Even amid the musical and cultural upheavals of the 1960s, the Velvet Underground registered as a revolutionary force, combining a raw, minimalistic musical vision with songs whose lyrical content had no precedent in popular music. At the time, chief songwriter Lou Reed's portrayals of drugs, sex and violence seemed so transgressive that it was easy to miss the humanity and compassion at their heart. Although they Velvets' immense influence is now universally acknowledged, the band barely registered on the mainstream radar during its actual existence.
Reed and John Cale formed the band in New York City in 1965; the Velvets’ debut record came out in 1967. The Velvet Underground and Nico — augmented with the vocals of the icy chanteuse Nico, at the behest of the band's early benefactor Andy Warhol — was for many listeners a revelation, with such uncompromising tunes as "Heroin," "I'm Waiting for the Man" and "Venus in Furs." Reed's vivid lyrics were complemented by music that was both primal and sophisticated, featuring Reed and Sterling Morrison's alternately wrenching and nuanced guitar interplay, John Cale's droning, squalling viola runs and drummer Maureen Tucker's eloquently unadorned beat.
The sophomore effort White Light/White Heat carried the band's most abrasive and experimental elements to new extremes, with distorted instrumental sounds and turbulent ensemble performances that emphasized the anger and alienation in Reed's lyrics. The band's third LP, recorded after Cale's departure and simply titled The Velvet Underground, took an unexpected detour into reflectiveness and melodicism.
The Velvets scored a minor hit with 1970's catchy, polished Loaded, which featured the upbeat anthems "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll.” But Reed was gone by the time the album was released, and the band dissolved soon after, although Cale's replacement Doug Yule kept an in-name-only Velvet Underground going for a few more years.
By the time Reed, Cale, Morrison and Tucker reunited for a series of 1993 shows in Europe (which yielded the live album Live MCMXCII), Reed and Cale had established prolific solo careers, and the Velvet Underground had won the acknowledgement and influence they’d been denied during the band's original lifespan. One measure of the band's elevated status was its 1995 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which occurred just a few months after Morrison's death.