One could argue that the Velvet Underground are the ‘consensus’ greatest band in the history of American rock ‘n’ roll*, or at least the most influential. I don’t have the inclination to draw a Jack Black-style family tree to test that claim, but I will note that the most important tendencies in the Velvets’ music have become general tendencies in American alternative or underground rock over the past 40 years – though of course there are exceptions. First, American alternative rock has tended to be quite literate, even if the lyrics have often not been as straightforward as Reed’s ‘short story’ approach. Second, the Velvet Underground’s use of both heavy, droning noise and simple 1950s pop structures are pretty much the main tendencies informing American indie music even today. Third, another of Reed’s main contribution was to, as Andy Warhol requested, leave the ‘dirty words’ in, showing the darker aspects of the sex ‘n’ drugs lifestyle. Three-chord rock would likely still be fairly common without Lou Reed, but it would probably be a whole lot cleaner.
I’m not as across Lou Reed’s solo work – in part, because there is so much more of it – with ‘Transformer’, ‘Berlin’, ‘Songs for Drella’, and some of his more well-known tracks (such as ‘Coney Island Baby’) forming the majority of my knowledge of that part of his career. From what I have heard, it is in large part an extension of his VU-stuff, which is not to say that it is unoriginal, but that he was able to establish a definite style that served him well throughout his career. I’ll have to go back and listen to more of it, as I imagine many people will over the next several weeks.
But even from what I have heard there are so many great songs – ‘Heroin’, ‘What Goes On’, ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’’, ‘Vicious’, ‘Street Hassle’, ‘Perfect Day’ and so on … Lou Reed’s music may have been far blacker than the Beatles or the Beach Boys, but in its own way, it possibly brought as much joy to those who appreciated it.
*In the 1990s it looked like Velvets-fans R.E.M. might grab that title, but critical favour seems to have shifted away from them over the past fifteen years. Somewhat perversely, if they had stopped making records after ‘Automatic For The People’ they probably would have taken the top spot.