On the last day of 1965, viewers tuning into CBS were treated to a 6-minute report presented by Walter Cronkite himself called “The Making of an Underground Film”; DM’s Richard Metzger wrote about it last year. CBS’ news story prominently mentioned and showed a new band named the Velvet Underground—their first time on TV, ever.
The actual focus of the story was the underground movie scene, in particular an experimental filmmaker named Piero Heliczer. When CBS came a-callin’ to do its story, Heliczer was shooting a 12-minute short called Dirt, featuring the Velvet Underground, and that was the scene Heliczer happened to be shooting that day. (For some reason none of the fellows in the band are wearing a shirt.) Heliczer was actually an important figure in the development in VU’s sound, as we shall see below.
Reporter Peter Beard begins his report standing outside the Bridge, a theater located on 4 St. Marks Place in the East Village, an early center for alternative arts. In fact you can plainly see the word “FUGS” next to Beard on the facade of the Bridge. Remarkably, Cronkite interviews “the godfather of American avant-garde cinema,” Jonas Mekas and the undisputed king of über-experimental abstract movies, Stan Brakhage. CBS even shows more than 30 seconds of a Brakhage movie, presumably part of Two: Creeley/McClure, which is predictably a rapid-fire montage of stutter-y and blurry images—it almost feels like CBS’ little joke on the underground scene. Naturally, CBS also looks at Warhol’s Sleep and documents Warhol filming one of his own parties, at which Edie Sedgwick is joyousy bopping away.
Whenever I hear the word “underground,” I am reminded of when the word first acquired a specific meaning for me and for many others in NYC in the early Sixties. It referred to underground cinema and the people and lifestyle that created and supported this art form. And the person who first introduced me to this scene was Piero Heliczer, a bona fide “underground film-maker”—the first one I had ever met.
On an early spring day John [Cale] and I were strolling through the Eastside slums and ran into Angus [MacLise] on the corner of Essex and Delancey. Angus said, “Let’s go over to Piero’s,” and we agreed.
It seems that Piero and Angus were organizing a “ritual happening” at the time—a mixed-media stage presentation to appear in the old Cinematheque. … It was to be entitled “Launching the Dream Weapon,” and it got launched tumultuously. In the center of the stage there was a movie screen, and between the screen and the audience a number of veils were spread out in different places. These veils were lit variously by lights and slide projectors, as Piero’s films shone through them onto the screen. Dancers swirled around, and poetry and song occasionally rose up, while from behind the screen a strange music was being generated by Lou, John, Angus, and me.
For me the path ahead became suddenly clear—I could work on music that was different from ordinary rock & roll since Piero had given us a context to perform it in. In the summer of 1965 we were the anonymous musicians who played at some screenings of “underground films,” and at other theatrical events, the first of which was for Piero’s films (I think that Barbara Rubin showed “Christmas on Earth” and Kenneth Anger showed a film also).
Around this time, somehow, CBS News decided that Walter Cronkite should have a feature on an “underground” film being made. By whatever selection process, Piero was able to be the “underground film-maker”; since he had already decided to film us playing anyway, we got into the act (and besides, we had “underground” in our name, didn’t we? Maybe someone at CBS reads Pirandello).
On his 1989 album New York, Lou Reed sang, “No one here dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or anything / They dream of dealing on the dirty boulevard….” And yet shortly before he died, Reed (along with John Cale) did employ the services of an attorney in order to sue their old chum Andy Warhol (well, sort of). To be precise, in 2012 the Velvet Underground sued the Andy Warhol Foundation for improper use of that famous banana logo that Warhol designed for the Velvets’ first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico.
It’s all kind of a sad coda to the uneasy partnership that Warhol and the Velvets struck way back in 1966.
The offending iPhone case
So in 2012 the Andy Warhol Foundation approved the manufacture of a bunch of iPhone and iPod accessories using the famous banana image, and John Cale and Lou Reed really didn’t like that the organization had sought to, ahem, “deceive the public” into thinking the Velvet Underground offered “sponsorship or approval” of the items, which included “a $149.95 shoulder bag and a $59.95 protective sleeve.” As stated in the lawsuit The Velvet Underground v. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.,
VU’s use and application of the design to symbolize the group and its whole body of work has been exclusive, continuous and uninterrupted for more than 25 years. . . . Members of the public, and particularly those who listen to rock music, immediately recognize the banana design as the symbol of the Velvet Underground. . . . It is not merely the graphic reproduction by Andy Warhol of a piece of fruit: it is the ‘iconic’ VU banana.”
