Velvet Underground Sues Over "Banana Album" Cover Art

The band, which split almost 40 years ago, says the Warhol Foundation has no right to license the cover art to be reproduced on products

By Sam Schulz
|  Thursday, Jan 12, 2012  |  Updated 6:53 AM EDT
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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The line-up of the Velvet Underground that released The Velvet Underground and Nico — also known as the banana album — in 1967 released White Light White Heat the next year. From left to right, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale and Maureen ("Mo") Tucker.

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The record that launched 10,000 rock bands is at the heart of a new lawsuit filed Wednesday by legendary rock band the Velvet Underground.

The band, which emerged from the late '60s avant garde New York scene, released their debut The Velvet Underground and Nico in 1967. The band's friend and patron Andy Warhol provided its iconic cover image, a screen print of a banana.

Now, the Velvets — long broken up but anchored in its time by Lou Reed, who went on to a long-lived career as one of rock's elder statesmen — are suing the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts over that banana.

The foundation had licensed the banana image to be emblazoned on iPad sleeves and iPhone cases. According to the band, the foundation said it had a copyright interest in the image, which includes Andy Warhol's typewritten name.

But according to the Velvets' lawsuit, the banana is in the public domain, since Warhol, who died in 1987, never copyrighted the image.

The Velvet Underground insists that it has earned the image's trademark rights, by virtue of decades of using it as one.

"The symbol has become so identified with the Velvet Underground... that members of the public, and particularly those who listen to rock music, immediately recognize the banana design as the symbol of the Velvet Underground," the suit says.

It notes that even an Absolut Vodka ad showed the banana's likeness with the caption "Absolut Underground."

The band seeks a jury trial and unspecified damages in its suit, filed in New York federal court.

The Velvet Underground and Nico, also known as "the banana album," sold only 10,000 records on its initial release, but the old platitude says that everyone who bought it started a band. Rolling Stone ranked it the 13th greatest album ever.

The band's classic line-up included guitarists Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison, violist John Cale and Maureen "Mo" Tucker. At Warhol's suggestion, German model Nico sang three of the debut album's songs, hence its name.

The album's noisy din, unorthodox drumming and avant garde influence — not to mention its frank lyrics about heroin deals and sadomasochism — became a huge influence to punk, noise and indie rock.

Selected Reading: Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal, Pitchfork

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