10 Velvet Underground Essentials

10 Velvet Underground Essentials

velvet underground
Nico of the Velvet Underground. Photo by Adam Ritchie/Redferns/Getty Images. 

Co-founder of Roxy Music and producer Brian Eno, once famously said, “The first Velvet Underground album sold only a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

And it's probably not even much of an exaggeration. Commercial success wasn't the path that got them there, but the Velvet Underground were pioneers in almost everything. They painted the drugs, fetishism and infidelity of New York's underground into raw and dreamy music that represented a generation of outsiders. Lou Reed was a fearless lyricist with a poetic fascination for controversial subject matters, playing out like a dark and grainy arthouse movie thanks to his East coast scrawl. 

The scene they rose from, a wonderland of experimental-art-rock, black-clad beatniks, black Wayfarers and fashionable addictions in a neverending Andy Warhol movie, is now immortalised in their music. Here are 10 of the Velvets best!

1. 'Sunday Morning'

Sunday Morning was written by Lou Reed and John Cale at 6am on a Sunday morning after a Manhattan all-nighter. Beneath the veneer tranquillity is an expanse of paranoia if you consider the lyrics too deeply – but that's not what Sunday mornings are for.  

2. 'I’m Waiting For The Man'

In 1967, if you wanted to sing about buying drugs you actually had to be clever about it; and I’m Waiting for the Man is a classic. Lou Reed created a place for taboo topics in pop culture by sneaking a tale about being strung out on heroin into a song that would pass any censor test... In those days, if you knew what he was talking about in this song, it was probably because you'd been there.

3. 'Heroin'

But, along with hazy innuendo, sometimes he just said it. There’s no mistaking what “Heroin” is about, yet the seven-minute opus certainly puts a spiritual spin on the reality of addiction. 

4. 'Venus In Furs'

Continuing right along the theme of VERY taboo topics of the 1960s is the reverberating Venus in Furs, which is a musical interpretation of the 19th century novel of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – the man who gave his name to masochism.

5. 'Satellite Of Love'

The original Velvet’s demo Satellite Of Love sounds like folk-rock-space jam compared to the lush glam Bowie produced a version that eventually found its way onto Lou Reed’s second solo album, 1972’s Transformer

6. 'Sister Ray'

Legend has it that when the Velvet Underground recorded all 17-and-a-half minutes of Sister Ray in one take, perhaps because the engineer left the studio. In The Velvet Underground Companion: Four Decades of Commentary, Lou Reed is quoted as explaining: "'Sister Ray' was done as a joke - no, not as a joke, but it has eight characters in it and this guy gets killed and nobody does anything. The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear."

As well as telling a great story, Sister Ray laid the foundations of noise rock.

7. 'Pale Blue Eyes'

Pale Blue Eyes was an emotional centrepiece, marking a new direction where Reed wanted to take a less sonically challenging approach to songwriting. But it lacks none of the bittersweet lyrical clinchers that make Reed’s storytelling a nailbiter, no matter how pretty it sounds. 

8. 'All Tomorrow’s Parties'

All Tomorrow’s Parties was originally released on The Velvet Underground & Nico in 1967. According to Reed himself, the song is “a very apt description of certain people at the Factory at the time,” in reference to Andy Warhol’s Factory Studio in New York City. “I watched Andy,” he added. “I watched Andy watching everybody. I would hear people say the most astonishing things, the craziest things, the funniest things, the saddest things.”

9. 'Rock and Roll'

From their fourth album, Loaded, Rock and Roll is the Velvet Underground’s feel-good anthem preaching salvation from suburbia and deliverance in the form of “some fine, fine music.”

10. 'Sweet Jane'

Sweet Jane is the second song on Loaded, after syrupy sweet Who Loves the Sun, but it would go on to have many lives. The sweet pop song hides a twist of kink in a wave of shimmering chords that tell the story of a banker, Jack and his girlfriend Jane, ordinary folk who work hard then go home and put on each other's clothes. Glamour, darkness and everyday life. Unmistakably, the Velvet Underground.  


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