Brian Eno? Lou Reed? Sylvain Sylvain? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The most influential rock band of the 1960s and early 1970s was The Velvet Underground, but their path breaking sound did not achieve great commercial success. A popular quip has emerged depicting their importance:
The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band.
This statement has been ascribed to the prominent music producer Brian Eno and to the founding band member Lou Reed. On the other hand, some assert that the quotation was apocryphal. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: QI believes that the expression above evolved from a remark made by Brian Eno during an interview published in the “Los Angeles Times” in May 1982. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
“My reputation is far bigger than my sales,” he said with a laugh on the phone from his home in Manhattan. “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band! So I console myself in thinking that some things generate their rewards in second-hand ways.”
Eno mentioned a sales figure of 30,000 records. But the remark was modified during the ensuing years to heighten its humor; the sales number was often changed or omitted.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1985 the student newspaper “The Daily Northwestern” published an article about the band R.E.M. which was performing a concert on campus. Former student Liz Phillip had founded a music magazine called “Matter” in Chicago. The newspaper printed her comments about R.E.M. which included an analogy between the band and The Velvet Underground. Interestingly, Phillip mentioned a higher sales figure than Eno did: 2
“The important thing about them is that they’ve inspired so many kids to pick up guitars,” said Phillip, who also said she was inspired to start a magazine because of R.E.M. “They say that the Velvet Underground only sold 60,000 albums, but each kid that bought that album started a band. That’s the same thing R.E.M. does.”
In 1988 and 1989 two members of The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed and John Cale, collaborated to produce a show about Andy Warhol called “Songs for ‘Drella”. Warhol was a pivotal sponsor of The Velvet Underground in the 1960s. In January 1989 “The New York Times” interviewed the musicians, and Lou Reed employed the jest, but he disclaimed coinage by using the phrase “there’s a joke”. Also, he did not present any sales figure: 3
“There’s a joke that we didn’t sell many records,” Mr. Reed said, “but that everyone who bought them went out and started a band.”
In March 1989 the music and movie critic Richard Harrington writing in “The Washington Post” employed an instance of the saying and labeled it “common wisdom”: 4
While the Dead and the Doors represented a certain colorful community, the Velvets tended to black dress, corrosive music and dark lyricism. Their records sold poorly, but the band had a disproportionately strong influence, the common wisdom being that everyone who bought a Velvet Underground album went out and started a band; genres like glitter, punk and new wave would eventually owe them a debt.
In November 1989 an article about Lou Reed in “New York Magazine” printed the expression while calling it an “old truism”: 5
Though he is not a superstar in the conventional sense (only one of his albums has made the Top 10), he is a legend among his fans and critics. It’s an old truism that his group, the Velvet Underground, did not sell many records, but everyone who bought one started a band. David Bowie, Talking Heads, and R.E.M. are among those Reed has influenced, as well as almost every New Wave group.
In 1993 the saying continued to circulate; “The Orange County Register” of Santa Ana, California printed the following instance ascribed to an anonymous critic: 6
As one critic observed, “the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one formed their own band.” A host of post-punk and alternative music groups such as Sonic Youth and R.E.M. have acknowledged the band’s influence, and some of them contributed to an album of Velvet Underground covers called “Heaven and Hell.”
In 1997 “Billboard” remarked that the album released in 1967 titled “The Velvet Underground & Nico” which featured a banana on the cover did not yield any hits for the group. “Billboard” also printed the saying and credited fans: 7
But, as Velvets fans are quick to point out, everyone who bought a copy eventually started their own band.
In 1999 “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to American Heroes” included a version of the expression with a sales figure of 10,000: 8
It’s often said of the first Velvet Underground album: “It only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
In 2006 “USA Today” printed an article about a band called the New York Dolls, and a member of the group referenced the saying: 9
The New York Dolls were a band for only four years in the early ’70s. They released two albums: their eponymous 1973 debut and 1974’s aptly titled Too Much Too Soon, neither of which was a commercial hit.
“But the fans never gave up on us,” guitarist Sylvain Sylvain says. “And I always say that everyone who bought our album went out and started a band.”
That latter line has been used to describe another seminal Big Apple-based outfit, the Velvet Underground. But it applies equally to the Dolls, whose passionate, power-chord-driven music and flamboyant, cross-dressing performance style also prefigured punk and defined glitter rock.
In 2012 an article in “The Cornell Daily Sun” of Cornell University printed a version of the saying with a sales figure of 10,000 again: 10
An anonymous wise man once said, The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.
In 2013 the “CNN Wire” distributed a variant in which attending a concert engendered the desire to form a band: 11
Rock mythology has it that even though they were around only for a few years, everyone who went to a Velvet Underground concert went out and started a band.
In conclusion, Brian Eno should be credited with the statement he made in made 1982. Lou Reed also employed a version of the saying by 1989 but he did not claim credit. Later instances of the expression were probably derived directly or indirectly from the words of Brian Eno.
Image Notes: Photo of the members of the Velvet Underground. Poster describing a show called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Both images are in the public domain and were accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to James Callan whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
Update History: On March 31, 2016 the 1999 citation was added.
- 1982 May 23, Los Angeles Times, Lots of Aura, No Air Play by Kristine McKenna, Quote Page L6, Column 4, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1985 May 3, The Daily Northwestern, What’s R.E.M. saying? by Tim Ihssen, Quote Page 11, Column 2, Evanston, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1989 January 6, New York Times, Pop/Jazz: Recalling A Pop Artist And a Friend by Stephen Holden, Quote Page C22, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1989 March 13, The Washington Post, Lou Reed & His Notes From the Underground; In His ‘New York,’ Songs That Savage A Decadent City by Richard Harrington, Quote Page B01, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1989 November 27, New York Magazine, Volume 22, Number 47, Rock Noir: Lou Reed Reckons with Andy Warhol in ‘Songs for Della’ by Peter Blauner, Start Page 44, Quote Page 44, News America Publishing, Inc., New York; now published by New York Media, LLC. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1993 October 31, The Orange County Register, Two decades later, it’s the Velvet touch again; REUNIONS: The Velvet Underground, the legendary grandparent of alternative rock, is back. Well, almost by Valerie Takahama, Quote Page F33, Santa Ana, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1997 October 25, Billboard, Volume 109, Number 43, Sonic Signposts: New York: The Sound of the City by Decade by Richard Henderson, Album: The Velvet Underground & Nico, Start Page 24, Quote Page 26, Column 4, Published by Nielsen Business Media, Inc. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1999, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to American Heroes by Jay Stevenson and Matthew Budman, Quote Page 332, Alpha Books, New York. (eBook Collection EBSCOhost) ↩
- 2006 July 27, USA Today, Section: Life, The ‘Day’ has come for New York Dolls by Elysa Gardner, Quote Page 07d, USA Today, a division of Gannett Satellite Information Network, LLC. (Ebsco Academic Search Premier) ↩
- 2012 April 26, The Cornell Daily Sun (Cornell University), Article: I Can’t Sing It Strong Enough, Author/Byline: James Rainis, Section: Arts, Ithaca, New York. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2013 October 27, CNN Wire, Article: Lou Reed, rock legend, dies at 71, Byline: CNN Staff, CNN Newsource Sales, Inc. (Academic OneFile Gale) ↩