Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground: an alternative view

Lou Reed has died, and for the next few days the media will be awash with dribbling, fawning tributes. Most of them will probably be written by people who are tone-deaf.

No band in the history of rock music was more over-rated than the Velvet Underground, the "avant-garde" group Reed formed in New York in the 1960s ("avant-garde" being a term that should come with a flashing red warning light attached). Typical of the tributes we can expect is one I heard on Radio New Zealand this morning, in which it was said that everyone who heard the Velvet Underground was inspired to go out and start their own band. The explanation for that is simple: anyone hearing the Velvet Underground quickly realised you didn't need to be able to sing or play to form a group and be lionised by the left-wing, university-educated cognoscenti (who even then were trying to claim rock music as some sort of socio-political statement).

In that respect Reed's band foreshadowed punk by 10 years. Punk and the Velvets were both essentially anti-music in the sense that they made records for people who didn't like, or at least weren't interested in, music. The difference was that whereas punk at least had a redeeming working-class energy, everything the Velvet Underground did was an artful pose. They were rapidly adopted as the house band of the artsy-fartsy liberal intellectual elite, a status they have never entirely relinquished.

Fans of the Velvet Underground, who mostly exist in universities and the media, have assiduously promoted the myth that they were hugely influential. They were nothing of the sort, other than in the minds of their small coterie of admirers.

They are invariably referred to as a "cult" band, which is a snob code word meaning their appeal was too cerebral for ordinary joes to understand. The fact that the Velvets never cracked the Billboard Top 100 only confirms their credibility in the eyes of their fawning fans, to whom commercial success was the kiss of death and a sure sign of ideological error. But it's probably an accurate measure of the band's real worth.


Lindsay Mitchell said...

All I know about Reed is he was said to have influenced Bowie whose loss will be worth going gaga over...

Unknown said...

du Fresne is clearly some sort of idiot catholic fundamentalist idiot and failed naval officer, one with the wrong sort of moral standards, ie he had the wrong sort.
While I never saw Lou live, his 1975-76 tours were certainly regarded as a highlight for the brighter members of the Knox College I boarded at in Dunedin in 1975-6. Lou's nightly self destruction on stage, his obscene repartee on stage at the time of "Metal Machine Gun Music' was the most exciting thing they'd seen since the Stones concert at Western Springs when, their hero , Keith Richards, opened his eyes an hour into the concert and turned on his Stratocaster.

I.M Fletcher said...

I was never a HUGE Reed/VU fan (I think I only had the Greatest Hits), but I like a couple of their songs..

Sweet Jane, for instance, has that trippy, amusing lead vocal which makes you smile - it's more the sound of the words and the way he sings it than the words themselves.

I did read an interesting article today that Reed inspired anti-communist revolutionaries in Czechoslovakia.

How Lou Reed Inspired Anti-Communist Revolutionaries and the Rest of Us - Hit & Run :

I guess to each his own.

Brendan McNeill said...


but what do you really think....



Blair said...

If you want to argue about cultural context, be my guest. But you can't argue with the work. I listen to the Velvet Underground, and Lou Reed, because it's good music, and nobody had ever made that sort of music before. You can't argue that I'll Be Your Mirror, or Pale Blue Eyes, or Satellite of Love, aren't great songs. Only the tone deaf could see Berlin as anything other than a work of genius. There is a massive body of work there that approaches genius, especially that first VU album.

Sure, at his worst, Reed was self-indulgent, tuneless and obnoxious for the sake of it. But his influence, and that of the Velvet Underground - is self-evident, for good or for ill. Without the VU we would not have Roxy Music, David Bowie, Joy Division/New Order, U2, the Clean (and most other Flying Nun bands), and probably most of the '80s bands you could name. You may hate all those bands, but all of them took their inspiration from the Velvets.

Karl du Fresne said...

Invoking the names of U2, Joy Division and the Flying Nun bands is never going to convince me that the Velvet Underground left an important legacy. If anything, quite the reverse.

Tinman said...

Well said Mr du Fesne.

Tinman said...

My apologies for the spelling mistake Mr du Fresne

Vaughan said...

He might have had influence from the mid-1970s but hardly anybody had heard of him or his band before then.

I can only remember one person who owned one of his albums.

I thought his best song was, gulp, Heroin.

I think he was "lucky" to have died on a slow news day, and journalists wanted a celeb story and inflated his real influence for effect.

I.M Fletcher said...

Interestingly, the Patheos website has a post about Reed as well. Apparently he performed before Pope John Paul II in the year 2000.

I didn't know that.

Lou Reed, Requiescat In Pace

Of course that may or may not mean much, if anything. I don't want to be one of those people who claim famous people as their own or for their cause. I don't really know Reed that well.

Felicity said...

Karl de Fresne: you saw the emperor wore no clothes

Unknown said...

I'm really happy that you're kicking against the pricks (and the status quo) with your wee column, but you kind of miss the point. It's not the lack of commercial success that lessens Reed in any way (after all, the record charts are much like the winners of elections in so-called democracies: idiots voted in by idiots) but the fact that he turned drug abuse into something really cool in the eyes of generations of fawning followers and successive waves of bands, all of whom loved the fact that they didn't really need to play all that well to get hip cred and chicks.

