Tributes have been pouring out since Lou Reed’s death was yesterday, but his lasting legacy is encapsulated by two well-known quotes:
“Modern music starts with the Velvets.” – Lester Bangs
Anyone who’s ever interviewed a musician can testify to their caginess on the topic of influences, but not when it comes to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. Artists are eager to declare the Velvets’ inspiration, and rightfully so. While other '60s pop acts were singing about girls and cars, Lou Reed was singing about transvestites, kinky sex and heroin over mucky proto-punk rhythms. Take “indie,” “alternative,” “punk,” or whatever other counter-culture genre you want to name and Lou Reed’s fingerprints are all over it.
So while you’ll see countless eulogies over the next few days, 140 characters or more, the most effective tributes come from the last four and a half decades of music itself. It would be easy to fill out a list of Lou Reed covers, but it's just as easy to trace his influence in artists' own original tracks. Here are ten musical homages to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.
David Bowie, “Queen Bitch”
David Bowie has done more for Lou Reed’s commercial music career than likely even Andy Warhol. His glam rock co-production on Reed’s Transformer gave him his only crossover hit in “Walk On The Wild Side” and subsequently overshadowed the rest of his solo oeuvre (one of the factors that eventually drove him to distance himself from it with the infamous Metal Machine Music). But the relationship was always reciprocal. Without the Velvet Underground, who knows if Bowie would have been able to disappear into his androgynous Ziggy Stardust persona? A year before he did, though, Bowie would plant the Velvets’ flag with “Queen Bitch,” his transparent attempt to write in the style of Lou Reed.
The Rolling Stones, “Stray Cat Blues”
Revisionist rock historians like to paint the Velvet Underground in opposition to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but their inspiration even spread to those cultural behemoths. “Even we’ve been influenced by the Velvet Underground,” confessed Mick Jagger to the NME in 1977. “No, really. I’ll tell you exactly what we pinched. Y’know ‘Stray Cat Blues’? The whole sound and the way it’s paced, we pinched from the first Velvet Underground album. Y’know, the sound on ‘Heroin.’ Honest to God, we did!” There you have it.
Modern Lovers, “Roadrunner”/Jonathan Richman, “Velvet Underground”
Jonathan Richman may be the Velvet Underground’s most diehard fan. So diehard that he moved from Boston to New York City and lived on the couch of their manager, Steve Sesnick, to catch as many of their shows as he could. The Modern Lovers’ most enduring hit, “Roadrunner,” essentially mimics the sprawling structure of “Sister Ray,” but with considerably sunnier lyrics about driving around Boston.
Richman would also literally mimic “Sister Ray” in his tribute song, “Velvet Underground,” which provides a fitting epitaph on its own:
“Both guitars got the fuzz tone on/The drummer’s standing upright pounding along/a howl, a tone, a feedback whine/Biker boys meet the college kind/How in the world were they making that sound?/Velvet Underground.”
Spacemen 3, “Ode to Street Hassle”
Lou Reed’s frankness when it comes to drugs would be hugely influential on psychedelic music and its quest to represent the euphoria of a good (or bad) trip. Spacemen 3's “Ode to Street Hassle” cribs, naturally, from Reed’s “Street Hassle,” which is written from the perspective of a drug dealer dealing with the death of a customer in his apartment.
A Tribe Called Quest, “Can I Kick It?”
Lou Reed fell victim to that ‘80s affliction: veteran musicians trying their hand at rap music. Like Dee Dee Ramone’s Dee Dee King persona, Reed’s “The Original Wrapper” is a little bit embarrassing in retrospect, but he has still some lasting hip-hop cred courtesy of A Tribe Called Quest, who flipped his “Walk On The Wild Side” into one of their most infectious songs.
The Dandy Warhols, “(Tony, This Song Is Called) Lou Weed”
The Dandy Warhols’ entire discography looks like a tribute to the Velvet Underground, or at the very least an attempt to achieve their effortless cool. That effortlessness often looked like it took a lot of effort, but at least they never hid their most major influence. Take a look at the peeled banana cover of their 2003 album, Welcome To The Monkey House, and then listen to this allusion-filled track from their debut.
Yo La Tengo, “Moby Octopad”
Yo La Tengo’s similarity to the Velvet Underground never went unnoticed; they even played a thinly veiled version of the band in I Shot Andy Warhol. Their biggest tribute is “Moby Octopad,” which takes one of the Velvets’ noisiest, grimiest tracks, “European Son,” samples it, and turns it into the funky groove track you never knew was hiding beneath.
The Magnetic Fields, “Xavier Says”
The Magnetic Fields’ 2008 Distortion experiment can be traced as much to the Jesus and Mary Chain as the Velvet Underground, but Stephin Merritt’s character sketches seem a lot more Reed-y when layered over distorted guitars and noise, as does his adoption of his “(blank) Says” motif. Besides, it’s not as if JAMC don’t have their own healthy dollop of Velvets in them.
LCD Soundsystem, “Drunk Girls”
Another band that doesn’t conceal its reference points, LCD Soundsystem’s “Drunk Girls” lifts the repetitive call-and-response format directly from “White Light/White Heat.” If they’re not flattered, the Velvets at least weren’t offended – John Cale would later return the favour with a cover of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends.”
The Flowers of Hell, “O Superheroin”
Toronto space rockers the Flowers of Hell take Lou Reed’s marriage to artist Laurie Anderson and move it to wax with “O Superheroin,” essentially a live mashup of the Velvets’ “Heroin” and her own left-field hit “O Superman.” Reed was so impressed with the song he deemed it “exquisite” and played it on his BBC Radio program. His famous “ostrich tuning” (every guitar string tuned to D) also reaches the Flowers’ Toronto psych scene peers, Ostrich Tuning.