The most famous quote about The Velvet Underground and their influence comes from Brian Eno. You will see it worded differently, but here’s the gist: “The first record by The Velvets only sold a few thousand copies, but every person who bought a copy started a band.”
The most amusing quote about VU (as they are sometimes called) comes from Cher. After seeing the visiting New Yorkers play their first gig in LA in 1966, she stated, “The Velvet Underground won’t replace anything . . . except maybe suicide.”
This second viewpoint was widely held at the time by the record-buying public, who stayed away in droves. I say widely held, but most people didn’t even know The Velvet Underground existed, and those that did heard a raw, messily recorded, avant-garde garage band . . . who might shoot up drugs and proceed to whip you. And then steal your money to buy more drugs, and then sing some songs about it.
Initially promoted and managed by Andy Warhol, the band was able to parlay the association into favorable publicity in a few major metropolitan cities, but their music — some at the time would have written “music” with quotation marks — didn’t play in Peoria. (The Velvets wanted their freedom, but the Warhol connection paid dividends when he worked with them. After they severed ties with Andy, each of their albums sold fewer copies than the one before, even as the music and lyrics became less scary and progressively more commercial.)
Ironically, the very things that alienated people at the time — the lo-fi recordings, the bare bones productions, the lack of faddish 60s sounds like sitars or backwards guitars, Lou Reed’s non-singing singing — serve to make the songs sound timeless now. There’s definitely a period flavor to a number of tracks, but most sound as if they could have been recorded in any decade — or last week.
So peel slowly and see. Here’s the least you need to know:
All four of the Lou Reed studio albums.
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) The bestselling record of their career, hitting #171 on the Top 200 album chart. Artwork by Andy Warhol. Teutonic, gothic guest vocals by Nico. A contemporaneous review from the New York World Journal Tribune called it “a secret marriage between Bob Dylan and the Marquis De Sade.” Check: Heroin & Femme Fatale
White Light / White Heat (1968) Their darkest, grittiest, most experimental album. The seedy underbelly of late 60s New York. Like the photo negative of the Woodstock era. Check: White Light/White Heat & Sister Ray (all 17+ minutes)
The Velvet Underground (1969) A kinder, gentler record featuring Reed’s most personal songs to date. The quiet after the storm. Check: Pale Blue Eyes & After Hours
Loaded (1970) Sarcastically titled as such because of the record company’s request for an album “loaded with hits.” The band couldn’t—or wouldn’t—fulfill those wishes, but—whether by accident or by design— they produced by far their most mainstream record. Check: Rock & Roll & Sweet Jane
For the adventurous, start at the beginning and listen in chronological order. If you need to ease yourself in gently, start with Loaded.