The Legends: The Velvet Underground

The Legends: The Velvet Underground

John Cale pays tribute to their debut album on its 50th anniversary.

John Cale pays tribute to their debut album on its 50th anniversary.

Text: Nicola Fumo

This article originally appeared in V109, on newsstands now. Order a copy here.

How does a forward-thinking band look back? The Velvet Underground—icons of early experimental rock—sees its debut album turn 50 this year, and founding member John Cale will commemorate it with a pair of concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November. Accompanied by members of the Wordless Music Orchestra and special guests, Cale will play The Velvet Underground & Nico in full, in the city where it all began.

“It’s really about how I can pay back New York,” Cale says by phone from his Southern California studio, where he has taken a pause from recording new material. “It’s really what New York has given me, [from] when I came [from Wales] in ‘63 to what it is now.”

Cale is the only surviving founder of the band, outliving Lou Reed (d. 2013), Sterling Morrison (d. 1995), and Angus MacLise (d. 1979), as well as Nico (d. 1988), the German fashion model injected into the group by band manager Andy Warhol. “It doesn’t really become mine anymore,” Cale, now 75, says of performing the album. “It becomes mine only in the sense that I’ve chosen who should be involved in it.”

“The Banana Album”—nicknamed as such for its Warhol-designed cover art depicting the fruit in two-tone yellow and black against a stark white background—is now widely regarded as one of the most influential albums in pop history. It ranks 13 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and NPR included it in their collection of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century, just to name a few of the many accolades it’s collected in the five decades since its recording.

This is a huge departure from the initial reception of the album, which was a certified commercial flop. Due to its controversial-for-the-time lyrics about sex and drugs, record stores banned it, prominent radio stations refused to spin it, and magazines declined to carry advertisements for it. A lawsuit over the back cover art, featuring an unauthorized image of actor Eric Emerson, caused a temporary halt in distribution. “The subject matter we were dealing with—everyone misunderstood it because they wanted to,” Cale notes.

A slow-burn acceptance was somewhat anticipated, perhaps even intended, by the band. “We created a certain difficulty in understanding [the material], but we never wanted to bury it,” Cale explains. “We just wanted to make sure that the people who were working hard enough to understand what was there were the right people.”

Even the “right” people took some time to warm up to the band’s unique sound. In Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s oral history Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Iggy Pop recalls his first listen. As he remembers, “I just hated the sound. You know, ‘How could anybody make a record that sounds like such a piece of shit? This is disgusting!’ Then about six months later it hit me. ‘Oh my god. WOW! This is just a fucking great record!’…The sound was so cheap and yet so good.”

“One thing we were smart about is that we left enough room for people to really develop it,” Cale muses. “Getting to the point was really important to us, and you can state that any number of times and people will still misunderstand you. Room for interpretation is sometimes the bane of your existence.”

If nothing else, the story of recording The Velvet Underground & Nico is one of artistic integrity and sticking to your guns, even if Warhol pushes a European model on your proto-punk band. “When you create something, you want to be proud of it,” Cale says. “And when you’re proud of it, you have all kinds of instances where it comes back and suddenly pays off for you. And you don’t know when that is.”

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