That was in January of 2012. But don’t get the idea that the Andy Warhol Foundation took the legal challenge lying down over the next few months. For instance, in September 2012 it was reported that in court papers filed in U.S. District Court in New York, the Foundation claimed that the band’s use of the famous image in licensing deals “constitutes unclean hands and illegal trademark use.” The Warhol Foundation claimed that it “enjoys priority of trademark use in the Warhol Banana Design” because the group “never made a bona-fide source-indicating trademark use” of the graphic.
Somewhat sensibly, the Foundation claimed that it owns the rights to Warhol’s name and signature, although given that the signature in question is a stylized font-representation of Warhol’s name, I’d be curious how the exact wording of the legal filing ran. In their counter-filing, the Warhol Foundation made the mirror image of VU’s original claim, stating that the group’s use of Warhol’s name “is likely to confuse consumers into believing that the Warhol Foundation or other authorized representative of Andy Warhol has sponsored, approved or authorized the good or service in question.” Exactly: there’s no lower blow than implying that the Andy Warhol Foundation would ever, ever authorize some cheesy Warhol “shoulder bag” or “protective sleeve”—which, let’s recall, was exactly what they did.
So thorny! Call me crazy (or Solomon), but it sounds like a situation where both parties have some claim over the copyright, so maybe a shared copyright is appropriate, if that’s even a thing. The details of the settlement, as is usually the case in such matters, have not been disclosed.
Here’s a brief clip about the origins of the Warhol/VU partnership from Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film from the PBS American Masters series:
The influence of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground reaches far into the soft and yielding heart of rock and roll. I’ve compiled a short mix of songs by artists that -according to my very subjective take on the matter - have absorbed some of that Velvet energy. These groups may not have consciously set out to write or play a song in the spirit of Lou and the Velvets, but they certainly seem to have fallen under the spell of those magic beams that stream from the halls of the Akashic Record where recordings marked V.U. and L.R. rotate like gleaming Saturnian rings in the infinitesimal blackness of absolute reality. (Might be a little not safe for work.)
01. I’m Going Out Of My Way - Stereolab
02. Failures - Joy Division
03. Bad Vibrations - Black Angels
04. She Cracked - Modern Lovers
05. The Modern Age - The Strokes
06. Down 42nd St. To The Light - East River Pipe
07. Tell Me When It’s Over - Dream Syndicate
08. Blue Flower - Mazzy Star
09. Always The Sun - The Stranglers
10. Leif Erikson - Interpol
11. Hanging Out And Hung Up On The Line - Julian Cope
12. Looking For A Way In - Cornershop
13. Shine A Light - Wolf Parade
14. The Moon - Cat Power
15. Sleepin’ Around - Sonic Youth
Okay, so it’s “Cyber Monday” and also ‘tis the season for all the record companies to start releasing those deluxe, super deluxe, ultra deluxe, etc, box sets of classic rock albums. These can range from essential to silly, often within the same box (what was on the discs of the Pink Floyd Immersion box sets last year was truly excellent, but the stupid Pink Floyd drink coasters and Dark Side of the Moon marbles (marbles???) were, perhaps, uh, less essential). When box sets seem more like they were put together by marketeers, rather than by actual fanatical fans, it really shows.
The “Heroic Overkill in a Classic Rock Box Set” award—not that there is anything wrong with giving the folks who actually pay for their music more, rather than less—this year probably deserves to go to the 15 disc box set of the 1973 King Crimson classic Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. (Overkill it may be, though I’ve heard few King Crimson fanatics complaining about getting their money’s worth from this monster).
