The Velvet Underground began to take shape in 1964-5, at a time when The Beatles were still mop-tops and Bob Dylan was more commonly known as Bob Who? It was less than a decade since Elvis and a cultural debate concerning how long rock ’n’ roll would last. Within three years we had Venus in Furs.
One can say without a trace of hyperbole that Lou Reed is one of the reasons pop music is taken seriously. He shaped an aesthetic and a notion of “what pop music is” that had an immediate and massive impact on music in the 1960s and 1970s, and which continues to be relevant today.
His lifestyle became as iconic as his music, and he cemented the notion that pop music belongs with the arts. What is all the more impressive is that Lou achieved this with often very simple music. Sweet Jane, Walk on the Wild Side, and Satellite of Love use chord sequences so common as to be almost cliches. And for me this is what makes Lou Reed a genius.
His music had no unnecessary ornamentation, and this lack of distraction allowed him the space to explore a complex world that was simultaneously dirty and beautiful without overloading the listener.
This approach was highly effective. The musical simplicity of much of his most popular material has allowed it to be reinterpreted in countless ways and influence several generations of musicians. As a teenager, I thought Japan’s other-worldly version of All Tomorrow’s Parties was the original, and the penultimate eight bars of The Cowboy Junkies’ version of Sweet Jane are arguably the purest and most beautiful coda in music.
Neither of these versions inhabits the same world as the originals. It is similarly easy enough to identify countless musicians, such as Jane’s Addiction, who have taken the world of Lou Reed as simply the starting point of a new journey; and much better-selling acts such as U2 who clearly crave Lou Reed’s ability to communicate such a strong emotional message without resort to bombast.
Lou Reed’s world was inventive yet realistic, colourful yet stark, beautiful yet frightening, complex yet simple. His legacy is quite simply the rule book of what makes pop great art.