Like Rush, the Velvet Underground were painted as a cult band so frequently that it became clear by the early 1980s, a decade after the band was done, that they were anything but. In the rock-and-roll retrospectives and histories that began appearing at that time, the band became a pivotal force despite their commercial failure — Brian Eno famously half-joked that even though the band’s first record (that Andy Warhol one with the banana on it) only sold 10,000 copies on its release, every one who bought it started their own group — and through sheer collective will the rock community at large cemented VU’s role as the progenitor of punk by the time of Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s landmark Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (1996). It’s a conclusion that’s hard to argue with, if at the same time you cast a wider net including bands like Love and the Stooges and countless garage-rock monsters like the Sonics and the Seeds. The legacy of the Velvet Underground comes down to attitude, songwriting, and, importantly, their connection with Warhol and New York.
By the mid-1980s American college rock (for so it was called at the time) was jonesing for all things VU, but often threw that influence in with the other nostalgia trips taking place at the time, to the lands of Byrds, Beatles, and Barrett. California’s neo-psychedelic “paisley underground” existed in this space, and reached its pinnacle in the early 1990s with Mazzy Star, a group that grew out of another band, Opal, and, before that, Rain Parade. Mazzy Star matched David Roback’s sculpted fuzz country blues with Hope Sandoval’s beautiful vocal phrasing, which paired a remarkable emotional investment with the kind of matter-of-fact distance that characterized Lou Reed’s and the Velvet Underground’s best work. While their hit, “Fade Into You,” would come from their second album, it’s their first record, She Hangs Brightly, that defines their sound best, slow- and mid-tempo country/blues/americana rock that is its own reverb-ed thing but also strongly evokes VU and the Doors (to the point where they lift the riff for “Ghost Highway” straight from the Doors’ “My Eyes Have Seen You”). As a whole the album is near-perfect, has aged as gracefully as any of its contemporaries. “Blue Flower” reminds me of standing in front of a stage in Carrboro, North Carolina, in 1994, watching one of the best live bands I’ve seen make a case for the past and future of American rock and roll.
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