A group like that could have only come from the time and surroundings that they did and the creative alchemy that came with the matching of Lou Reed and John Cale cannot be replicated.
There is so much about their story that remains utterly fascinating. From being championed by art icon Andy Warhol to their strange musical ideals to their notoriously prickly relationships with each other, there is so much to say about a band that was together for only a few short years.
We have taken a few disparate elements of the band's story to provide something of a snapshot of why they are so significant in the world of rock music.
We were hated, pretty much.John Cale, The Velvet Underground
There was always something very unique about The Velvet Underground.
Richard Witts is a British musicologist, musician and writer, whose third book, The Velvet Underground, is a study of the music and the story behind the iconic band.
"They sit in between two different currents," Witts says. "One is the avant garde scene in New York, which was really hitting up in the 1960s, the other was the pop scene. They wanted to be a pop group.
"The contradictions of that are what make [first album] The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) and [follow up] White Light/White Heat (1968) so unique. It also explains why those albums didn't sell very well at the time. They failed to hit either market."
"We were hated, pretty much," John Cale told Richard Fidler in 2007. "MGM Records put it out and then when it came to promotion dollars they said nah we'll give it to Zappa. VU don't need it, they've got Andy Warhol'."
You could say that Lou Reed wanted to be famous and John Cale wanted to be infamous.Richard Witts
The hippie counterculture of the 1960s did not wash with the members of The Velvet Underground.
"We hated the summer of love with a vengeance," Cale said. "Apart from all the flower children and everything else, it was just silly. Woodstock, we were happy they ended up in the mud, serves them right."
Despite being at odds with musical trends of the time, the band were determined. They weren't going to compromise their artistic vision. So it was fortuitous that Andy Warhol would champion the band from an early stage.
"The band had a sense of it's us against the world. We were gonna do this," Cale said. "Then Andy [Warhol] came along and we felt protected, just like all the other people that were at the Factory, they felt protected. They were misfits, very creative misfits, and they had somewhere to work. And there was a lot of work going on there."
Their musical ideals were conflicting and the circumstances from which the two major creative players, Reed and Cale, had come were so very different.
"On the one side you have Lou Reed who was brought up in Queens, he was into doo wop and he wanted to be a songwriter,” Witts says. "You have, on the other side John Cale, who came from South Wales and was a classically trained viola player. The idea of a viola playing a part in rock music was so bizarre. He was into the avant garde scene and went to New York and worked with a leading avant garde composer and great influence on the Velvet Underground, La Monte Young. You have these two worlds kind of clashing and these two personalities who also clashed personally. You could say that Lou Reed wanted to be famous and John Cale wanted to be infamous.
"That personal background also explains the uniqueness of The Velvet Underground. Now you add in Nico and that really is a strange mix and then you add in Andy Warhol on top of that as their so-called manager and producer and it really is, for us, absolutely exciting but completely unique. There's nothing comparable to that."
'Venus In Furs' was one of the first Velvet Underground songs Lou Reed wrote. The first recorded version of the song comes from a session in the band's Ludlow Street Loft in July 1965, which features Cale singing lead vocals.
The song was inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's book of the same name and was written, and named, before the band adopted the name The Velvet Underground from a book by Michael Leigh.
"Venus In Furs was originally a kind of send up of a particular literary form, that was associated with masochism and so on," Witts says. "It wasn't meant to be as serious as it ended up sounding, I think. Lou Reed wrote it but gave it to John Cale to sing on the Ludlow Tapes and it has this beautiful folksy sound to it. It's really like a parody of a medieval folk song or something."
Reed ended up singing the song on the band's first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, but Witts says it was what the other members of the band did that made the song so different from its original form.
"You add in the sound John Cale wanted from the band, which he gradually got with his viola playing and those drones, and then you have the particular drum sound of Maureen Tucker," he says. "Maureen wasn't a normal trained drummer, she didn't like cymbals and she stood up to play her drums, so you have this kind of tribal beat to it as well. That's kind of what makes it such an imposing sound, this little faux medieval ditty, surrounded by this epic sonority that's grandiose and sort of full-measured."
It was one of the first Velvet Underground songs and remains one of the songs that best illustrates the band.
