How Drummer Moe Tucker Defined the Sound of the Velvet Underground

A high school girl from Levit­town, New York, the country’s first sub­urb, Mau­reen “Moe” Tuck­er hard­ly fit the pro­file of a rock star in one of the most influ­en­tial bands of the 1960s. Then again, nei­ther did any of the mem­bers of the Vel­vet Under­ground. Lou Reed, John Cale, Ster­ling Mor­ri­son, and Tuck­er had bare­ly begun before Andy Warhol intro­duced them to Nico and billed them as the Explod­ing Plas­tic Inevitable, and it was Warhol who helped turn them into cult heroes. But Tuck­er made them sound like no one else. “Her style of drum­ming, that she invent­ed” Reed once remarked, “is amaz­ing. I’ve tried to get a drum­mer to do what she did and it’s impos­si­ble.” Her approach to Reed’s songs was a “mix of African trance rhythms and Ringo-like arrange­ment genius,” Adam Bud­of­sky writes at Mod­ern Drum­mer. “Her play­ing style was huge­ly respon­si­ble for the Velvet’s sin­gu­lar per­son­al­i­ty.”

Lis­ten, for exam­ple, to 1970’s Loaded – which Tuck­er sat out due to preg­nan­cy — next to The Vel­vet Under­ground & Nico, White Light/White Heat, or The Vel­vet Under­ground. Loaded, the only Vel­vet Under­ground album nev­er to go out of print, may be called by some a “near-per­fect rock album,” but it’s also the least exper­i­men­tal and least inter­est­ing of the band’s four stu­dio releas­es, the sound of the band with­out Cale and Tuck­er, reach­ing for radio hits. The Vel­vet Under­ground with Moe Tuck­er, on the oth­er hand, was the sound of a band that was con­stant­ly falling apart while root­ing down into a pri­mal rock and roll that would out­last them. It’s sub­lime, and Tuck­er deserves her rep­u­ta­tion as “one of the head hyp­no­tists,” in the words of Jonathan Rich­man.

Her con­tri­bu­tion was as much youth­ful enthu­si­asm and nerve as raw tal­ent. Com­pelled to play the drums by a love for the Rolling Stones, the Bea­t­les, and Niger­ian drum­mer Babatunde Olatun­ji, she might have banged away in unre­mark­able Long Island cov­er bands in her youth, becom­ing a more tra­di­tion­al play­er, had not Reed, who knew her broth­er, giv­en her the chance to play the first pay­ing VU gig at Sum­mit High School in New Jer­sey. As she remem­bers it in the punk oral his­to­ry project Please Kill Me:

I was a ner­vous wreck when we played that show. We were allowed to play three songs and we had prac­ticed them at John Cale’s loft. We played, “Wait­ing For the Man,” “Hero­in,” and I think the third one was “Venus In Furs.” 

Our set was only about 15 min­utes at the most and in each song some­thing of mine broke. All my stuff was falling apart! The foot ped­al broke in one song, the leg of the floor tom start­ed going loose. I thought, Oh shit, I’m going to ruin this!

Instead of ruin, what fol­lowed were more gigs and a peri­od of exper­i­men­ta­tion in which Tuck­er, who start­ed with only a snare, tried out dif­fer­ent con­fig­u­ra­tions of the drum kit in long jam ses­sions at Warhol’s Fac­to­ry: play­ing her bass drum with mal­lets on the floor, then on chairs while stand­ing up, eschew­ing cym­bals alto­geth­er, mak­ing judi­cious use of tom toms and tam­bourines, play­ing a few mem­o­rable shows with trash­cans when her drums were stolen.… She had no train­ing, no one in the band told her she was doing it wrong, and so she was free to rein­vent the drums her way.

As you’ll see in the thor­ough doc­u­men­tary above, Foun­da­tion Vel­vet, by Cam For­rester, Tuck­er’s way was exact­ly what the Vel­vets need­ed to recre­ate rock and roll in their image. She had a “dis­ci­pline with regards to play­ing the song, and not the instru­ment,” For­rester says. You’ll also see him recre­ate Tuck­er’s instru­men­ta­tion. In the time­stamps below, click on the demon­stra­tions to see her drum set­up for each track on the band’s first three albums.

Quotes/Introduction — 0:00
Back­ground & musi­cal begin­nings — 3:50
“Tucker’s sis­ter plays drums?” — 6:14
Andy Warhol, ‘The Fac­to­ry’, and Nico — 9:07
The ‘Explod­ing Plas­tic Inevitable’ Shows — 12:46
A female drum­mer? — 15:09
‘The Vel­vet Under­ground & Nico’ Ses­sions — 17:38
Good­bye to Nico & Andy…hello to VOLUME! — 25:02
‘White Light/White Heat’ & DRUMMING DEMONSTRATIONS — 28:18
John Cale leaves, and Doug Yule joins — 34:35
The third album & DRUMMING DEMONSTRATIONS — 37:07
‘Loaded’, band breakup, and solo career — 43:09
Moe’s hero­ic return to the drums — 45:58
Retire­ment from the music busi­ness — 53:48
Influ­ence & lega­cy — 54:28
“A nat­ur­al drum­mer…” — 57:03

One can approx­i­mate Tuck­er’s style and recon­struct her influ­ences, as For­rester has done here bril­liant­ly, but there will nev­er be anoth­er drum­mer like her.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Vel­vet Under­ground: Get a First Glimpse of Todd Haynes’ Upcom­ing Doc­u­men­tary on the Most Influ­en­tial Avant-Garde Rock­ers

The Vel­vet Under­ground & Andy Warhol Stage Pro­to-Punk Per­for­mance Art: Dis­cov­er the Explod­ing Plas­tic Inevitable (1966)

Watch The Vel­vet Under­ground Per­form in Rare Col­or Footage: Scenes from a Viet­nam War Protest Con­cert (1969)

Watch Footage of the Vel­vet Under­ground Com­pos­ing “Sun­day Morn­ing,” the First Track on Their Sem­i­nal Debut Album The Vel­vet Under­ground & Nico (1966)

Andy Warhol Explains Why He Decid­ed to Give Up Paint­ing & Man­age the Vel­vet Under­ground Instead (1966)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • tupa says:

    Sad­ly Moe Tuck­er became unhinged with real­i­ty and polit­i­cal par­ties when she expressed very ill informed per­spec­tives on for­mer Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and the Repub­li­can Par­ty over poli­cies and how they affect every­day peo­ple. Her rhetoric sound­ed like an iso­la­tion­ist whose in need of a scape goat to blame any and all her per­son­al frus­tra­tions over the lack of eco­nom­ic rev­enue from the Vel­vet Under­grounds lega­cy. Unlike John Cale and Lou Reed whose icon­ic lyri­cism and sub­ver­sive music direc­tion brought them praise and finan­cial rewards.

    Moe Tuck­er unfor­tu­nate­ly is a bit­ter per­son. Don’t believe my words just read her inter­views about pol­i­tics.

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