Another release this year that (almost) gets it perfect, is UMe’s new 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition of The Velvet Underground & Nico. I can’t imagine this one not being nominated—and winning—a Grammy for best archival reissue, or box set, but it could be in a number of categories, including best design and best liner notes for VU expert Richie Unterberger’s exhaustively detailed extended essay about the recording of the album and its bad-luck plagued initial release in 1966.
I always approach these things with skepticism. Do I really need to buy an album, AGAIN, that I’ve owned on LP, CD, as part of the Peel Slowly and See box set and that I passed up when it came out again in 2002, in an edition supposedly better than the version on the box and blah, blah, blah? Is it worth the money is how I try to approach “reviewing” something like this (who gives a fuck what I or anybody else thinks about this music, it’s beyond having an opinion on). Actually, since I don’t even have to pay for music and DVDs anyway, I get review copies of pretty much everything I want, I think that makes me slightly more difficult to impress.
Additionally, I bought my first copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico—actually my grandmother bought it for me—in 1976, when I was ten. I’d read about the Velvet Underground in CREEM and I pretty much graduated from James Bond soundtracks to Ziggy, Iggy, the VU and Never Mind The Bollocks in one fell swoop. Obviously I was a child, and like most children, I didn’t have all that many records, so at the time I was initially exposed to The Velvet Underground & Nico, it was one of maybe a dozen or so records I owned. I’m not trying to convey how hip of a little kid I was, it’s just that this an album that I have listened to over and over and over again, so many damned times that I didn’t think it was something I’d ever want to listen to for pleasure again. I’ve pulled out this album very few times in the past 25 years. It’s never the one I grab when I want to listen to the Velvet Underground (that would be the VU collection, for me).
So why is this box set so great, you’re wondering? Well, for one, it’s pretty definitive. I think it can be predicted, with confidence, that this is probably the very, very last time that The Velvet Underground & Nico will ever be re-issued on a disc of any sort (maybe there will be a Blu-ray in the future, but what would be the point of that?). Truly, longtime Velvets A&R man Bill Levenson and Sterling Sounds’ Kevin Reeves have been able to tease out sonic nuances from the master tapes of both the stereo and mono releases of the album and there are slight variations and single edits and things like that, included, some more commonly heard than others. The selling points of this set have little to do with the album as we know it, however, and everything to do with it being the first official release of the now legendary Scepter Studios sessions as discovered on the “Norman Dolph acetate” found at the Sixth Ave Flea market in New York in 2002.
The acetate (a glass test record) was cut of the original five day VU recording sessions at the near derelict studios belonging to the Scepter Records label in 1966. These sessions were paid for by a Columbia Records sales executive named Norman Dolph (who I’ve met—we both collect Paul Laffoley’s art—he’s a fascinating guy) and Andy Warhol. As heard on disc four of this new box set—in the cleanest version you’ll ever hear—the Scepter Studios sessions is a true revelation—white light, white heat, even!—for any aficionado of the Velvet Underground, even the most jaded ones, like me.
It’s a show stopper. Some reviewers call the differences minor, but I don’t think so…
Truly, I’d have never thought that I could get into this album again with fresh ears, but that really has happened, via the Scepter sessions. I’ve been listening to it obsessively for about a week and just digging the fuck out of it.
Five tracks are the same, although there are different mixes, three entirely different takes and several vocal changes. Since it’s likely that when these same multi-tracked tapes were taken back into the studio at TTG in Los Angeles for finishing, the original performances were probably recorded over: Lou Reed’s falsetto backing vocals on “Femme Fatale” for instance (in the version we know he sings low and flat). “Heroin” features a far more frantic, crazed viola from Cale and even starts off with a much different opening line, giving new meaning to the lyrics (John Cale wrote of being infuriated at the change in his autobiography, now we can hear what he was so pissed off about.) “European Son” is two minutes longer and although the take is different enough from the final version known on the album, it’s pretty amazing to hear just how well-rehearsed that ear-splitting cacophony actually was! That this was “lost” for so many years, and now can be heard like this, well, it’s pretty extraordinary, it really is.
The set also included a loose 1966 rehearsal tape recorded at Warhol’s Factory on January 3, 1966 and a nicely cleaned up version of the only decently recorded performance of the band with Nico known to exist, live at the Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus, Ohio on November 4, 1966. Part of this recording, the menacing, amorphous jam “Melody Laughter” was previously excerpted on the Peel Slowly and See box set. It’s much (much) better than The Quine Tapes if you are wondering.
