Over the past forty years, numerous legends, myths, and mysteries have grown around the Velvet Underground. In part that’s because the group gained relatively light media coverage in their 1965-1970 heyday, and certainly far less than major ’60s bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones. In part it’s because the Velvets’ unflinchingly idiosyncratic way of doing things has led to so many odd and unusual stories about their concerts, record deals, critical reception, and popularity (or lack of it). And in part it’s due to contradictory tales, rumors, and speculation that have flown back and forth since the VU broke up, in part fanned by irreconcilable accounts from the musicians themselves and their associates.
One of the most fascinating and stimulating aspects of writing White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day was the opportunity to do some investigating reporting on whether such mini-myths were truth and fiction. First-hand interviews and perusal of obscure media clippings and documents from the time the Velvets were active yielded some unusual surprises, a few of which are listed here:
Myth: “The Velvet Underground’s first album only sold a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought one formed a band.”
Reality: That’s a quote that (in various different wordings) has been attributed to Brian Eno countless times, though even the author of the most comprehensive Eno biography couldn’t track down the original source. Of more importance, The Velvet Underground & Nico, though not exactly a hit the first time around, sold a lot more than just a few thousand copies—and more, even, than the “30,000 copies in the first five years” that Lou Reed himself told Eno the LP sold. An MGM royalty statement shows sales of 58,476 copies through February 14, 1969 (about two years after its initial release)—not at all bad for a late-’60s LP, if far less than Andy Warhol and the Velvets hoped for.
Oddly, in 1970, both Fusion and Circus reported the album had already sold nearly a quarter of a million copies, Sterling Morrison later claiming the LP eventually went “gold,” the industry term for a half a million units sold. While the likelihood that the banana album sold more than 200,000 copies by 1970 seems faint, the possibility that it broke the six-figure mark by then or not long afterward doesn’t seem unreasonable—and if all 100,000 of those people formed a band because of it, the Velvet Underground would certainly have been a lot more famous by the mid-1970s than they actually were.
Myth: Rock critics despised the Velvet Underground when they were active. It was only years later that they were belatedly hailed as great pioneers.
Reality: To some extent, this sentiment is true for the Velvets’ work prior to 1969. Their first two albums received only scattered reviews, more often than not bewildered rather than hostile, though even then there was the occasional fervent praise. Much of the press coverage they received during these years treated them more as an Andy Warhol sideshow than a living and breathing rock band.
This is absolutely not true from 1969 onward, however. Their third album (simply called The Velvet Underground), released in March 1969, received ecstatic reviews from numerous publications both major and underground, including Rolling Stone, Creem, Fusion (one of the first nationally distributed rock magazines), Jazz & Pop, and (as a reappraisal) Melody Maker; it even got good notices in stodgy trade papers like Cashbox, Variety, and Record World. Much the same acclaim followed for Loaded and their summer 1970 shows at Max’s Kansas City, the latter of which even earned them a near-rave review in the New York Times. Too, the reviews were written by several of the top rock critics of the era, including Lester Bangs, Lenny Kaye, Mike Jahn, Richard Williams, Ben Edmonds, Paul Williams, Robert Christgau, and even a teenaged Jonathan Richman. There were even lengthy, passionately favorable pieces on the group in places where the Velvets never played (and were probably rarely played on the radio), like Atlanta and Denmark.
Certainly these records did not sell at a level on par with such pats on the back. But it’s not true that the Velvets went wholly unappreciated in their own time, or even that the appreciation was limited to a small band of underground fanzine buffs or fringe fanatical weirdoes. It should also be pointed out that the whole field of rock criticism was so young in the US prior to the late 1960s that there were far less (and much less informed) album and concert reviews of any sort before 1969 than there were from that point onward.
Myth: MGM Records, which put out the first three Velvet Underground albums, did little or nothing to promote the group, ensuring their lack of commercial success.
Reality: There is little doubt that MGM was basically inefficient in its promotion of the group – though that’s something that could be said of its efforts for many of its rock artists of the late 1960s, and for the efforts granted many rock performers of the time on other major labels. It’s certainly true that it’s hard to find print advertising for their first album, and that one of the few such ads to get published was placed in a questionable outlet, the literary magazine the Evergreen Review.
But contrary to most historical accounts, MGM did put some promotion behind the group’s second and third LPs. It took out a full-page ad for White Light/White Heat—certainly their least commercial longplayer (and one of the least commercial albums of the time by any major rock act)—in Rolling Stone, as well as in some of the nation’s largest underground papers, including (of all places) the most renowned hippie publication of all, the Oracle in San Francisco. It put another full-page ad in the teen rock magazine Hullabaloo. It also gave Lou Reed and John Cale quite a bit of space to be interviewed on a rare MGM promotional-only LP serviced to radio stations around the time of White Light/White Heat’s release. And it also produced at least one radio ad for the record, although everyone must have known that the album itself wasn’t likely to get that much airplay.
For the third album (The Velvet Underground), MGM not only did more than it had for White Light/White Heat, but arguably gave the record more promotion than most. Full-page ads appeared in Rolling Stone, Creem, the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Free Press (one of the nation’s most widely read underground papers), and Fusion. The last of these also managed to insert a plug for the Velvets’ upcoming May 29-31 shows in the city where Fusion was published, Boston. MGM also did a radio ad for the LP, albeit a strange one featuring New York DJ Bill “Rosko” Mercer. It even bashed out a sizable, if eccentric, press kit with individual portraits of Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and Doug Yule.
By most accounts, MGM dropped the ball in its distribution of the albums, and the third LP in particular, with the record not as easy to find in the stores as it should have been. That probably blew any momentum their advertising campaign, and the highly accessible (relative to the first two VU albums) music on The Velvet Underground, might have created. But it wasn’t wholly neglectful of the Velvets—and, as even some members conceded, never interfered with the music or the packaging, with the exception of producer Tom Wilson asking for a more commercial song to fill out their first album and put on their second single. And since that song, “Sunday Morning,” was brilliant, even that didn’t hurt the group.
Myth: MGM kicked the Velvet Underground off the label around the beginning of 1970 as part of its infamous “purge” of artists who supposedly advocated taking drugs.
