On the day before Lou Reed died I had been talking with a friend about how mainstream the Velvet Underground have become. This was occasioned by the fact that the band was the subject of questions on two TV quizzes in the previous week. On Pointless contestants were asked to estimate how many members of the general public would know what is depicted on the cover of the group’s first LP (the result was surprisingly high). On Only Connect the contestants quickly identified the names of band members in a cryptic grid, finding this one of the easiest answers.
On the day of Lou Reed’s death he made the headlines of BBC news and was placed on the front page of most British newspaper websites. On the day after, he made the front page of the Metro. I read this free newspaper on the way to the British Library, where I was researching the music of 1978-1980 by looking at old copies of Melody Maker, Sounds and NME. The coverage of Reed’s death provided a contrast with the rock deaths of this era. Keith Moon, Bon Scott and John Bonham all passed with barely a mention; Ian Curtis’s death did make the front page of the NME but was not given the blanket coverage that would be expected of this indie icon; it was only John Lennon’s death for which all the front pages were held, but even this event only caused a short pause in the music papers’ quest for newness.
And so we really do live in different times. Popular music is now firmly part of the establishment and the passing of its grand masters is time for national reflection. The media is now more obsessed with the music’s past than it is with its present. We also appear to be more ghoulish: is the 21st century witnessing a return to Victorian levels of death obsession? It’s certainly not hard to imagine Velvet Underground fans wearing black.