Sterling Morrison died on August 30, 1995, just after he turned 53. A few days later, the movie Antártida, with music by John Cale, hit Spanish screens; on the soundtrack, Morrison and Maureen Tucker joined Cale for a rendition of Jim Carroll’s rock litany, “People Who Died.” (Chris Spedding and the Lounge Lizards’ Erik Sanko also sat in on this quasi-reunion of the Velvet Underground.)
Back in 1984, Carroll joined Lou Reed’s band onstage at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey, to sing “People Who Died.” If you play Cale’s version back-to-back with Reed’s, all the original Velvets will be gathered together again, in a way, for a moment, and you will remember some people who died: Sterling Morrison, Robert Quine, Jim Carroll, Lou Reed.
Make your own Velvets reunion mash-up, after the jump…
Did you know there was another 1960s group called the Velvet Underground? The American Velvet Underground are now pretty much a household name, but for years, the Lou Reed-fronted group from New York was an obscure cult act. Formed in 1965, they were named after this lurid 1963 paperback. Considering the stateside VU weren’t well known in the ‘60s, and that the book’s name and what it represented might appeal to another rock band, it should come to know surprise, really, that another group—a world away—might settle on the same moniker. There’s also the possibility that it had been selected by this other Velvet Underground because they thought the American group would be quickly forgotten.
The Australian Velvet Underground first got together in Newcastle during 1967, the same year The Velvet Underground & Nico was released. The five-piece band were quite popular and gigged frequently in the area. At the conclusion of their shows, the group’s Jagger-esque frontman would dose himself with lighter fluid and put a match to his clothes. The fire would usually extinguish quickly, but on at least one occasion it didn’t—he was burned so badly that he required medical attention. VU setlists consisted primarily of covers for much of their five-year existence, which was partly due to the fact that they had trouble agreeing on how to present original material.
I recently interviewed David Schofield, the original bassist of the Australian Velvet Underground.
When/where did the band form? Who was in the original lineup?
David Schofield: The band formed in Newcastle in 1967. I was visited at home by a couple of the members of a band called the Ouebbe (Web) and Steve Phillipson who had just arrived in Newcastle from Zillmere in Queensland. I don’t know how they found me other than the fact I had been playing in a little-known band called the Trend.
The first rehearsal was at a community hall in Tarro. It’s still stuck in my mind’s eye. It appeared that there had been a party there the night before and Steve was doing his very original moves on top of broken beer bottles glass. First impression was that wow, this is so bloody different to what’s going on in Newcastle at the moment. Steve had been the president of the Queensland Rolling Stones fan club and his moves were like Jagger’s but with his own interpretation. Obviously, we took on some Stones songs but there was a very strong contingent of Small Faces stuff. Hendrix, Steppenwolf, the Who and the Doors made up the rest of the repertoire.
The original lineup was Steve Phillipson (v) Russell Bayne (g) Mark Priest (k/b) Herman Kovacivic (Kovac) (d) myself (b) . Russell left after me in 1968 and joined Pyramid in Sydney. He was replaced by Les Hall.
How did the band come up with the name Velvet Underground?
David Schofield: We were living in a house in Islington. Various names were tossed around with Steve staying unusually silent. He waited until we had rejected everything and then suggested Velvet Underground. At this time the original VU were not heard of in Australia. We thought it was bloody amazing for him to come up with something so unique. My theory is: Steve bought the muso paper the New Musical Express and he may have noted a small reference to the original VU thinking that they may not go too far.
Your singer set himself on fire on stage. How was the stunt executed?
David Schofield: The fire stunt was usually performed during “Fire” by Jimi Hendrix. Steve had a very thick leather bomber jacket from an op shop [a thrift store, ala the Salvation Army]. He put lighter fluid on the arms and lit it while homemade smoke bombs (firecracker powder) were ignited behind the amps.
