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How the Velvet Underground Kept American Rock Alive

February 25, 2023 | Christopher Buchanan
The British possessed a musical monopoly on the rock genre during the 60s; The Kinks, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones — even crowned jewel of the states, Jimi Hendrix, moved across the Atlantic for inspiration amid the rock renaissance. 

In Greenwich Village, New York, in the early 60s, a unique relationship was forming between two revolutionary musical minds. Electrifyingly melodramatic drones, an avant-garde essence, and an image procured by Andy Warhol were the foundations on which Lou Reed and John Cale cultivated with their band — The Velvet Underground — and kept the genre back home, smack dab in the middle of the British Invasion. 

The rock genre had become generally uniform during the mid-to-late 60s; certain riffs had become reliable, handclaps and songs about your and my girl were commonplace. The American Rock framework had been tired — the swing of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters could not be further impressed. Brit-pop and rock bands of the time sought a drastic change that would spur a new era consistent with the revolutionary period they lived in. 

Bands in the U.S. had fallen into a dichotomy of sorts. You could either subscribe to the rock formula with your own unique twist, such as Pink Floyd did, or you could embrace the South and make twangy Western rock like Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The Velvet Underground, and its only consistent member, Lou Reed, were the most radical deviation from traditional rock of the time. Reed’s extreme lyricism was over-expressive for the time; both sonically and emotionally. He had written the song "Heroin" before forming the band, which gave the band the controversy necessary to generate buzz and capture their rebellious-spirited audiences’ attention off the bat. 

“Because when the smack begins to flow / I really don’t care anymore / About all the Jim-Jim’s in this town / And all the politicians making’ crazy sounds” ("Heroin", The Velvet Underground and Nico, The Velvet Underground)

Paraphernalia was a popular subject of many VU tracks, but probably the least of Reed’s primary inspirations to create music. He toyed with ideas of religion, homosexual exploration, and the dark parts of human nature throughout his musical career. 

The Brits had a tendency to censor their music with allusions to their vices without ever outright admitting anything to preserve their air time and radio play. “I’d love to turn you-u-u o-o-o-n” ("A Day in the Life", the Beatles), and being “eight miles high” ("Eight Miles High", The Byrds) were the ways in which the British played by and bent the rules to avoid losses.

Reed had a complex relationship with his British rock contemporaries, slighting them on more than one occasion for their supposed shortcomings. In an interview, he called Pete Townshend of The Who uninspiring and an “untalented lyricist” and went back on a previously positive opinion of the Beatles made years earlier to assert that he “always thought they were rubbish.”

What likely bothered Reed about these bands was not their sound, but the framework in which they existed. Reed inserted himself fully into his work, constantly enveloping his audience in his own emotions and shining a light on those who existed in society’s shadow. So when peace and love were at the forefront and what was seeming less genuine as the years went on, Reed began to hate what he could not understand at the time — why was everyone but him so unconcerned and content, when there was so much to cry about? 

The Velvet Underground found its niche by playing into Reed’s vulnerability. He was expressive to a fault, passionate about what little he cared for, and had an innate sense of how raw emotions correlated with music quality. This spawned tunes such as "Pale Blue Eyes" and "Walk Alone", which with John Cale’s experimental style of arrangement, offered a new take on the practice of rock. 

Following the acquisition of German singer Nico and consorting with the artistic likes of Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground established itself as the quintessential avante-garde band of New York. The sound Cale had curated was uniquely gritty with a plethora of fuzz and distortion that blended the instrumentation and created a sense of chaos and rush.

After the band released Squeeze, the last of five studio albums in 1973 that saw four of the most iconic five members come and go, the reactive era of the 70s saw the commercially successful formulas of the rock band begin to fall apart. The time the Velvet Underground’s music needed to fester in the minds of young musicians had run its course, and the band’s influence was acknowledged and growing rapidly. 

It was the late 1970s and rock had a stark change, audiences were once again becoming tired of the formulaic, repetitive pop-rock sound of the time and the genre desperately needed a revival. As the decade progressed, the predominant sound of the era became more and more reminiscent of the Velvet Undergrounds’ work. Distorted and repeated riffs, melancholy lyricism with rhythmic percussion, and pure emotion were the basis of punk rock — and Velvet Underground did it decades prior. 

Lou Reed’s lyrical emotion and Cale’s distortion to match resonated with many bands of the 70s; punk legends like the Sex Pistols, Sonic Youth, Galaxie 500, Joy Division and the Cure have all gone on to acknowledge the massive influence that the Velvet Underground held. In a time where British rock had subscribed to a very particular framework, Reed and the Velvet Underground resisted and reacted. This very attitude is what was so pertinent to the punk genre and its creation. 

The Velvet Underground didn’t only compete with their British counterparts and revive the American rock scene before it had even died, the experimental minds of the group found a lane to carve for themselves in rock history.

The Velvet Underground exceeded all expectations anyone could have of a “porn band” and went on to define an entire era of sound in the rock genre.
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