The Greatest American Band Debate: The Velvet Underground

SeedSing is filled with music lovers. We can not agree on who is the best band from the States. The Greatest American Band Debate will be a regular feature where we discuss and compare bands who started in the good old USA. If you have any suggestions of bands we should debate Contact us

My submission today for our Greatest American Rock Band debate is the Velvet Underground.

I came to the Velvet Underground late in my life. I was in my early twenties when my oldest brother and my father gave me their self titled album. I was immediately hooked. What stood out most to me was, Lou Reed's "singing" and his beautifully written lyrics. I put singing in quotes because, he didn't so much sing, he talked. It was like written poetry put to great, very experimental for the time, music. I was in love and I gobbled up there short, but prolific music catalog. People will say, they reunited and made more albums, or after Lou Reed left, they still made music as the Velvet Underground, but the band that I'm submitting today is the one that put out three, others will say four, albums in a short 5 years. Those three albums they released were all great and extremely influential to what is now known as alternative rock. Without Velvet Underground, we'd never had other great American bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam or even Nirvana. Go back and listen to Velvet Underground, then listen to Nirvana and try to tell me with a straight face that Kurt Cobain wasn't heavily influenced by Lou Reed and Velvet Underground.

Before people jump on me and say, they're not an American band, Nico is from Germany and she made them famous, I say bull shit, Nico was a terrible singer and the album she made with them is great because of Lou Reed. She was only on one album as well. This band was created and made it big in New York City. All the important people involved with Velvet Underground are from America and they're an American band. Let's get to what puts them in the discussion for greatest American band.

First of all, Velvet Underground had two of the greatest rock musicians and writers in the first incarnation of the band in Lou Reed and John Cale. These two are some of the greatest writers in the history of music, and a lot of people would say they're responsible for creating alt rock. They both went on to bigger things after leaving Velvet Underground, but they did their best stuff together. I don't think you can argue that, it's a fact. As I've already stated, Nico was heavily involved with their debut album, but so was eccentric artist Andy Warhol. He was solely responsible for adding Nico to the band, and while some may same it was genius, I personally believe he was intimate with her and that's why she was a member, albeit short lived, with Velvet Underground. There's no denying that she helped make them a household name, but I think she's wildly overrated. She still deserves a mention when talking about Velvet Underground though. Same can be said for Andy Warhol. His cover for their debut album is iconic, but that and his involvement with Nico are the only connections to the band. They also had a great, very underrated singer and drummer in Moe Tucker. Her singing on their third album was revelatory to me. In my opinion, she's a thousand times better than Nico and I wished they found her before befriending Nico and Andy Warhol. Moe Tucker should be talked about right along with Nico, but unfortunately, she isn't and that's a shame. Doug Yule was in the band at the beginning, but what he's best known for is, continuing the band after Lou Reed departed. They were never as good, but the name Velvet Underground sure draws a crowd and Yule knew that. He's no Lou Reed, but he's not a dummy either.

Let us now look at their albums and songs that make them great. Their debut album, "Velvet Underground and Nico" is easily their most widely known album. Every music fan needs to own this record, not for what Nico and Andy Warhol add to it, but for the brilliant song writing from Lou Reed. Songs on this album include classics like, "Waiting For the Man", "Run, Run, Run", "Femme Fatale", "All Tomorrow's Parties" and the wonderfully, brutally sad "Heroin". "Waiting For the Man" is a great rock and roll song about a guy(most will say Lou Reed), waiting at the corner for his drug dealer. It's got a great guitar riff and wonderful lyrics about a junkie waiting to get his fix. "Run, Run, Run" is a fast paced, Velvet Underground version of a punk song. It's talk-singed wonderfully by Lou Reed. "Femme Fatale" and "All Tomorrow's Parties" put Nico on showcase. Her vocals are weak, but the instrumentation is excellent in both songs. Each song has a slow psychedelic burn to them and they build and build to these huge endings that are wonderful masterpieces, Listen to these songs for the instruments, not for Nico's vocals. Velvet Underground's best and most known song is "Heroin". This song is brutal, but wonderful. It's a seven plus minute ode to a junkie succumbing to the joy and then inevitable pain that heroin brings to him. I've never so much as smoked a cigarette or drank a beer in my life, but this song describes how to do heroin to perfection. It's eerie because you know that Lou Reed is speaking from experience. This song is so painfully beautiful. I love everything about it, especially how upsetting it is.

They garnered fame and fans from this album, but they ditched Andy Warhol and Nico, and went on to make the weirdest, most experimental album I've ever heard. I don't know if I like this album, but I know it's great. It's like the "Citizen Kane" of Velvet Underground music. The album I'm speaking of is, "White Light/White Heat". The album only has six songs, but it's running time is well over an hour long, The song, "Sister Ray" is the 17 minute, 27 second closer to the album. It can at times be both frustrating and exciting to listen to. There's a lot of wailing on instruments, some great, some weird. Never in my life to that point had I heard a 17 minute long studio song, and this song tells me why you shouldn't do it, but dammit, it's a very influential song to bands like Mars Volta and King Crimson. "Sister Ray" was their introduction to making these expanding punk rock type songs. "The Gift" is another long song on the album, clocking in at over 8 minutes. I like this song for the instrumentation. This is a jam type song, but it has structure to it and I never get bored listening to it. "Here She Comes Now" is a back to basics, short rock song. "Here She Comes Now" is the "hit" of this album. "White Light/White Heat" may frustrate me at times, but I understand why it's an important and influential album.

For their third, and in my opinion, last studio album(people will say that "Loaded" was their last true studio,I disagree), they went back to basics and, as my father called it, made a soft rock/punk album with, "Velvet Underground". This is, by far, my favorite Velvet Underground album. This was the record my oldest brother and dad gave me first, my entry into the Velvet Underground universe. These are softer, almost easy listening type songs. "Pale Blue Eyes" is a beautifully underscored song about the lady in Lou Reed's life and how pretty her blue eyes are. It's sweet in a way. Really great, slowish guitar and drums on that song. "Beginning to See the Light" is more up tempo and a basic rock and roll song. "I'm Set Free" is a great song about getting off drugs and your eyes clearing and seeing that there's a whole world out there that you can discover without drugs. This album is upbeat, a total departure from what they were doing before. The closing track, "Close the Door", is sung by Moe Tucker and it's a sweet lullaby about a couple going to bed together. I adore this album and will be forever grateful to my dad and brother for introducing it to me.

Like I said earlier, a lot of people will tell me I left "Loaded" off the list, but for me, after "Velvet Underground" they were never the same band again. They released a bunch of live albums and even reunited, but these three albums are the best of Velvet Underground. They're great and monumentally influential to modern day alternative music. Lou Reed is a genius and will forever be one of the greatest writers of all time.

These are the many reasons that Velvet Underground belongs in the conversation for Greatest American Rock band.


Ty is the Pop Culture editor for SeedSing and the co host of the X Millennial Man podcast. He thinks the soup inside a Campbell's soup can does not get enough credit. Follow Ty on twitter @tykulik.