The famous quote about the Velvet Underground -- of which the late Lou Reed was singer and primary songwriter -- is that everyone who heard them went on to form a band. There's no way to prove this: We'd argue that at least half of them became music journalists and/or zine editors. Nonetheless, there's no denying Reed's influence on several generations of brainy songwriters. He wasn't afraid to get heavy: "Sister Ray" and "Venus in Furs" still sound sleazy and confrontational, and 1975's Metal Machine Music consists of nothing but formless electronic noise. Yet, as the third and fourth Velvets albums proved, he was also capable of love songs: to romantic interests, to the Warhol/Factory denizens of his acquaintance and to having one's life changed by the radio.
Without the Velvet Underground and solo albums like Berlin and Transformer, there is simply no rock music as we know it today. Small wonder that Reed's death over the weekend touched such a nerve. It is not just as if one of rock & roll's icons passed; it's as if a little bit of rock & roll itself passed, too.
But while the Velvets may have been confrontational, even difficult at times, they were not pretentious. Most of their songs were fairly simple to learn and play. They were as open to interpretation as anything in the Beatles or Dylan catalog, so it's not surprising that so many bands have covered Reed and Velvets songs. Here are six of our favorites.
1) R.E.M., "Pale Blue Eyes"
R.E.M. basically spent the first half of the 1980s introducing the Velvet Underground to the college radio generation. In almost every interview, the members credited the Velvets as a primary influence. R.E.M. has covered "There She Goes Again," "Femme Fatale" and "After Hours" over the course of its career. However, our favorite is "Pale Blue Eyes," which appears on the Dead Letter Office collection. Michael Stipe's voice is the perfect pitch and timbre to do the song justice, and the full-band arrangement contains a wallop missing from the original.
2) Rainy Day, "I'll Be Your Mirror"
A mid-80s collaboration between members of the Three O'Clock, Dream Syndicate, early Bangles and other so-called "paisley underground" bands, Rainy Day was a collection of semi-obscure 1960s covers. The whole album has a loose, semi-acoustic feel, while retaining real reverence for the source material. Tucked toward the end of side B, Susanna Hoffs takes lead vocals for "I'll Be Your Mirror." It's spectacular: The reverb-laden production sounds as if she's singing on a darkened stage in an empty hall, and her delivery is as naively passionate as Nico's was blasé and bored. Nice backing vocals by Kendra Smith, too.
3) Tracey Thorn, "Femme Fatale"
Before joining up with Ben Watt to form Everything But the Girl, Thorn recorded a solo album, A Distant Shore. Consisting mostly of guitar and vocals, the album contained traces of both the seaside minimalism of her former band, the Marine Girls, and the jazzy direction EBTG would take for its early work. "Femme Fatale" fit in perfectly.
4) Big Star, "Femme Fatale"
Almost as influential and revered as the Velvets themselves, Alex Chilton covered "Femme Fatale" for what ended up being Big Star's third album. He sounds positively tortured throughout the whole album, but rarely as much as here.
5) Joy Division, "Sister Ray"
In concert, Joy Division often covered "Sister Ray," the seventeen-minute track that closes the Velvets' White Light/White Heat. A live version appears on Still, Joy Division's posthumous 1981 collection. Captured live at London's Moonlight Club in April 1980, It's notable for the way it sounds, well, exactly like a Joy Division song. Bernard Sumner's guitar slashes like on "She's Lost Control," while Peter Hook plays his bass like a lead instrument and Curtis mutters the lyrics. "Should hear our version of 'Louie Louie'," Curtis cracks at the end. He would commit suicide about one month later.
6) Elizabeth Mitchell, "What Goes On"
"What Goes On" is the third Velvet Underground album's crown jewel. It's been covered by Bryan Ferry, David Bowie, Psychic TV, the Feelies (one of the world's great Velvets interpreters), and Detroit dream-poppers Slumber Party, among others. However, we're partial to this version by family-music sensation Elizabeth Mitchell and her band, if for no other reason than it proves the Velvet Underground could even work as children's music.