Reality: It is true that by the beginning of 1970, Mike Curb was in charge of MGM, moving the label in a more wholesome direction via acts like the Osmonds. But it wasn’t until November 1970 that he announced the termination of the contracts of eighteen MGM acts who “advocate and exploit drugs.” The Velvets were not only off the label by then; they’d already recorded and released their fourth LP, Loaded, for Atlantic Records. Curb and MGM declined to name the exact artists given the boot in any case, and in a December 1970 Rolling Stone news item, an MGM rep even claimed that “it wasn’t eighteen groups, [Curb] was misquoted. The cuts were made partly to do with the drug scene—like maybe a third of them had to do with drug reasons. The others were dropped because they weren’t selling.”
Certainly the Velvet Underground would have been at the top of any real or imagined drug purge list had they still been signed to the company, and maybe MGM was already keen to wash its hands of the band by early 1970 if Curb had made his intentions known. Sterling Morrison thought so, telling Mix magazine about 15 years later that Curb “wanted to get rid of the controversial bands, including the Velvets.” Yet it’s also possible that dropping the low-selling Velvets was simply a financial decision, a consequence of bureaucratic incompetence, or both. A March 7, 1970 Rolling Stone cover story revealed the company had lost $17 million in the past year, and that Curb had already, by his own count, let 80 artists and 250 staff workers go. Lou Reed himself later said that he didn’t think Curb kicked the Velvets off MGM for drug associations in the November 1987 issue of Creem, though he did note, “We wanted to get out of there.”
Myth: The Mothers of Invention, who were also on the MGM subsidiary Verve Records, used their influence to delay the release of the banana album (not issued until almost a year after most of it was recorded) so that it wouldn’t interfere with the Mothers’ own debut LP, Freak Out!
Reality: This is almost impossible to prove or disprove, unless some smoking gun comes to light in form of a specific memo from the Mothers’ management or some such source. Yet certainly several of the Velvets were suspicious that something of the sort took place. In his autobiography, John Cale speculated that Verve’s promotion department took the attitude “zero bucks for VU, because they’ve got Andy Warhol; let’s give all the bucks to Zappa.” And in his April 1981 NME interview with Mary Harron, Morrison claimed, “I know what the problem was: it was Frank Zappa and his manager Herb Cohen. They sabotaged us in a number of ways, because they wanted to be the first with a freak release. And we were totally naive. We didn’t have a manager who would to go the record company every day and just drag the whole thing through production.” Even way back in a November 1968 interview with Open City, Lou Reed griped, “Our first album was released six months late, right? Because the record company was afraid because of ‘Heroin’ and, two, because the manager of the Mothers didn’t want Frank’s album to be like our first one—there were no psychedelic albums no hip albums, then, and theirs was coming out first…I’m not saying anything evil towards anybody, but there was panic, and ours came out six months later.”
But as for hints subsequently dropped that the Mothers were determined to have their album out first even if it meant pushing the Velvets’ debut back, there’s a simple reason why Freak Out! was ready for release before The Velvet Underground & Nico. It was recorded first (from March 9-12, 1966; the first sessions for the banana album didn’t take place until mid-April), and was officially issued on June 27, 1966, long before producer Tom Wilson’s wish to make the banana album more commercial with the addition of “Sunday Morning” was fulfilled in November.
Additionally, much of the promotional push behind Freak Out! took place upon its initial release in June, when several Verve execs (including Wilson) visited distributors across the country to give salesmen a presentation on the album. The label also organized giveaways of the LP on radio stations in most major American markets. Admittedly all this seems like more than MGM ever did for the Velvets, but this happened long before the VU’s first LP was completed in fall 1966, casting doubt upon whether the two records would have been in competition for the same advertising dollars.
Doug Yule, who remembered the issue still being discussed after he joined the Velvets in late 1968, offers what might be a more realistic assessment of the situation. “The way I heard it, it was not the Mothers, it was the record company that made a decision to suppress [the banana album] for a while,” he clarified in his interview for White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day By Day. “Because they didn’t feel that two groups that far on the fringe could be released even close to each other and not interfere with each other’s sales.”
As a footnote to this whole supposed Velvets-Mothers rivalry business, it’s often been overlooked that Frank Zappa actually liked the banana LP. “I like that album,” he told Jazz & Pop magazine in its October 1967 issue. “I think that Tom Wilson deserves a lot of credit for making that album, because it’s folk music. It’s electric folk music, in the sense that what they’re saying comes right out of their environment.”
Myth: After New York radio refused to play the Velvet Underground’s first album upon its release in spring 1967, the Velvets decided to “punish” their hometown in protest, not playing the city again until their two-month residency at Max’s Kansas City in the summer of 1970, three years later.
Reality: First of all, the Velvet Underground did play at least three shows in New York between the spring of 1967 and the summer of 1970. Albeit these weren’t very high-profile gigs, those being a benefit for public television station WNET at Lincoln Center (on November 13, 1967); a benefit for Merce Cunningham’s dance company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on March 15, 1968; and a private industry performance at the Salvation Club in early 1970 (which helped bring them to the attention of Atlantic Records). And they did get some airplay for the banana album from Bob Fass on public radio station WBAI, though apparently this ceased after they declined to play a bail-fund benefit. They also did get at least some New York radio airplay later on in the 1960s on the city’s most progressive station, WNEW-FM, where Rosko Mercer (who narrated the radio ad for their third LP) and Richard Robinson (who produced Lou Reed’s first solo album in 1972) both had shows.
This is admittedly nitpicking; it absolutely was the case that the Velvets hardly played New York during this period, and probably didn’t get much radio airplay either. What is disputable is whether they were really purposely doing so to “punish” New York, or wholly determined to avoid playing the city at all costs.
As manager of the Boston Tea Party (the band’s favorite place to play) and promoter of their shows at several other Massachusetts venues, Steve Nelson knew both the Velvets and their post-Andy Warhol manager, Steve Sesnick, better than most. He put it this way in his interview for the book: “I’ve read about, ‘Well, they didn’t want to play ’cause they were boycotting New York ’cause they didn’t get radio play.’ I’m not really sure about that. It wasn’t like nobody wanted to book them. I really think that Sesnick thought he’d hold them back and would return triumphantly. But a lot of things went wrong—everything that went wrong with the release of their first album, and lack of promotion, and then everything that was going on with MGM at the time, which was a pathetic record label. ‘Cause by any account, they should have been much, much bigger than they were during that time period where they were away [from New York]. So the strategy certainly backfired, because so much else was going on that wasn’t making them this serious hot desirable thing that nobody’s ever seen that they’d be dying to see.
