Lou Reed, to the best of my knowledge, had nothing to do with surf music; except this. On Sunday October 27thI and made the fairly short journey along the south coast from Brighton to Hastings to see The Razorblades play the final show of their recent English tour. Around half way through their set at the splendid Royal Standard pub on the storm-swept seafront, I noticed the guitarist from support band The Sine Waves, checking something on his mobile phone. He then went up and spoke to Razorblades frontman, Martin, who announced to the packed pub that Lou Reed had died.
It’s very hard for me to write objectively about The Velvet Underground; they have meant so much to me for so many years. In the immediate aftershock of Punk’s year zero approach to everything we knew, or thought we knew, we began to discover a different musical heritage from the one we had been peddled by an industry in thrall to dinosaurs and hippies. And for me, the first port of call on that journey into a better back catalogue was The Velvet Underground.
It’s almost impossible now to imagine how strange, how different this band must have sounded in 1967, when The Velvet Underground and Nico was released to almost universal indifference. Now, of course, it is a sound deeply woven into the fabric of all alternative-minded “rock” music, since, as Brian Eno famously said, that first album only sold 30,000 copies, but everyone who bought it went on to form a band.
THAT sound; droning viola, courtesy of John Cale, intertwining guitars, from Reed and Sterling Morrison (always the coolest looking Velvet, for my money), the contrasting voices of Reed and Nico and, underpinning it all, the glorious heartbeat of Mo Tucker’s drumming (“There are two types of drummer,” deadpanned Cale, “Maureen Tucker and everyone else.”) has lain deep within my soul for over 35 years now. White Light White Heat is an even more astonishing aural assault, of course, while the third album, actually titled The Velvet Underground, but always referred to by my group of friends in the early 1980’s as the Grey Album, is almost as shocking in its, at times, gentle sweetness. Some have great affection for the fourth album, Loaded, but in comparison to the others, it seems weak to me, containing, as it does, only four great songs in Sweet Jane, Rock’n’Roll, Who Loves The Sun? and Oh! Sweet Nuthin’. Most mere mortals would be happy with four great songs on one album, but from the Velvets I expect better!
In later years I managed to see Nico performing in the flesh and, on another occasion, Mo Tucker (although she played guitar, not drums) and then, in 1992, almost miraculously, the original line-up of The Velvet Underground (minus Nico, who had died in 1998 and never was a real member anyway) were miraculously playing in London. Now, Wembley Arena is a pretty poor substitute for Warhol’s Factory and I’m fairly sure that the show was nothing like being at an Exploding Plastic Inevitable event, but I saw The Velvet Underground, the ACTUAL Velvet Underground, with Lou Reed and John Cale and Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker, all together, on one stage. I was there.
Sterling Morrison died in 1995 and now Lou Reed has gone too. But the world changed because of them; the musical world at least and my world too and for that, I shall always be grateful.