Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


In November 2012, we started a series called ‘Take Five’, which would recommend five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. This series will be carried once in two months. The first six parts talked of British alternative rock, classical crossover, world music, electronic music, early female blues legends and the Motown superstars, respectively. This month, we look at the Velvet Underground influence.

On October 27, rock music lost a true icon with the passing of Lou Reed. Both as guitarist, vocalist and main songwriter for the Velvet Underground (VU), and in his solo career, he created a highly original sound, blending the energy of rock with the experimentation of the avant-garde, and talking of social realism and sexual kinkiness. Songs like ‘Heroin’, ‘Rock and Roll’, ‘Sweet Jane’, ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, ‘Street Hassle’, ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, ‘Perfect Day’, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ and ‘Satellite of Love’ attained a cult following.

Featuring Reed, multi-instrumentalist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison, drummer Maureen Tucker and later singer Nico, the American outfit had lesser commercial success, when compared with some of the other 1960s acts. But both the band and Reed as a songwriter had an enormous influence on scores of other musicians. The punk, post-punk, new wave, electronic, alternative rock, grunge and garage rock movements of later years all find their roots in the VU sound.

Brian Eno, a pioneer in electronic and ambient music, famously said only 30,000 people may have bought VU’s debut album, but each of them was inspired enough to start a band. Even Rolling Stones star Mick Jagger claims to have been influenced by the band, as he said in a 1977 interview: “I mean, even WE’VE been influenced by the Velvet Underground… I’ll tell you exactly what we pinched from (Lou Reed) too. You know ‘Stray Cat Blues’? The whole sound and the way it’s paced, we pinched from the very first Velvet Underground album. You know, the sound on ‘Heroin’. Honest to God, we did!”

Clearly, one wouldn’t be exaggerating by saying Reed and VU were among the biggest-ever influences in the history of rock. See the names of bands which have followed them, and the list is mighty impressive. Let’s take five such acts, who have all been path-breaking in their own way, and then name some of the others:

The Jesus and Mary Chain: A British alternative rock band formed by brothers Jim and William Reid in 1983, JMC were known to be hugely influenced by VU, and also by the Beach Boys and punk group Sex Pistols. Naturally, their sound was a neat blend of all the three diverse styles.

Commercially, JMC were never too big, but their artistic impact was amazing, as their albums ‘Psychocandy’, ‘Darklands’ and Automatic’ inspired a large chunk of alternative bands.

Joy Division: Also from Britain, Joy Division spearheaded the post-punk movement of the late 1970s. Inspired by VU, David Bowie, Kraftwerk and Roxy Music, the band created a melancholy alternative rock sound, and unlike the anger and rebelliousness of the punks, used mood and expression
Frontman Ian Curtis was a star in his own right, but sadly, committed suicide after suffering from depression and epileptic seizures. The group released only two albums ‘Unknown Pleasures’ and ‘Closer’, but their sound was strong enough to set a trend. The band New Order, for instance, derived their early sound from Joy Division before adding more dance elements later on.

Patti Smith: Often called the ‘godmother of punk’ or ‘punk-rock’s poet laureate’, Smith was inspired by VU, Bob Dylan, the Doors, the Rolling Stones and James Brown, besides writers Jack Kerouac and William S Burroughs, and poets Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Rimbaud. Some have even hailed her music as the best fusion of rock and poetry since Bob Dylan’s heyday.

Best known for her albums ‘Horses’, ‘Radio Ethiopia’ and ‘Wave’, Smith was an icon to subsequent generations of female rockers. Her best-known song is ‘Because The Night’, co-written with Bruce Springsteen.

REM: The most successful of the bands directly influenced by VU, REM marked the point when post-punk turned into alternative rock. While vocalist Michael Stipe is recognised for his own distinct quality, the American band’s typical sound was attributed to guitarist Peter Buck’s unique style, which was derived from the sound of VU and folk-rock group the Byrds.

Best known for the albums ‘Out of Time’, ‘Automatic for the People’ and ‘Monster’, REM attained legendary status in the early 1990s, and were a huge influence on the alternative rock movement. Sadly, they decided to disband in 2011, but left behind a rich legacy.

The Strokes: Blending influences as diverse as VU, Buddy Holly and John Lennon, New York band the Strokes hit the headlines with their 2001 album ‘Is This It’, ranked No 8 by Rolling Stone magazine in its list of ‘top 100 debut albums of all time’. Even today, they are equally popular in the US and the UK, besides having a fan base in South America and Australia too.

The Strokes are said to herald the garage rock revival, and all members have been inspired by Lou Reed. Their latest album ‘Comedown Machine’ was released earlier this year.

Others: As mentioned, VU was an influence on bands from different sub-genres of rock and alternative music. Indirectly, they created an impact on the styles of such renowned acts as David Bowie, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Mott the Hoople, Sex Pistols and electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk.

Others influenced by them include Talking Heads, Television, Sonic Youth, Dream Syndicate, Duran Duran, New Order and Simple Minds from the 1980s, and The Verve and Dandy Warhols from the 1990s. Even greats like U2 and Nirvana have openly acknowledged their influence, however small it was. This is besides scores of lesser-known artistes who have worshipped Reed.

Clearly, Reed’s demise marks the end of an era. In the list of most influential rock artistes ever, he’d definitely be in the top 10.


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