Nobody can deny that tomboy musician, Maureen “Moe” Tucker, the androgynously-dressed drummer from The Velvet Underground was an integral part of the band’s sound. We find out how she developed her musical style and how she made her way into one of America’s most iconic avant-garde, experimental punk-rock bands.
Most drummers bang their way through their music careers sitting down but not Velvet Underground’s Maureen Ann “Moe” Tucker, the androgynously-dressed member of one of America’s best loved indie punk bands that spent more time hanging out with Andy Warhol than he probably did with his own paintings.
Rolling Stones Magazine named her one of the Top 100 drummers in the world and she got there by literally standing up for herself. Maureen was one of very few drummers who didn’t remain seated while playing the drums so all five foot of her could get easier access to the bass drum.
The late Lou Reed, her bandmate in the Velvet Underground, thinks she is a “genius drummer”. “Her style of drumming that she invented is amazing,” said the the enigmatic songsmith of the band in 2003.
Her minimalistic style of doing away with cymbals that could drown out the other instruments in the band and helping “keep time” for their songs, consisted of a simple drum kit set-up of tom toms, a snare drum and an upturned bass drum. For drumming, she played with mallets rather than drumsticks. Moe’s unique approach to Lou Reed’s songs was a mix of African trance rhythms and Ringo-like arrangement genius. Her playing style was hugely responsible for the Velvets’ singular personality, as important as Reed’s deadpan vocals, Sterling Morrison’s architectural electric guitar, or John Cale’s otherworldly viola.
Unlike other bands where the drummer is rarely acknowledged as the star of the group, Moe held her own with the rest of the Velvet Underground members. “It was never my goal to be a musician and suddenly playing drums in a band and being in a studio was really, like, wow, you know,” she recalls in an interview done with Prism Films UK
When asked how she became so successful as a female drummer in an era where males were dominating the scene, she replied saying “We were all too drugged up back then for anyone to notice I was a woman.”
And that’s the kind of inscrutable, poker-faced responses you’ll get from this tomboy personality who hardly ever minces her words.
Maureen Ann “Moe” Tucker was born August 26, 1944 in Jackson Heights, Queens and her middle-class Catholic family upbringing grounded this petite drummer.
She grew up enjoying the music of Elvis Presley, Bo Diddley and the many girl groups of the time but the major influence in her life was Babatunde Olatunji, an African drummer and percussionist which she cites as a major driving force for her foray into music.
At the time, Maureen also didn’t want to spend too much time picking up an instrument hence the decision to play drums. She learnt to play them at the age of 19. Like most self-taught musicians, Maureen picked her skills up by playing along with popular songs on a second-hand drum kit. She was also lucky that her mother really supported her playing. “She was great about it,” Maureen recalls about her mother’s support of her daughter banging the drums in the house. “If I’d learn something, I’d say ‘Ma! Ma!’ Hear this!”
Maureen’s journey into the Velvet Underground began at the age of 10, when she met Sterling Morrison, her brother’s friend. When Sterling was in the band during its early days and they were in need of a drummer, Sterling remembered her as the younger sister of one of his college friends who played the drums. She replaced the band’s original percussionist, Angus Maclise because he felt the band had sold out when they took a paying gig.
By the time she joined the Velvets, Tucker had dropped out of Ithaca College and was working for IBM as a keypunch operator. She played the band most nights while working the day job.
“When I was playing with the Velvets, I was playing with a group of friends. In my mind, I wasn’t trying to be a musician so it never occurred to me to look for someone else to play with. So I just went out and got a job. I just had no interest in playing with anyone else. It was just a little adventure for me,” she continues.
Maureen’s playing has been described as deep and African-like because it fit the sound of the band and the band managed to sustain this level of rawness in their music because unlike other established bands of the era, the Velvets did not have the luxury of time to record their albums in the studio. That was also why Maureen trimmed the fat on a lot of her playing. Probably something that came with the territory thanks to a frugal upbringing.
“My family was damn poor when I was growing up on Long Island. There were no food stamps, no Medicaid, no welfare. If you were poor, you were poor. You didn’t have a TV, you didn’t have five pairs of shoes, you didn’t have Levi’s, you didn’t have a phone; you ate Spam, hot dogs and spaghetti,” Maureen recalls.
Rock critic Robert Christgau said of Tucker, “Mo was a great drummer in a minimalist, limited, autodidactic way that I think changed musical history. She is where the punk notion of how the beat works begins.”
In her long-spanning career with the Velvets, Maureen played on all of the band’s studio albums except for 1970’s “Loaded”, their last with Lou Reed, which she missed because she was having her first child at the time. Her absence on that album was very obvious even though “Loaded” is now considered a classic album in its own right, straddling everything American avant-garde, blues and rock at the time.
At points, Maureen wasn’t chicken to take the mic and sing co-lead vocals on three of the band’s songs including, “After Hours” (see music video above). Lou Reed’s decision in allowing Tucker to take the lead on that song was that he felt the song was “so innocent and pure” that he could not possibly sing it himself.
Today Maureen remains an icon in the industry for her unique ‘middle-finger’ musical approach which she has successfully now parlayed into the world of social activism. A nice transition for a drummer who still refuses to sit down and take it from the powers that be.