The Velvet Underground is frequently cited as one of the most influential bands in American music. I must painfully admit that even with such clout I had never even heard them at any real length until earlier this year. A brief synopsis of the band sounds like some fantasy that should only exist in my dreams. Andy Warhol describes the VU as “a chance to combine music and art and film all together”, something that definitely delights my existential fancy. I’ve always loved art rock bands and here was the seminal version, so I thought. With my expectations set in the sky I listened to The Velvet Underground & Nico as well as Loaded and was initially thoroughly disappointed. I was expecting something monumental, like my first listen to In the court of the Crimson King, but what I heard initially struck me as watered-down Beatles. A few listens later, I started to get it.
The music of the Velvet Underground strikes me as an artistic experiment. And I think that is exactly the image they wanted to have. Produced by Andy Warhol in his famous New York studio, The Factory, this was a lofty undertaking by a group of artists to make something really unique. I think Andy Warhol had a great amount to do with the artistic framing of the band. The mandate to fuse pop music with pop art was a strong one, one that would help separate the VU from other musical acts of the era. Adding to Warhol’s vision, Lou Reed and John Cale’s idiosyncratic flourishes tied a nice bow on the cacophony of sound that was the Velvet Underground.
For me, the novelty and art in the Velvet Underground’s music comes more from the lyrical content than anything else. Lou Reed’s Dylan-esque ramblings through a laundry list of topics that I’m sure were not yet deemed kosher for musical consumption. Take for instance “Heroin” on The Velvet Underground & Nico, the impact doesn’t just lie within the subject matter but how it’s approached. In an interview for the South Bank Show in 1986, Lou Reed mentioned that a neutral moral stance was important in his music. I think that this sense of moral ambiguity is the biggest contributor to his lyrical success. It’s what makes these little vignettes thought provoking—requiring a little bit more than a surface listen to appreciate. The music plays a huge role interacting with the lyrics in many songs, swelling to manic mood swings and sputtering out with the ebb and flow of lyric. The desire to make each song actually mean something is one that I will always respect in artists. I believe it is this artful approach to lyrics that Lou Reed adopts in The Velvet Underground is worth their place in music history alone.
I find the musical content itself, separate from the lyrics, marks the birth of several trends that would evolve over the years into the infrastructure of punk rock. The music is loud, simple, and made to have a corporeal impact. I find music can usually be placed somewhere on the gradient between what Nietzsche would refer to as Apollonian and Dionysian (coincidentally my favorite Rush album, Hemispheres, is a tribute to this dichotomy). This division is one between Mind (Apollo) and Body (Dionysus) as the two forces that drive man’s productivity. To me, I can enjoy punk rock because it represents a complete swan dive into the Dionysian. For example, Black Flag is never going to be touted as having complex musical ideas; heck, I don’t know if they could even be touted as being able to completely tune their guitars. But, they will continue to be celebrated because they have an intense energy to burn and want to burn their audience up along with it.
Well, before punk rock was blasting audiences around the world the Velvet Underground struck a ‘proto-punk power chord’ with its sonic experimentations. No doubt that John Cale was a huge influence here. Between the constant distorted viola drones and atonal psychedelic freak-outs the Velvet Underground was never afraid of something new. Cale admired many avantgard composers of his day (even studying under La Monte Young). This influence surely effected their artistic direction as a whole. This was a band that wanted to turn things up and make a statement in doing so.
So what is the defining feature here that makes VU so influential as a band? I think it’s their disregard to cater towards any trend that isn’t their own. Even their studio production qualities (or lack there-of) illustrate a desire to be something different than the popular trends around them. This is also a good explanation of why the Velvet Underground never got to enjoy mainstream success as wide as their influence suggests. When you seek out art for nothing more than art’s sake you’re going to loose a large portion of your audience; I find this to be an unfortunate truth. But the people that actually get it, what you’re trying to accomplish, will only love you all the more: I’ll admire quality over quantity any day of the week.