"I think 'Venus In Furs' is a very special song and it is kind of emblematic," Witts says. "As soon you play it people know it's the Velvet Underground and it suggests immediately the very best sound world of them. It works because it comes out of that faux medieval world that was quite precious in the mid-'60s and it's turned on its head, it's suddenly placed in this huge scale of sound. You can't think of another band around that time who had a sound like that, it really is very special."
The debut album from which the song is taken is a fascinating artefact in itself. It's a stunning record that combines the avant garde and pop elements of the group with the vocals of Nico, a German model who worked with Andy Warhol on a number of films. Warhol told the band that Nico ought to be their singer, but Reed was intolerant of that idea from the start.
"Lou Reed was very annoyed by the imposition of a singer," Richard Witts says. "He was the singer of the band. You can imagine his concern about this, he's the singer and he's being told by these people who want to get them a record deal that everything's fine except you."
Witts believes that, next to 'Venus In Furs', one of the Nico songs on the album was another enormous transformation.
"The other one that has that kind of difference about it is 'All Tomorrow's Parties' – if you can imagine it sung by Lou Reed and then you hear the Nico version, you can see immediately the different quality that is provided by the song. That coincidentally was Andy Warhol's favourite song, it kind of has the same epic quality as Venus In Furs – that is the influence of John Cale and Maureen Tucker."
Cale agrees that the songs changed markedly thanks to the input of the rest of the band. He maintains that this only came about through hard work.
"That first album, the banana album, was the result of working every weekend for a year," he told Fidler. "We worked and worked until the songs morphed into something that was stylistically very different from where they started. You can hear that on the box set."
Lou Reed's reputation as a prickly interview subject was the thing of legend. Speaking to some journalists and listening to some interviews, it seemed as if rudeness was the norm and his unwillingness to speak at length about any of his past music stayed fairly constant through his career.
"Interviewing Lou Reed is a waste of time, almost everybody told me," Witts, who curiously did not interview Lou Reed for his Velvet Underground book, says.
"His friends, people who were close to him and so on all said the same thing. He's a congenital liar, he's pointlessly rude and he's very, very protective of his own story. There are reasons for this, as a teenager he was in hospital and had electroconvulsive therapy. There are all kinds of stories about the instability of his behaviour and so on. So I was almost being told that I would be talking to someone who is mentally ill."
While there were a series of prickly moments when Double Jay and triple j spoke with Reed over the course of 35 years or so, there were plenty of interviews in which he proved to be perfectly pleasant and perhaps even warm.
In a 1977 interview with George Wayne, Lou Reed admits that he plays up his hostile persona, because he thinks Australians get a kick out of it.
"For some reason in Australia people seem to think that I'm hostile, or a representative of the decadent New York culture," he says. "They seem to think that so much that I kinda have to come off that way, even if I don't do anything. They seem so much happier if I insult them."
"You've got old looking hands"
Lou orders a double gin and coke and gives his host some advice about moisturising.
"They're not pooches"
George Wayne's interview with Lou about his 1976 record Rock and Roll Heart was a pretty awkward chat in general. We do know that Lou's dogs at the time certainly weren't pooches.
"Well, now I know she exists..."
Lou Reed came into the Double Jay studios to pick an hour's worth of his favourite songs. His comments about the songs were vague, to say the least, but the song choices were stellar. So we've put together this Spotify playlist for you.
"The document of the man himself?"
Rachel Kerr's 1995 chat with Lou was infamously awkward. He took issue with some of the questions and offered pretty curt answers to anything he did respond to.
"It's just the way it is."
Lou Reed was warm and kind when Richard Kingsmill went and visited his hotel in 2000. Earlier on they discussed his reputation with music journalists. Read more about their chat here.
"Go rob something"
Speaking with Lindsay "The Doctor" McDougall in 2010, an amiable Lou Reed offers pragmatic advice and discusses the Czech Velvet Revolution.
The Velvet Underground was over in a mere handful of years, but an enormous amount of music has come from members of the band ever since.
Reed made 22 albums, including classics like Transformer, Berlin and Coney Island Baby and maligned projects like the noisy, grating Metal Machine Music and Lulu, a collaboration with Metallica.
Reed didn't always have the greatest relationship with his own back catalogue. In an interview with Double Jay's George Wayne in 1976, he reacted negatively to the announcer's decision to play 'Temporary Thing'.
"Oh, I wonder why," Reed said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. When asked why he had poor feeling about the decision, Reed offered a typically laconic response. "Most people think that's your archetypal Lou Reed song."
