I'm Waiting for the Man
Venus In Furs
Run Run Run
All Tomorrow's Parties
There She Goes Again
I'll Be Your Mirror
The Black Angel's Death Song
The first show The Velvet Underground played under the management of Andy Warhol was in January 1966, at a psychiatrist’s convention in New York. Warhol had been asked to give a lecture but suggested screening a film instead. The doctors consented. After all, Warhol was, at the time, arguably the most famous and vociferously debated artist in America—at the very least, he’d do something interesting.
The music was crude and droning and strange: rock ’n’ roll but laced with something daring. By some accounts, the performance was a generational clash: Hip, young downtowners versus uptight squares. But others remember it more mildly, and—for a band whose legacy didn’t become clear until years after they broke up—more poetically: The Velvet Underground stepped onstage, played a set of radically innovative rock music and nobody really noticed.
Even when compared to one another, they were distinct: Lou Reed, a creative writing student from Long Island who’d taken a job out of college composing novelty songs; Sterling Morrison, who’d drifted toward Reed’s Syracuse dorm room after hearing the sound of bagpipe music at top volume; a Welsh violist named John Cale; the German singer and actress Nico, who’d been recruited by Warhol; and drummer Moe Tucker, a small, androgynous woman who played standing up. Cale had a classical pedigree and connection to the avant-garde; Tucker played with the primitive energy of a child. Reed loved doo-wop and R&B and free jazz; Nico sang in a heavy, deadpan German accent that captured an almost expressionless whiteness. They didn’t mix—but they balanced.
When The Velvet Underground & Nico came out in early 1967, it was part of a continuum with Beat poetry, Pop Art, and French New Wave filmmaking—movements that stripped away myths about expertise and put art in the hands of whoever wanted to make it. It can be noisy and confrontational (“European Son”, “Black Angel’s Death Song”), but it can also be sweet (“I’ll Be Your Mirror”). They sound sure of what they’re playing, but don’t try too hard to make it perfect. And even when their subject matter gets dark, they never make it too difficult to grasp (“Heroin”, “I’m Waiting for the Man”).
Producer and ambient-music pioneer Brian Eno famously said that the album may not have sold many copies, but everyone who bought one started a band. He was talking about the influence of their music, of course. But he could have also been talking about the attitude with which they made it. They didn’t really sound like normal people, but they didn’t sound like professionals either. And at a time when the American counterculture was drifting towards psychedelia, the Summer of Love and vague dreams of how the world could be, they embraced a frankness that still sounds revolutionary. If people who heard them started a band, it wasn’t just because they thought the music was cool, but because it made them feel like making cool music was something they could do, too.