Unknown said...

What a stupid and pointless article. You don't like the music this guy made, who cares. Lots of people clearly did like the music, and by the musicians who have commented they were (even if you can't quite believe it) influenced by Mr Reed. You argue that some of Mr Reeds fans don't count really because they are more intelligent than the general public. Weird argument. But in the end I wonder why you would bother writing this. I don't like plenty of music, but I wouldn't sit and write a blog about it. That's a bit like writing an blog on your dislike of the colour green and all the people you believe are fools for like it or being influenced by it. I can only see your odd reaction as well anger and bitterness about not sharing the aesthetics of every one else. When you grow up, you usually discover this - good luck with that - your photo seems to indicate you have a few years left in you yet.

dairyflat said...

You wrote "Fans of the Velvet Underground, who mostly exist in universities and the media,@ - Where is your EVIDENCE/PROOF for this assertion?

batchainer said...

Can't sing blah blah can't play etc etc. Same old stuff that everyone in rock - Elvis, Dylan, Beatles, Clash, Nirvana - got from fuddy duddies. Let's all just listen to Val Doonican.

I love the "working-class energy" of punk bit too (who writes this stuff?). Punk working class? You've got to be joking. Keep up the good work.

Richard said...

I know bloggers have to adopt a position or have an opinion but this is just silly. I doubt you actually really mean this. Obviously its your opinion, duality should be accepted and i am not attacking you for having a position.

From what i can tell Lou Reed was a fairly caustic person and i would fault him on that at that level.

However tons of people claim him and VU as an influence, i don't think you could convince them otherwise so in that sense your argument is sort of silly, other than you saying 'i didn't like him'

VU were fostered in an urban Manhattan bubble surrounded by image makers and fakers. I doubt very much that cultural hub-bub can really be compared to the Wairarapa

you say "The difference was that whereas punk at least had a redeeming working-class energy, everything the Velvet Underground did was an artful pose."

why is having an artful mindset and outlook any less redeeming than what you call working class energy? What was the redeeming working class bit of punk vs the artful pose bit exactly?

Seems to me that its the forging of a kind of rage via electronics and loud drums with creative intent that the tension and delight in great music is found

Just my opinion

Puddleg said...

"anyone hearing the Velvet Underground quickly realised you didn't need to be able to sing or play to form a group and be lionised by the left-wing, university-educated cognoscenti (who even then were trying to claim rock music as some sort of socio-political statement)."

This is true and if you had half a brain would tell you exactly why the VU are important. Their music was like training wheels for a generation of musos who become musical by avoiding sterilized blues cliches and instead combined experiments and literature with pop basics (Lou's DooWop heritage) to make something new. NEW. You don't get that often.
Plus, listen to Live 1969 and you'll hear the Velvets as a good-time dance band of slinky musicality.

Puddleg said...

Oh sorry I misread that "you didn't have to be lionised by the left-wing, university-educated cognoscenti (who even then were trying to claim rock music as some sort of socio-political statement)."
The counter-culture and leftist hippes hated the VU for the longest time.
University students in my day loved the Stones, the Dead. JJ cale not John Cale. In New Zealand the VU's, and Lou's, appeal began among the working class detritus.

Robyn said...

"No band in the history of rock music was more over-rated than the Velvet Underground." - Karl du Fresne

"I really enjoy Karl du Fresne's blog. He's quite a good writer." - Lou Reed

Richarquis de Sade said...

"the left-wing, university-educated cognoscenti..."
"the artsy-fartsy liberal intellectual elite..."

Yeah, you show those people with educations! Seriously, the whole venom against people who bothered to go to uni is a tired and bedraggled old corpse of a response. Get over it. People liked it because they liked it. I'm uni educated, but I think the VU are dull. Quit the hackneyed stereotyping. It's boring.

Unknown said...

Wow. I am glad I don't have your ears. Velvet Underground started a branch of white music that has lead directly or indirectly to glam rock, punk rock and virtually the entire 'indie nation' of bands. Bands as diverse as the Pixies, the Strokes, and Radiohead have admitted this week they would not be around if not for VU. Closer to home they are the foundation of almost every Flying Nun band. The fact the great David Bowie called him "the master" proves you are either wrong or simply clueless about music.

Karl du Fresne said...

Thank you. You pretty much confirm everything I wrote.

Unknown said...

I used to have arguments with older curmudgeonly guys like you in the old punk days - and I thought your ilk had all but gone, so it is good to know you are still kicking around. To me it is an opinion of a certain era and age of person too.. and I don't know if anyone under 30 would have these ideas. i.e.: punk was anti music etc. even Joy Division seem mainstream popular now.
Also, their was a prevailing anti Flying Nun view then too, bands cant play etc. and now that stuff is embraced by so many more people. Anyway, it is a baffling intriguing view to me, so I will keep tuned. - keep up the good work!

Unknown said...

Dear Sir
I was directed to this page via Russell Brown's Public Address weblog. You are a total idiot.


Karl du Fresne said...

The bad news is that you haven't even begun to plumb the depths of my idiocy. See my latest post.