“So was it a good strategy?,” he concludes. “I don’t think so. They should have been playing New York, because they were from New York and had a lot of following there. I think probably they would have ended up being a lot bigger than they were if they’d played New York. ‘Cause there’s so much media there, there’s so much record business there—there’s so much everything there—that I think that they sort of missed out.”
“Given the way that Sesnick operates, pretty much everything that happened and was explained as being for this reason or for that reason was really for logistical and practical reasons,” feels Doug Yule, who didn’t play with the Velvet Underground in New York for nearly two years after joining the band in late 1968. “That tendency of his, and the tendency of his also to see a trend that might be beneficial to him in the long run, has led me to the feeling that the reason he didn’t play New York for a long time was simply because he couldn’t get a decent gig. Because the band was unknown in New York. And the band was unknown in New York ’cause they didn’t play in New York”—a catch-22 that might have spiraled out of control after a year or two.
“But they did play in Boston,” Yule continues. “People thought the band lived in Boston, because we played up there so much, and I really think that Sesnick kind of fostered that notion to some extent. Someone may have said it at some point, and he said ‘yeah, yeah, they’re a Boston band,’ and kind of pushed that along. Because that would make it easier to get a gig in New York, ’cause they were always interested in something new from out of town. There are so many bands out of New York looking to play everywhere that it becomes more difficult. But if you can say, this is hot in Boston…it’s like a way of getting in is that you go out and then come back in. I have felt that it was more along those lines. I don’t know how much of the ‘we’re mad at New York’ was actually real. It was never anything that was apparent to me.”
Interestingly, according to a June 1970 article in Circus magazine, Fillmore East audiences requested an appearance by the Velvets in a poll, but the group turned the gig down. Sterling Morrison later confirmed that he wouldn’t even go into the Fillmore East in New York, let alone play it, out of dislike for promoter Bill Graham. However admirable the group’s stance might be in principle, turning down a spot at what had to be one or the two or three most popular rock halls in the United States couldn’t have helped them make inroads either commercially or within the music business itself.
Myth: Nico was never regarded as a full member of the Velvet Underground. Her contributions to the band were few and peripheral.
Reality: From the point of view of the band themselves, there’s some solid reasoning to this sentiment. After all, Nico was added to the quartet lineup of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker at management’s behest in early 1966. She sings lead on just three of their officially released studio recordings (and faint background on just one other). She wrote no material for the group, with the exception of contributing to an improvisation later bootlegged (and partially released) as “Melody Laughter.” While she was technically in the band from January 1966 to May 1967, she missed quite a few shows, and was almost always billed separately (usually within the name “The Velvet Underground & Nico”). Several members later went on record as saying they never considered Nico a full or permanent member of the group.
From the standpoint of the audience and the media, however, Nico was often considered the star of the show. It is no exaggeration to state that press clippings during the period in which she was in the Velvets gave her not just more ink than all four other members combined—they gave her about ten times more ink than all four other members combined, often not bothering to mention anyone else’s name, let alone quote them or specify their contributions. Andy Warhol also got at least ten times as much ink as Reed, Cale, Morrison, and Tucker combined in early VU press accounts, but everyone probably expected that.
In addition, according to Paul Morrissey (who managed the Velvets with Andy Warhol while Nico was in the group), it was only because of her that they got a record deal in the first place. “I sent [the tapes of their first recording sessions] to all the record companies, they all said no,” he remembered in his interview for White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day By Day. “Finally this guy from Verve contacted me, Tom Wilson. He was a very nice guy, Harvard-educated. He had signed Simon & Garfunkel to Columbia. He said, ‘I’m interested in recording them, I went to see them. I can’t put any of this on the radio, but that girl is fantastic. She could be a big star, and I’ll sign the whole group just to have Nico.’ Well, when I went back I made the mistake of telling that to Lou, and he really froze. The last thing in the world that he wanted to hear was this album was only being taken on because of beautiful Nico with the beautiful voice, and that Tom Wilson really wanted her, not them.”
Nico also sings three of the four songs used on the Velvet Underground’s first two singles, both issued in 1966 in advance of the banana album. That lends additional credence to the possibility that Verve and Wilson initially planned to make Nico the focus of the group, not chief singer-songwriter Lou Reed. Again according to Morrissey, the one track on those singles she doesn’t sing lead on, “Sunday Morning,” was initially planned to be a song that Nico could sing that would be a more commercial choice for a single than anything that had been recorded for the debut LP. However, Lou Reed ended up taking the lead vocal on that song, although Nico can just about be heard in the background near the end.
Nico’s addition of glamour and star quality to the Velvets was undeniably vital to the band in their early days. But even if her musical contributions were relatively slight, they should not be overlooked, as the three songs on which she does sing lead—”I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” and “Femme Fatale”—all rank among the group’s greatest. Nor should it be overlooked that three members of the Velvets made crucial contributions to Nico’s first solo album as composers and instrumentalists, with John Cale continuing to do so throughout Nico’s solo career.
Myth: When he was working as a staff songwriter at Pickwick Records in 1964 and 1965, Lou Reed wanted to record songs like “Heroin.” But the label wouldn’t let him, making him determined to form a band with John Cale, the Velvet Underground, where he could write and sing what he wanted.
Reality: On May 11, 1965, Lou Reed recorded a few unreleased demos under the auspices of Pickwick Records, including not just one but two complete versions of “Heroin.” What purpose these sessions had is unclear, and it’s uncertain whether Pickwick—most of whose product was tacky budget/exploitation releases—would have ever released such material, or found a market for such songs even if it had. But record “Heroin” they did, producer Terry Philips—who had signed Reed to Pickwick as a staff songwriter in late 1964—specifically praising his good performance after the first of the takes. Remarkably, the song’s lyrics and tune are already virtually the same as the studio version the Velvet Underground would record about a year later, although these bare-bones versions have more of a folky talking blues feel than even the ones Lou, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison would record at 56 Ludlow Street a couple months later (which were eventually issued on the Peel Slowly and See box set).
