What do we talk about when we talk about the Velvet Underground? We mainly talk about influence. Like that line about how, even though the New York City band’s albums sold relatively poorly, seemingly everyone who did buy one went on to start a band. Maybe that’s why you hear echoes of the Velvets in so many major artists who’ve danced along rock’s cutting edge throughout the years—from the Strokes to Sonic Youth to R.E.M. to Television to the Talking Heads, all the way back to Roxy Music and David Bowie.
We also talk a good deal about Lou Reed, the band’s chief songwriter and singer, whose post- Velvets solo career was a wild ride of hits, misses, and experimentation that found him playing with everyone from Metallica to Pavarotti.
What we don’t talk about much is the drumming—though we absolutely should. Key to the Velvets’ avant-garde aesthetic was Maureen “Moe” Tucker’s untrained, minimalist approach to timekeeping. Put a traditional backbeat drummer in the Velvets (which they eventually did—more on that later) and the songs on 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico or 1968’s White Light/White Heat might not sound as hypnotic and spacey, or as forward-thinking. Tucker’s lack of technical prowess or even a traditional setup (her kit typically consisted of a snare, a couple of toms, and a kick drum flipped on its side and mounted so she could strike it with a stick or mallet) might be the first widely known example of a rock drummer challenging rock-drumming norms.
So let’s talk about the drumming on those Velvet Underground records. While we’re at it, let’s also talk about the drumming on solo records from Reed and Velvets bassist/violist John Cale, some of which featured drummers in the early stage of their careers who would eventually become influential players in their own right.
“I’m Waiting for the Man”
(Maureen Tucker, from The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967)
Just as “Play it like Ringo” is code for delivering a loping backbeat and tumbling fills, “Play it like Moe Tucker” usually means a drummer is being tasked with applying some deconstructed minimalism to a composition. And that’s what Tucker does so beautifully here, playing unwavering 8th notes on the snare and tambourine for the entirety of the 4:37 song. The rudimentary pulse is extremely groovy, with her insistent rhythm, a pounding piano, and tinny guitars forming a tapestry behind Lou Reed’s deadpan sing-speak about heading uptown to buy drugs. So many bands have duplicated this rhythmic vibe over the years.
“Run Run Run”
(Maureen Tucker, from The Velvet Underground & Nico)
Reed’s vocal cadence and the bounce of Tucker’s shuffle feel make “Run Run Run” somewhat reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” which appeared two years earlier. That’s where the similarities to contemporaries end. This is prime, primal Velvets. With no kick drum (if there is one, it isn’t audible in the mix) to anchor Tucker’s shuffle, she appears to just tap it out on the snare and hit a tom for the backbeat on 2 (sometimes with a tag on the “and” of 2) and 4. It’s typically minimal, but it’s as swinging and solid as anything
(Maureen Tucker, from The Velvet Underground & Nico)
The same year the Beatles “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’d” their way into America, Lou Reed wrote this dire, droning composition whose subject is made plain in the one-word title. When the Velvets tracked the final version two years later, Tucker didn’t so much keep time as she pounded the toms like someone hanging on for dear life while the track cycled from the meditative verse sections to the frantic tempo surges of the choruses (not that they resembled anything close to a typical chorus circa 1966). It’s perhaps the most Moe Tucker part Moe Tucker ever played. And she did it in 1966, when no one was playing like this. And anyone playing like this now is likely doing it because Tucker did it first.
“Oh! Sweet Nuthin’”
(Billy Yule, from the Velvet Underground’s Loaded, 1970)
With Tucker on maternity leave and a concerted effort to write more radio-friendly material, the Velvets sounded different on 1970’s Loaded. Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule (who’d replaced John Cale the year prior), plays drums on half the album, but it’s his younger brother Billy providing the sweet groove on this ballad, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers or George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. It’s fitting, then, that Billy Yule’s feel is somewhere between Charlie Watts, Jim Gordon, and Jim Keltner. And his fills are super tasty, from his mid-measure licks to the nearly minute-long snare and cymbal combination in the outro that begins as a fill and then subtly becomes the groove.
