Forty-five years ago, The Velvet Underground’s debut album revitalised American guitar music and laid the foundations for punk. At the time, no one bought it. Proof, if any were needed, that musical success shouldn’t be measured in record sales alone.
A stripped-back art-rock masterpiece that helped give rise to punk, the debut from New York legends The Velvet Underground had a profound impact on popular music. The iconic “banana” album, which will get an anniversary reissue later this year, is arguably one of the most influential LPs of all time. But when it was released in 1967, it went almost unnoticed. Famously, for such a significant release, it sold very little. The joke has always been that everyone who bought it went out and formed bands; proof that success and influence in music shouldn’t be measured by record sales alone.
Railing against the expansive psychedelia dominating popular music in the second half of the sixties, The Velvet Underground & Nico was a taut, lo-fi blast of distorted garage-rock. From the incandescent fuzz of “Waiting For My Man” (a direct influence on The Stooges) to the woozy psych of “Heroin” (a surprisingly dark tale of drug abuse when everyone was singing about peace and love and LSD), The Velvet Underground & Nico is an extraordinary record.
Here’s what today’s bands can learn from the album that almost singlehandedly transformed the pop landscape.
Whatever your peers are doing, do something different
Remember all the skinny-jeaned copyists that arrived in the wake of The Strokes in the early noughties? Me neither. But if I dug through my hard drive I’d find plenty of MP3s by forgotten bands whose albums were bought by swathes of indie fans eager for more of the same New York-influenced post-punk. If you’re striving for longevity, though, it pays to do the opposite of what’s dominating the music press. While the rest of the world was still in the midst of a psychedelic love-in, The Velvet Underground were reinventing rock ‘n’ roll for New York’s druggy underbelly. And we still love them for it.
It’s About Art, Man
The greatest popular music makes an artistic statement. Sure, not all of it needs to; but the songs that don’t usually find themselves consigned to oldies radio and the awful decades compilations that get released every Christmas. For bands to last, they need to deliver great art; not just great music. It’s no surprise that Herman’s Hermits, for all their pop brilliance, are consigned to the vintage trash bin while The Beatles, The Stones and The Who are regarded as visionaries. Do you think we’d still care about The Velvets if they’d sacrificed their artistic integrity for a chart hit? I doubt it. They even delayed their debut’s release by a year while Andy Warhol worked on the sleeve; now widely regarded as one of the greatest album covers of all time.
What Do The Public Know About Good Music, Anyway?
Wasn’t it Sid Vicious who famously said “I’ve met the man in the street and he’s a cunt?” To some extent, he was right. The public, en masse, aren’t any good at buying records. Just look at some of the hits from the past. “Mull Of Kintyre”, “Mr Blobby”, “Bob The Builder”; the British public have made spectacular successes out of some of the worst records imaginable. Do you really trust them to judge yours? Tune in to the BBC’s replays of TOTP 1977 and you’ll see what I mean. While punk was busy re-igniting British guitar music, the top ten was dominated by the likes of Kenny Rogers and Brotherhood Of Man. Who would you rather be compared to anyway, Lou Reed or Kermit the Frog’s nephew?
What do you think? Should musical success be measured in influence or album sales? Or both?