Further books are scheduled in the series: on Bob Dylan – Joni Mitchell – Björk.
Each of these musicians is a virtuoso of one or another aspect of pop.
Yet the first book to appear – by Richard Witts – tackles the Velvet Underground.
The Velvet Underground were decidedly not these kinds of virtuoso.
There are confirmed music fans who can’t bear to listen to the songs considered their most characteristic (‘Heroin’, ‘Sister Ray’).
With a decidedly slim catalogue (four studio albums) but an outsized posthumous reputation they are not an easy act to place in the history of popular music.
Nor is it easy to identify the band as a unit since members came and went.
‘The Velvet Underground’ Witts says outright ‘has always been a bit of a mess.’
These liabilities are all somehow turned to strengths in Witts’s little marvel of a book.
I began with suspicion but it won me over completely: it is careful funny refreshing – usefully revisionist about the Velvets and a corrective to all sorts of illnesses in the genre.
Witts – author of a biography of Nico and interviewer at one time or another (for Radio 3) of all the principals in the band except Lou Reed could just as easily have produced a fan letter or a recitation of myths.
Instead he manages to defamiliarise the band and its career while communicating all the necessary information.
This is the true double task of the pop critic-historian and Witts goes to creative sometimes comic lengths to accomplish it.