As to the overall question of whether Pickwick discouraged Lou from recording those kind of songs, both Reed and Cale remember songs like “Heroin” being vetoed by the label in early-’70s interviews. As Philips was the most noted and visible of Reed’s associates at Pickwick, it’s sometimes assumed that he must have been personally responsible for such rejection. Yet in his interview for White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day By Day, Philips repeatedly stated his admiration for Reed’s talents and regrets that he and Pickwick couldn’t have worked with him more. “I helped encourage him on his writing to do things that were more like ‘Heroin,’ and more like the kind of writing he did in short stories,” he stated. “We were working towards a goal. I thought he could be what he became.”
According to Pickwick promotion man Bob Ragona, the real villain at the label as far as stopping such material in its tracks was its vice president. “Ira Moss stopped it,” he declared. “He was the main obstacle. He was the #2 man in the company. He didn’t understand it.”
Myth: The song “White Light/White Heat,” one of the Velvet Underground’s greatest, is about drugs.
Reality: Well, that’s partially true. Specifically, “White Light/White Heat” is often assumed to be about the exhilarating effects of crystal methedrine amphetamines, and Reed does say the song “is about amphetamines” in his 1971 interview with Metropolitan Review. But an equally likely, and perhaps more interesting, inspiration is Alice Bailey’s occult book A Treatise on White Magic. It advises control of the astral body by a “direct method of relaxation, concentration, stillness and flushing the entire personality with pure White Light, with instructions on how to ‘call down a stream of pure White Light.'” And it’s known for certain that Reed was familiar with the volume, as he calls it “an incredible book” in a November 1969 radio interview in Portland, Oregon.
Additionally, in his “I Was a Velveteen” article in Kicks, Rob Norris remembers Reed explaining “White Light/White Heat” as one example of “how a lot of his songs embodied the Virgo-Pisces [astrological] opposition and could be taken two ways.” Norris, who would get to know the band personally at the Boston Tea Party, also thinks the “white light” concept might have informed another of the album’s songs, “I Heard Her Call My Name.” “He was very interested in a form of healing just using light, projecting light,” says Norris today.
Incidentally, Reed wasn’t the only major ’60s rock artist influenced by Bailey; Kinks guitarist Dave Davies discusses white light energy in his autobiography Kink, which reprints a couple extended quotes from Bailey’s books. Also interested in “white light” was Lou’s friend from the Factory who ended up doing the White Light/White Heat cover, Billy Name. According to Reed’s unpublished 1972 ZigZag interview, Name “got so far into it he locked himself in a closet for two years, and just never came out…I know what he was doing because I was the one who started him on the books [by Alice Bailey on magic], and we went through all fifteen volumes.”
Myth: The Velvet Underground didn’t care what anyone thought of their music. They not only weren’t bothered when people hated them or reacted to them in horror; they relished it.
Reality: That’s a perception that’s been egged on by a few comments from band members themselves, which sometimes give the impression they took a secret pleasure in offending rather than pleasing their audiences. Sterling Morrison’s wife Martha saw a different, more sensitive (and sensible) side to the band in this regard. “I always knew that they were trying hard to get recognition,” she states. “I knew that they weren’t gonna change anything in order to get it. They worked hard at their music, and I think were kind of puzzled when they didn’t get good reviews and also disappointed. They really cared.”
Myth: The Velvet Underground deliberately selected the worst quotes about them they could find to put on their debut album.
Reality: Certainly the quotes used on the inner gatefold of The Velvet Underground & Nico were pretty unusual in the context of their era. Variety describes the EPI as “a three-ring psychosis that assaults the senses”; Los Angeles Magazine dubs them “screeching rock’n’roll” that “reminded viewers of nothing so much as Berlin in the decadent 30’s”; Richard Goldstein characterizes the sound as “the product of a secret marriage between Bob Dylan and the Marquis de Sade” in the New York World Journal-Tribune; and the Chicago Daily News announces that “the flowers of evil are in full bloom with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.” The liner notes to Peel Slowly and See suggest not only that the Velvets deliberately selected only negative quotes, but also that Verve ameliorated the vibe by inserting a few positive ones without telling the group.
But actually, there’s nothing in the way of out-and-out critical slams in the quotes that made the final cut, leading one to believe the group wasn’t quite as defiantly perverse in this department as legend’s made them out to be. There were certainly quite a few far, far more negative review quotes—i.e. “a tasteless, vulgar review that should never have opened” (Hitline), “if this is what America’s waiting for, we are going to die of boredom because this is a celebration of the silliness of café society, way out in left field instead of far out, and joyless” (the San Francisco Chronicle), “deliberately loud, rhythmless, off-key rock’n’roll, i.e. camp, graced occasionally by Nico, gorgeous blonde, who may be singing but nobody can hear” (the New York Post), “[Nico] sounded like a Bedouin woman singing a funeral dirge in Arabic while accompanied by an off-key air raid siren” (the Detroit Free Press)—that could have been chosen, and most certainly were not.
Myth: The Velvet Underground were wholly out-of-step with the trends of their time, not listening to or admiring much or any of the work in their peers, even dismissing it as irrelevant.
Reality: Because the Velvet Underground were indeed highly unlike the other top bands of their time and for the most part out of step with trends of the mid-to-late-’60s (or not interested in following trends whatsoever), an impression is sometimes painted in retrospect that they functioned almost in isolation. It makes a nice hook to their story, but the Velvets really weren’t as contrary characters as legend sometimes has it, or immune to musical influences from fellow bands. In various interviews and writings from 1967 to 1970, various members express admiration for the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Kinks, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Phil Spector, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Byrds, and even Bob Dylan.
As an aside, some snide comments from Sterling Morrison in particular regarding Dylan might have you believe the group had little time for the singer-songwriter. Yet Morrison himself declares “I like him, he did a lot of good songs” in the first straight Q&A interview with the group (in the August 1967 issue of the underground Cleveland paper The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle). And while Morrison and the group in general supposedly had considerable antipathy for Dylan’s song “I’ll Keep It with Mine,” which Nico kept trying to force into the group’s repertoire in early 1966, Sterling’s wife Martha thinks “he liked the song. His feelings about Dylan had nothing to do with Nico singing that song. It was a very pretty song.”
