In celebration of the recent 50th Anniversary of the Velvet Underground’s classic fourth and final studio album Loaded – which featured two of Lou Reed’s most iconic songs “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll” – ILYOS looks at the immense and wide-ranging influence of the VU via covers of their classic material from the likes of David Bowie, Nirvana, R.E.M, Cowboy Junkies, Patti Smith, Joy Division, the Black Crowes, Tori Amos, Big Star; and Australian acts like the Cruel Sea, Hoodoo Gurus, Powder Monkeys and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, as well as rare and unexpected covers by Jimmy Page, the Yardbirds and early Motorhead.
1. David Bowie | “White Light/White Heat”
Probably the man who did more to expose the music of the Velvets and Lou Reed – and help popularise it in all manner of alternative music circles, as well as the mainstream – Bowie was a fan from the early days, and would of course help Lou Reed achieve substantial solo success by co-producing his breakthrough album Transformer. Bowie had been performing this one since ’71, but he didn’t release a version until this live version, from ’73, came out in ’83 on Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture. He had recorded a studio version for his covers album Pin Ups but it didn’t make the cut – his guitarist Mick Ronson instead took the backing track for his own version which was released in 1975.
2. Cowboy Junkies | “Sweet Jane”
Perhaps the classic Velvets cover, and the one that beyond all else proves how the uniquely eloquent simplicity of Lou Reed’s songwriting suits any number of different treatments and arrangements.
3. Patti Smith | “We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together”
Lou Reed’s profound vision of rock’n’roll music as serious art meant their impact on such an artistic city as their hometown of New York was huge. The mid-‘70s New York scene – Patti Smith, Television, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, out of which ultimately came punk as we know it – would not have existed without the Velvet Underground.
4. Bryan Ferry | “What Goes On”
It was Bryan Ferry’s early Roxy Music bandmate Brian Eno who apparently said, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” But clearly, Ferry was also a fan. This late ‘70s cover, from his underrated, The Bride Stripped Bare album, takes the hypnotic groove OUT of the Velvets original and turns it into more of a conventional rock song. Ferry was perhaps trying to reveal the classic rock bedrock of Reed’s songwriting (much like Reed did himself when he performed this material in the ‘70s), but it still works nicely.
5. Nirvana | “Here She Comes Now”
Not one of their better or better-known covers, and they play it fairly straight, but it should certainly come as no surprise that these guys knew the Velvets. By grunge days the influence of the Velvet Underground was well-established. If you were in a punk or alternative band at that point and you didn’t know the Velvets, you probably weren’t too serious about things.
6. Tori Amos | “New Age”
I doubt Lou was thinking of crystals and meditation when he wrote “New Age”, and Tori, who seems to sometimes bask in some of the same dark spaces that Lou used to frequent, probably wasn’t either.
7. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds | “All Tomorrow’s Parties”
And no mention of the dark spaces in music is complete, of course, without mentioning our own sovereign of the stuff, Prince Cave. If the Velvet Underground had a big influence on punk, they had an even bigger influence on post-punk. Indeed, a simplistic but not altogether inaccurate way of seeing it might be that artists with a fairly strong Velvet Underground influence were more likely to be viewed as post-punk, even if some of them, like Patti Smith, pre-dated the punk scene anyway. Nick Cave’s first band the Boys Next Door probably fall into that category – punk was a liberating thing for them, but they were post-punk almost from the outset.
8. Joy Division | “Sister Ray”
An iconic song covered by an iconic post-punk band. The original studio version goes for over 17 minutes, taking the Velvets to new extremes and also inspiring the more extreme end of Velvet Underground followers.
9. Big Star | “Femme Fatale”
One of the ultimate cult bands – a band whose popularity and influence grows every year. Just like that of the Velvets has. It’s more than fitting that one of only a few covers Big Star recorded was this classic tune from The Velvet Underground & Nico. (They were also known to perform “Candy Says” at one point).
10. R.E.M. | “There She Goes Again”
One of the most popular and influential American underground bands of the ‘80s became one of the most popular American bands period in the ‘90s, and, were very active in introducing a lot of people to their favourites. The Velvets were clearly one of those.
11. Rollins Band | “Move Right In”
From another end of the alternative scene both sonically and in terms of aggression, Henry Rollins probably sweated a lot more than all of R.E.M. and the Velvet Underground combined, and no doubt lifted more weights, but he certainly proved that the band’s influence went beyond the nerdy and the weird. Not that Rollins wasn’t actually a nerd – a huge record collector – he of course had to pick a track which at that point had only ever appeared on obscure bootlegs.