(Aynsley Dunbar, from Lou Reed’s Berlin, 1973)
This epic production, an utterly grim song cycle about a couple in the throes of drug addiction and domestic abuse, is a magnificent showcase for Aynsley Dunbar, primarily known for his work with Frank Zappa at the time. Dunbar proved to have the perfect sensibility for the musical territory Reed and producer Bob Ezrin mined on Berlin. “Sad Song” opens with a flutter of woodwinds and strings that feels pure Disney. Then Dunbar enters, altering that cinematic feel with a buzz roll crescendo and a commanding beat that moves the track into a heavier, symphonic rock direction. The mood softens when the drums drop out for the “Sad, sad song…” refrains, but when Dunbar re-enters for the song’s extended coda, he’s a towering rhythmic presence, pairing a powerful groove (a backbeat on the 2 and a syncopated accent on the “and” of 4) with creative kick and tom combinations.
(Richie Hayward, from John Cale’s Paris 1919, 1973)
On this track from his classic 1973 solo album Paris 1919, you can imagine John Cale telling upstart Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward that he was looking for a feel that was not quite funk, not quite reggae, but kinda-sorta somewhere between those two worlds. Hayward was an excellent choice to man the kit on a track so full of rhythmic nuance. He adds and subtracts throughout, shifting the feel as he goes from single snare hits on the ‘1s’ in the intro and opening verse into a full beat featuring some slippery, syncopated hi-hat work in the pre-chorus. Hayward cuts the groove in half for the second verse, which builds the tension leading into the pre-chorus and first chorus.
“The Blue Mask”
(Doane Perry, from Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask, 1982)
Had you said in 1969, when the Velvets were still underground darlings, that Lou Reed would one day find himself working with Jethro Tull’s drummer, it would’ve been hard to fathom. But as Reed’s solo career would subsequently prove, anything was possible. So future Jethro Tull drummer Doane Perry pounding it out on 1982’s The Blue Mask seems about right. The unapologetically heavy title track begins where most hard rock songs end: in a haze of jarring, deliberate crescendos, with dynamic drum rolls around the kit. By the time the band settles into a slamming groove, Perry’s really cutting loose, snapping off two lightning-fast rolls before the first verse starts. He sits deep in the pocket in both the 5/4 verses and the double-time choruses, slipping in double-kick licks and more tasty fills throughout.
(Fred Maher, from Lou Reed’s New York, 1989)
Fred Maher served as co-producer and drummer on New York, a rocking return to form that gave Reed his biggest hit in years in “Dirty Blvd.” The song is built upon the repetitive strum of an electric guitar, and Maher constructs a brilliant drum track around that simple part that is loaded with many great little details: the simple fills he employs to transition from verse to chorus that vary slightly each time around; and those faux reggae licks that ease the downshift from the 2-and-4 backbeat choruses to the four-across-the-bar side-stick in the verses. His halting pushes and tight syncopations give the choruses some rhythmic grit. And last but not least, let’s give some love to that tight, raw drum sound. Unlike a lot of tones from 1989, this one has aged like a fine wine.
(Maureen Tucker, from the Velvet Underground’s Live MCMXCIII, 1993)
When Moe Tucker got her crack at “Sweet Jane” on the Velvets’ 1993 European reunion tour (documented on the live album MCMXCIII), she made it her very own with a solid, punchy beat that locks in tight with Cale’s bass and the choppy strum of Reed and Sterling Morrison’s guitars. It bears little resemblance to the languid feel of the original or the glammy crunch of Lou Reed’s famous live Rock ’n’ Roll Animal version. This instead sounds like the progenitors of indie rock returning to recast one of their classics in the style of the subgenre they helped invent. And Tucker’s drumming is a huge part of that vibe.