ground work for musical ideologies that were a far-cry from the commercial rock music at the time.

Lou Reed’s Early Solo Career

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Transformer (1972)

It’s difficult to mention a musical field or movement that Lou Reed hasn’t had a hand in – avant-garde, hard rock, garage rock, experimental, noise, art rock, glam, industrial, metal and even ambient music near the end of his career before his sad passing in October, 2013 at the age of 71. Reed was revolutionising music even before his time in The Velvet Underground. In 1964, a group was formed around him known as The Primitives (which included Cale) and they recorded “The Ostrich”, a parody on dance music at the time with hilarious high-pitch bird backing vocals throughout.

Although nothing much at the time, the song would coin one of Reed’s most unusual styles – the “ostrich guitar” which is tuning the instrument where one note is played for all of the strings. This gives a dour, almost one-dimensional plod and it was also a key song in the field of “drone” music where a constant sound is played throughout a track. This simple, mundane style of playing may also have been the start of popularising the “three-chord” punk tune – defiance against complex guitar playing, twenty-seven-minute solos and progressive rock bands at the time such as Yes and Deep Purple.

Reed was far from conventional during his tenure and this may have shone through most of all during the release of 1975’s Metal Machine Music, an album of over an hour of guitar feedback and general noise with no vocals and no use of additional instrumentation.

I’ve listened to the entire thing believe it or not. Good fun… it actually was. It was his final release on the label RCA Records before he was reinstated with them in 1982, and still to this day it’s considered a hoax, but Reed stated at the time he incorporated classical elements in the noise and he wanted to release it as an RCA classic. This album does have its influence, however, being the confusing mess it is. It’s considered a forerunner in mainstream industrial, noise and drone music which were later introduced into punk and hardcore punk in the 1980s, the main example being Big Black and their two studio records Atomizer (1986) and Songs About Fucking (1987), where the band used a drum machine for creating synthy, fast-paced and noisy percussion.

Reed’s first mainstream success came with his second solo studio album Transformer (1972) (see picture above) which was produced by David Bowie and Bowie’s guitarist at the time the late Mick Ronson who played on the album also. Transformer is cited as a classic in the “glam rock” genre and was influential along with artists such as Marc Bolan in T. Rex and Bowie himself in inspiring elements of punk. This album produced two of Reed’s most beloved and famous songs – “Walk on the Wild Side” which revolved around The Velvet Underground topics of sex, transvestism and homosexuality. The second being one of the greatest b-sides of all time “Perfect Day” a beautiful piano piece which has been covered by numerous artists the world over. Though these songs are not punk songs in essence, the album does contain punk elements such as the brilliant opener “Vicious” (inspired by Andy Warhol) and “Hangin’ ‘Round”.

It’s easy to see the influence The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed early on in his solo career had on punk rock and the New York music scene. The heavy sounds and lyrical content of White Light/White Heat was a beacon of inspiration for the frustrated musician fed up with complex guitar ideas, sounds and politics of the time. Their sound was full and deafening but extremely intriguing to listen to as well. It wasn’t random bashing, not by any means – it was structured chaos. It wasn’t just their sound, though, it was their outlook, their style and “rock ‘n’ roll” attitude that was also highly influential. Many bands and artists saw them as “arty” but felt they could put their own twist on things and maybe sound more polished and commercially viable, case in point being Talking Heads and Television.

Reed in his solo career early on inspired glam with punk themes, industrial punk, and even before the Velvet days, simple guitar playing methods that anyone could attempt, which in essence is the punk ethos – DIY. His influence is still felt today in the form of his inclusion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the class of 2015, a fitting tribute to his life and career, though, early on it probably wouldn’t have bothered him too much. As John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten famously stated in 2006 when the Sex Pistols were inducted that the Hall is a “piss stain” and the museum is “urine in wine”… now that’s punk. The Velvet Underground was inducted into the Hall in 1996, a year after Morrison’s death. A rock festival called All Tomorrow’s Parties is staged annually wherein avant-garde and underground bands perform; the festival named after the band’s song from their debut record. Apart from Squeeze, The Velvet Underground’s entire studio catalogue is listed in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and two of Reed’s solo albums – Transformer and 1973’s Berlin are also on the list.

Recommended listening:

  • The Velvet Underground
    • The Velvet Underground and Nico
    • White Light/White Heat
    • The Velvet Underground
  • Lou Reed
    • Transformer
    • Berlin
  • Television
    • Marquee Moon
    • Adventure
  • Talking Heads
    • Fear of Music
    • Remain in Light
    • Speaking in Tongues
  • [Iggy and] The Stooges
    • Fun House
    • Raw Power

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