Last week’s screening of The Velvet Underground and Nico: A Symphony of Sound and The Velvet Underground Tarot Cards at the Egyptian Theatre was my idea of heaven. While Symphony of Sound has long been available (watch it!), so far as I know, Tarot Cards has never escaped into the wild. Screenings of the lone existing print are about as common as showings of Cocksucker Blues, Chelsea Girls, Eat the Document or, for that matter, California Raisins II: Raisins: Sold Out!
Warhol apparently intended to project Tarot Cards behind the VU at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, but the film has a vérité soundtrack nonetheless—mostly indistinct a-style chatter, no VU music (other than whistling). In it, the VU, Nico, and assorted Warhol superstars gather in an apartment and have a rave-up. Meanwhile, a dispirited Tarot reader is dealing Rider-Waite cards on the sheets of newspaper covering the floor and trying to make the Velvets’ fortunes heard over the din. A new copy of Pet Sounds is sitting out; almost everyone is young and gorgeous. I’ve already forgotten who pours beer on Mo Tucker’s hair by way of greeting. Eric Emerson?
But when I got home, there were no Celtic Crosses on the floor, no cans of Schaefer and Rheingold Extra Dry being passed around, no dancing Susan Bottomly, so I reached for the hypnotic effect of this “Fluxfilm.” John Cale shot Police Car in the middle sixties (the George Maciunas Foundation gives the date as “1966?”) with an 8mm camera he borrowed from Kate Heliczer. Cale describes the film in the biography Sedition and Alchemy (as quoted in Richie Unterberger’s White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day by Day):
I was interested in getting dim pictures with flashing lights from a street repair trench near the Chelsea Bridge. The film was left with someone in Fluxus who then included it in a box of Flux-stuff, which I totally forgot about until I got a call from someone saying my “movie” was mentioned in the New York Times review of the box.
Cale’s referring to Flux Year Box 2 and its mention in “Art Notes” in the June 16, 1968 issue of the Times. After reporting rumors that the Venice Biennale would be postponed or cancelled due to student protests, the Times’ Grace Glueck—who, in ‘66, described the Velvet Underground as “a combination of rock ‘n’ roll and Egyptian belly-dance music”—turned to the contents of George Maciunas’ $50 box set:
It contains such playthings as a squeezable rubber pear (anonymous); a “Flux Jewelry Kit” by Alice Hutchins (a spring necklace jumps out when you open it); a “Total Art Matchbox” by Ben Vautier (“Use the matches to destroy all art”); some rather strange card games. There are also 20 8mm film loops, by Stan Van Der Beek, Yoko Ono, John Cale, etc. Seen through a lorgnette-like hand viewer, the films include a run of bare bottoms (Ono); an underexposed sequence of blinking lights on a police car (Cale).
If you like the first part of this very short movie, in which only a single light appears, just wait until you get to the second part, where—but don’t let me spoil it for you…
On December 11th, 1965, the Velvet Underground played at a high school in New Jersey. It was the first show the Velvets played for money, and the debut of the Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker lineup. To say that not everyone enjoyed their performance would be an understatement, though some most certainly did. A subsequent negative review of the Velvets’ set so ticked off a faction of fans, that they felt compelled to respond.
The Velvet Underground’s first paying gig was booked by their manager, Al Aronowitz. The show was to take place at Summit High School, 25 miles from the band’s home base in New York City. The Myddle Class, another group managed by Aronowitz, would headline. When original VU drummer, Angus MacLise, got wind of it, he promptly quit. MacLise didn’t want to be told when to show up and play, and was turned off by the fact they would receive money (75 bucks) for their performance. Suddenly, the Velvet Underground needed a drummer—and fast.
Clippings from Plainfield, New Jersey paper, ‘The Courier-News,’ November 29th, 1965:
Maureen Tucker, the sister of a college friend of Reed’s and Morrison’s, who Reed had met once before, was quickly brought into the fold. Her first rehearsal with the Velvet Underground was the afternoon of December 11th. That night at Summit High, they blew everyone’s minds.
