Tim Cooper has written for most national newspapers and many magazines on every subject from politics to pop culture. His first published work was in his own punk fanzine, Cliché. He lives in East London indulging his passions of writing, reading, cinema, music, football, cricket, and vegetable gardening.
I had never heard of The Velvet Underground while they were still going. Of course I hadn’t – I was 12 when Lou Reed left the band, and only eight years old when they recorded their landmark debut album.
But for the best part of 50 years they have been my favourite band. I’ve probably played that album more than any other record in my collection.
I was introduced to them when I was 16 or 17 by my friend Paul, whose mum had a pair of Cavalier King Charles spaniels called Romulus and Remus and made us endless cups of tea but never came into his bedroom, where we would listen to his records and burn joss sticks to disguise the smell of cheap Moroccan hash.
Paul firmly believed their third album was the best. He was wrong. With its “banana” sleeve designed by Andy Warhol (and yes, he had the peel-off one), The Velvet Underground & Nico defined their unique sound and vision.
I find it impossible to imagine what it must have been like to hear it upon its release in March 1967, when the pop charts were dominated by Engelbert Humperdinck and Harry Secombe, Vince Hill and Val Doonican, The Hollies and Herman’s Hermits, Tom Jones and Petula Clark and, as ever, The Beatles.
The Velvets sounded nothing like any of those, with its experimental music that didn’t conform to any received notions of “pop” and Lou Reed’s deadpan New York drawl.
His transgressive lyrics, drawn equally from his life and writers like Burroughs and Ginsberg, transported me to a world of hookers and dealers and drag queens on the mean streets of downtown Manhattan (and the even meaner ones of Harlem).
Especially in this song, Venus In Furs, with its whipcracks and wordplay, warped rhythm and the disorienting distortion of John Cale’s viola.
The song’s appeal was neatly summed up in an essay by Erich Kuersten: “There is no intro or buildup to the song; the track starts as if you opened a door to a decadent Marrakesh S&M opium den.”
I grew up hearing about how pop fans in the Sixties were either Beatles fans or Stones fans, as if somehow you couldn’t be both – and of course that ‘rivalry’ was whipped up again over Oasis and Blur in the mid-Nineties.
But it always seemed to me that you were more like a Beatles and Stones fan or a Velvets and Doors fan. And I was always the latter.
I have still never met anyone who saw the Velvets (or Doors) in their original incarnation but of all the bands I wish I’d seen in their heyday, they would be top of my list.
The nearest I came to replicating that experience was the Velvet Underground room at the Tate Modern’s Warhol show just before lockdown, where film footage of the band rehearsing and playing was displayed on all four walls and you could imagine yourself in The Factory, rubbing shoulders with Warhol and his ‘superstars’ as the Velvets rehearsed.
The band never came to Europe to perform until they reunited in 1993. I went to the opening date of that tour, in Edinburgh, and it was a wonderful recreation of what they once were – at least until the second night, when they seemed to have lost interest in the whole idea.
But it wasn’t the same without Nico, and it was 25 years too late.