Brian Eno’s famous quote about the Velvet Underground is stitched into the band’s legacy: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” Whether or not that was factually true, the point is well taken: the Velvets weren’t a hugely popular band, didn’t have any hit singles and lasted for just a few years, from the mid-’60s to 1970 when the band ceased to exist, for all intents and purposes, after Lou Reed left.
Photos: Lou Reed & His Famous Fans
But per Eno’s quote, some of the fans who bought that first album — the classic 1967 release The Velvet Underground & Nico — did indeed form bands, or at least start recording on their own. Over the years, Reed’s solo music gained more popularity than that of the Velvets – notably, his “Walk On The Wild Side,” his only top 40 hit, but also “Perfect Day,” which has been covered and licensed often.
Whether solo or with his former band, Reed’s music has become something of a rite of passage for music fans of a certain strain. When you’re looking to go beyond the mainstream — sometimes way beyond it — that’s when you usually discover The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/White Heat, Reed’s own Transformer and a handful of other game-changing records. Often fans discover Reed and the Velvets via the endorsement of some of his more famous fans, including David Bowie, U2 and R.E.M.
So here, then, is a playlist of some great interpretations of his songs:
David Bowie – “White Light/White Heat”
Bowie was an early champion of Reed, and produced his classic 1972 album, Transformer, which includes some of his most well-known solo songs, including “Walk On The Wild Side,” “Vicious,” “Satellite Of Love” and “Perfect Day.” This recording of Bowie covering the Velvets’ “White Light/White Heat” is from Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era (he also would cover the Velvets’ “I’m Waiting For The Man” at concerts in the early ’70s as well).
R.E.M. – “Pale Blue Eyes”
It’s nearly impossible to imagine R.E.M. if the Velvet Underground hadn’t come first. The androgyonous Velvets-era Reed, along with Patti Smith and Iggy Pop were seminal influences on singer Michael Stipe, and Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck were said to have bonded over the first Velvets record. R.E.M. covered them three times: “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Femme Fatale” and “There She Goes Again.”
U2 – “Satellite Of Love”
Like R.E.M., U2 were huge Lou fans, name dropping him and the Velvets often during their ’80s heyday. But it wasn’t until 1992 that they recorded a cover of a Reed song. This one was used as a B-side to “One,” and when they played it live, Lou joined them “via satellite” (a pre-recorded, pre-taped performance more likely). U2 also took the reunited The Velvet Underground out as an opening act in the early ’90s.
Cowboy Junkies – “Sweet Jane”
Cowboy Junkies were a favorite of college radio in the late ’80s, and this song from their 1988 classic The Trinity Sessions helped to put them on the map. It was one of the great re-imaginings of Reed’s music: they took a Velvet Underground rocker and recast it as a dusty country blues. The song also returned Lou’s to the college radio airwaves, nicely (and unintentionally) setting up Lou’s return the following year with his much-lauded comeback album, 1989’s New York.
Nirvana – “Here She Comes Now”
Dark, confrontational, scary, fearless. That describes the Velvet Underground, but it also describes Nirvana, who paid tribute to the band on this 1991 recording (it was a split 7″ single; the flip side featured the Melvins covering the Velvets’ “Venus In Furs”).
Jane’s Addiction – “Rock And Roll”
After word of Reed’s passing spread, Tom Morello tweeted “My intro to Lou Reed/Velvet Underground was Janes Addiction cover of ‘Rock n Roll’.” That was surely the case for many other music fans as well; this live recording is from Jane’s’ self-titled debut, recorded live in concert. It has a big Rolling Stones influence to it, which is fair enough, as the album also included a Velvet-y cover of “Sympathy For The Devil.” The Velvets influence was an important one for Jane’s; without it, they would likely have been just another huge arena rock group: but inspired by the Velvets, they were something a little more dangerous and subversive.
Elizabeth Cook – “Sunday Morning”
The best songs work in any genre, and that’s certainly true of Reed’s. Exhibit A: outlaw country singer Elizabeth Cook’s take on the opening track of The Velvet Underground & Nico.
Peter Gabriel – “The Power Of Your Heart”
One of Lou’s most tender songs, given the orchestral treatment by Peter Gabriel. Reed returned the favor by covering Gabriel’s “Solisbury Hill.”