The Most Important Band of the 80s Broke Up a Decade Before

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tags: film, music, popular culture, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, Velvet Underground, Indie Rock

When I think of the 1980s, I think of The Velvet Underground.

Sure, the band itself had ceased to exist in any meaningful way back in August 1970, when Lou Reed walked out and went home to Long Island following a legendary stand at Max’s Kansas City. And sure, there was little to no evidence of the VU’s sound and aesthetic anywhere to be found on the U.S. pop charts during the Reagan Years. But on the indie and college radio charts, the ones that really mattered to me and my friends, the influence of the Velvets was everywhere.

Brian Eno half-jokingly suggested in a 1982 interview that, despite its relatively poor commercial showing, every person who bought the first Velvet Underground album (1967’s “The Velvet Underground & Nico”) must have gone on to form a band, and the copious VU echoes ringing across the college radio airwaves during the 1980s seemed to bear him out.

Echo & The Bunnymen, Sonic Youth, Love and Rockets, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Feelies, The Violent Femmes, The Dream Syndicate, The Jazz Butcher, The Go-Betweens, Yo La Tengo, Camper Van Beethoven, Galaxie 500, Spacemen 3, The Flaming Lips, The Verlaines, Opal, My Bloody Valentine and a little-known band called R.E.M. — these were just some of the era’s artists who openly expressed a debt to the Velvets in their music, whether via hypnotic drones, explosive displays of improvisatory dissonance, extended two-chord jams harnessed to propulsive rhythms, plainly-sung lyrics that walked the line between poetic (or dryly humorous) and aggressively confrontational, hushed moments of heartbreaking beauty laced with traces of druggy decadence, or just casually affecting an aura of impenetrable mystery.

There was simply nothing cooler than The Velvet Underground, and to be into them — either as a musician or just as a fan — was to be a member of an extremely select club, in part because it was so damned difficult in the first half of the 80s to even hear their music. You could find a couple of tracks included here and there on various Lou Reed collections, and Uncle Lou was always good for a rendition of “Sweet Jane” in concert. But if you wanted to go deeper than that, you pretty much had to be lucky enough to know someone who was a) hip enough to have bought their albums years earlier when they were still in print, and b) willing to play them for you, and maybe even let you tape them. (The first time I ever heard The Velvet Underground & Nico in its entirety was while apartment-sitting for my high school history teacher, who owned a “peeled” original copy.)


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