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The Velvet Underground

Few rock groups can claim to have broken so much new territory, and maintain such consistent brilliance on record, as the Velvet Underground during their brief lifespan. It was the group's lot to be ahead of, or at least out of step with, their time. The mid- to late '60s was an era of explosive growth and experimentation in rock, but the Velvets' innovations -- which blended the energy of rock with the sonic adventurism of the avant-garde, and introduced a new degree of social realism and sexual kinkiness into rock lyrics -- were too abrasive for the mainstream to handle. During their time, the group experienced little commercial success; though they were hugely appreciated by a cult audience and some critics, the larger public treated them with indifference or, occasionally, scorn. The Velvets' music was too important to languish in obscurity, though; their cult only grew larger and larger in the years following their demise, and continued to mushroom through the years. By the 1980s, they were acknowledged not just as one of the most important rock bands of the '60s, but one of the best of all time, and one whose immense significance cannot be measured by their relatively modest sales.

Historians often hail the group for their incalculable influence upon the punk and new wave of subsequent years, and while the Velvets were undoubtedly a key touchstone of the movements, to focus upon these elements of their vision is to only get part of the story. The group was uncompromising in its music and lyrics, to be sure, sometimes espousing a bleakness and primitivism that would inspire alienated singers and songwriters of future generations. But the band's colorful and oft-grim soundscapes were firmly grounded in strong, well-constructed songs that could be as humanistic and compassionate as they were outrageous and confrontational. The member most responsible for these qualities was guitarist, singer, and songwriter Lou Reed, whose sing-speak vocals and gripping narratives came to define street-savvy rock & roll.

Reed loved rock & roll from an early age, and even recorded a doo wop-type single as a Long Island teenager in the late '50s (as a member of the Shades). By the early '60s, he was also getting into avant-garde jazz and serious poetry, coming under the influence of author Delmore Schwartz while studying at Syracuse University. After graduation, he set his sights considerably lower, churning out tunes for exploitation rock albums as a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records in New York City. Reed did learn some useful things about production at Pickwick, and it was while working there that he met John Cale, a classically trained Welshman who had moved to America to study and perform "serious" music. Cale, who had performed with John Cage and LaMonte Young, found himself increasingly attracted to rock & roll; Reed, for his part, was interested in the avant-garde as well as pop. Reed and Cale were both interested in fusing the avant-garde with rock & roll, and had found the ideal partners for making the vision (a very radical one for the mid-'60s) work; their synergy would be the crucial axis of the Velvet Underground's early work.

Reed and Cale (who would play bass, viola, and organ) would need to assemble a full band, making tentative steps along this direction by performing together in the Primitives (which also included experimental filmmaker Tony Conrad and avant-garde sculptor Walter DeMaria) to promote a bizarre Reed-penned Pickwick single ("The Ostrich"). By 1965, the group was a quartet called the Velvet Underground, including Reed, Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison (an old friend of Reed's), and drummer Angus MacLise. MacLise quit before the band's first paying gig, claiming that accepting money for art was a sellout; the Velvets quickly recruited drummer Maureen Tucker, a sister of one of Morrison's friends.

Even at this point, the Velvets were well on their way to developing something quite different. Their original material, principally penned and sung by Reed, dealt with the hard urban realities of Manhattan, describing drug use, sadomasochism, and decadence in cool, unapologetic detail in "Heroin," "I'm Waiting for the Man," "Venus in Furs," and "All Tomorrow's Parties." These were wedded to basic, hard-nosed rock riffs, toughened by Tucker's metronome beats; the oddly tuned, rumbling guitars; and Cale's occasional viola scrapes. It was an uncommercial blend to say the least, but the Velvets got an unexpected benefactor when artist and all-around pop art icon Andy Warhol caught the band at a club around the end of 1965. Warhol quickly assumed management of the group, incorporating them into his mixed-media/performance art ensemble, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. By spring 1966, Warhol was producing their debut album.

Warhol was also responsible for embellishing the quartet with Nico, a mysterious European model/chanteuse with a deep voice whom the band accepted rather reluctantly, viewing her spectral presence as rather ornamental. Reed remained the principal lead vocalist, but Nico did sing three of the best songs on the group's debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, often known as "the banana album" because of its distinctive Warhol-designed cover. Recognized today as one of the core classic albums of rock, it featured an extraordinarily strong set of songs, highlighted by "Heroin," "All Tomorrow's Parties," "Venus in Furs," "I'll Be Your Mirror," "Femme Fatale," "Black Angel's Death Song," and "Sunday Morning." The sensational drug-and-sex items (especially "Heroin") got most of the ink, but the more conventional numbers showed Reed to be a songwriter capable of considerable melodicism, sensitivity, and almost naked introspection.

