The most famous and widely quoted observation about rock pioneers the Velvet Underground is generally credited to guitarist Brian Eno, who supposedly said that while only a handful of people bought their albums in their original release, every one of those people was inspired to go out and start his own rock band. To judge from the number of artists over the last four decades whose sound and songwriting reflect the Velvets’ influence, Eno was right on the mark. Arguably the most influential American band of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Velvet Underground had an impact on modern rock and roll that was well out of proportion to the popularity they achieved in their short-lived heyday. That heyday, which included four studio albums still cited as major influences by bands whose members were not even alive at the time of their release, came to an end on this day in 1970, when lead singer and primary songwriter Lou Reed played his last gig with the Velvet Underground at the famous Manhattan rock club Max’s Kansas City.
At the heart of the Velvet Underground’s classic lineup were Long Island native Reed and the Welsh-born John Cale, who met and began collaborating in New York City in 1964. Cale’s droning instrumentals and Lou Reed’s half-sung, half-spoken vocals on subject matter such as drug use and prostitution were, it is safe to say, well outside of the mainstream of mid-1960s commercial rock. When they were adopted as a pet project by pop artist Andy Warhol, however, the Velvets found themselves and their unorthodox sound being embraced by New York’s avant garde—an association that persisted even after Warhol and his enigmatic muse Nico, whom he installed as Reed’s co-vocalist for their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) exited the group’s professional lives.
It was that first album that yielded more of the Velvets’ biggest songs than any other, including "Heroin,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Venus in Furs.” The late 1960s saw numerous lineup changes in the band, including the departure of founding member Cale in 1968. It also saw the Velvet Underground release three more studio albums, each one of them a significant musical departure from the last. The final album featuring Lou Reed as leader was Live at Max’s Kansas City, which was released in 1972 but recorded on this day in 1970 immediately prior to Reed’s departure for a storied solo career of his own. Reed died in 2013.