It’s also worth pointing out that in at least one unheralded instance, the Velvet Underground themselves directly influenced a major late-’60s album by one of the biggest groups of that or any other era. As Mick Jagger confessed to Nick Kent of NME in June 1977, “Even we’ve been influenced by the Velvet Underground. No, really. I’ll tell you exactly what we pinched from [Lou Reed]. Y’know ‘Stray Cat Blues’ [from the Rolling Stones’ 1968 album Beggars Banquet)? The whole sound and the way it’s paced, we pinched from the first Velvet Underground album. Y’know, the sound on ‘Heroin.’ Honest to God, we did!”
Myth: The Velvet Underground got no commercial radio airplay while they were active.
Reality: It would be foolish to claim that the Velvet Underground were in heavy rotation or anything close to it between 1966 and 1970. Generally speaking, they were seldom played on the radio, and likely virtually missed out in some sizable markets altogether. Yet it’s not the case that they weren’t played anywhere or anytime, as some accounts would have it. Dick Summer played them often on his Sunday night show in Boston on WBZ, whose signal was so strong that it could be picked up in many other regions of the United States at night. He continued playing them often when he moved to WNEW-FM in New York, as did other DJs on that station, including Rosko Mercer and Richard Robinson. Bob Reitman played them often on various commercial stations in Milwaukee, even though the Velvets aren’t known to have played any concerts there. Tapes survive (detailed in the book) of Lou Reed chatting on-air in 1969 with enthusiastic radio interviewers on Boston’s WBCN-FM (conducted by Mississippi Harold Wilson) and Portland, Oregon’s KVAN. The December 16, 1970 chart of progressive St. Louis station KADI-FM shows Loaded at #21, although the VU only played one concert in the city. Richard Goldstein even got to play “Heroin” once as a guest DJ on Murray the K’s show on WOR-FM in New York.
All this doesn’t mean, of course, that the Velvets got much radio airplay in the United States as a whole. But it’s another illustration that they did find at least something of an audience in their own time, instead of being shunned by everything and everyone around them.
Myth: The Velvet Underground recorded an unreleased fourth album for MGM Records in 1969.
Reality: Here’s one that’s probably never going to be cleared up. After forty years, the mystery remains: were the Velvets recording a fourth album for MGM between May and October 1969 or not? Certainly a fourth album on the label never appeared, though by late 1969, they’d cut more than enough tracks to fill one up. Steve Sesnick later said he was already maneuvering to get the band off MGM at this point, and maybe they were trying to walk the fine line of making it appear to the label as though they’re working on their next record, but not quite getting the recordings in good enough shape so that an LP can be compiled.
Yet Sterling Morrison later said that he was under the impression they were working on a fourth album, leaving the cuts behind with no regrets when they finally did leave MGM for Atlantic in 1970. As Maureen Tucker puts it in the liner notes to Peel Slowly and See, “As far as I knew, and know, we were making a record. I also believe we were trying to get out from MGM. I don’t know what the plan was. Maybe it was just to not finish it enough. Some of those tracks don’t even have [finished] vocals on them. Maybe we were doing it just to keep them from saying ‘We need a record!’ I’m sure the way we did all those tracks had to do with trying to get away from MGM.” And Robert Quine—who became friends with the band in 1969, and in the 1980s, worked closely with Reed as a guitar player for a few years—later remembered Lou telling him in spring 1969 that the Velvets were making a fourth album, though in a later conversation in November, he was given the impression the LP was no longer happening.
In addition, the existence of an acetate with seven songs from these 1969 outtakes verifies that there might have been at least some thought about compiling a long-playing record from these sessions. It’s unlikely such an acetate would have been cut unless someone in the band wanted to hear how an LP’s worth, or nearly an LP’s worth, of songs sounded when bunched together. For the record, those songs, in order, are “I’m Sticking with You,” “Foggy Notion” (here titled “Sally May”), “Ferryboat Bill,” “Andy’s Chest,” “Ocean,” “Rock & Roll,” and “She’s My Best Friend” (here titled “My Friend”).
Doug Yule offers a yet different take in the DVD The Velvet Underground Under Review: “My understanding was that we were gonna use the MGM studios to work out this stuff prior to actually going into a studio and recording. To sort of get organized for a regular recording session…My understanding was that they were never gonna be used. They were work tapes, and that’s the way I always viewed them.”
Finally, back in late August of 1969, Reed told Frank Gruber of the Philadelphia paper the Distant Drummer that a fourth VU album had been recorded. But, wrote Gruber, the group “don’t plan to release it, at least within the next year or two. ‘It would be totally senseless,’ says Lou. ‘In a few years it will be ahead of its time, but now it just won’t sell and will go unknown. We’ve had enough of that.'” This implies that a complete LP had been recorded and scrapped by the end of August—even though quite a few of the tracks thought to be part of the “lost” album were cut at the Record Plant after Reed’s conversation with Gruber, in September and early October.
Doug Yule doesn’t buy the explanation that the album was shelved for being ahead of his time. As for that specific Distant Drummer quote, he explained in his interview for White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day By Day, “When you’re being interviewed, the model dictates that the interviewer is looking for information, and you’re there to inform them. You don’t want to give a null set answer, like ‘I don’t know.’ So it’s easy to say, ‘No, we don’t want to do it now, because it’s way ahead of its time.’ It makes perfect sense, and it makes it sound good. That’s Sesnick talking through Lou. Sesnick was just pumping ideas into him, and then [Lou] was giving them back.”
Myth: The Velvet Underground were totally unconcerned with the singles market, or trying to get hit singles.
Reality: The reality is that when the Velvet Underground were signed by MGM in May 1966, no rock band could afford to ignore the singles market – or, at least, no record label recording said rock band could ignore the singles market, even if the band themselves didn’t care about it much. Although most of the banana album had been recorded by the end of May 1966, it wasn’t released until March 1967, instead being preceded by two 1966 singles (all four of whose songs appeared on the LP) as Verve first tried to break the group in the 45 market, or at least test them through that market.
