Back in the sixties New York was a much harsher place than over on the nice sunny West Coast. That urban brutality was reflected in the way people lived. New York was a violent place. There were lots of muggings and rapes. People got killed.
We visited in 1971 and picked up the vibe. At night when you walked around the streets were suddenly empty and your footsteps echoed off the sky-scrapers all around, steam ballooned out of the grills in the streets and taxi’s scooted through. A friend we met told us how she had been raped three times while living in New York. On one occasion a guy smashed her door down with an axe. None of the surrounding apartments rang the police.
It was also a vibrant place to be. The clubs were heaving and people were friendly. We walked round Greenwich Village and thought about what had come out of the place. There was a lot of street hustling, prostitution and hard drugs. There were also the transvestites and gay scene. Anything went.
This was the environment that the Velvet Underground slithered their way into. Lou Reed came in from the Garage Punk Band side of things. He brought his musical skills and guitar and knowledge of the streets. Nico came in from fashion. She was a model in Andy Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls. She’d never sung. Her voice with its German brogue was very different. John Cale was a Welsh classically trained experimental musician who teamed up with Lou. Mo Tucker was the female drummer. It was extremely unusual to have female drummers back then.
On the face of it they were a motley crew but together they produced music like no other that had ever been imagined. They changed the world of music and gave rise to a thousand bands. They used light shows but they weren’t psychedelic. They used weird instruments, sounds, drones and electronic stuff but it gelled. They were adopted by Andy Warhol who used them as the house-band in his multimedia shows – the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. They provide the music while films played and light shows flashed.
There first album was one of those 1967 wonders though completely different to the rest of the Hippie stuff. This was hard-nosed New York under-life with all the seedy elements left in. There were the themes of heroin, scoring heroin, sado-masochism, and the Vietnam War.
They parted from Andy Warhol and Nico left town, seemingly after an altercation with the mafia, and the second album followed much the same set of themes. The experimental aspects were to the fore on the extended Sister Ray and the themes of sexual deviation, hard drugs and amphetamine were all there.
After personnel changes and a couple more albums they split up. They were never a huge commercial success but they had created something really different that was to feed straight into the New York Punk scene. They became heroes of the Punk Movement.
In hindsight they proved to be one of the most influential bands that came out of the sixties.