Commemorating a Half Century of “The Velvet Underground”

A sketch of the group The Velvet Underground in bright neon. Illustration by Jenica Cruz.

WHEN THINKING of The Velvet Underground, the first image that comes to mind for many is Andy Warhol’s iconic banana on the cover of their 1967 debut album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico.” However, the short-lived band released several other records that receive less recognition, but are just as uniquely beautiful. As of this month, their other self titled-album, released in 1969, will be turning 50 years old.

The most notable members of The Velvet Underground include the late vocalist/guitarist Lou Reed and multi-instrumentalist John Cale, both of whom had successful solo careers after the band’s dissolution. The group is regarded as having directly influenced a great deal of experimental music that followed them. Their sound was groundbreaking for the time, as their darker, punk ambiance served as a striking contrast to the flower-power hippie movement rampant in the 1960s. In a decade dominated by Beatlemania, The Velvet Underground emerged as a welcome alternative.

Their identifiable sound has inspired many notable artists, such as the Talking Heads, Nirvana, David Bowie and U2, and continues to influence current artists, like the Arctic Monkeys and LCD Soundsystem.

Their self-titled album was a change of pace for the band, as it was much softer and less abrasive than their prior releases. This shift is due to the fact that before recording, Reed fired Cale and replaced him with Doug Yule. While Reed served as the figurehead of the band with his sultry voice and star appeal, much of the band’s experimentation in their first two albums is due to Cale. Thus, his absence drastically changed their sound.

The album opens with the calming, dreamy ballad “Candy Says,” which discusses feelings of dysmorphia in body and mind and the desire to exist without these limitations. The chorus asks the question: “What do you think I’d see / if I could walk away from me?” This lyric suggests a longing for perception outside of one’s own body, abandoning the individual consciousness and ego for a greater sense of peace.

My favorite song on the album has to be “Some Kinda Love.” The lyrics serve as a conversation between two fictional lovers, Margarita and Tom, as they discuss their views on love. Margarita is the first to share her view, and she seems to categorize distinct kinds of love. She admits that one kind of love isn’t better than another and wants to experience them all. Tom finds her viewpoint boring, yet clarifies that she is not “charmless.” He explains, “Cause a bore is a straight line / that finds a wealth in division / And some kinds of love / are mistaken for vision.” He then urges her to go beyond her beliefs, “put on her red pajamas and find out.”

Two distinct guitars are present in the song that seem to communicate with each other. The duality of instruments represents the two lovers who each possess individual opinions and in their distinctions become harmonious.

The group did not entirely abandon their experimental tendencies on this album, as evidenced by the song “The Murder Mystery.” The track is nearly nine minutes of sensory overload, layering the clashing voices of each band member and seeming to blend four drastically different songs into one cohesive, strange unit. The lyrics delivered by each individual voice border on complete gibberish, yet have an enchanting stream-of-consciousness quality. The sheer uniqueness of the song lies in its nonsensical genius, rebelling against the preconceived notions of what music is supposed to be.

“The Velvet Underground” truly stands on its own, showcasing the group’s creative abilities beyond their largely experimental first two albums. Although the record might be less jarring and grimy than their prior releases, it demonstrates the softer side of the band without sacrificing any of their inventiveness. It is a musical masterpiece.

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