Even if you haven’t listened to the self-titled album The Velvet Underground & Nico, odds are you know the album art. Against a white background, sits the famed banana, and written in cursive to the right is a signature resembling pop-artist Andy Warhol.
But what’s the relationship between The Velvet Underground and Nico and art legend Andy Warhol? How did The Velvet Underground end up using one of his pieces for their album art? Let’s dive into one of the most legendary music collaborations of all time.
Warhol Meets The Velvet Underground
The story begins with Warhol and his friend Paul Morrisey. Morrissey told Warhol that he should get into managing a rock and roll band like himself because there was good money in it. But, Warhol wouldn’t have it until he saw The Velvet Underground play in person. Warhol told the frontman, Lou Reed, that the band did the same thing with music as he did with art and asked him to join his Factory. Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground obliged.
The Velvet Underground worked on soundtracks for Warhol’s movies and also were filmed in jam sessions at the Factory. Andy Warhol, then, put the band on his Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia event tour, where they performed in his shows.
First Album or Just Another Warhol Art Project?
Warhol became the band’s manager, producing their first album through financing. He also brought Nico into the band as the singer, ensuring a visual and atmospheric presence. Most importantly, Warhol encouraged Lou Reed to write whatever he pleased because he saw and believed in his talent. The album was done within a couple of days.
As manager, Warhol also served as the artistic director and took to creating the cover image of the band’s debut album. The original vinyl featured the banana artwork with a little trick. You could peel the banana sticker to reveal a pink-colored fruit underneath. This sexually charged image was perfect for the new avant-garde art rock band and helped preview the provocative subject matter the album provided—everything from sadomasochism, prostitution, sexual promiscuity, and drug abuse.
The album didn’t really take off when it was first released, selling only 30,000 copies in the first five years. But, the band did see a lawsuit for the back cover, featuring a picture of actor Eric Emerson projected upside-down on the wall behind the band—the photo of the band was taken at Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable event. Emerson saw this as his golden chance and threatened to sue if he wasn’t paid for use of his image. At the time, Emerson had been arrested for drug possession and was in dire need of money. However, MGM records recalled the album’s distribution so that Emerson could be airbrushed off of the record.
In January 2012, the “Velvet Underground” business partnership, which featured John Cale and Lou Reed, sued The Andy Warhol Foundation on the basis of copyright infringement, trademark infringement, and unfair competition because they licensed the banana design for phone and iPad cases. Nothing really came of the court case as the court ruled that both parties could use the banana design.