12. Powder Monkeys | “Guess I’m Falling In Love”
Almost outdoing Rollins at his own game – with another at-the-time bootleg-only track - and with a bit of Oz-rock type swing for good measure, Melbourne legends the Powder Monkeys didn’t lift weights but they played hard and tough and certainly shared some of dark obsessions with Lou.
13. Hoodoo Gurus | “I Thought I Heard Her Call My Name”
A ripping version of one of the Velvets’ most unhinged tracks. The Gurus have deep roots in all manner of ‘60s and ‘70s music and, of course, Dave Faulkner and Brad Shepherd cut their teeth in punk bands; The Victims and The Fun Things respectively. Indeed Dave was covering the Velvets back in his Victims days in Perth. In Sydney, the Hoodoo Gurus are part of lineage that began with Radio Birdman, and of course Birdman were significantly influenced by the Velvets as well, and performed “Rock and Roll” fair early on.
14. Detroit | “Rock’n’Roll”
They only made one album, in 1971, but the band led by former Detroit Wheels frontman Mitch Ryder had a big impact, and their cover of this Loaded classic is much revered. In fact, Lou Reed liked it so much he stole guitarist Steve Hunter for himself.
15. Runaways | “Rock’n’Roll”
Joan Jett and co. proved their mettle with this rockin’ cover on their first album in 1976, clearly based on Detroit’s version. More cowbell!
16. Alice Cooper | “Rock & Roll”
Told you Mitch Ryder’s band Detroit had an impact – this brand new version of Detroit’s version of “Rock’n’Roll” was recently released as the first single off Alice’s forthcoming tribute to his Detroit rock roots, and it even features Steve Hunter and drummer Johnny Bee from Mitch Ryder’s original band. It’s a great version that bodes well for Alice’s record.
17. Cruel Sea | “Cool It Down”
Loaded is probably the Velvet Underground’s most straight ahead and rootsy record; the track “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” is almost cow-punk! “Cool It Down” is a somewhat lesser tune from Loaded, but it certainly suited the low key approach with which Tex and the boys took their own slinky and rootsy rock to the masses back in the ‘90s.
18. Black Crowes | “Oh Sweet Nothing”
“Oh Sweet Nothing” is another track from Loaded that could almost be called Americana, so it didn’t come as too much of a surprise to hear the Black Crowes record it. As a bonus, we’ll also give you the version of the song which Neil Young and My Morning Jacket (along with Elvis Costello and others ) performed in tribute to Lou Reed following his passing in 2013.
19. The Yardbirds | “Waiting For The Man”
Barely listenable because the quality is terrible, but of huge historical importance and shows the impact the Velvet Underground had on other artists right from the beginning. The Yardbirds were one of the great British blues bands of the ‘60s, and a prep-school for Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Indeed, when Page formed Led Zeppelin, they originally played out as the New Yardbirds. There’s no suggestion that the VU influenced Zeppelin, but Page was clearly taken with the Velvets from the outset and the Yardbirds were the first major band to perform one of their songs.
20. The Deviants/Pink Faires/Motorhead/ Hawkwind – “Waiting For The Man”
The Deviants were the toast of London’s Underground in the mid-‘60s, and may even have beaten the Yardbirds to “Waiting For The Man” – they purportedly got it from a demo disc of Velvets tunes that somehow made its way to head Deviant, Mick Farren before the Velvets even recorded it. The Deviants themselves didn’t record it – they just played it live – but a succession of bands with strong Deviants connections did record it. That succession included the Pink Fairies, who formed directly out of the Deviants, Hawkwind, who were closely associated with the Pink Fairies, and Motörhead, who of course early-on featured former members of both Hawkwind (that’s be one Lemmy Kilmister!) and the Pink Fairies (Larry Wallis).
A recently unearthed live recording of Motörhead’s first ever show, from 1975, is not much better sonically than the Yardbirds’ recording, but it does include their wild and woolly version of the song. The Hawkwind version, from a couple of years later, is also live and suggests that the simple drive and hypnotic repetition of Lou Reed’s chords on some of the Velvets stuff had as big an influence on the Masters of Space Rock as well as anyone else.
There are countless other great and fascinating Velvet Underground covers in circulation – let us know if you’d like to hear more!
You can listen to the Velvet Underground epic expanded 45th Anniversary Edition of Loaded from 2015 on Spotify:
Listen to Velvet Underground on Apple Music: