Take 5: The Pop Side of the Velvet Underground

The late Lou Reed is one of rock music’s most iconic artists. With and beyond the Velvet Underground, his work is revered for its boundary-pushing nature, often bringing taboo subjects (drugs, sex, etc.) into the commercial space. And his music helped pave the way for avant-garde and noise rock styles to find a place on the popular music landscape. But against that backdrop, Reed’s enduring pop music sensibility has often been overlooked. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the release of Reed’s monumental Rock n Roll Animal LP – acclaimed as one of the great live albums of the rock era – here’s a look at five songs from his time with the Velvet Underground that demonstrate the sometimes underappreciated tuneful side of Lou Reed’s music.

“Sunday Morning” from The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
When Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker launched the Velvet Underground, the group was managed (after a fashion) by pop artist Andy Warhol. As a centerpiece of Warhol’s proto-multimedia “happening” the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the VU performed their original material to (sometimes perplexed) audiences. Warhol also insisted that German chanteuse Nico join the group, and the band members agreed, if reluctantly. Nico would take the lead vocal for three of the songs on the band’s debut album, but on Reed’s gentle “Sunday Morning,” she was relegated to backing vocals, leaving Lou to sing his own lyrics.

“Pale Blue Eyes” from The Velvet Underground (1969)
Reed had dismissed Warhol as the group’s manager, and Nico had departed as well by the time of the uncompromising White Light/White Heat (1968). After that record, violist John Cale departed as well; for the band’s third LP, multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule joined, helping bring a (slightly) more commercial sensibility to the fore. One of few tracks in the VU catalog worthy of being described as a love song, “Pale Blue Eyes” ranks among the most beloved tunes from the group.

“Who Loves the Sun” from Loaded (1970)
When the Velvet Underground’s fourth studio album was first released, Loaded received mixed critical response. It has since gone on to be recognized as one of rock’s greatest LPs. Loaded also marked a turn toward a more accessible sound, featuring tuneful songs intentionally designed to garner radio play. While that bid didn’t really work – the album didn’t chart in the U.S. at all – the chirpy “Who Loves the Sun” eventually took its place as the most pop-oriented song in the VU catalog. With harpsichord and upbeat ‘ba ba ba ba” backing vocals, the tune – released as a single – has shades of sunshine pop, a style more readily associated with The Association, Spanky and our Gang and The Mamas and the Papas. Doug Yule sings lead.

“Stephanie Says” from VU (1985)
What remained of the original lineup of the Velvet Underground ended when Lou Reed left the band for a solo career shortly before Loaded’s release. But a fair amount of unreleased material remained unreleased, and as the VU’s posthumous influence continued to grow, interest in that unheard material grew. Many years after the band’s demise, a collection of previously-unreleased material was discovered. A highlight of VU is “Stephanie Says.” A Lou Reed song dating from sessions in 1968-69, it’s a slice of baroque pop, with gently picked guitar, a lovely classical string section and uncharacteristically sweet backing vocal harmonies from Cale and Sterling Morrison.

“We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together” from Another View (1986)
The vaults that yielded 1985’s VU contained even more material, and when a Velvet Underground boxed set release was scheduled for European markets, an untitled bonus album was included. That disc soon received standalone release as Another View. While many of the album’s tracks were alternate versions of songs fans already knew, the studio take of “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together” received its first official release. Recorded in 1969, the Lou Reed composition leans in a more traditional rock and roll direction than most VU tracks. With handclaps, lyrics about laughing and dancing and “na-na-na” vocalisms, the song is an exemplar of the accessible side of the Velvet Underground.