The Velvets were the second act on stage, and performed just three songs—but get a load of what they played: “There She Goes Again,” “Venus in Furs,” and “Heroin” (in that order). All three would be included on their 1967 debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, but that night, the sold-out crowd of mostly teenagers would’ve been wholly unprepared for the taboo lyrics and avant rock of the VU. A good portion of the audience headed for the exits, but some stayed, intrigued by what they were witnessing. One attendee who dug it was Rob Norris, later of the power pop band the Bongos. Norris was also involved in the post-Lou Reed version of the Velvet Underground, playing guitar for the group during a 1972 European tour. In 1979, Norris wrote about the experience of seeing the group at Summit High.
When the curtain went up, nobody could believe their eyes! There stood the Velvet Underground—all tall and dressed mostly in black; two of them were wearing sunglasses. One of the guys with the shades had VERY long hair and was wearing silver jewelry. He was holding a large violin. The drummer had a Beatle haircut and was standing at a small, oddly arranged drum kit. Was it a boy or a girl?
Before we could take it all in, everyone was hit by a screeching surge of sound, with a pounding beat louder than anything we had ever heard. About a minute into the second song [sic], which the singer had introduced as “Heroin,” the music began to get more intense. It swelled and accelerated like a giant tidal wave, which was threatening to engulf us all. At this point, most of the audience retreated in horror for the safety of their homes, thoroughly convinced of the dangers of rock & roll music. My friends and I moved a little closer to the stage, knowing that something special was happening. (from ‘Kicks’ magazine. Read his whole account here)
Not long after the show, an example of an opposing viewpoint was printed in a local newspaper. On the front page of the December 16th edition of the Sentinel, a brief review of the concert appeared in the teen column, “Suzie Surfer.”
Ms. Surfer praised the headliners, though she obviously didn’t care for the Velvets.
And, you know what? That’s fine. It’s completely understandable that the groundbreaking music of the Velvet Underground wasn’t going to instantly appeal to all—surely not someone who used “Suzie Surfer” as a nom de plume. At the time, though, a group of VU fans who didn’t care for Suzie’s comment really let her have it.
December 30th, 1965.
Ha! Priceless stuff, for sure, but who exactly were these Velvet Underground fans? My guess is that they were Summit High students, converted by what they saw and heard on December 11th. I suspected Rob Norris as having something to do with it, but I can find no indication that he was involved in its writing. Hey, if YOU had something to do with the brilliant rebuff, by all means, reveal yourself in the comments section.
As for the Velvets, they would move on to a residency at the Café Bizarre in Greenwich Village. It’s where future manager Andy Warhol saw them perform for the first time.
It’s difficult to tell which lyric in Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs,” off of the band’s debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico, so causes tire manufacturers to incorporate the song into their commercials. Is it “downy sins of streetlight fancies” or “tongue of thongs, the belt that does await you”? See, rumor has it that Goodyear once made a commercial that uses “Venus in Furs” but it was clearly not shown for long, hardly anyone seems to have seen it. Somewhere there lurks a royalty-clearance attorney who knows the answer to this question.
That Goodyear spot is lost to the sands of time, alas—until some astute video collector finds it and posts it on YouTube, that is. But Goodyear wasn’t the only company that wanted “Venus in Furs” in its ad. Dunlop Tyres (a subsidiary of Goodyear’s) also ran a completely different commercial for tires in 1993 that used the song. Dunlop Tyres was a British concern—does the name give it away?—and the ad was a product of the ad agency Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO in London.
The commercial was directed by British director Tony Kaye, whose name you might recognize from the ugly fight over the Edward Norton movie American History X, which he directed and then disowned. This minute-long commercial featured tons of self-consciously “weird” imagery, such as a falling piano, a cackling voodoo master, a skull in flames, and a bald albino in a corset. Basically it’s what would happen if the album art for the Pixies’ Doolittle (or really any 4AD album) suddenly came to life. The name of the ad is “Tested for the Unexpected.” The people who made HBO’s Carnivale probably had to memorize this commercial.
