Imagine if you will: Ten years before punk, smack in the midst of the Summer of Love, a bunch of leather-jacketed New Yorkers -- noisier than The Stooges, less songful than The Ramones, with no discernable pop appeal or much forward momentum as a rock band -- popped into existence right between The Beatles and The Stones and a bunch of electric folkies touting free love. Oh, and they had a viola player, too. That barely sums up the sheer unlikelihood of The Velvet Underground, named after a piece of BDSM lit, bursting onto the scene in 1967 with such groovy, feel-good songs as "Heroin" and "The Black Angel's Death Song." They got slightly more challenging on their second album, which contains an eight-minute spoken-word tune that ends with a violent box-cutter death and a 17-minute garage meltdown featuring nuns who would, um, lose their jobs.
They got gentler after that -- and better. "Sweet Jane," "Pale Blue Eyes," "Rock and Roll," "Stephanie Says," "Beginning to See the Light" and "I Found a Reason" (which began as a blissfully Dylan-esque demo) were still kind of rough, but at least resembled tunes on the radio played through a normal setup (as opposed to ["White Light/White Heat"]'s Jerry Lee Lewis through a blown speaker). Then, before they got too normal, they stopped, forever preserving a four-album legacy (that should've been five, as 1985's absolutely incredible archaeological dig VU showed) of some of the most innovative, gritty, uncompromising, singular and beautiful music known to rock 'n' roll history. Some would say they invented a rock generation themselves. Others would just agree they were damn great. And their visionary leader, the iconoclastic Lou Reed, will be missed for another three decades of pioneering, risky, literate and ear-splitting music in his own right.