The ultimate New York band — and, arguably, the most influential of all the proto-punk groups — the Velvet Underground were unique among Sixties rockers in their intentional crudity, in their sense of beauty in ugliness, and in their dark and risqu é lyrics. During the age of flower power, the Velvets spoke in no uncertain terms of social alienation, sexual deviancy, drug addiction, violence, and hopelessness, evoking the exhilaration and destructiveness of modern urban life. The group's music and attitude shaped the work of David Bowie, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music, the Sex Pistols, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and literally thousands of other bands.
In 1965 the quartet became known as the Velvet Underground. MacLise, who frowned upon the idea of playing with the structure of a performing band, quit prior to the rechristened combo's first paying performance. (A poet and virtuoso percussionist who spent years living in Asia, he died of malnutrition in Nepal in 1979. Archival CDs of his raga-influenced solo work appeared in 1999 and 2000.) Maureen Tucker was enlisted to take his place on a per-diem basis, which became permanent when she constructed her own drum kit out of tambourines and garbage-can lids.
On November 11, 1965, the group played its first gig as the Velvet Underground, opening for the Myddle Class at a high school dance in Summit, New Jersey. Within a few months, Reed, Morrison, Cale, and Tucker had taken up residency at the Cafe Bizarre in Greenwich Village, where they met pop artist Andy Warhol. After the band was fired by the Bizarre's management for performing "Black Angel's Death Song" immediately after being told not to, Warhol invited them to perform at showings of his film series, Cinematique Uptight. He soon employed them as the aural component of his traveling mixed-media show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, augmenting the lineup with German singer/actress Nico.
With Warhol's blessing and Nico guesting on three lead vocals, the band recorded its debut album in 1966. The Velvet Underground and Nico languished in record-label red tape for a year before its release, but it nevertheless proved one of the most forward-thinking records of its time and remains one of the most important debut albums in rock history. Number 13 on Rolling Stone's Greatest Album of All Time, the album was stocked with a stunning lineup of songs that expanded the possibilities for rock & roll. The LP sported a Warhol cover with a peelable illustration of a pink banana and included Reed's epic two-chord meditation "Heroin" and "Venus in Furs," a song about sado-masochism whose wailing drones represented what Cale called the band's attempt at a Phil Spector "wall-of-sound" production with as few instruments as possible. Two singles — "I'll Be Your Mirror" b/w "All Tomorrow's Parties" and "Sunday Morning" b/w "Femme Fatale" — were released, and Reed's pop background shone through in the timeless melodies of all four sides, all the more memorable on the LP when juxtaposed with such dark and experimental fare as "The Black Angel's Death Song" and "European Son."