Wall Street Journal OCTOBER 29, 2013 - by John Jurgensen


Almost every obituary for Lou Reed has cited a variation of the same quote by composer and producer Brian Eno, who said that the Velvet Underground's 1967 debut album didn't sell many copies, but everyone who bought one started a band.

The remark neatly sums up how Reed's band helped trigger a post-Beatles transformation in music culture. But the quote also encapsulates two minor mysteries: How many people actually bought the first Velvet Underground record? And what's the origin of that Brian Eno quote, which music pundits have trotted out for years to describe the delayed acclaim for the Velvets?

The latter question is easier to answer. Los Angeles music journalist Kristine McKenna said by phone yesterday that Eno made that observation a couple times in separate interviews with her. The version that most people paraphrase apparently came from 1982, when Eno was working with acts like Devo and David Byrne and was "at the height of his public visibility," McKenna said. (She used her interviews for articles in the Los Angeles Times, where she worked for twenty-two years, but often published her extended Q&As elsewhere. Her 1982 conversation with Eno appeared in Musician magazine.)

The Velvet Underground & Nico the band's Warhol-sponsored debut, came up during the interview after a question about Eno's album, Ambient 4: On Land:

How do you expect On Land to do commercially?

Eno: Very poorly compared with my other records - which haven't done too well either. My reputation is far bigger than my sales. I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold thirty-thousand copies in the first five years. The sales have picked up in the past few years, but I mean, that record was such an important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those thirty-thousand copies started a band! So I console myself thinking that some things generate their rewards in a second-hand way.

A representative for Eno's record label said he was unavailable for comment.

Even though Lou Reed was a rock star by that time, mostly due to solo hits like Walk On The Wild Side, The Velvet Underground still wasn't widely treasured. "They hadn't been rediscovered in the way they were later. Nobody was really interested," McKenna said.

A factor in changing that was the reissue of the Velvets catalog for the CD era, overseen by Bill Levenson, then of PolyGram Records and a now a guru of reintroducing gems from industry vaults. Prior to 1984, when a remastered version of the Velvets' debut was released, the album (featuring Warhol's banana cover art) had been out of print in the U.S. for ten years.

The exact tally of how many copies it sold initially is probably lost to time, said attorney Christopher Whent, who has represented the Velvets since 1983, when he first helped organize the band's business.

The reason: When MGM Records (whose Verve label had issued the debut album) was acquired by PolyGram in 1972, the old label's cumulative sales figures weren't incorporated into the new owner's accounting system. "That sacred last printout had apparently been scrapped as not worth the space it occupied," Whent said in an email, referring to his own effort in the '80s to track down the original MGM figures.

"My best guess as to pre-1984 domestic sales... is that the album sold perhaps fifty-thousand units. More is unlikely, and I would be surprised if it were as little as ten-thousand, but I cannot be accurate."

He added, "It might be considered surprising that a band selling so few albums would have their contract extended for a second, let alone a third album. However, recording costs were less by several orders of magnitude... It really didn't cost MGM very much to let the Velvets go into the studio for a day to record White Light/White Heat. (Thank God. Most of the world still hasn't caught up with WLWH, and in some ways it is at least as important, if not more important than the Banana album)."

The industry's byzantine counting practices changed for good in 1991 when Nielsen SoundScan introduced a universal system for tracking sales. Since then, The Velvet Underground & Nico has sold five hundred and fifty-eight thousand copies, more than any of the band's other releases. A six-disc deluxe reissue was released last year.