In 1964, Lou Reed was turning out trendy pop singles for the budget label Pickwick records. At the same time, Welshman John Cale was playing viola in minimalist composer La Monte Young’s musical ensemble. Pickwick thought Reed’s novelty dance song “The Ostrich” had commercial potential, so together they enlisted members of Young’s circle to back him at live promotional gigs, where Cale noticed that Reed was tuning all six of his guitar strings to the same note, an experiment in tonality that resembled the way he was layering and extending notes to create sonic drones. Then, Reed showed him some of the other material he was working on, gritty, confrontational songs that took drug use, sadomasochism, and existential despair as their subject matter.
Cale says he admired Reed’s abilities but thought his potential was being wasted, so they started collaborating and were soon joined by Reed’s college classmate Sterling Morrison on rhythm guitar and Maureen “Moe” Tucker on drums. They called themselves the Velvet Underground, their name inspired by a 1963 paperback depicting sexual subcultures.
While the band was taking shape, nearby Andy Warhol was expanding his multimedia work and moving specifically into film, pushing the boundaries of form and content. Shortly after opening his first Factory in 1963, Warhol purchased a 16mm Bolex movie camera, which he used to perform hundreds of “Screen Tests.” These weren’t typical Hollywood auditions, but more experiments in duration, explains film critic Amy Taubin.
The experimental filmmaker Barbara Rubin introduced Warhol to the Velvet Underground and, drawn to the band’s distinctive look and sound, started managing the group in 1966. Warhol offered a few suggestions, such as adding a German model to the mix – she called herself Nico, and her voice was as striking as her appearance.