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Velvet Underground

Brian Eno has famously said that not many people bought the Velvet’s albums when they were originally released, but everyone who did formed a band. After bravely jousting the twin enemies of indifference and open hostility in its lifetime, the Velvet Underground has gradually been embraced as one of the best and most important bands in rock history.

Recording a mere four studio albums and one live album in the late-'60s, the group established an aesthetic so extreme, alien and ahead of its time that it has taken three decades for the world to catch up. The essence of that aesthetic is an unapologetic embrace of the opposite poles of the musical, emotional and thematic spectrum: naked power on the one end and exquisite beauty on the other, squalid Saturday night nihilism followed by pristine Sunday morning reverence conjured from the urban essence of New York.

The Velvet Underground formed in 1964 when singer/guitarist/songwriter Lou Reed and Welsh multi-instrumentalist John Cale met and decided to form a rock band (eventually with Sterling Morrison on bass and guitar and Maureen “Mo” Tucker on percussion), drawing upon their mutual interest in R&B, the free-form jazz of Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman and the avant-garde minimalism of John Cage and La Monte Young.

The band sought not just to entertain, but to challenge, to prove that rock ‘n’ roll could be dangerous again. They gravitated toward Andy Warhol — who brought Austrian actress/model/chanteuse Nico into the fold — and became fixtures in Warhol’s multimedia organization, the Factory, and in the Village bohemian art scene.

Live, the Velvets were a bizarre amalgam of vigorous R&B, pretty pop songs, extended experimental noise jams and the performance art of Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The original band lasted just two albums, “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” and “White Light, White Heat” (both 1967), the first of which stands among the greatest of all rock albums.

“Waiting for the Man,” with a breezy rock groove, follows a Reed character in pursuit of drugs. Reed is almost giddy with self-contempt as his need for drugs drags his social status below that of ghetto dwellers, and that defiant self-contempt defines the Velvet’s status as the first post-modern band and the progenitor of the entire punk/new wave movement.

“Heroin” takes the external adventure of obtaining drugs into the internal realm and captures the seduction of addiction with a power, beauty and grace that makes it all the more frightening. “Venus in Furs,” an unblinking examination of an S&M relationship, conveys ennui of almost black hole density. “All Tomorrow’’s Parties” is Nico’s finest moment, a towering aural monument to ephemeral glamour, with the pulse of dread and Reed’s destabilizing frantic guitar.

Also on the record are two more pretty, Reed penned/Nico sung jewels, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Femme Fatale,” and the loveliest song of Reed’s career, the preternatural “Sunday Morning,” which captures the hope and regret of a dawning Sunday with awe and delicacy.

The group’s remaining three albums produced several more gems in “White Light, White Heat,” “What Goes On,” “Beginning to See the Light,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Sweet Jane,” and “Rock and Roll,” all of which and more can be found in the highly recommended box set “Peel Slowly and See.”