The album's release was not without complications, though. First, it wasn't issued until nearly a year after it was finished, due to record-company politics and other factors. The group's association with Warhol and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable had already assured them of a high (if notorious) media profile, but the music was simply too daring to fit onto commercial radio; "underground" rock radio was barely getting started at this point, and in any case may well have overlooked the record at a time when psychedelic music was approaching its peak. The album only reached number 171 in the charts, and that's as high as any of their LPs would get upon original release. Those who heard it, however, were often mightily impressed; Brian Eno once said that even though hardly anyone bought the Velvets' records at the time they appeared, almost everyone who did formed their own bands.

A cult reputation wasn't enough to guarantee a stable livelihood for a band in the '60s, and by 1967 the Velvets were fighting problems within their own ranks. Nico, never considered an essential member by the rest of the band, left or was fired sometime during the year, going on to a fascinating career of her own. The association with Warhol weakened, as the artist was unable to devote as much attention to the band as he had the previous year. Embittered by the lukewarm reception of their album in their native New York, the Velvets concentrated on touring cities throughout the rest of the country. Amidst this tense atmosphere, the second album, White Light/White Heat, was recorded in late 1967.

Each of the albums the group released while Reed led the band was an unexpected departure from all of their other LPs. White Light/White Heat was probably the most radical, focusing almost exclusively on their noisiest arrangements, over-amped guitars, and most willfully abrasive songs. The 17-minute "Sister Ray" was their most extreme (and successful) effort in this vein. Unsurprisingly, the album failed to catch on commercially, topping out at number 199.

By the summer of 1968, the band had a much graver problem on its hands than commercial success (or the lack of it). A rift developed between Reed and Cale, the most creative forces in the band and, as one could expect, two temperamental egos. Reed presented the rest of the band with an ultimatum, declaring that he would leave the group unless Cale was sacked. Morrison and Tucker reluctantly sided with Lou, and Doug Yule was recruited to take Cale's place.

The group's third album, 1969's The Velvet Underground, was an even more radical left turn than White Light/White Heat. The volume and violence had nearly vanished; the record featured far more conventional rock arrangements that were sometimes so restrained it seems as though they were making an almost deliberate attempt to avoid waking the neighbors. Yet the sound was nonetheless effective for that; the record contains some of Reed's most personal and striking compositions, numbers like "Pale Blue Eyes" and "Candy Says" ranking among his most romantic, although cuts like "What Goes On" proved they could still rock out convincingly (though in a less experimental fashion than they had with Cale). The approach may have confused listeners and critics, but by this time their label (MGM/Verve) was putting little promotional resources behind the band anyway.

Even in the absence of Cale, the Velvets were still capable of generating compelling heat on-stage, as 1969: Velvet Underground Live (not released until the mid-'70s) confirms. MGM was by now in the midst of an infamous "purge" of its supposedly drug-related rock acts, and the Velvets were setting their sights elsewhere. Nevertheless, they recorded about an album's worth of additional material for the label after the third LP, although it remains unclear whether this was intended for a fourth album or not. Many of the songs, though, were excellent, serving as a bridge between The Velvet Underground and 1970's Loaded; a lot of it was officially released in the 1980s and 1990s.

The beginning of the 1970s seemed to herald considerable promise for the group, as they signed to Atlantic, but at this point the personnel problems that had always dogged them finally became overwhelming. Tucker had to sit out Loaded due to pregnancy, replaced by Yule's brother Billy. Doug Yule, according to some accounts, began angling for more power in the band. Unexpectedly, after a lengthy residency at New York's famous Max's Kansas City club, Reed quit the band near the end of the summer of 1970, moving back to his parents' Long Island home for several months before beginning his solo career, just before the release of Loaded, his final studio album with the Velvets.

Loaded was by far the group's most conventional rock album, and the most accessible one for mainstream listeners. "Rock and Roll" and "Sweet Jane" in particular were two of Reed's most anthemic, jubilant tunes, and ones that became rock standards in the '70s. But the group's power was somewhat diluted by the absence of Tucker, and by the decision to have Doug Yule handle some of the lead vocals. Due to Reed's departure, though, the group couldn't capitalize on any momentum it might have generated. Unwisely, the band decided to continue, though Morrison and Tucker left shortly afterward. That left Doug Yule at the helm of an act that was the Velvet Underground in name only, and the 1973 album that was billed to the group (Squeeze) is best forgotten, and not considered as a true Velvets release.