"This, more than any of them, takes up from where the Velvets left off, from my part in it. 'Temporary Thing' is a close up of the guy in 'I'm Waiting For My Man' [sic]. Morally it's like Groucho Marx said, 'bring me a rose or leave me alone'. It's not a temporary thing, but the lady should get off his back or split."
Later on in that interview, Wayne brings up Reed's 1974 record Sally Can't Dance. Before he can even finish his sentence, Reed is fuming.
"Sally Can't Dance I don't even want to know about," he snaps. "I hated it, I hated everything that went with it and I don't care who knows it. You couldn't have given me a million dollars to keep going with that stuff. It's a business and it gets out of control and you've got to understand that nobody can make anybody doing anything. Just say no."
Later in his career, Reed seemed more at peace with much of his early catalogue. He was never going to just rehash his old hits for the benefit of Velvet Underground fans, but he understood the yearning to hear those songs.
"I wish Clint Eastwood would make another Dirty Harry movie, because I like the Dirty Harry movies best of all and as far as I'm concerned if he just made those for the rest of his life I'd be happy," he told Richard Kingsmill in 2000. "So I understand people wanting to hear something over and over and over again.
"I think you could just play 'Sweet Jane' for two hours for some people, which is very flattering but I have no interest in doing that."
Cale has made 15 studio records thus far, as well as 11 soundtracks and six collaborative albums. But he is also a highly regarded producer, with a couple of key punk rock album receiving his touch.
Just months after departing from the Velvet Underground Cale was in the studio with The Stooges, making their self-titled debut record.
"I am kind of uncomfortable telling the artist what to do," he told ABC Radio's Richard Fidler in 2007. "In Iggy's case it was very together, it was very professional. He came into the studio and gave me a sheet of paper with all the lyrics neatly written out. We didn't have time, we had two weeks to finish an album so we'd spend a week recording and a week mixing."
Cale admits to trying to make the songs on that record stranger than they are, but quickly realised that this was not the best way of working.
"The whole thing was a confusion that I had in my mind, not anyone else's. If you saw the live show you wondered how you were gonna get some of that. But you leave the live show where it is and you make a record. I twisted myself into all sorts of shapes trying to figure out how to do that, it wasn't necessary. There was enough power in the music anyway."
Much of the eponymous first LP by The Modern Lovers was also produced by Cale, including the songs 'Roadrunner', 'Astral Plane', 'Old World', 'Pablo Picasso', 'She Cracked' and 'Someone I Care About'. Cale was to produce their entire debut album, but the sessions never ended up happening.
Both Cale and Reed joined forces in the wake of Andy Warhol's passing in the late 1980s. The two men decided to pay tribute to their former mentor with the album Songs for Drella.
"That's Lou and I shaking hands again after a long period of working on our own individual careers," John Cale told Richard Kingsmill in 1993. The partnership worked well and prompted a short-lived Velvet Underground reunion, which began as an impromptu performance in France.
"They had recreated, in a bunker on the grounds of the Cartier Foundation, a street that looked like St Mark's Place," Cale told Kingsmill, referencing the New York area in which Warhol's famous Exploding Plastic Inevitable events would take place.
"They had a tribute to the band and the kind of rock'n'roll and art milieu that surrounded Andy. It was uncanny in a way, a little spooky. I couldn't believe that someone who went to such an extent, but it wasn't something that made me very comfortable. It was very nice to be in the grounds but going into the bunker was kind of spooky."
"It was the first time that we'd met and sat down and talked. It was fairly uncertain at the beginning, we didn't know in the morning that we were going to play. It worked out well."
The band reformed for a full European tour in 1993 but Reed and Cale fell out in its wake, ceasing the possibility of further shows.
The Velvet Underground's influence is so enormous that it's hard to believe that music would have been the same without them.
They left so much more of a legacy than we could hope to explore here, but that's the exciting thing about a band such as this. Stories of the band's performances will make you wish you were with them and Warhol in late-'60s New York.
Countless demos, solo records and live recordings serve as generally high quality companion pieces to the band's studio albums. Thousands of writings give new perspectives on the songs, their meanings and how they were constructed.
Or you can simply luxuriate in the imperfect beauty of the band's first record forever and still be deeply touched by the impact this band had on modern music.