Wednesday, March 24, 2010
#31 Searching for the main line with the Velvet Underground
Never in the history of rock has there ever been a band so hotly debated as the Velvet Underground. They are a group that you either love immensely or totally despise but either way, the Velvets always get a strong reaction. They were in many ways the first indie band and most often referred to as rocks first alternative band. To understand a bit more about that designation you have to realize that the Velvet Underground burst onto the scene in 1965. This was the era of the Beach Boys, and Sonny and Cher in the USA. These were the days when the Beatles were singing 'Eight Days a Week'. Meanwhile, in dingy apartments in some of the seedier parts of New York, Lou Reed and the band were beginning to write songs about heroin abuse, prostitution, sadomasochism and sexual deviancy.
Much of their instrumental sound was conceived by the groups multi instrumentalist and bass player John Cale. Together with Reed they crafted their sound around de tuning their guitars or by tuning each string on the guitar to the same note ( a technique Reed had 'invented' that he named Ostrich Tuning). John Cale was always very intrigued by using alternative ways of producing sound in music and was immediately interested in making music with Lou Reed who believed in the same approach towards writing lyrics. Cale used to love tuning his guitar way lower then normal because he thought it gave the music a lower, richer sound that he described as 'Sexy as hell'. His use of the Viola throughout the bands career, especially notable on tracks such as the terrific 'Venus in Furs' gave the band that awesome musical drone of notes that all seemed to blend together.
The Velvet Underground first began gaining prominence as the house band of Andy Warhol's Factory and at his Exploding Plastic Inevitable events. The initial lineup consisted of Lou Reed (vocals, lead guitar), John Cale (electric viola, piano, celesta, bass guitar, vocals), Sterling Morrison (rhythm guitar, bass guitar and vocals), Maureen Tucker (drums, percussion). Their constant musical experimentation and nihilistic outlook was pivotal in the rise of both punk rock, and later, alt rock. Their dark lyrics which were rooted in the work of beat poets such as William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and the drugged loner artist look to the band helped shape the image of the band. The music of the Velvet underground which was highly simplistic and stripped down to the bare bones of rock. The overall sound was further laid down by Reed's deadpan, vacant vocals. Although they were never very commercially successful as a group, the Velvet Underground are generally recognized as one of the most influential groups in rock history. There had never been a band that so blatantly exploded the normative model of music like them. There are probably hundreds of artists and bands throughout the last 40 years that would never have formed if it weren't for the Velvets. Love them, or hate them, you have to admit that they sure left a mark on music for ever after.
My Fave Album:
- My fave Velvet Underground album would have to be their debut 'The Velvet Underground and Nico' from 1967. Not only is the album #13 on the Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, it is also one of my absolute faves. I first got into the Velvet Underground with this album when I was about 18. My great friend Joyce (who has been mentioned many times previous as the person who has gotten me into countless bands) lent me the cd of this fantastic album. This album also features the immensely talented Nico who was the muse of both Jim Morrison and Jimmy Page. She has one of the most unique sounding vocal styles of any musician I have ever heard. Her voice is overflowing in mellow, soft moaning passion that is so hypnotic it just seems to lure you away like the voices of mythical sirens. Check her out on tracks like Femme Fatale, or All Tomorrows Parties and you will see what I mean. Sunday Morning is an amazing track which blends the vocals of Reed and Nico with wondrous results. This album also has the drug opus Heroin, which showcases heroin use and abuse with a zest that no band had ever had the stones for before and few have since. This album is so full of amazing grooves and wonderful rich tones, while at the same time it is for the most part stripped down and minimalistic and primal. I highly recommend this album if you have never heard it before, but I will add, you will either love this or hate it.
Check out this rare video of the Velvets at work. This is Sunday Morning. Enjoy