Though The Velvet Underground existed for no more than three years with its original lineup, it is considered to be not just the “ultimate New York band” but one of the most influential rock groups ever. Among its devotees are David Bowie, The Sex Pistols, Patti Smith, Joy Division, and Nirvana, along with hot new groups such as the White Stripes and the Strokes.
Witts places the band and its genesis in the cultural context of Manhattan’s beatnik bohemianism, its radical artistic environment, and the city’s reaction to California’s “Hippie” counterculture. Lou Reed’s Brill Building background is also considered, while his Primitives (1964–65) and Velvet Underground (1965–70) songs are examined within the stylistic context of rock music. The band’s sound world is likewise considered in this light. John Cale’s experimental contribution is assessed, especially his work for LaMonte Young (The Theatre of Eternal Music), and what he carried from that experience into the Velvet’s sound.
Andy Warhol, known to the group as Drella, became the band’s manager and producer in 1965. He installed his “superstar” Nico in the line-up (which already included a female drummer). Witts examines the radical nature of the Velvet’s Warhol-period performances, vis-à-vis issues of gender, sexuality, and the drug culture which was associated with the Warhol Factory scene, and contemplated in many of Reed’s songs.
Witts studies the musical influences of The Velvet Underground on punk, post-punk, and subsequent rock movements, culminating in the group’s 1993 reunion. He also indexes the variety of media constructions that the group endured through the years and how these affected the attempts of Cale, Nico, and Reed to establish solo careers.