The one song on The Velvet Underground & Nico to be recorded after May 1966, according to Paul Morrissey (their co-manager of the time), was specifically instigated as an attempt at a commercial single. In his interview for White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day By Day, Morrissey says producer Tom Wilson told him that “the only thing I don’t like about the record [about to be released as the Velvets’ debut LP] is, there’s not enough Nico. You’ve got to get another song from Nico. And there’s nothing here we can use on the radio, so why don’t we get Nico to sing another song that would be right for radio play?” That is why, at the last minute, one last track was recorded for The Velvet Underground & Nico—and fortunately so, as it turned out to be “Sunday Morning,” a classic that made a great album even better.
Paul Morrissey confirms that Tom Wilson definitely had a 45 release in mind when “Sunday Morning” was recorded in late 1966, as “you couldn’t put an album out without having a single. [Tom Wilson] said, ‘We have to put something out as a single, but there’s nothing on there that could be a single, and I want Nico to sing it. But I need a commercial type of song for Nico to sing.’ But when we got to the recording studio, Lou said ‘Yeah, but I’m gonna sing this.’ Wilson was surprised; Lou was really arrogant in a very nasty sort of way and Tom Wilson didn’t know what to say. Lou only allowed Nico to come in as a kind of background chorus in one verse, [although] Nico singing had been the whole purpose of the session.” This session, incidentally, marks the only time it could be said that MGM tried to influence the Velvet Underground’s music, though if “Sunday Morning” was recorded in part in an attempt to make the group more commercial, the end result actually improved the LP on which it was included.
After 1966, the impression was certainly created that the Velvets, or their labels, didn’t care about the singles market, as few 45s were released, and even those were so poorly distributed that few saw (let alone heard) them. Yet a late-night party after an August 29, 1969 show in Philadelphia, Lou Reed and Doug Yule told Frank Gruber of local underground paper the Distant Drummer that “they are totally disassociated with the ‘underground,’ from FM radio to drugs. They don’t even like record albums…Reed says he can’t listen to FM for long before he either falls asleep or gets sick…So the Velvet Underground is moving into singles. The first will be ‘We’re Going to Have a Real Good Time Together,’ a song consisting of pounding old Rock and Roll and those words repeated over and over. It’s alive and great. It should make it, unless everyone’s too cool.” The group did indeed record the song at the Record Plant in New York on September 30, but it didn’t even get released until 1986, let alone appear on a single.
In addition, though the sole single from White Light/White Heat (“White Light/White Heat”/”Here She Comes Now”) flopped, the group seemed to care about it enough to complain about it being banned, as they claimed it was, in several interviews. And both Lou Reed and Doug Yule have admitted that Loaded was recorded, at least in part, with an eye to having commercial success and radio airplay, including the possibility of landing that elusive hit single. As Yule said in his interview for White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day By Day, “I remember editing ‘Head Held High’ and chopping the shit out of it, compressing the crap out of it, specifically to make it into a certain length and a certain style. [We] were even recording it with the idea of, ‘This is gonna be a single.’ It was high energy from opening to close.”
All that considered, it’s mighty peculiar that Atlantic did not choose to release a single from Loaded until April 1971, by which time the album had been out for half a year—and by which time Reed himself had been out of the band for half a year. And even when that single did appear, it contained neither “Sweet Jane” nor “Rock & Roll”—the two most obviously commercial (in the best sense of the word) songs the Velvet Underground ever cut.
Myth: Being the ultimate anti-hippies, the Velvet Underground never played rock festivals.
Reality: The Velvet Underground might not exactly have been wholehearted participants in hippie culture, but being a functioning national touring band with records on a major (if inefficient) label meant that they weren’t as outside the mainstream rock circuit as has often been supposed. In 1969, they played at least one major rock festival (Toronto Pop Festival 1969, in June) and one minor one (the Hilltop Festival in New Hampshire in August, where they headlined a bill also including Van Morrison). They likely also played a festival in Texas that autumn, as Doug Yule says the outdoor concert pictures (by road manager Hans Onsager) that appear in his book 69 on the Road: Velvet Underground Photographs were taken at such an event in Texas, and thinks it probably took place at a college campus. Yet more intriguingly, pictures in that book of the festival crowd show what Yule confirms as an “independent filmmaker walking around, making films of the whole thing. I think someone has tried [to find him], and been unsuccessful.”
As a weird footnote, one musician who played in the Velvet Underground in the 1960s did perform at the most famous rock festival of all, Woodstock. That was original drummer Angus MacLise. His wife Hetty confirms that Angus performed on the acoustic stage set up by the Hog Farm, the organization who were helping to provide food, medical aid, and general assistance at the event. According to the article in The Wire, Angus and Hetty can also be glimpsed dancing in the ultra-popular Woodstock film, though frankly it’s hard to conclusively identify them in the sequences of the movie (particularly Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” and the crowd-improvised “Rain Chant”) that feature quick cuts between numerous writhers in the several hundred thousand-strong throng.
Myth: Being the ultimate anti-hippies, the Velvet Underground had as little to do with California rock audiences as possible, especially after their shows in Los Angeles and (at the Fillmore) San Francisco didn’t go well in May 1966.
Reality: It’s true that the Velvets’ first visit to California in May 1966 didn’t go all that well. What was supposed to be a multi-week engagement at the Trip in Los Angeles closed after a few nights because of murky legal/police complaints, and the band got along poorly with promoter Bill Graham at the Fillmore (and received one of their most savage reviews ever by Ralph J. Gleason in the San Francisco Chronicle). Even these May 1966 shows in L.A. and San Francisco did have their admirers, but the hostile reaction by some was probably a factor in the VU not returning to California for a couple years.
It’s also true, however, that the Velvet Underground probably played more shows in California more than any other state except, perhaps, New York and Massachusetts. They did not play any more shows for Bill Graham, but by 1968, the California rock circuit was thriving so heavily that it would have been foolish for any band to ignore it, even one so determined to do things their own way as the Velvets. In the roughly eighteen months from late May 1968 to early December 1969, they played many shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles (where they also recorded their third album), as well as a few in San Diego. These included several gigs at the Avalon, the Fillmore’s biggest competitor in San Francisco; several performances at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles, that city’s most legendary rock club, with Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison in attendance at some shows; and several weeks at the Matrix in San Francisco, where many tapes were made, some of which comprised the bulk of their 1969 Velvet Underground Live album—one of the greatest rock concert records of all time. There was even a performance at Beverly Hills High School in late 1968.
