Top 10 Velvet Underground Songs
The Velvet Underground were one of the ’60s most influential bands — right up there with the Beatles and the Stones — even though practically nobody paid attention to them back when they were making records. The classic lineup (with a couple of changes along the way) fronted by Lou Reed made only four albums, but the handful of songs helped shape punk, art-rock and indie rock in the years to come. All four albums are essential listens, and our list of the Top 10 Velvet Underground Songs serves as a first-step primer.
Viola player John Cale recites a short story by Reed over a droning instrumental backing in this eight-minute track from the Velvets’ second album. And if you think you don’t have time for, or interest in, an eight-minute story about a guy who misses his girlfriend and the unexpected package that arrives for her one day, think again. ‘The Gift’ is a weird delight. We won’t spoil the ending, but needless to say, it’s inevitable, funny and, um, sharp.
‘Pale Blue Eyes’
Lou Reed more than earned his reputation as a caustic SOB (see just about every other cut on our list of the Top 10 Velvet Underground Songs), but on this lovely ballad from the band’s self-titled third album, he plays it genuinely soft. ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ is a love song — a mournful one, yes — but still, a love song.
Drummer Maureen Tucker sings this charming album closer that sounds like an old-school turn-of-the-century throwback. Reed provides minimal acoustic guitar accompaniment. It’s definitely an oddity among all the whips, chains, drugs and dealers that populate Velvet Underground songs. But it’s a perfect comedown from all the darkness.
‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’
More than 45 years after the band’s debut album was released, there are still very few records that sound like it. Lots of artists strive for the dark, brooding tone that permeates ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico,’ but no one has come close. Reed wrote the haunting ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ about the fractured art scene surrounding mentor Andy Warhol. German singer and model Nico sings his words like English is her fifth or maybe sixth language. A beautiful kind of doom.
‘Venus in Furs’
‘Venus in Furs’ sounds like sex and pain and a dungeon filled with leather-clad, whip-wielding masters (and their sweaty servants) before Reed utters even a single word in this S&M dirge based on an underground book. Reed tunes all of his guitar strings to the same note; Cale appears to be strangling his viola. It’s a glorious mess of sex and dread, thus a perfect fit to close out the first half of the Top 10 Velvet Underground Songs.
‘Rock & Roll’
By the time the Velvet Underground recorded their fourth album, Cale was gone (he left before the third record was made) and Tucker was on maternity leave. Reed steered what was left of the band away from the darker material found on their first three albums and toward more folk-oriented music. He left before ‘Loaded’ was released in 1970. It’s a great album, and this timeless anthem regularly turned up in his solo shows throughout the ’70s.
‘White Light / White Heat’
The opening song on, and the title track to, the band’s second album doesn’t waste time. It kicks like a punk prototype, landing straight into the opening verse without much warning. The quick hit — ‘White Light / White Heat’ checks in at less than three minutes — reflects the song’s druggy theme. It’s a noisy, woozy haze.
Just how revolutionary were the Velvet Underground? While everyone else’s drug songs in 1967 were about playful LCD trips disguised as children’s stories or opening up one’s mind through enlightening experiences, the Velvets’ seven-minute dirge paints a darker and more apocalyptic portrait of a drug that even most hippies were scared of. Reed embraces it.
‘I’m Waiting for the Man’
As if turning heroin abuse into a temporary vacation from the hassles of daily life wasn’t enough (see No. 3 on our list of the Top 10 Velvet Underground Songs), this track, also from the debut album, makes hanging out and waiting to score seem like a casual midday adventure. Drugs were all over the scene in 1967, but they rarely looked like this.
Reed had pretty much had it with the Velvet Underground when they were making their fourth album. He was in total control of some songs, almost to the point where ‘Loaded’ was a solo album; he was barely a presence on others. ‘Sweet Jane’ is the Velvets’ late-period masterpiece, a riff-driven rocker that sounds way more conventional than anything found on ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ but just as awesome.