The importance of The Velvet Underground has been talked about thousands of times. They are, with the Beatles’ permission, the quintessential modern rock group. Founded by Lou Reed and John Cale in 1965 in New York, the group was immediately sponsored by fellow pioneer Andy Warhol, with whom they collaborated until 1967, although their influence would never leave them. They were a group of the sixties that during their five years of existence did not fit their time for a single day. While others spoke of love and good vibes, they designed a revolutionary and perverse alternative to rock.
Alternative that remains in force, half a century after the group was mortally wounded after Reed’s departure in August 1970. To corroborate it, The Velvet Underground, which will premiere Apple TV in October. Directed by Todd Haynes, full of unpublished images and statements by those who lived history on the front line, the documentary more than covers the absence of films of this type about a band that we can describe as legendary without fear of falling into it. brother-in-law musical.
The documentary does not come alone. At the end of September it was published I’ll be your mirror: A tribute to The Velvet Undergrund & Nico, a reconstruction of the influential first album by the band of Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker. Posthumous work by producer Hal Willner, who died in 2020 due to Covid-19, has contributions from Thurston Moore, Sharon van Etten, Iggy Pop, Kurt Vile, Courtney Barnett or Michael Stipe, among others.
Referring to The Velvet Underground & Nico, published in 1967, Haynes declared a few months ago to the magazine Uncut: “It is music that makes you think about how fragile identity is, and also about that life. If we see it as a way to expand our creative expression, it can also be a challenge in that regard. ” The journalist Susana Monteagudo seconded Haynes’s opinion. “The Velvet Underground were the first punk group in terms of code transgression and creative freedom,” says the author of books as Illustrated history of rock and Amy Winehouse. Stranger than her. “In addition to practicing the philosophy of do it yourself and fleeing the commercial channels of the music industry, they subverted what was established, making dissent visible at all levels, not just artistic. They embraced the marginal and were too nihilistic, cynical, and sinister for the age of flower power”.
The Velvet Unerground did not belong to its time, but to the future. Cale wanted to fuse rock & roll with experimental music. Reed’s lyrics were open to the influence of writers such as Burroughs, Delmore Schwartz or John Rechy. They were a loud and screeching band, but they also composed melodic songs. This contrast is present, especially in The Velvet Underground & Nico, featuring some of the sweetest compositions of the group. I’ll be your mirror and Fatal Woman are performed by Nico (who also does backing vocals in Sunday morning, composed initially for her but that Reed ended up singing), one of the discordant elements of the group.
For the artist trans Roberta Marrero, the German singer and model Nico (who died in Ibiza in 1988) represents “an icon of undisputed beauty, as well as being a pioneer who opened the doors to other greats like Siouxsie.” Despite her beauty, Nico did not respond to the prevailing pop girl model. His way of singing was alien to rock and openly reflected his Germanic and Gothic roots. His inscrutable personality went hand in hand with a talent that, once he left The Velvet Underground, would germinate in unclassifiable works such as The marble index (1969) whose idiosyncrasy – breaking with the schemes of pop music and exploring artistic latitudes reserved for men – would inspire Kate Bush and Björk, as well as more contemporary artists such as Julia Holter, St Vincent or Anohni.
The Velvet Underground also broke with the heterosexual rock tradition. For Monteagudo, in addition to creating a literary imaginary “in which homosexuals, trans women, prostitutes, junkies, outsiders in general “, they were also” a band not exclusively made up of men, men who in turn did not identify with a heteronormative masculinity, especially in the case of Lou Reed. They integrated and naturalized diversity in their proposal because their behavior was linked to that concept. It was also the debut of the ambiguous, the queer”. Marrero, for his part, believes that “they brought to the fore non-normative sexualities such as sado, rather than homosexuality. Although now that I think about it, the lyrics of I’m waiting for my man He could be talking about a hustler and not a camel; actually, it is quite ambiguous ”.
This break with the prevailing canons also has to do with the presence of Maureen “Moe” Tucker. His work as the group’s drummer anticipated a trend that would not come until 1977, with the emergence of punk. From then on, the female role was no longer confined mainly to certain instruments and roles. Monteagudo believes that Tucker is “a key piece in this breaking of stereotypes and, therefore, a figure to be vindicated by feminism. “His way of playing, as unorthodox as it is influential, is one of those milestones that should be highlighted by the movement. In addition, her androgynous image and her discretion made her the counterpoint to Nico’s glamor ”.
Venerated by groups like The Jesus & Mary Chain, who even dedicated a song to him, and a precursor, as Marrero points out, of percussionists like Hannah Billie, ex-Gossip, Tucker is, along with Cale, a survivor of the group’s original line-up. Her positioning through social media with Trump and the possession of weapons has also made her its most unpopular member.
The figure of Warhol was decisive for The Velvet Underground to develop such a peculiar personality. Strictly musically, the band projected with their instruments some of the ideas about repetition and improvisation and saturation that the artist applied to his experimental films. In literary terms, the characters that passed through the Factory left their mark on songs such as That’s the story of my life / inspired by Billy Name, first head of the Factory), Fatal Woman (inspired by the it girl Edie Sedgwick) o Candy says, which talks about actress Candy Darling, an icon for the trans community.
“When the song appeared in 1969, nothing changed,” explains Marrero, “but it seems to me like a wonderful celebration of trans by the group. It is one of my favorite songs. You have to read the lyrics in the historical context because all that of being trans and hating your body is a discourse that is quite outdated in our community ”. Marrero recalls that, years later, Reed had a trans partner, Rachel Humphries, with whom he had “a romantic relationship absolutely silenced by the hetero ciscentric music press.”
When she started her solo career, she spoke again about Candy Darling and other trans actresses in Walk on the wild side, song included in the hit Transformer (1972), the album with which many of The Velvet Underdroung’s artistic proposals finally reached the general public. By then Bowie, Patti Smith, Suicide, Modern Lovers and the New York Dolls were ready to do their legacy justice.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.