Punk Adjacent: New York, New Sounds, and The Velvet Underground

Punk: (noun) a worthless person; a genre and subculture of music /// Adjacent: (adj) next to or adjoining something else /// Punk Adjacent: (column) Where we discuss the stories, legacies and surroundings of one of the most important artistic movements in the modern world

By: Ammar Mooraj

Andy Warhol’s name is synonymous with 20th-century American visual art and New York culture. For those that don’t know him, he was the guy that plastered Marilyn Monroe’s face everywhere you can think of and turned Campbell’s soup into a cultural icon. What people don’t know about him is that he produced one of the first proto-punk records The Velvet Underground & Nico, an album that’s legacy became far larger than anyone at the time would have believed.

The Velvet Underground was created in 1964 by Lou Reed and John Cale. Reed is also known for his song “Walk on the Wild Side,” and Cale is a much less recognizable but equally important figure. After a while in the New York City music scene, they crossed paths with Andy Warhol who would later become their manager. Warhol was their guardian angel, giving them both the support and freedom they needed to pursue their highly influential but ultimately commercial and critical failures. He brought them into his multimedia show Exploding Plastic Inevitable, paired them up with avant-garde goth-pop German singer Nico, got them a record deal with MGM’s Verve Records, and produced their debut album.

The Velvet Underground & Nico is a unique album, to say the least. It walks a fine line between idyllic and ear-grating. The album opens with the bittersweet simple-sounding “Sunday Morning.” It then guides you through some classic rock-and-roll with “I’m Waiting For The Man,” some doo-wop inspired goth with “Femme Fatale.” By halfway through the album, you’re listening to the harrowing and experimental “Heroine.” Once you reach the end with “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and “European Son,” it’s hard to believe you’re still listening to the same band. Nico and Reed trade lead vocals and bounce off each other in a peculiar way. Nico’s angelic voice makes you feel as if heaven itself shines on you, while Reed’s vocals and lyrics will drag you back to the grimy alleys and dark lonely rooms of your own tortured mind. The bittersweet combination of the two is the core of the Velvet Underground’s sound.

When I say the Velvet Underground birthed punk music, it may be tempting to listen to their sweet tracks and avant-garde pieces and wholly disagree. Nevertheless, what Cale and Reed did–with help from their other bandmates and the guidance of Warhol–represents the essence of punk years before punk would truly come into existence. They created pop for the rejects and avant-garde for the unpretentious. The addicts, anarchists, and freaks who would take the world by storm during the punk movement in the 70s first found their home with the Velvet Underground.

The Velvet Underground were largely a failure. They were too artsy, too edgy, and too depressing to be a commercial success, and they were too pop-oriented and rock-inspired to be accepted by the critics and the art music scene. In a time when the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” and the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” were considered boundary-pushing, tracks like “Heroin” and “European Son” were too explicit, too abstract, and too weird to succeed. By the mid-70s, the psychedelic and progressive rock that the Beatles pioneered had turned into the obtuse self-indulgent ramblings of pretentious virtuosos and the Rolling Stones’ sexy blues rock was dead in the water. But the lineage of the Velvet Underground was just beginning. The first wave of punk was growing, alt-rock was slowly being born, new-wave and hardcore were just around the corner, and the Velvet Underground’s influence–whether people knew it or not–was finally hitting the general public.

Reed would go on to have moderate success as a solo artist in the 70s. A lot of this would inspire a revived interest from the general public surrounding the Velvet Underground years after they had broken up. Cale would become a prolific instrumentalist and producer, most notably when, not long after departing from the Velvet Underground, he produced the Stooges debut album, which is often cited as the true beginnings of punk. Each of the other members went on to have moderately successful solo careers as well, but, in my opinion, none of them ever recaptured the lightning in a bottle that was the Velvet Underground.

If you listen to any rock after the 70s, be it alt, grunge, shoegaze, punk, new wave, or anything else, then you owe it to yourself to witness its origins in the Velvet Underground’s music. Their debut album is more grating than most of their work but is nonetheless a fantastic place to start. Spotify’s This Is The Velvet Underground playlist is an amazing overview of their discography. If nothing else “Heroin,” “Sweet Jane,” and “Stephanie Says” are essentials if you want to get a taste of the band’s incredible breadth of sound and prophetic influence.