As the old Brian Eno quote goes, “Only five thousand people ever bought a Velvet Underground album, but every single one of them started a band.” So can the impact of the band be overstated? Probably not, but perhaps it can be stated too many times.
By now anyone with a passing interest in alternative forms of rock & roll is familiar with the music that Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker made under the Velvet Underground moniker. The band’s association with Andy Warhol and his Factory cadre, its iconic banana-festooned first album with Nico, their influence on bands like REM, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Galaxie 500, Television and countless others—all this is well known. So what else is there to say about VU and their legacy?
As it turns out, there’s not much, which is why a heavily illustrated history of the band still makes sense. Thus, here is The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side, a 192-page book with more than 300 photographs. With its large trim size, the book could have been titled The Velvet Underground: The Coffee Table Book, which, ridiculous as it sounds, still would have made more sense than making reference to a song from Reed’s solo career in the subtitle.
Be that as it may, the book generally looks better than it reads. Jim DeRogatis, the Chicago Sun-Times critic who wrote the superb Leser Bangs biography, Let It Blurt, is under-utilized. His main narrative has been trimmed of all fat and insight, essentially just a barebones framework on which to hang the book’s many photos and memorabilia facsimiles. DeRogatis’ text is augmented by essays on each of the band’s four proper albums and the live record 1969: Velvet Underground Live with Lou Reed, as well as probably the most enjoyable portion of the book, Bill Bentley’s interview with Morrison from 1975.
As for the book’s main component—the visuals—they range from the bizarre and amazing (the band playing at the 1966 annual dinner for the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry) to filler (the covers of the members’ solo albums). Like the text, it is largely a pastiche of images that give an impressionistic (and by no means thorough) take on the band. That’s not a bad thing either, as if you want a thorough read, those books already exist. This colorful, albeit cursory, look is fine for what is, and still manages to add something to the canon of VU commentary.