One wonders if the people who commissioned the ad ever heard of Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch, who bequeathed us one-half of the term sadomasochism? (For the record, I’m guessing Kaye had, at least.)
In honor of what would have been Lou Reed’s 75th birthday, here’s the Yardbirds covering the Velvet Underground in 1968.
You may recall that Michelangelo Antonioni considered the Velvet Underground for the club scene in Blow-Up before choosing the Yardbirds, but the connection between the two bands does not end there. As I learn from Richie Unterberger, the Yardbirds’ last lineup—the one with Jimmy Page on lead guitar—had “I’m Waiting for the Man” in its repertoire. A recording survives from the May 31, 1968 gig at the Shrine Exposition Hall in Los Angeles, one of the Yardbirds’ final shows.
“I’m Waiting for the Man” was a forward-looking selection in May ‘68. John Cale was still in the VU; White Light/White Heat had been out for a few months, The Velvet Underground & Nico about a year. Yardbird Chris Dreja, who remembers “hanging out with Andy Warhol at The Factory” on the Yardbirds’ first US tour, suggests the cover was Page’s idea. As a session musician and arranger, Page had worked on Nico’s 1965 debut single “I’m Not Sayin’,” whose B-side, “The Last Mile,” he co-wrote with Andrew Loog Oldham. The following year, as Unterberger points out, the Yardbirds and the VU both played at Detroit’s Carnaby Street Fun Festival.
Lou Reed and John Cale (but mostly Lou) get the lion’s share of the love when it comes to assessing the brilliance of that visionary American proto-punk band of the late ‘60s The Velvet Underground, but that group’s magic was a four-way synergy. Yes, Reed’s songs were ahead of their time, and yes, Cale’s avant-garde bona fides gave the band’s music shapes and timbres that were previously unknown in rock, but imagine how those songs would feel without Sterling Morrison’s slippery guitar stylings and the distinctive drumming of Maureen “Moe” Tucker.
The last thing, you don’t actually have to imagine—the band’s final album Loaded (please spare us any nerd-rage about Squeeze, nobody thinks that counts) was, contrary to what the credits read, recorded without Tucker, who was pregnant at the time of its recording. The difference is stark. Gone is the foreboding and moody thrum of Tucker’s cymbal-less mallet attack, replaced by standard 4/4 rock beats that a kid could play. And in fact, a kid DID play them—V.U. bassist Doug Yule recruited his teenaged brother Billy to fill in. It’s an irony that since Loaded was the only Velvets studio record never to go out of print it ended up being the album from which any given ’80s band that “sounded like the Velvet Underground” was most likely to have taken notes, though partly because of Tucker’s absence, it was the Velvet Underground album that sounded the least like the Velvet Underground.
Of the many songs Tucker did play on, “Heroin” from the band’s debut The Velvet Underground and Nico remains one of her most jaw-dropping moments. Starting with a caveman-ishly simplistic pulse, she ramps up the speed and the tension until the band eschews time-keeping altogether to swell into chaos, her tom-tom gallop coming just as unglued as the rest of the song, often dropping out completely, allowing the guitars to fly away. It was a breathtaking rebuke of all that was normal in rock ’n’ roll.
And Tucker went on record saying it sucked.