What’s more, these performances were generally well received, with complimentary reviews in daily and underground papers in each of the three cities. Far from being in deliberate opposition to California audiences, the Velvets probably had a stronger following in the state than they had in almost any other region.
Myth: The Velvet Underground were pretty much an Andy Warhol project, or an extension of his world. They wouldn’t have amounted to anything if he hadn’t been their Svengali of sorts.
Reality: Admittedly this is a myth that these days hardly needs discrediting, as the vast majority of informed rock listeners (and for that matter informed art appreciators) are aware that the Velvets were a hugely talented and largely autonomous group, not an Andy Warhol creation/manipulation. Looking over their press clippings (particularly their early ones), however, it’s astonishing how many reporters seem to be under that impression. Many pieces mention Warhol prominently, but don’t name any of the individual members, and often view the concerts as a Warholian spectacle rather than one in which musicians play their own highly original material. The release of a debut album in which a signed Warhol painting was the cover didn’t’t help, not a few actually thinking The Velvet Underground & Nico is a Warhol album, or that Warhol even played in the band.
Even as late as late June 1969, a reviewer for Philadelphia’s largest alternative paper, the Distant Drummer, unfunnily dismisses the band as a Warhol gimmick, describing Andy as “the spiritual force behind the Velvet Underground, a rock group consisting of three guys and a woman. What a surprise that the V.G.’s (sounds like a bad disease) sound like a bad disease. Oh Andy, how could you have let us down! I was so mad at you I burned my autographed copy of A and ripped down the aluminum foil which covered the walls of my apartment… If you close your eyes, put plugs in your ears and concentrate on the Word (‘Warhol’), you might find their sound almost listenable. Almost. Are you concentrating?”
If you’ve read this far it’s doubtful you’ll need straightening out, but for the record: the Velvet Underground were performing and writing their own songs—including many of the ones featured on their debut album—before they met Warhol in late December 1965. While Warhol and the group’s co-manager Paul Morrissey were instrumental in organizing the multimedia show in which they played, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, they never interfered with the band’s music, with the notable exception of getting them to add Nico to the lineup—which actually improved the music rather than hurting it. And after the VU ended their managerial association with Warhol around mid-1967, they continued to be a top, ferociously innovative rock band for three years—not only on record, but onstage, despite no longer performing as part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
Myth: Andy Warhol didn’t do anything for the Velvet Underground besides have his name associated with them. Even though he’s credited as the producer for most of their first album, he didn’t do anything in the studio to merit that title.
Reality: So here we have the flipside of the perception of Andy Warhol’s relation to the Velvets—that far from being the mentor that made it all possible for the Velvet Underground to do whatever they did, he was kind of a do-nothing. Warhol’s role is indeed often overestimated. Paul Morrissey, who co-managed the band with Andy from early 1966 to mid-1967, said in his interview for the book that many of the ideas often credited to Andy originated elsewhere, not least from Morrissey himself. As for Warhol’s direct involvement with the functions usually associated with a rock manager—getting them gigs, dealing with record labels, dealing with the logistics of their stage show, and so forth—certainly Morrissey was more involved than Andy was. And Morrissey was actually Warhol’s manager, as well as managing the Velvets with Andy.
As Paul stated in his interview, “In actual reality, the basis of these things came almost always from me, and not from him, during these years I was there. I’m the one that met them, told them I would manage them, put Nico in the group, and Andy would present them, be called the manager. But have you ever heard of a manager who had a manager? I’d love for you to come up with another situation where there was somebody who was a manager who had a manager who told him what things should be done and then went and did them himself.”
Yet at the same time, Warhol did make definite contributions to the Velvet Underground’s music and career. First of all, he was instrumental in financing their equipment and general livelihood in early 1966, when they had few gigs and no record deal. He might not have had much (and quite possibly very little) to do with the production of their first record in terms of making musical or technical suggestions, but he was instrumental in the financing of those sessions as well. And as Lou Reed declares in his interview for the Transformer documentary, “Before we went in the studio he said, ‘You’ve got to make sure—use all the dirty words. And don’t let them clean things.’ And so, when he was there, they—you know—they didn’t dare try to say, ‘Hey, why don’t you don’t do that over,’ or, gee, any one of all the other things they would normally have done never happened.”
Warhol also gave enormous artistic encouragement by helping install the courage to be uncompromising at a time when their vision isn’t in vogue. He gave Lou Reed in particular some useful inspiration for his songwriting, both by offering some specific suggestions (particularly for the songs “Femme Fatale” and “Sunday Morning”) and stressing the overall importance of a diligent work ethic, constantly pressing him to write more compositions. In the BBC documentary Curious, John Cale goes as far as to doubt whether Reed would have continued investigating unusual “subjects like he did without having some kind of outside support for that approach other than myself.” Plus he designed for them one of the most memorable album covers of all time. The Velvet Underground’s music would not have been quite the same, or quite as brilliant, without Andy Warhol’s input.
Myth: The Velvet Underground were only a great and groundbreaking band when John Cale was in the lineup. After he left in late 1968, the music they produced in the remaining two years Lou Reed had with the group was relatively unadventurous and ordinary.
Reality: This may be a minority viewpoint, but you’ll still see it stated in some accounts of the band, including some of the most high-profile ones. The standpoint, unfortunately, has also been reinforced by the induction of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker—but not Cale’s replacement, Doug Yule (or for that matter Nico)—into the Rock and Roll of Fame when the group were given that honor in 1996, as well as the failure of several film documentaries covering the Velvets to even mention Yule’s name, let alone investigate the group’s 1968-70 music in detail.
