The Velvet Underground: Early Punks

The year 1977 is considered to be the start of punk music as we know it, or popularly known as “Year Zero” to those who are old enough to remember.  As Joe Strummer declared in the Clash song, “1977”; written in 1977 for their eponymous album, “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977.”

Punk was a word commonly applied to children who misbehaved.  This common term would be coined to describe Iggy Pop and the Stooges, as “Stooge punk” by Creem magazine.  In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Creem played an important role in the creation of the punk label.  As writer Clinton Heylin said, punk “began on the page not in the clubs.”

Early punk dates back to the 60’s with garage rock and the British Invasion.  While garage rock did not have the same commercial appeal as the pop music of the Beatles or the Supremes, it did have its niche.  Songs like “Louie Louie” covered by the Kingsmen and “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks were considered early “punk” songs, both released during the 60’s.  While the popular notion of punk the second wave of punk of 1977 is the definition of punk, early inklings of the genre can be traced back about a decade earlier.

Before the godparents of punk, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, there was Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground.  Amidst the British Invasion and the break out of The Doors, 1967 was the year the controversial The Velvet Underground & Nico.  Today, many critics and historians acknowledge the importance of The Velvet Underground and their debut album, however, in 1967, the album alienated many.  The four-piece consisting of Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen “Mo” Tucker, and Sterling Morrison, was originally managed by artist Andy Warhol, as they were his house band for his studio.  Along with collaborator, German-singer, Nico, the band recorded their self-titled debut in 1966.

Although well received by the art community, it was dismissed by the general public, as it sold only 30,000 copies.   Brian Eno once said about the influence of the album  Brian Eno once said, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”  The lyrical themes of the album played a large part in the dismal record sales.  Lou Reed cites poets and writers such as William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg as influences for the album’s subject matters.  On the record, Reed unconventionally delves into topics such as drug abuse, prostitution and a bevy of sexual themes.  Songs like “I’m Waiting For The Man,” and “Heroin” delves into drug usage, as the first chronicles a character trying to find a drug dealer on the streets of New York City and the later deals with the titled drug and its effects.  Reed was later quoted saying  “That’s the kind of stuff you might read. Why wouldn’t you listen to it? You have the fun of reading that, and you get the fun of rock on top of it.”  The fact that they band choose to place a song titled “Heroin” on the track listing was “punk” in its own way.  The album helped break taboos, and such topics are comfortably talked and sung about today.

The instrumentation was another reason why, at the time, the album was considered a failure. Although experimental and psychedelic music was made popular by groups such as the Beatles and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Velvet Underground had introduced instrumentation that was fairly radical at the time.  Stringed instruments such as the violin, mandolin, and the viola were heavily featured and played by multi-instrumentalist John Cale.  Cale played them in such a manner, he was able to create sounds such as the drone, which can be heard in songs such as “Heroin” and “The Black Angel’s Death Song.”  Reed has also been credited for what he calls ostrich tuning, where he would tune all of the strings to the same note (in D).  This gives the guitar a distinct eerie sitar sound, as heard in the song “All Tomorrow Parties.”

Although The Velvet Underground is not classified as a “punk” band, they played an important role in its creation. Pioneers of the genre and scene such as Television and The Talking Heads are all in debt to The Velvet Underground.  Even the sounds of artists of today can be traced back to the group. With the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico, it encouraged artists to go beyond the conventional means of creating music, throwing away the techniques and the standards of making music.