"After Hours" is one of three Velvet Underground songs that drummer Maureen "Moe" Tucker sings on - the other two being "The Murder Mystery" and "I'm Sticking with You."
Lou Reed chose to have Tucker sing it because it was too "innocent and pure" for his own voice and personae. This choice, whether intentionally or inadvertently, gave birth to a song beloved by Velvet faithful specifically because it's so unique in the band's catalogue.
Tucker sounds a bit hesitant, even a bit nervous, throughout her performance. This slight shakiness is perfect for the song, though, as "After Hours" is about a shut-in enviously watching the nighttime world outside and wishing she could participate.
The song's emotional theme is twofold. On one hand, the narrator celebrates the night, with the chorus:
If you close the door
The night could last forever
Leave the sunshine out
And say hello to never
In just about any other band's vision, this would probably become a celebration of the nightlife and parties, but there's another level to the yearning. The singer watches folks dancing and "having such fun," but she's not part of it.
One of the most touching parts of the song is when Tucker sings, "I wish it could happen to me," in a voice so disaffected and utterly human that we recognize our own longing in it. She celebrates that nightlife, but she can't bring herself to join it:
Dark party bars, shiny Cadillac cars
And the people on subways and trains
Looking gray in the rain as they stand disarrayed
Oh, the people look well in the dark
This is more a statement of her aversion for sunlight than it is a celebration of her own night owl lifestyle. She is trapped on the outside looking in.
Another emotional stinger in the song comes when Tucker sings:
Oh, someday I know
Someone will look into my eyes
And say hello
You're my very special one
It's so moving because we know she's lying to herself, as she follows up this thought with:
But if you close the door
I'd never have to see the day again
How's she going to find someone to love her if she keeps hiding from the world? It's impossible... and maybe she knows it, too.
Though Lou Reed wrote the lyrics, it's hard to imagine a more perfect delivery than Tucker's. It is, indeed, an innocent and pure song, and the fact that Tucker wasn't accustomed to singing amplifies that.
In 1980, Tucker told Byron Coley of the New York Rocker that she would never sing "After Hours" again unless someone "specifically requested it."
Many people have heard "After Hours" without realizing what the song was or who it was by. It's been popular among other musicians. Meg White wrapped up a White Stripes New Year's Eve show with it on December 31, 2000; Eddie Vedder performed the song during a 2013 tour in tribute of Lou Reed, who passed away that year. Performances have also been recorded by R.E.M., Blind Melon, Anthony Kiedis and John Frusciante and James Iha.
Tucker was nervous while recording the song. In a 2012 interview, she told Prism Films that she had tried and failed to lay down the vocals "like six" times. Sterling Morrison was in the recording booth making fun of her. She finally said that everyone had to leave except her and Reed. "I can't do this," she said, "I'm really embarrassed."
But, once it was just her and Reed, she managed to get it down. "But it worked out well, everyone likes that song," she said.