Additionally, there is a remastered version of Nico’s Chelsea Girl album, which seems appropriate to include here. The odds of that one seeing a sonic upgrade its own were kinda slim, so I’m OK with that.
The only place where I feel the 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition of The Velvet Underground & Nico falters in any way is the failure to include the FINAL piece of media that would have made it a totally perfect box set of the 66-67 Nico arc of the band’s career, and this is the sole sync-sound audio-visual document made of the Velvet Underground and Nico, the Warhol (or Paul Morrissey) shot 16mm film Symphony in Sound.
The film, made to be screened behind the band onstage during their Exploding Plastic Inevitable “happenings” is honestly pretty dull. It goes on for a LONG time with not much happening besides a drony primitive jam and a frenetic camera zooming in and out. Nico is there (with her young son Ari) but she’s not singing, just hitting a tambourine. Lou doesn’t sing either. At one point the camera droops on its tripod and no one readjusts it for quite a while. So it’s boring, most Warhol films were boring—Warhol himself always said his movies were better discussed than actually seen—but it is the freaking Velvet Underground playing live on camera for what is probably the ONLY time during their original incarnation, so it would have been worth including here for that reason alone.
You can watch Symphony in Sound below. If you can get over how dull it is, it’s actually pretty fucking cool. In the later moments, when the cops show up due to a noise complaint, Warhol has to deal with them himself.
So, what more can I say about this 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition of The Velvet Underground & Nico It truly is the killer diller item that you want it to be (it also is a no-brainer Christmas gift for that middle-aged rock snob on your shopping list). Worth the cost? I admitted above that I didn’t pay for mine, but if I had, I would feel, for sure, to have gotten my money’s worth (there’s also a 2 CD merely “deluxe” edition that has the Dolph acetate and the Factory rehearsals on the second disc). I mean, this is it, this is THE final version that will probably ever be released of this album. If it’s important to you to have an item like this particular classic rock trophy on your shelf, you will most assuredly not be disappointed by the 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition of The Velvet Underground & Nico.
“The Black Angel’s Death Song” live at the Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus, Ohio on November 4, 1966:
Mixmaster RIAA mashed-up a U.S. Army Airborne marching cadence version of Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles” with The Velvet Underground’s “Guess I’m Falling in Love” (sans vocals) and the result is “Guess I’m Falling Into Bubbles.” I added some video to give you something to look at.
“Guess I’m Falling Into Bubbles” appears on RIAA’s compilation called Risque, Illicit and Adult and you can download all 19 tracks here.
The complete and original Andy Warhol footage of The Velvet Underground and Nico from 1966. Richard Metzger posted a shorter version of this last year, and wrote an insightful piece about it, check it out here.
More clips of Warhol’s The Velvet Underground & Nico after the jump…
The career of Nico, née Christa Päffgen, and what happened to her after she crossed paths with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, has certainly been well-documented (see at the bottom, Nico: Icon). Less well-documented, though, are Nico’s “model” years, starting out in Berlin when she was all of 14. The accompanying photos are just a few selected from the fine—and generous—set found here.
Ranging in date from ‘52-‘67, these shots certainly capture a more innocent time in Nico’s life. I particularly like the ones below where Nico looks like she just stepped into a Godard film. It’s somewhat incredible to think that the face in the above black-and-whites would later go on to sing this, and this, and especially this!
Wonderful time yesterday as Dangerous Minds taped for an upcoming show “cultural engineer” Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. Not to tease something that won’t show up here for a week or so, but Richard’s interview with Gen was at times so captivating I was practically crawling into the speakers beyond our “black box studio” so as to not miss a single word. In the meantime, check out Psychic TV covering the Velvet Underground classic, Foggy Notion:
Mr. Finkelstein created spontaneous portraits not only of Factory regulars like Edie Sedgwick and Gerard Malanga but also of the artists and celebrities who drifted in and out of the Warhol orbit. He was on hand when Warhol presented Bob Dylan with one of his Elvis ?