In 1982, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Brian Eno stated, ‘I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first few years. The sales have picked up a bit in recent years, but nonetheless, that record was such an important one for so many people! I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.’
That quote has been paraphrased a fair bit over the years, but its central point – that the Velvet Underground were one of the most influential bands of their generation – remains undimmed. Of course while the band’s debut record may have only sold a few thousand copies initially, their collaboration with Andy Warhol and Nico is now seen as one of the greatest rock albums ever made.
For John Cale, the band’s multi-instrumentalist co-founder, the work immediately stood out. ‘I looked at it as “Where do we sit in the pantheon right now?”’ he told Time Out New York
last year as part of an interview to celebrate the LP’s 50th anniversary. ‘We paid close attention to every record that came out [at the time]. We knew pretty much where we were and how we could be different, and we went after it.’
Since 2016, three years after Reed’s death, Cale has been taking The Velvet Underground and Nico around the world, presenting the music in a series of concerts that have deployed musicians such as the Kills’ Alison Mosshart, Animal Collective and Wild Beasts.
Video: courtesy Youku ('Waiting for the Man' by The Velvet Underground & Nico)
‘That’s what the excitement is, just watching these guys approach this material and have their own ideas, and how they want to do things,’ Cale explained. ‘When [the Velvets] were doing it, we were trying to tear it apart, we were trying to break down all the rules. And here you have a whole slew of other musicians coming along and doing the same thing.’
Now, the series will arrive in China courtesy of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s annual Music in the Summer Air programme this coming July. Cale and long-time collaborator Joey Maramba will be joined by Zhang Shouwang, Yang Fan and Yan Yulong, who between them have made some of the most important music to come out of this country in the past decade via their bands Carsick Cars, Ourselves Beside Me, and Chui Wan plus a slew of side and solo projects.
It may not quite be the original line-up of course, but it still ought to make for a very special show.
Under the influence
Three of the Chinese indie-rock luminaries joining Cale on stage share their favourite VU tracks
‘It is very hard to pick a favourite song but I think “Waiting for the Man” was the one that had the most influence on my music. It is a song based on a very aggressive riff that VU never lets go of. It doesn’t even have a bridge. In the performance, VU keeps all the dirtiness of their playing and makes that part of the performance. They took a folk song and pushed it to an extreme that is almost ugly, and turn the whole thing into one of VU’s greatest pieces.’
‘My favourite Velvet Underground songs are “The Murder Mystery”, “Jesus”, “Some Kinda Love”, “Hey Mr. Rain”, “Candy Says”... Too many songs with a lot of memories. I love the melodies, chords and the lyrics.’
‘“Venus in Furs” is my favourite track. The violin sounds super cool and this song is the perfect combination of rock with avant-garde music. The Velvet Underground inspired me a lot, like the texture of their sound, raw and natural. Sometimes, I play drones-violin in Chui Wan, which is partly inspired by the Velvet Underground. The way they composed was very contemporary and minimal, and their lyrical style was really special.'