Peel Slowly & See: The Influence of the Velvet Underground

Peel Slowly & See: The Influence of the Velvet Underground

In October 2018, the Velvet Underground come back home.

The band that formed in New York City will return to town in the form of the Velvet Underground Experience — opening October 10 right next to the Café Bizarre at 718 Broadway. I cannot wait to share this new exhibition with the New York audience. It is the first global exhibition dedicated to the group and their influence on music.

Discover (or discover once again) Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, Moe Tucker, Sterling Morisson, Andy Warhol and the Factory. Lie down on the silver pillows of the greenhouse and immerse yourself in the The Banana Album. Walk through 1960s Manhattan streets; the exhibition features the work of famous photographers: Stephen Shore, Nat Finkelstein, Donald Greenhouse, Lisa Law, Fred W. McDarrah, Steve Schapiro and more. Or you can watch the six movies produced exclusively for the exhibition and imagine life on the Lower East Side — or the first time the band played in New Jersey.

With this exhibit, I wanted to share what this band gave me: emotion, happiness, passion. I was born to be a Velvet Fan; my art collecting has a long history when it comes to the band. Sharing my passion for the Velvets afforded me the opportunity to contact collectors and members of the group and, as a founder of Les Inrockuptibles music magazine, I became the curator of The Velvet Underground Experience in Paris — and now New York.

The exhibition is not nostalgic; it is very modern. Although The Velvet Underground was built on classical foundations, they changed music history. From Jonathan Richman to Patti Smith to Sonic Youth, from the Strokes to Beck, the Velvet Underground has taken over the musical world.

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In August 1970, with the departure of Lou Reed, the end of the Velvet Underground was greeted with general indifference. Two years later, however, the name was on everyone’s lips.

Brought into the public eye once more by David Bowie, the group’s influence would not stop growing. Bootleg records, unpublished titles and a generalized mea culpa by the press gradually elevated the Velvet Underground and its creators to the skies. The spirit and catalyst of New York rock quietly conquered the planet — a posthumous revenge. Not limited to music, the Velvet waves pollinated the visual arts, photography, film and fashion and continue to inspire pop culture and rock today.

Simmy Richman describes it very well in his Independent article:

What is the most influential album of all time? Music lovers can (and do) argue about such things at length, but few would deny the first Velvet Underground album its right to be up there. It was number one when another British newspaper published its ‘50 albums that changed music’ list back in 2006. The rock critic Lester Bangs stated that, ‘Modern music starts with the Velvets,’ and Brian Eno told an interviewer in 1984: ‘I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 in the first five years. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.’ Now seems as good a time as any to ask what it is about the record that continues to fascinate and enthrall.

The simple answer is: listen to the album. For the long answer, you have to go back to 1965. In the UK, the Beatles were just hitting their sweet spot with pop ditties such as “Yesterday” and “Ticket to Ride.” In New York, meanwhile, a literature student turned songwriter named Lou Reed had recently met an avant-garde musician named John Cale and the pair started writing songs together. Two of these songs would go on to appear on their seminal debut: one, “Heroin,” requiring no explanation (sample lyric: “It’s my wife and it’s my life”), and the other, “Venus in Furs,” about sadomasochism.

The 1970s

“If the Velvet Underground had a protégé,” said the group’s guitarist Sterling Morrison, “it would be Jonathan Richman.” Known for his sweet acoustic ditties, the Boston-born musician began his career as front man of garage band the Modern Lovers and was directly inspired by the ragged energy of the Velvet Underground. Indeed, the fan/fanatic saw the group play 80 times, slept on their manager’s couch when he first moved to New York, and wrote an article titled “New York Art and the Velvet Underground” for a Boston magazine as early as 1967.

By the late 1970s, his band’s “Sister Ray”-inspired single “Roadrunner” had become an unlikely top 20 hit in the UK in the wake of the New Wave phenomenon. Richman would later top that with a song called “Velvet Underground.” The lyrics speak for themselves: “Both guitars got the fuzz tone on/The drummer’s standing upright pounding along/A howl, a tone, a feedback whine/Biker boys meet the college kind/How in the world were they making that sound?/Velvet Underground.”

1980s

Before the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde was a rock star, she was a writer for the NME who landed in London from Akron, Ohio, in 1973 with three records in her possession: the first two Velvet albums and Iggy Pop’s Raw Power. She wrote of the band: “Takes me right back to the teenage years of my virginal innocence; the evening I spent in some dingy hall, eyes fixed on the cat in the striped T-shirt and wraparound shades, those songs made my eyes water like I was chewing on a wad of aluminum foil, me hoping I could score some dope after the show; me wishing I could be like them.”

1990s

It goes without saying that the British “shoegaze” phenomenon of the early 1990s could not have existed without the Velvet Underground, indebted as it was to the Velvets’ love of distortion and feedback. And at the heart of that scene was Slowdive, a band fronted by Neil Halstead, who went on to form Mojave 3 as well as become a solo artist.

Halstead says: “I remember seeing the name a lot in Melody Maker when I was 15. I was a big Jesus & Mary Chain fan and I remember hearing ‘Sunday Morning’ and thinking it didn’t sound much like the Mary Chain. After that I was sucked into the record. It still sounds as exotic and dark and beautiful and cool to me now as it did then. The further I got into it, the more I realized that not only did the Mary Chain owe the Velvets a debt, but so did every other ‘alternative’ band I was listening to at that point.”

2000s

While the band’s influence was everywhere by then, the Strokes’ first album, the 2001 release, Is This It, probably comes as close to any record since The Banana Album to directly capture that balance between passionate authority and cool detachment.

In 2004, the Strokes’ singer Julian Casablancas told Rolling Stone: “The Velvet Underground were way ahead of their time. And their music was weird. But it also made so much sense to me. I couldn’t believe this wasn’t the most popular music ever made. In the beginning, the Strokes definitely drew from the vibe of the Velvets.”

Now

Freddie Cowan is the guitarist of the Vaccines. He says:

I remember hearing ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ when I must have been about 13 and Tom [my older brother and the keyboardist for the Horrors] was about 15. It was a rite of passage to discuss the importance of it and, beyond that, it was the best intro to a song I’d ever heard.

One of that first album’s biggest advantages is that Andy Warhol ‘produced’ it and he knew nothing technically about music. Not obeying the rules made for a sound that’s still unique and those ideas are still being used. The whole thing is this aggressive, deadpan perfection. It is adult rock & roll: brutal and not dumbed down. The influence remains because of the whole approach and attitude. If you write about what you know and do things as if you really fucking believe it, you can’t go wrong.

Excerpted (with light edits) from The Velvet Underground Experience (Exhibition Book)

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