Lou Reed has died, and for the next few days the media will be awash with dribbling, fawning tributes. Most of them will probably be written by people who are tone-deaf.
No band in the history of rock music was more over-rated than the Velvet Underground, the "avant-garde" group Reed formed in New York in the 1960s ("avant-garde" being a term that should come with a flashing red warning light attached). Typical of the tributes we can expect is one I heard on Radio New Zealand this morning, in which it was said that everyone who heard the Velvet Underground was inspired to go out and start their own band. The explanation for that is simple: anyone hearing the Velvet Underground quickly realised you didn't need to be able to sing or play to form a group and be lionised by the left-wing, university-educated cognoscenti (who even then were trying to claim rock music as some sort of socio-political statement).
In that respect Reed's band foreshadowed punk by 10 years. Punk and the Velvets were both essentially anti-music in the sense that they made records for people who didn't like, or at least weren't interested in, music. The difference was that whereas punk at least had a redeeming working-class energy, everything the Velvet Underground did was an artful pose. They were rapidly adopted as the house band of the artsy-fartsy liberal intellectual elite, a status they have never entirely relinquished.
Fans of the Velvet Underground, who mostly exist in universities and the media, have assiduously promoted the myth that they were hugely influential. They were nothing of the sort, other than in the minds of their small coterie of admirers.
They are invariably referred to as a "cult" band, which is a snob code word meaning their appeal was too cerebral for ordinary joes to understand. The fact that the Velvets never cracked the Billboard Top 100 only confirms their credibility in the eyes of their fawning fans, to whom commercial success was the kiss of death and a sure sign of ideological error. But it's probably an accurate measure of the band's real worth.