With Reed, Cale, and Nico establishing important solo careers of their own, and such important figures as David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Patti Smith making no bones about their debts to the band, the Velvet Underground simply became more and more popular as the years passed. In the 1980s, the original albums were reissued, along with a couple of important collections of outtakes. Hoping to rewrite the rules one last time, Reed, Cale, Morrison, and Tucker attempted to defy the odds against successful rock reunions by re-forming in the early '90s (Nico had died in 1988). A European tour, and a live album, was completed in 1993 to mixed reviews; before a planned American jaunt could start, Reed and Cale (who have feuded constantly over the past few decades) fell out yet again, bringing the reunion to a sad close. Sterling Morrison's death from illness in 1995 seemed to permanently ice any prospect of more projects under the Velvet Underground name, although a few of the surviving members played together when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. By that time, an impressive five-CD box set (containing all four of the studio albums issued when Reed was in the band, as well as a lot of other material) was available to enshrine the group's legacy for the ages. Cale and Reed continued with solo careers into the 21st century, but Reed underwent a liver transplant in April 2013, and although he subsequently proclaimed his strength and intention to continue performing and songwriting, he died of end-stage liver disease at his home on Long Island in October of that year. ~ Richie Unterberger, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography


R.I.P. Lou Reed
Lou Reed died :(
its true rock and roll animal is a b**ch to contain!!!
Jenny was pretty prodigious to know at 5 years old that there was nothing happin at all. Why the VU did not enjoy popular success from contemporari e s I will never understand. The music is very accessible in spite of it's often dark, sinister subject matter.
I was listing to the radio in my living room when npr reported the passing of lou reed. I was saddened, actually started crying. I didnt realize how much his music and words ment to me until that moment. I felt i lost a friend or a brother who shared with me some basics of life, death, commitment, sex, rock-n-roll, drugs...firs t thing you learn is that you always got to wait, secrets from experience. thank you lou
It wasn't all it was cracked up to be foxyscott64. the 70's were better.
it wasn't all it was cracked up to be foxyscott64 &0's were much better
Nikibunny69. I love there music wish I could have grew up in the 60's
You like this guy i like kesha and bang bang into the room
Love it !!
R.I.P Lou Reed, may his music rock on
Follow for follow (Read my bio please)
Velvet underground is one of the greatest bands, original bands....Ban a n a album changed my perspective on music. Go away trolls, stop hating.
Truly a awesome and amazing odd ball creature lou reed keep being a odd ball even in death KEEP BEING A ODD BALL!!!!!
Sunday Morning is genius
It's really amazing how little Lou Reed changed or improved in over 40 years. It's like listening to an endless loop of a s**tty garage band.
This is really music you have to feel to get it, as smart as it is. More and more I like the song Ocean, amazing. And femme fatale sounds better every time.
With all respect to the Beatles, it was the Kinks and VU that changed my DNA. Bless you, LR.
Lou had huge influence over so many British Invasion acts. Proud to be from long island like him.
The velvet underground is like a certain type of painting or art, and if you don't understand it, you probably never will
How many times do i have to unlike Velvet Underground before Pandora learns I don't - ever - want to hear them again?
taniahalaby1 2
Xoxoxoxoxoxo x o x o x o
taniahalaby1 2
taniahalaby1 2
A dozen od rosses
taniahalaby1 2
you like this band, you will love my band called Her Butthole on my windshield
A lesser stones?!?! Just because you don't "get it" doesn't mean there nothing to get got. The stones were even at this point in their careers, bloated rock and roll faggots. Lou reed and the velvets were pioneers--fe a r l e s s in their commitment to authentic modes of artistic expression through rock and Avante garde fusions. Singing songs about the downtrodden, and marginalized . Get it now?!?!
like it
i dont really get it. its like a lesser Stones to me. but then, i never got into drugs. to each their own. rock on.
wendellmarse e
Oh sweet nuthin. Up there with pale blue eyes
My top 10:

1. Sunday Morning
2. Venus in Furs
3. Oh! Sweet Nuthin'
4. European Sun
5. All Tommorrow Parties
6. What Goes On
7. Head Held High
8. I'm Waiting for the Man
9. Ocean
10. Sweet Jane
The original Rock & Roll title song. a year later Zeppelin had theirs , thats one of the many reasons Zeppelin is the biggest rip off artists of all time. At least Gary Glitter calls his Rock & Roll Part 2
jeffreymqs64 1
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claricentp91 7
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shawnnavuz71 1
If you need some extra income you can use BLUDOS.COM this is a way to make cash with surveys for free. It's very simple.
We love you Doug Yule!
RIP Lou! Your influence on other bands is too numerous to name!!!
Have a lovely sleep Lou. We'll miss you down here in this lame world.
Goodnight lou... Your brilliance and fearlessness lives on. ❤️
wayneloehlei n
The Top Ten Greatest Velvet Underground Songs (IMO):
1. What Goes On
2. Foggy Notion
3. Who Loves the Sun
4. I'm Set Free
5. Jesus
6. New Age
7. Femme Fatale
8. All Tomorrow's Parties
9. The Gift
10. Lonesome Cowboy Bill
wayneloehlei n
RIP Lou, Nico, Sterling, and Andy!
RIP lou
RIP: Lou Reed-----wha t a long strange trip it's been.
Lou Reed's music is fantastic; what a great contributor. We'll miss you.
Used to listen to these guys all the time at the Airport in North Conwat, N.H. Sweet Jane, who can forget!!!
thank you Lou.
agreed, RIP Mr. Reed, you were a genius
RIP Lou.
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