First, it should be emphasized that John Cale was undoubtedly the second-most important musician in the Velvet Underground other than Lou Reed. He would prove to be its best songwriter other than Reed, even if he wasn’t yet writing much while he was in the group. He was certainly its most versatile instrumentalist, making vital contributions on bass, piano, organ, and especially his electric viola. He was, with Reed, the band’s co-founder. And he was undeniably more responsible than any of the other members for the most avant-garde and experimental aspects of their sound, not only via his pioneering electric viola, but also his use of drone and fearsome electronics.
All that said, the Velvet Underground certainly made their share of great music in the two years following Cale’s exit—indeed, some of the best music they ever made. That includes their third album (recorded very shortly after Cale left), which in its muted low-volume approach was almost as radical a turn as the first two LPs had been with Cale on board. It also includes the two-LP set 1969 Velvet Underground Live, one of the greatest live albums ever. And it also includes their 1970 album, Loaded, which while the least adventurous of their records certainly had its share of fine songs, including two of their very greatest, “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll.”
As for Doug Yule’s specific contributions, it should be noted that he actually plays on more commercially released Velvet Underground recordings than Cale does, even discounting the post-1970 recordings made without Reed in the band. More important than the quantity of Yule’s work, however, is its underrated quality. While not the idiosyncratic talent that Cale was as an instrumentalist and singer-songwriter, Yule was a fine bassist who quickly and adeptly eased the group’s transition to a more powerful, if more conventional, rock sound. It’s also overlooked that he made significant contributions as a multi-instrumentalist, also playing organ with the group onstage—that’s his electrifying swirl on the 1969 Velvet Underground Live version of “What Goes On”—and also chipping in on keyboards, drum, guitar, backup vocals, arrangements, and the occasional lead vocal (“Candy Says” being the standout) in the studio and in concert. Far from being an incidental, faceless entity needed to fill out the lineup, as some accounts might have you believe, Yule was not just an adequate replacement—he was a very considerable asset to the group.
Steve Nelson, who saw the band more than almost anyone else with the Yule lineup as a promoter for numerous VU shows in Massachusetts, put it this way in his interview for White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day By Day: “I think [Yule] brought a kind of musicality to it that wasn’t there before. He could sing and harmonize, he could play a lot of instruments. John was also a brilliant musician, but he was kind of edgier. Doug had more of a pop sensibility. So that whole transition of them becoming more accessible was really partly due to Doug. They could still play the hell out of the stuff like ‘Heroin’ and ‘Sister Ray’—I heard those things live, and they were still great. That’s a tribute to Doug being able to fit in there. It’s a pretty hard thing for somebody to step into, and I think Doug has gotten a bum rap. He was a big part of the band and brought a lot of musicianship to it, and I don’t think he’s gotten fair credit for that.”
Myth: John Cale left/was fired from the Velvet Underground because (pick one): A) he wasn’t getting along with Lou Reed; B) Lou Reed was jealous of him; C) Cale was threatening Reed’s leadership of the band; D) Cale was too far out for the more song-oriented, conventional rock direction in which Reed wanted to take the band; E) manager Steve Sesnick also wanted Cale out; F) for no good reason.
Reality: Well, here’s one case in which no one seems to know or want to reveal the root cause, though all of the above and some other factors have been cited. It is certain that John Cale played his final show (1993 reunion dates excepted) with the Velvet Underground on September 28, 1968, and that Doug Yule was on board as his replacement by the time of the next VU show on October 4. It’s not even been consistently reported whether Cale was fired or left, though the most accepted version has Cale getting fired by Reed in September. John himself has remembered hearing that Lou’s fired him from Sterling Morrison not long before the October 4 show in Cleveland. Reed has on several occasions declined to discuss the incident, as early as press interviews in the early 1970s and as late as a BBC Wales documentary on Cale in the late 1990s, where he simply states, “That’s really personal, and just probably something I wouldn’t talk about.” Manager Steve Sesnick is likewise mum in one of his very few interviews, telling Victor Bockris (in Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story), “That’s a real long story and I don’t want to get into it.”
For what it’s worth, the most likely, sensible, and un-sensationalistic explanation this writer came across in his research for White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day By Day comes from Michael Carlucci, longtime friend of Velvet Underground fanatic (and, for several years in the 1980s, Lou Reed’s guitarist) Robert Quine. “Lou told Quine that the reason why he had to get rid of Cale in the band was Cale’s ideas were just too out there,” says Carlucci. “Cale had some wacky ideas. He wanted to record the next album with the amplifiers underwater, and [Lou] just couldn’t have it. He was trying to make the band more accessible.”
Myth: The Velvet Underground signed their first record deal, with MGM Records, on (fill in the blank)…
Reality: It might seem like a small detail to some, but it’s amazing how seldom the actual date of the Velvet Underground signing their record deal has been reported. It’s now pretty well known among serious fans that the bulk of their first album was recorded in mid-to-late April 1966 at Scepter Studios in New York, with some of the songs getting re-recorded the following month in Los Angeles (probably) and “Sunday Morning” being cut later in the year. It seems like an improbably rapid series of events, though, for the group to be making recordings with the intent of selling them to a record label in mid-to-late April, and recording as MGM artists just a few weeks later the following month.
This seems to be, however, what might have happened. The original MGM contract—on partial display at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh—is dated May 2, 1966. It specifies the sale of twelve master recordings by the band to the label, seeming to confirm that the cuts done at the Scepter sessions are part of the deal. The label also agreed to pay the group an advance of $3000—not a huge figure by any means in 1966, even adjusting for inflation.
The contract raises a couple curious questions, one being which twelve master recordings were part of the deal. It’s now well known among collectors that nine tracks recorded by the band at Scepter were pressed on an April 25, 1966 acetate, auctioned on eBay about 40 years later for about $25,000. But what were the other three tracks? Were they alternate versions of some of the songs on the acetate; three entirely different songs from the sessions that somehow have gone missing; or three tracks from a different source than the Scepter sessions altogether?
Also, the co-producer of the Scepter sessions, Norman Dolph, has recalled that the acetate was submitted to Columbia Records for consideration and rejected. Both Sterling Morrison and Paul Morrissey have recalled the tapes also being submitted to other labels, including (in Morrison’s memory) Elektra and Atlantic, which also rejected them. Could all those rejections—and MGM’s acceptance, as indicated by the May 2 date—really have happened within a mere week?