They were once The Warlocks before they landed on Falling Spikes. It would take several years before they would decide on a band name a bit more titillating.
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Founding members, singer and guitarist Lou Reed, along with multi-instrumentalist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and drummer Angus MacLise—later replaced by Moe Tucker in 1965—became The Velvet Underground in 1965.
The more provocative name was picked from journalist Michael Leigh’s 1963 book of the same name, which was first introduced to the band by Cale’s friend and avant-garde filmmaker Tony Conrad. Leigh’s “The Velvet Underground” detailed the secret masochist subculture in the 1960s. Perhaps hoping to incite a sexual and musical revolution, while encapsulating this air of underground cinema, the decision was unanimous in changing the band name.
Foray Into Pop… Culture
A year after the band’s re-emergence as The Velvet Underground, they hooked up with pop artist Andy Warhol, who became their manager. They would become a mainstay in Warhol’s New York City artistic commune The Factory as the house band, in addition to appearing in the artist’s multimedia show, Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
Sex and Bananas
As manager, Warhol also served as the band’s artistic director, creating the cover image for their self-titled debut, which would become a trademark symbol directly connected to the band. The original vinyl featured a yellow banana sticker, which fans could pull back to reveal the pink-colored fruit underneath. The sexually charged innuendo of the art fits perfectly with The Velvet Underground.
“The symbol has become so identified with The Velvet Underground,” said Lou Reed, “that members of the public, particularly those who listen to rock music, immediately recognize the banana design as the symbol of The Velvet Underground.”
Many more transformations were happening within the band, evident in their debut The Velvet Underground & Nico, which featured the German singer and model Nico. Released in 1967, the album is cruised through provocative subject matter, everything from sadomasochism, prostitution, sexual promiscuity, and drug abuse.
The Final Four
The Velvet Underground went on to release four more albums together, including White Light/White Heat in 1968, The Velvet Underground in 1969, and Loaded in 1970. Squeeze, the band’s final release in 1973, only featured Reed from the original lineup and multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule, who replaced Cale after White Light/White Heat.