What Goes On was the official print organ of the Velvet Underground Appreciation Society. Founded in the mid ‘70s, the Society was pretty much the best way for a curious mutant to find out about the band in any kind of depth during those wilderness years of the ‘70s and ‘80s when much of its music was out of print. The Society curated an incredible series of bootleg cassettes called the “Afterhours Tapes,” which included the essential “Searchin’ for my Mainline,” a substantial historical survey of the band boasting plenty of rarities with high-quality sound. What Goes On was sporadically published—years went by between issues, and so it was that issue #4 came out in 1990, a decade and a half into the Society’s existence, and five years after issue #3. The featured article was a lengthy interview by Boston musician and Society co-founder Phil Milstein with Moe Tucker, in which she offered her take about the canonical recording of “Heroin”:
I was pleased because it was really exciting to have a record out. I was just so excited to have a record in the store, that I could go up the street to my local Levittown store and find my record. I was thrilled! I was not very excited about the production. Back then, it didn’t bother me as much as it does now, but the boys, they were, for some zany reason. I don’t know, maybe they thought, “Well, this is the best we can do with the time given, so we’ll take it,” but I hate it. “Heroin” is a mess. We had done the album in eight hours in the studio, and the producer was…Andy (laughter). So we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, and he certainly didn’t, as you can hear from the record. And then when MGM bought it, and agreed to put it out, they gave us three hours in California in the studio to fix it, to fix ten songs. And you can’t do anything in three hours. We did “Heroin” over, and, I’m pretty sure, “Waiting for the Man,” and maybe two others, which I don’t remember now. But so quickly, and with no time to say, “Well, let’s do this” or “Let’s do that.” We just didn’t have the time. “Heroin” drives me nuts. That’s such a good song, I remember getting chills whenever we played it, and to listen to it on the album, it’s really depressing. Especially to think of someone who listens to that, and never heard us play live. And they think that that’s “Heroin,” and they say, “What’s the big deal?” It’s a pile of garbage on the record. Because on that one, the guys plugged straight into the board. They didn’t have their amps up loud in the studio, so of course I couldn’t hear anything. Anything. And when we got to the part where you speed up, you gotta speed up together, or it’s not really right. And it just became this mountain of drum noise in front of me. I couldn’t hear shit. I couldn’t see Lou, to watch his mouth to see where he was in the song. And I just stopped. I was saying, “This is no good, this isn’t gonna work, we need phones or something.” SO I stopped, and being a little wacky, they just kept going, and that’s the one we took (laughter). And it’s infuriating, because you’ve seen us live, that’s a bitch, that song. I consider that our greatest triumph. Lou’s greatest triumph too, maybe, songwriting-wise.
Andy Warhol and Mario Montez filming Hedy (via Continuo)
On the night of January 27, 1966, the actress Hedy Lamarr was arrested for stealing $86 worth of merchandise from the May Company department store in Los Angeles. She was not driven to crime by a condition of need: police told reporters she had $14,000 in checks when she was arrested.
Andy Warhol and screenwriter Ronald Tavel knew a good story when they saw one, and Hedy (1966)—with Lupe and More Milk, Yvette, part of the “Hollywood trilogy” about movie actresses Warhol made that year—advanced down the Factory’s film production line. The lovely Mario Montez starred in the title role, while on the soundtrack, Lou Reed and John Cale dramatized Hedy’s inner life with an ominous, bottomless noise.
Only Lou Reed and John Cale are heard on the soundtrack to Hedy, a Warhol film inspired by press reports of the arrest for shoplifting of 30s and 40s actor Hedy Lamarr. None of the Velvets appear in the film, but the cast does include the two most celebrated dancers of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable – Gerard Malanga and Factory newcomer Mary Woronov – as well as another EPI dancer, Ingrid Superstar, and Cale’s old friend Jack Smith.
The Hedy score is closer in spirit to the avant-garde recordings Cale and Angus MacLise appeared on during 1963-1965 than anything The Velvet Underground are currently playing. The music builds around an instrumental storm of shrieking, rumbling viola, guitar, and a rickety piano that sounds like it hasn’t been played since doing time in a 19th century saloon, while Cale’s ‘thunder machine’ – the sound made by the head of a Vox Super Beatle amp being dropped on the floor – occasionally cuts through everything else with hair-raising, high pitch bursts of feedback. This might be the closest approximation of how the nascent Velvet Underground sounded when they played, with Angus MacLise, behind the screen at Piero Heliczer’s ‘happenings,’ but those days are rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
Here’s a wonderful blast of 1960s NYC cool, in the form of a 1986 episode of The South Bank Show dedicated to the Velvet Underground. It’s slightly jarring to hear host Melvyn Bragg in the opening credit VU as being a precursor to punk rock and a major influence on artists “as diverse as David Bowie, Talking Heads, and the young Jesus and Mary Chain.” (It’s difficult to imagine Bragg putting on Psychocandy as he reads the morning paper, isn’t it?)
The show features ample interviews with all of the members of the band, including Nico, as well as personages like Gerard Malanga, Victor Bockris, Henry Geldzahler, and Robert Christgau. Naturally Warhol pops up in the archive footage. There’s a bunch of so-called “underground” footage, including some clips filmed by Jonas Mekas of the band’s “first appearance” (according to a helpful title card) at the Delmonico Hotel in New York City on January 14, 1966.
There’s nothing truly earth-shaking here, but it’s still quite interesting to see the whole band willing to be interviewed, and at a moment when their reputation was not quite as towering as it has since become. (Today, the premise that they were one of the very most influential bands of the 1960s is a no-brainer. In 1986 they were still seen more as the forefathers of punk, with their back catalog only coming fully back into print in the US around that time.)
By September 1968, Lou Reed was hell-bent on kicking John Cale out of the Velvet Underground. Reed and Cale started the band, but after two albums, Lou was no longer interested in working with the Welsh musician. It’s always been unclear as to why Reed felt this way, but the most plausible reason is that he sought to make the Velvets more accessible, while Cale wanted to keep one foot in the avant-garde. Regardless, in late September, after what would turn out to be Cale’s final concerts with the group, Reed met with drummer Maureen Tucker and guitarist Sterling Morrison and gave them an ultimatum: Either Cale goes or the band is finished.
John Cale and Lou Reed in New York City, 1968
Reluctantly, Tucker and Morrison agreed to sack Cale. But with Cale’s exit and upcoming concerts scheduled for the first week of October, a replacement needed to be found—and fast. Doug Yule, a Boston musician who was friendly with the band, was quickly brought into the fold. Yule would have to swiftly learn a set of songs, many of which he hadn’t heard before because they hadn’t been released yet. He made his way to New York City to rehearse for shows booked at a small venue in Cleveland called La Cave. Yule’s first gig with the Velvets is usually cited as having taken place on October 2nd, though in his exhaustive book, White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-by-Day, author Richie Unterberger writes that Yule’s debut was October 4th. Either way, the band’s new member had little time to prepare.
The new VU, 1968
The Velvet Underground played two sets that first night in Cleveland with Yule, and thanks to recordings which were subsequently bootlegged, we can hear what they sounded like during this historic show. Incredibly, Yule already appears to be a good fit. He’s obviously up for the task, coming up with interesting bass lines—even singing background harmonies—on songs that he had just learned. His harmony vocal gelling perfectly with Reed’s during a lovely version of “Jesus” is just one of many cool moments. Reed’s guitar work is also noteworthy, like during the wild and weird middle section of “I Can’t Stand It,” but it’s the track that opens the first set that takes the cake.
“What Goes On” was one of many numbers played that first night that Yule barely had time to acquaint himself with (the tune would be included on their next album, The Velvet Underground, which came out the following year). There’s nothing all that interesting happening here at first (though Yule once again contributes some mighty fine harmonizing); that is, until Reed kicks off the initial solo with a fierce blast of noise. He follows up with melodic lines that resemble what would be heard on the now-familiar album take, but while the guitar tone on the LP version is psychedelic, here it’s all about volume and distortion. During the second and final solo, after a similar melodic passage, Lou lets it rip. At around the 4:52 mark, he goes into hyperactive overdrive, whipping up an atypically riotous, face melter of a solo that’s downright giddy in execution. It’s the sound of a man set free.
This joyfully savage version of “What Goes On” would appear decades later on Peel Slowly and See, VU’s 1995 boxed set, and to date it’s the only track from the Cleveland concerts to be officially released. In his liner notes for the box, David Fricke is suitably inspired by the rendition, writing that it’s “rich with pyro-fuzzbox spew and climaxes with a staccato rush of tonal destruction over Sterling Morrison’s implacable, syncopated rhythm clang.”
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: