Friday 3rd and Saturday 4th of March 2017 I attended a conference at DMU, Leicester about film maker Peter Whitehead, and celebrating the donation of his archive to the University.
I found out about it late but am really glad I went. There were some excellent talks that brought new light to the meaning and relevance of the 1960s Counterculture, and other aspects of the Swinging 60s, and also a sublime showing of Whitehead’s Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London on the big screen at Phoenix Square Cinema, Leicester. It was almost like watching a different film to the one I have only previously seen on YouTube.
This is a fascinating view of what was happening at the height of what is now seen as the first great flowering of the Counterculture. It is not uncritical though and the seeds of it’s decline can be seen in the interviews of contemporary stars like Julie Christie, Michael Caine and David Hockney. There is almost a sense of impending loss, and also a critique of it’s superficiality and materialism.
The film is really a response to Time Magazine’s famous article about Swinging London that shifted American’s ‘must visit’ tourist location from Paris to London. After a brilliant start with footage from the UFO Club accompanied by a great version of Interstellar Overdrive by Pink Floyd, Michael Caine bizarrely announces that “…it all started with the loss of the British Empire….”
There is no narrative as such but a series of Chapters that are linked by the time and place, and a general sense of bewilderment by the participants. Following some amazing footage of the Rolling Stones live in Ireland Mick Jagger comes across as a slightly lost , petulant school boy trying to make sense of it all “… they don’t like violence but they themselves are violent which doesn’t seem to make sense…”. Yes okay Mick, thanks for that, you sound just like my mother. Julie Christie, who looks absolutely stunning, bemoans the fact that she is totally superficial and has nothing to say “… everything’s happening to me and I’m not happening to anything…am I allowed to talk?…”. David Hockney is not impressed by ‘Swinging London’ at all and prefers New York and California. The bars stay open til 2 a.m. and the drinks are cheaper and he can meet ordinary people in the clubs, unlike London which is overpriced and exclusive. To be fair though, David Hockney has been moaning about something for most of his life, quite often about not being allowed to smoke cigarettes wherever he wants! He is very amusing though. When Julie Christie smokes a cigarette in the film she doesn’t look like she quite knows what to do with it. Vanessa Redgrave, on the other hand, exudes confidence and political commitment and sings a capella and lectures the audience, a bit like an over-confident trainee teacher.
Andrew Loog Oldham is the stereotype of a cynical, Svengali-like pop manager who talks about how he ‘invented’ the Rolling Stones image as the ‘bad boys’ of pop, which, in fact, they quite obviously are not. He revels in his lack of knowledge but obviously believes he can do anything he wants “… I might get into politics someday..or films” he says. In some ways, this is quite a refreshing and confident attitude. Nevertheless, he never did get into either politics or films which is probably just as well as I am sure he would have joined the ranks of the Thatcherites and done something really terrible like close down the NHS or sell the whole of England to Disneyworld. The film ends where it began with some amazing footage of dancers at the UFO Club and the music of Pink Floyd. A truly remarkable film! There is a real sense of dynamism and change. The way the music accompanies the live performances of the Stones is inspired especially with the song Lady Jane. Whitehead doesn’t bother about synchronicity and blends unrelated recordings with live footage. Have You Seen Your Mother Baby (Standing in the Shadows), a surprisingly dark and seemingly uncommercial recording (even though it was a top ten hit), it’s not unlike the Velvet Underground, plays while the band and audience go wild and Lady Jane introduces a strange and eerie sense of calm.
The rest of the conference passed quickly. It took place over two days but the papers delivered were so fascinating that I never lost interest the whole time I was there. This has got to be a first for me, my attention can easily wander! I usually have alternative activities at hand in case I get bored! Didn’t need them this time! There were a wide range of themes that dealt with the 60s with some, but not all, relating to the work of Peter Whitehead
Adrian Smith discussed the interesting sub genre The Love Business: European Prostitution Drama as British Popular Entertainment. This dealt with the film distributors who were showing European films, many of which had a serious sub-text, as soft porn films to a British audience. There are some echoes of this theme in a recent Channel 4 series Magnifica 70 that deals with film and censorship in Brazil in 1970. Worryingly, this is about a right wing dictatorship in Brazil but could just as easily be about censorship and social control in Britain in the 1960s. Definitely worth a look.
Richard Farmar looked at the bizarre film The Touchables and Melanie Williams gave an interesting account of the film maker David Hart. She talked about the “Right-wing Counterculture” which to some would be a contradiction in terms. The majority of countercultural participants were either “left wing” or perhaps “apolitical” but she made a very good argument about how many issues, like women’s lib or gay rights, could belong to either the left or right. She pointed out how politician and journalist Jonathon Aitken started as a countercultural figure in the 1960s but ended up as a cabinet minister in the Conservative Government of the 1980s (before he ended up in jail, that is!). I have investigated elements of right wing attitudes in my essay The Decline of the 1960s Counterculture and the Rise of Thatcherism in which I look at libertarianism and other aspects of the counterculture in the 1980s such as sexual freedom, drug taking and “alternative” businesses such as Virgin and Gap.
Caroline Langhorst gave an interesting talk on three lesser known films of the 1960s all of which are critical of the optimism and the joie de vivre of the period. These are Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London,Privilege (starring Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones) and Herostratus (featuring a young Helen Mirren).
Both Privilege and, especially, Herostratus are relatively unknown films. Privilege had a cinema release in the 1960s (I actually saw it) but I believe Herostratus was virtually lost, although there is a copy now on Blu-ray (which I have yet to see). There are some clips of it on YouTube which are quite intriguing. Personally, I feel that the films that really define and critique the era, especially in terms of pop music and the counterculture, are Easy Rider,Performance (featuring Mick Jagger) and, of course, Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London. What becomes generally apparent is the mainstream media’s inability to really understand what is going on during this period. Their attempt to commercialise the movement in films of the time often produced a cliched view of pop culture and society that, for some, defines what the 1960s are about but is actually a ridiculous fiction.
There were some interesting talks about feminism in the 1960s. Alissa Clark investigated Peter Whitehead and Niki de Saint-Phalle’s collaberation Daddy. In 1972, Saint Phalle shot footage for this surreal horror film about a deeply troubled father-daughter, love-hate relationship. She was an artist, sculptor and film maker who made quite an impact on the avant garde scene from the 1940s onwards.
There was also a passionate and forceful account of radical filmmaker and theatremaker Jane Arden who I had actually not heard of before. In 1970, Arden formed the radical feminist theatre group Holocaust and then wrote the play A New Communion for Freaks, Prophets and Witches. The play would later be adapted for the screen as The Other Side of the Underneath (1972). Arden directed the film and appeared in it uncredited; screenings at film festivals, including the 1972 London Film Festival, caused a considerable stir. The film depicts a woman’s mental breakdown and rebirth in scenes at times violent and highly shocking; the writer and critic George Melly described it as “a most illuminating season in Hell”, while the BBC Radio journalist David Will declared the film to be “a major breakthrough for the British cinema”. Interesting stuff!
Stephen Glynn gave an entertaining look at Whitehead’s films of the Rolling Stones including the iconic promotional film for the song We Love You and Steve Chibnall showed us what the 1960s Counterculture was like in a provincial city, namely Leicester! Well, I should know because I was there, but he managed to come out with facts that I knew nothing about. For example, how the local paper The Leicester Mercury led a campaign to close down the late night clubs and coffee bars that proliferated at the time. Do You Know What Your Children Are Up To While You Sleep? screamed the headlines. My favourite band Legay complained that they had hardly anywhere left to play and were moving to London! I am shocked and stunned by these revelations!
Richard Dacre gave an entertaining account of the Counterculture and Peter Whitehead at the Royal Albert Hall. Apparently, after Wholly Communion, poetry performances were banned at the hall for more than 20 years! Hilarious. I am looking forward to the Whitehead inspired festival at the RAH later on this year!
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was a complex, nearly indecipherable musical riddle that flummoxed even its composer. Originally released as a funereal synth-laden dirge on 1984’s Various Positions, he spent years tinkering with the track during live performances in a relentless pursuit to unlock its full melodic potential. Ultimately, it was John Cale who provided the key.
The iconoclastic Velvet Underground co-founder, producer and innovative writer/arranger crafted an elegiac version of “Hallelujah” that vaulted the song into a rarefied strata of modern standards. Now he speaks to PEOPLE about the song’s long journey.
First included on an obscure Leonard Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan, commissioned by the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles in 1991, it’s perhaps best known for the stark version that appeared the following year on Cale’s live collection, Fragments of a Rainy Season. Something of a precursor to the “unplugged” performance concept that exploded in the first half of the 1990s, the album was a stripped down career retrospective reaching back to Cale’s early collaborations with his Velvet Underground bandmate Lou Reed.
Last fall, the album was recently given a deluxe reissue, complete with bonus tracks and outtakes from throughout the extensive European tour. “Hallelujah” received a bewitching video directed by Abby Portner, invoking elements from Shakespeare’s MacBeth to portray the song’s crumbling grandeur.
Cale first heard the track while attending one of Cohen’s concerts at New York City’s Beacon Theater in 1990. “I was really an admirer of his poetry,” he tells PEOPLE. “It never let you down. There’s a timelessness to it.” The song stayed in his mind, he didn’t decide to record it until Les Inrockuptiblesasked him to contribute to I’m Your Fan several months later. In the pre-digital days, there was really only one way to learn the tune at short notice: “I called Leonard and asked him to send me the lyrics.”
Famously, there were a lot. “Fifteen verses,” Cale confirms. “It was a long roll of fax paper. And then I choose whichever ones were really me. Some of them were religious, and coming out of my mouth would have been a little difficult to believe. I choose the cheeky ones.”
After recording the song for I’m Your Fan, he toyed with a variety of arrangements on his 1992 tour documented on Fragments of a Rainy Season. “There were a lot of different venues and a lot of different kinds of performances. And as it turned out the ones that were best were the ones that were done on a real piano, not an electric piano. Every time we got a real Steinway things went up a couple notches.”
Cale’s version of “Hallelujah” immediately struck a chord, inspiring a host of artists to offer their own take. A young Jeff Buckley added a hauntingly intimate version to Grace, his sole release before drowning in the Mississippi at age 30. His death added an extra dose of pathos to the intensely gripping song, and within a decade the number of cover versions had swelled to 300. According to Cale, Cohen grew weary of his creation’s popularity. “He said, ‘I don’t want to hear any more new versions of “Hallelujah”! Let’s put an embargo on that!’”
Actually, I did know most of this, but not Warhol’s idea of putting a crack on the record to make the phrase ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ repeat over and over again. Inspirational, and an idea later used by the Beatles at the end of Sgt. Pepper but not in quite as radical a way. I also didn’t know about the drums breaking down in ‘Heroin’ or Sterling Morrison’s hatred of Frank Zappa. Although I did know about Lou Reed’s hatred of Frank Zappa and also Frank Zappa’s hatred of not only the VU but also The Beatles and The Doors, and pop and rock music in general!
A half-century on, The Velvet Underground and Nico remains the quintessential emblem of a certain brand of countercultural cool. Not the Haight-Ashbury or Sgt. Pepper kind but an eerier, artier, more NYC-rooted strain. Released on March 12th, 1967, the Velvet Underground‘s debut was an album that brought with it an awareness of the new, the possible and the darker edge of humanity. Bolstered by the patronage of Andy Warhol and the exotic vocal contributions of Nico, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker declared their independence from Top 40 decorum with a gritty, innovative and unapologetically self-possessed work. In many ways, The Velvet Underground and Nico was the first rock album that truly seemed to invite the designation alternative.
Fifty years after its release, the LP still soundsstunningly original, providing inspiration and a blueprint for everything from lo-fi punk rock to highbrow avant-garde – and so much in between. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about the album’s creation.
1. Lou Reed first united with John Cale to play a knockoff of “The Twist.” Reed’s professional music career took root in 1964 when he was hired as a staff songwriter at Pickwick Records, an NYC-based budget label specializing in soundalikes of contemporary chart-toppers. “We just churned out songs; that’s all,” Reed remembered in 1972. “Never a hit song. What we were doing was churning out these rip-off albums.”
When ostrich feathers became the hot trend in women’s fashion magazines, Reed was moved to write a parody of the increasingly ridiculous dance songs sweeping the airwaves. “The Twist” had nothing on “The Ostrich,” a hilariously oddball number featuring the unforgettable opening lines: “Put your head on the floor and have somebody step on it!” While composing the song, Reed took the unique approach of tuning all six of his guitar strings to the same note, creating the effect of a vaguely Middle Eastern drone. “This guy at Pickwick had this idea that I appropriated,” he told Mojo in 2005. “It sounded fantastic. And I was kidding around and I wrote a song doing that.”
Reed recorded the song with a group of studio players, releasing the song under the name the Primitives. Despite the unorthodox modes, Pickwick heard potential in “The Ostrich” and released it as a single. It sold in respectable quantities, convincing the label to assemble musicians to pose as the phony band and promote the song at live gigs. Reed began hunting for potential members, valuing attitude as much as musical aptitude. He found both in John Cale.
The pair crossed paths at a house party on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Reed was drawn to Cale’s Beatle-y long hair. A classically trained prodigy, the young Welshman had moved to the city months earlier to pursue his musical studies and play viola with avant-garde composer La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music. Intrigued by his pedigree, Reed invited him to join the Primitives. Sensing the opportunity for easy money and some laughs, Cale agreed.
Gathering to rehearse the song, Cale was astonished to discover that the “Ostrich tuning” produced essentially the same drone he was accustomed to playing with Young. Clearly on the same musical wavelength, they connected on a personal level afterwards. “More than anything it was meeting Lou in the coffee shop,” Cale says in a 1998 American Masters documentary. “He made me nice cup of coffee out of the hot water tap, and sat me down and started quizzing me as to what I was really doing in New York. There was a certain meeting of the minds there.”
2. “The Black Angel’s Death Song” got the band fired from their residency. Sterling Morrison became involved with the duo after a chance meeting with Reed, his classmate at Syracuse University, on the subway. Together they formed a loose band with Cale’s roommate Angus MacLise, a fellow member of the Theater of Eternal Music collective. Lacking a consistent name – they morphed from the Primitives to the Warlocks, and then the Falling Spikes before taking their soon-to-be-iconic final moniker from a pulp paperback exposé – the quartet rehearsed and recorded demos in Cale’s apartment throughout the summer of 1965.
The fledgling Velvet Underground were befriended by pioneering rock journalist Al Aronowitz, who managed to book them a gig at a New Jersey high school that November. This irritated the bohemian MacLise, who resented having to show up anywhere at a specific time. When informed that they would be receiving money for the performance, he quit on the spot, grumbling that the group had sold out. Desperate to fill his spot on the drums, they asked Morrison’s friend Jim Tucker if his sister Maureen (known as “Moe”) was available. She was, and the classic lineup was in place.
School gymnasiums were not the ideal venue for the band. “We were so loud and horrifying to the high school audience that the majority of them – teachers, students and parents – fled screaming,” Cale says in American Masters. Instead, Aronowitz found them a residency in a Greenwich Village club, the Café Bizarre. Its name was something of a misnomer, as neither the owners nor the handful of customers appreciated the way-out sounds. In a half-hearted attempt at assimilation, the group added some rock standards to their repertoire. “We got six nights a week at the Café Bizarre, some ungodly number of sets, 40 minutes on and 20 minutes off,” Morrison described in a 1990 interview. “We played some covers – ‘Little Queenie,’ ‘Bright Lights Big City’ … the black R&B songs Lou and I liked – and as many of our own songs as we had.”
Three weeks in, the tedium became too much bear. “One night we played ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ and the owner came up and said, ‘If you play that song one more time you’re fired!’ So we started the next set with it,” Morrison told Sluggo! of their ignoble end as a bar band in a tourist trap. The self-sabotage had the desired effect and they were relieved of their post – but not before they caught the attention of Andy Warhol.
3. The album’s co-producer refused to accept cash payment, asking for a Warhol painting instead. Already a prolific painter, sculptor and filmmaker, by the mid-Sixties Warhol sought to expand his famous Factory empire into rock & roll. On the advice of confidant Paul Morrissey, the 37-year-old art star dropped in on the Velvet Underground’s set at the Café Bizarre and impulsively extended an offer to act as their manager. The title would have rather loose connotations, though he did make one significant alteration to their sound. Fearing that the group lacked the requisite glamour to become stars, he suggested the addition of a striking German model known as Nico. The proposal was not met with complete enthusiasm – Reed was particularly displeased – but she was tentatively accepted into the ranks as a featured vocalist.
Now billed as the Velvet Underground with Nico, Warhol incorporated the band into a series of multimedia performances dubbed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable: a marriage of underground music, film, dance and lights. Also assisting was 27-year-old Norman Dolph, an account representative at Columbia Records who moonlit as a DJ and soundman. “I operated a mobile discotheque – if not the first then at least the second one in New York,” he later told author Joe Harvard. “I was an art buff, and my thing was I’d provide the music at art galleries, for shows and openings, but I’d ask for a piece of art as payment instead of cash. That’s how I met Andy Warhol.”
By the spring of 1966, Warhol decided it was time to take his charges into the recording studio. Knowing little about such matters, he sought out Dolph for advice. “When Warhol told me he wanted to make a record with those guys, I said, ‘Oh, I can take care of that, no problem. I’ll do it in exchange for a picture,'” he said in Sound on Sound. “I could have said I’d do it in exchange for some kind of finder’s fee, but I asked for some artwork, [and] he was agreeable to that.”
Dolph was tasked with booking a studio, covering a portion of the costs himself, producing and leaning on colleagues at Columbia to ultimately release the product. For his trouble he was given one of Warhol’s silver “Death and Disaster Series” canvases. “A beautiful painting, really. Regrettably, I sold it around ’75, when I was going through a divorce, for $17,000. I remember thinking at the time, ‘Geez, I bet Lou Reed hasn’t made $17,000 from this album yet.’ If I had it today, it would be worth around $2 million.”
4. It was recorded in the same building that later housed Studio 54. Dolph’s day job at Columbia’s custom labels division saw him working with smaller imprints that lacked their own pressing plants. One of his clients was Scepter Records, best known for releasing singles by the Shirelles and Dionne Warwick. Their modest offices on 254 West 54th Street in midtown Manhattan were noteworthy for having their own self-contained recording facility.
Though the Velvet Underground were studio novices, it didn’t take an engineer to know that the room had seen better days. Reed, in the liner notes to the Peel Slowly and See boxed set, describes it as “somewhere between reconstruction and demolition … the walls were falling over, there were gaping holes in the floor, and carpentry equipment littered the place.” Cale recalls being similarly underwhelmed in his 1999 autobiography. “The building was on the verge of being condemned. We went in there and found that the floorboards were torn up, the walls were out, there was only four mics working.”
It wasn’t glamorous, and at times it was barely functional, but for four days in mid-April 1966 (the exact dates remain disputed), the Specter Records studios would play host to the bulk of the Velvet Underground and Nico recording sessions. Though Warhol played only a distant role in proceedings, he would return to 254 West 54th Street a great deal in the following decade, when the ground floor housed the infamous Studio 54 nightclub.
5. Warhol wanted to put a built-in crack in all copies of the record to disrupt “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” Andy Warhol is nominally the producer of The Velvet Underground and Nico, but in reality his role was more akin to producer of a film; one who finds the project, raises the capital and hires a crew to bring it to life. On the rare occasions he did attend the sessions, Reed recalls him “sitting behind the board gazing with rapt fascination at all the blinking lights …Of course he didn’t know anything about record production. He just sat there and said, ‘Oooh that’s fantastic.'”
Warhol’s lack of involvement was arguably his greatest gift to the Velvet Underground. “The advantage of having Andy Warhol as a producer was that, because it was Andy Warhol, [engineers] would leave everything in its pure state,” Reed reflected in a 1986 episode of TheSouth Bank Show. “They’d say, ‘Is that alright, Mr. Warhol?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh … yeah!’ So right at the very beginning we experienced what it was like to be in the studio and record things our way and have essentially total freedom.”
Although he didn’t try to specifically shape the band in his own image, Warhol did make some suggestions. One of his more eccentric ideas for the track “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” Reed’s delicate ballad inspired by his simmering romantic feelings towards Nico, never came to fruition. “We would have the record fixed with a built-in crack so it would go, ‘I’ll be your mirror, I’ll be your mirror, I’ll be your mirror,’ so that it would never reject,” Reed explained in Victor Bockris’ Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story. “It would just play and play until you came over and took the arm off.”
6. “There She Goes Again” borrows a riff from a Marvin Gaye song.
Reed’s time at Pickwick instilled in him a fundamental fluency in the language of pop music. Often overshadowed by his innovative instrumental arrangements and taboo lyrical subjects, his ear for an instantly hummable tune is apparent with catchy confections like “Sunday Morning,” the album’s opening track. Bright and breezy, with Reed’s androgynous tone replacing Nico’s planned lead, the song’s introductory bass slide is an intentional nod to the Mamas and the Papas’ “Monday, Monday,” which topped the charts when it was first recorded in April 1966.
“There She Goes Again” also draws from the Top 40 well, borrowing a guitar part from one of Motown’s finest. “The riff is a soul thing, Marvin Gaye’s ‘Hitch Hike,’ with a nod to the Impressions,” Cale admitted to Uncut in 2012. “That was the easiest song of all, which came from Lou’s days writing pop at Pickwick.”
It would earn the distinction of becoming one of the first Velvet Underground tracks to ever be covered – half a world away in Vietnam. A group of U.S. servicemen, performing under the name the Electrical Banana during their off hours, were sent a copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico by a friend who thought they would appreciate the fruit on the cover. They appreciated the music as well, and resolved to record a version of “There She Goes Again.” Unwilling to wait until they returned to the States, they built a makeshift studio in the middle of the jungle by tossing down wooden pallets, pitching a tent, fashioning mic stands from bamboo branches and plugging their amps into a gas generator.
7. The drums break down during the climax of “Heroin.” The most infamous track on the album is also one of the oldest, dating back to Reed’s days as a student at Syracuse University, where he performed with early folk and rock groups and sampled illicit substances. Drawing from skills honed through his journalism studies, not to mention a healthy affinity for William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Reed penned a verse that depicted the experience of shooting up with stunning clarity and eerie detachment.
Amazingly, Reed had attempted to record the song during his days on the pop assembly line at Pickwick Records. “They’d lock me in a room and they’d say, ‘Write 10 surfing songs,'” Reed told WLIR in 1972. “And I wrote ‘Heroin,’ and I said, ‘Hey I got something for ya!’ They said, ‘Never gonna happen, never gonna happen.'” But the band had no such constraints while being bankrolled by Andy Warhol.
Working in the still-unfamiliar setting of a studio proved to be a challenge for the band at some points, particularly during the breakneck outro of “Heroin.” Maureen Tucker eventually became lost in the cacophony and simply put down her sticks. “No one ever even notices this, but right in the middle the drums stop,” she says in the 2006 documentary The Velvet Underground: Under Review. “No one ever thinks about the drummer, they’re all worried about the guitar sound and stuff, and nobody’s thinking about the drummer. Well, as soon as it got loud and fast I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t hear anybody. So I stopped, assuming, ‘Oh, they’ll stop too and say, ‘What’s the matter, Moe?’ And nobody stopped! So I came back in.”
8. Lou Reed dedicated “European Son” to his college mentor who loathed rock music. One of Reed’s formative influences was Delmore Schwartz, a poet and author who served as his professor and friend while a student at Syracuse University. With a cynical and often bitter wit, he instilled in Reed an innate sense of belief in his own writing. “Delmore Schwartz was the unhappiest man I ever met in my life, and the smartest … until I met Andy Warhol,” Reed told writer Bruce Pollock in 1973. “Once, drunk in a Syracuse bar, he said, ‘If you sell out, Lou, I’m gonna get ya.’ I hadn’t thought about doing anything, let alone selling out.”
Rock & roll counted as selling out in Schwartz’s mind. He apparently loathed the music – particularly the lyrics – but Reed couldn’t pass up a chance to salute his mentor on his first major artistic statement. He chose to dedicate the song “European Son” to Schwartz, simply because it’s the track that least resembled anything in the rock canon. After just 10 lines of lyrics, it descends into a chaotic avant-garde soundscape.
Schwartz almost certainly never heard the piece. Crippled by alcoholism and mental illness, he spent his final days as a recluse in a low-rent midtown Manhattan hotel. He died there of a heart attack on July 11, 1966, three months after the Velvet Underground recorded “European Son.” Isolated even in death, it took two days for his body to be identified at the morgue.
9. The back cover resulted in a lawsuit that delayed the album’s release. Being managed by Andy Warhol came with certain perks, and one was the guarantee of a killer album cover. While the artist’s involvement in the music was spotty, the visual art was to be his purview. Bored by mere static images, he devised a peel-away sticker of a pop art banana illustration, under which would be a peeled pink (and slightly phallic) banana. Aside from fine print above the sticker helpfully urging buyers to “peel slowly and see,” the only text on the stark white cover was Warhol’s own name, gracing the lower right corner in stately Coronet Bold – adding his official signature to the Velvet Underground project.
The promise of what was essentially an original Warhol print on the front of each album was a major selling point to Verve, the MGM subsidiary that had purchased the distribution rights to the tapes, and they shelled out big bucks to obtain a special machine capable of manufacturing the artist’s vision. Ironically, it was the comparatively traditional back cover, a photo of the band in the midst of an Exploding Plastic Inevitable performance at Norfolk, Virginia’s Chrysler Art Museum, that would cause the most headaches. A slide montage was projected onto the stage and the upside-down image of actor and Factory associate Eric Emerson from Warhol’s Chelsea Girls film could be seen. Emerson, who had recently been busted for drug possession and was badly in need of money, threatened to sue the label for the unauthorized use of his image.
Rather than pay Emerson his claim – reportedly $500,000 – MGM halted production that spring while they grappled with how to remove the offending image. Copies of the album were recalled in June, all but dooming its commercial prospects. “The whole Eric business was a tragic fiasco for us, and proves what idiots they were at MGM,” Morrison told Bockris. “They responded by pulling the album off the shelves immediately and kept it off for a couple of months while they fooled around with stickers over Eric’s picture, and then finally the airbrush. The album thus vanished form the charts almost immediately in June, just when it was about to enter the Top 100. It never returned to the charts.”
10. The release delay sparked Sterling Morrison’s intense, and often hilarious, hatred of Frank Zappa. The tracks for the album were largely complete by May 1966, but a combination of production logistics – including the tricky stickers on the cover – and promotional concerns delayed the release for nearly a year. The exact circumstances remain hazy, but instead of holding the record execs responsible, or Warhol in his capacity as their manager, the Velvet Underground blamed an unlikely target: their MGM/Verve labelmate Frank Zappa.
The band believed that Zappa used his clout to hold back their release in favor of his own album with the Mothers of Invention, Freak Out. “The problem [was] Frank Zappa and his manager, Herb Cohen,” said Morrison. “They sabotaged us in a number of ways, because they wanted to be the first with a freak release. And we were totally naive. We didn’t have a manager who would go to the record company every day and just drag the whole thing through production.” Cale claimed that the band’s wealthy patron affected the label’s judgment. “Verve’s promotional department [took] the attitude, ‘Zero bucks for VU, because they’ve got Andy Warhol; let’s give all the bucks to Zappa,'” he wrote in his memoir.
Whatever the truth may be, Sterling Morrison held a serious grudge against Zappa for the rest of his life, making no effort to hide his contempt in interviews. “Zappa is incapable of writing lyrics. He is shielding his musical deficiencies by proselytizing all these sundry groups that he appeals to,” he told Fusion in 1970. “He just throws enough dribble into those songs. I don’t know, I don’t like their music. … I think that album Freak Out was such a shuck.” He was even more blunt a decade later when speaking to Sluggo! magazine. “Oh, I hate Frank Zappa. He’s really horrible, but he’s a good guitar player. … If you told Frank Zappa to eat shit in public, he’d do it if it sold records.”
Reed also had some choice words for Zappa over the years. In Nigel Trevena’s 1973 biography booklet of the band, he refers to Zappa as “probably the single most untalented person I’ve heard in my life. He’s two-bit, pretentious, academic, and he can’t play his way out of anything. He can’t play rock & roll, because he’s a loser. … He’s not happy with himself and I think he’s right.” The pair must have buried the hatchet in later years – after Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993, Reed posthumously inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
It is 50 years since The Velvet Underground & Nico album was recorded. A major new exhibition in Paris tells the story of the group which created it and of the New York scene which produced them. Parisians hold the Velvets in particular esteem and, as Allan Campbell notes, the city itself has often been the scene of key moments in the Velvets’ history, not least a legendary appearance at Le Bataclan.
Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico at Le Bataclan, Paris, 1972 | Mick Gold / Redferns / Getty Images
It’s a cold January evening in Paris. Outside Le Bataclan an estimated 2,000 disconsolate rock fans are milling around in front of the ornate Chinese-style theatre on the Boulevard Voltaire. They are ticket-less and unable to gain access to a concert which would later be considered the venue’s most famous; a title only lost on Friday 13 November 2015, when dreadful events unfolded at an Eagles of Death Metal show.
For the first time since the demise of the original Velvet Underground, co-conspirators Lou Reed and John Cale with ‘chanteuse’ Nico were to perform a one-off acoustic set at Le Bataclan for the benefit of French TV show Pop 2 and one thousand grateful fans.
It was 1972; Nico was already a veteran of three solo albums; Cale had made his debut with Vintage Violence, remixed a Barbra Streisand album and cut an LP with minimalist composer Terry Riley, while Reed – surprisingly – was yet to release a solo album.
In fact, on the night of the Paris concert he should have been at the Portobello Hotel in London for a ‘listening party’ for his debut LP, Lou Reed, with no less than Lillian Roxon, then the leading rock critic in the US.
Despite what Melody Maker described as “a minor ‘speed-freak riot’ in the foyer”, the Bataclan concert was a languid, beguiling affair but not quite as languid as the ensuing live album, which had been mastered at the wrong speed.
France’s on-off love affair with US culture was nothing new; notably, réalisateurs Jean Luc Godard and Jean Pierre Melville had already expressed it on screen. But with the Velvets, the relationship seemed to become more geographically specific.
In return for the Statue of Liberty, New York had belatedly returned the favour by sending its dark emissaries to the City of Light. And the French, who had after all defined noir, seemed especially appreciative.
In 1990, when the Velvets reunited – spontaneously, it seemed – once again it would be in Paris. This time it was at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, which had mounted an Andy Warhol multi-media show and invited key members of his Factory crowd to attend.
It was expected that Reed and Cale would play something from their Warhol tribute album, Songs for Drella, but they were soon joined onstage by band mates Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker.
“We kicked into Heroin, which we hadn’t played in twenty-two years”, said Cale, “And it was just the same as always. After I got off stage … I was on the point of tears”.
As the location for this rapprochement suggests, it seems that Parisians have always viewed the Velvet Underground as a work of art and not just because of their association with Warhol.
Now, with the 50th anniversary of the recording of their debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, the city has again come good for the Velvets with an extensive celebratory show at the Philharmonie de Paris entitled The Velvet Underground: New York Extravaganza.
Curated by Christian Fevret, founder of Les Inrockuptibles music magazine, with art director and producer Carole Mirabello, the exhibition places the Velvets at the centre of New York’s post war avant garde, probably the only environment which could have produced such a group.
Paris, don’t forget what you taught the rest of us: if you keep an open heart it will beat forever. Goodnight.
Music and visuals tell the VU story, taking in Reed and Cale’s first meeting in 1964 to their first show with Nico at the annual dinner of the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry (Hotel Delmonico, New York, 1966), then their appearances at Warhol’s legendary Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia show and then on to the group’s eventual disintegration.
Even after all these years, the music and photographs of the Velvets scintillate.
John Cale returned to Paris to open the exhibition, with full band, string quartet and guests including Pete Doherty, Mark Lanegan and Lou Doillon. Cale, in a nod both to the city’s recent pain and its ability to inspire, reportedly concluded the concert with these words:
“Paris, don’t forget what you taught the rest of us: if you keep an open heart it will beat forever. Goodnight.”
Edie Sedgwick and Gerard Malanga on stage with The Velvet Underground at the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry annual dinner at the Delmonico Hotel, New York, 13 January 1966 | Photo by Adam Ritchie / Redferns
This obituary is so good with so many interesting links that I have decided to repost it here. The complete movie of “Tonight Let’s All Make Love in London” is stunning!
John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins in 2000. Photograph: Sarah Lee
John “Hoppy” Hopkins, who has died aged 77, was one of the best-known counterculture figures of London in the 1960s, not just as a photographer and journalist, but as a political activist. He was the co-founder of at least three underground projects: International Times magazine; a fabled but short-lived music venue called the UFO Club; and the London Free school, a community-based adult education initiative. During the couple of years up to June 1967, when Hoppy was jailed for cannabis possession, Britain’s fertile and diverse counterculture took much of its inspiration from him, and he was the closest thing the movement ever had to a leader.
Son of Victor and Evelyn Hopkins, John was born in Slough, Berkshire; his father was a naval engineer. After attending Felsted school, Essex, he took a general science degree at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, receiving his MA in 1958. As Hoppy put it, he discovered sex, drugs and jazz at Cambridge and pursued all three with great diligence. After graduation, he worked as a lab technician for the Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, but lost his security clearance following a jaunt to Moscow for a communist youth festival.
In 1960, he moved to London and became a photographer. I first encountered him backstage at the 1964 Blues and Gospel Caravan, photographing Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe for Melody Maker. His photographs are among the most evocative of the era, including brilliantly insightful shots of Beatles and Stones, John Lee Hooker and Thelonious Monk, as well as an early 60s underbelly of tattoo parlours, bikers, fetishists and derelict architecture. They are gathered together in the book From the Hip (2008).
The Rolling Stones performing at the All Night Rave in 1967. Photograph: John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins/Redferns
In the summer of 1965, Hoppy joined Barry Miles (future biographer of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs) and the poet Michael Horovitz to organise the first of the events that went on to be known as the Poetry Olympics at the Royal Albert Hall, London. It featured Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Christopher Logue and many others; that night, the standing-room-only audience recognised themselves for the first time as a counterculture.
Two months later, Hoppy started the first of a lifelong series of projects to democratise communication and information. The London Free school, based in Notting Hill, achieved few of these goals, but its cash-raising events gave Pink Floyd its start and Hoppy’s inspired collaboration with the local West Indian community helped bring about the first annual Notting Hill Carnival.
In October 1966, he and Miles published the first edition of International Times, Europe’s first underground paper. The IT launch party at the Roundhouse – with music by Pink Floyd and Soft Machine – inspired Hoppy and me to open the UFO Club in a West End dance hall. Every Friday, Hoppy would sit atop a scaffold at the back of the club, playing records, making gnomic announcements, showing films, and projecting light shows; he imbued those nights of music, theatre and dance with an unforgettable atmosphere.
In response to a police raid in March 1967 on the IT offices, Hoppy mounted the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream, a fundraising concert at Alexandra Palace; Peter Whitehead’s film of the event, Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967), shows a dazed John Lennon wandering in the huge crowd, transfixed by Yoko Ono cutting a paper dress off a girl as Pink Floyd greet the north London sunrise.
Allen Ginsberg at the Albert Hall in 1965. Photograph: John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins
Revolutions are, almost by definition, factional, but during those golden years, the working-class anarchists, vaguely aristocratic bohemians, musicians, crusaders, poets and dropouts were united in their respect and affection for Hoppy. That he was seen as leader of this amorphous movement espousing recreational drug-taking, political protest, sexual liberation and “obscene” literature led to his downfall. Hoppy’s flat was raided and a small amount of hashish found.
At his trial, he attacked the prohibition on drugs and, having been branded a “menace to society” by the judge, was handed a nine-month term in Wormwood Scrubs. Outrage at the sentence inspired ubiquitous Free Hoppy graffiti as well as a full-page celebrity protest in the Times, paid for by Paul McCartney. Without him, UFO lost its way and closed by October; the scene he had inspired was reduced in his absence by internal bickering, police harassment and better-funded competition.
Though prison drained his energy for leadership, the following decades saw Hoppy persevere with his ideals. Inspired by the Paris events of May 1968, he and Miles converted IT into a workers’ co-operative. He started Bit, an information service, and continued to review and give advice on drugs in IT, under the pseudonym Bradley Martin.
Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, 1967, by Peter Whitehead
With his partner, Sue Hall, in 1969 he formed Fantasy Factory, a facility that revolutionised lowtech video editing, bringing it within reach of community activists and independent directors. Unesco funded Fantasy Factory’s educational package and distributed it widely in the developing world. A chance meeting in 1990 led to Hoppy designing and constructing a greenhouse for horticultural research at the University of Westminster.
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2007, he never lost his curiosity or his charm. In his final months, though his speech and movement were severely hindered, he was still able to open wide his brightest eye and say “wow.”
A marriage to Susan Zeiger (aka Suzy Creamcheese) in 1968 ended in divorce. Hoppy is survived by his sister, Marilyn. Joe Boyd
Here’s me at the microphone at an event at Hansom Hall, Leicester organised by David Soden. It is a battle between performers and images taken of them and projected on to screens around the hall. Here’s a short video of one of the performances:
It was a brilliant event that reminded me a bit of the happenings and events of my youth. Mind you, the technology has changed a lot since then with banks of computers rapidly processing images as they are taken but the effect on the senses was surprisingly similar! It was not that far from the projections and light shows of the past!!
I particularly like this song because it references places I know in Berlin and has such an atmosphere of longing and even dread. An example is that Pottsdammer Platz was a bleak ‘no mans land’ in the 70s. This is a very touching song about something more than nostalgia.
I went to see the movie Zero Dark Thirty last week and it made me think a lot. All I knew before I went was that it was about the search for Bin Laden and was nominated for several Oscars (which it didn’t get apart from an award for sound editing shared with Skyfall). Mind you, before the award ceremony the film was mired in controversy and even managed to unite Democrats and Republicans against it (although for different reasons).
I didn’t realise any of this until after I’d seen it but I can say I was pretty shocked by what I saw. I found the depiction of torture at the beginning of the film deeply shocking but as the main character, Maya, also appears very uncomfortable with it I assumed that it was something of an exposé and taking a moral position against the use of torture. As the film progresses this is not at all certain. Maya seems to get use to the idea of it and it continues unabated until President Obama is seen speaking against it’s use on a TV in the background. We then move into more “conventional” areas of intelligence.
To be fair, this has been talked about a lot and there is a Guardian review that fits quite closely to my view of the film:
The film purports to be based on truth i.e. it is a docudrama or a dramatized documentary. It has been said that the American government released classified information to help the film makers and real footage and sound has been used. In a very effective sound montage of the events of 9/11 at the beginning of the film real phone calls and other live recordings are used without the participants approval or permission. The main character, Maya, is a composite character to help the film’s narrative. It meant she was often in places that she couldn’t have been to give the film coherence.
Here is a report from Jon Boone of the Guardian about inaccuracies in the film:
Although it was described by Bigelow as a “reported film”, Zero Dark Thirty offers a feast for fact-checkers. Inaccuracies abound, largely due to the need to compress the decade-long hunt, create composite characters and make the whole thing work as a piece of drama.
A single character, Maya, is used to carry the film. She is portrayed as a lone voice challenging the CIA’s bureaucratic inertia after Bin Laden trail goes cold and she is placed at the centre of the action. She is shown dining in a poor imitation of Islamabad’s Marriott hotel even though it was blown up in 2008. Her car is attacked by gunmen as she drives out of her house – something that has happened more than once to US government employees in Peshawar, but not to anyone’s knowledge in Islamabad.
One of the CIA’s overseas “black sites” used for interrogating members of al-Qaida is shown in Pakistan itself, presumably to place Maya in both the torture scenes and where the action was in the CIA’s Islamabad station.
Her character appears to be based on a real CIA agent named as Jen in an account of the Bin Laden raid written by former Navy Seal Matt Bissonnette. But Peter Bergen, a journalist and author who has researched Bin Laden more deeply than anyone else, claims the CIA officer who worked on the search for eight years up until his death and was convinced he was hiding in the Abbottabad compound was actually a man.
In December the acting director of CIA went public to criticise the film for taking “significant artistic licence, while portraying itself as being historically accurate”.
The film, which claims to be based on “firsthand accounts of actual events” adds tantalising and colourful details that build on what has been reported elsewhere.
But it’s hard to know what to believe when the film makes an astonishing error in portraying one of the gambits used to try and identify whether Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. A controversial hepatitis B vaccination programme run on behalf of the CIA in the town in an attempt to get hold of Bin Laden family DNA is clearly shown as an anti-polio campaign. It’s a truly sloppy mistake given how widely reported the incident was.
And it’s also potentially dangerous. The scandal of the CIA using aid workers as cover for operations has helped to inflame deep mistrust in Pakistan’s tribal areas towards vaccination programmes. Two Taliban commanders have banned polio eradication from their areas of control. In December, six polio vaccinators were murdered by gunmen while going about their work.
Another curious departure from the truth, likely only to be noticed in Pakistan, is the decision to rename the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad who, as accurately depicted in the movie, has to leave the country after anti-drone campaigners blew his cover by naming him in a court action.
For some reason the film-makers name the character Joseph Bradley,not the real-life Jonathan Banks whose name is now irretrievably all over the internet. Could this be some small (but pointless) quid pro quo for the access Boal was granted to CIA officers and White House officials? Or just artistic licence? (Guardian 27th Jan)
However, what really annoys me about this film is the uncritical attitude to the C.I.A. and also the assumption that spending 10 years to capture or assassinate Bin Laden was somehow a worthwhile activity. If it was revenge for 9/11, which certainly was the position George Bush took in his War Against Terror, then I think it’s misplaced. 9/11 produced a wave of sympathy for America from around the World that could have been used to start creating a better and more understanding environment for change. Instead it was squandered in the development of military power and selfish, short term profit and aims. Perhaps the most disturbing fact in this film was when C.I.A analysts assessed that the chances of Bin Laden actually being in the secure compound were less than the possibility of WMDs being in Iraq, and we all know how many of them there were.
The final sequence was extremely well filmed and was quite gripping. However, it showed women and children being traumatised, men and women being shot and when they eventually kill Bin Laden they’re not even sure it’s him. They are frantically sending photos taken with their phones back to base and trying to get the children to say who he is! Well, what if it hadn’t of been him!! What then!! There are plenty of conspiracy theories floating around the internet that say it wasn’t him. In the meantime they managed to blow a helicopter up and all this was counted as a success! Really??
No, this wasn’t a film that left a good taste in my mouth!
It had to be done. I had two free tickets for Showcase Cinema De Luxe, Leicester last Sunday. Haven’t seen the Hobbit yet or Jack Reacher but I decided to opt for Les Mis. The reason for this isn’t because I’m a big fan of the musical. I’ve never seen it! I’ve been intending to see it for the past thirty years but never made it! I’m going to make a special effort now though. No, the reason is that it is my favourite book of all time. Written by Victor Hugo in the 19th Century it is a literary tour de force, one of the best books ever written.
It is incredibly long, over 1500 pages in English and covers a multitude of things. You find out about the Paris sewer system, the language (argot) of the Parisian underclass, discussion about Napoleon and the monarchy and many other things. The main story though is that of Jean Valjean and his progress from criminal and convict to prosperity as a business man and factory owner and eventually as a benefactor and saviour of Cosette, daughter of a woman who works in his factory, Fantine, who falls on hard times and dies. While all this is happening Jean Valjean is pursued by police inspector Javert who becomes convinced that the mayor is in fact the same man as Valjean who had broken his parole years before and needed to be arrested and put back in gaol. The reason for breaking his parole is missing from the film and is quite an important omission. After getting away with stealing the Bishop’s silver he steals a small amount from a young, poor boy. He becomes totally disgusted with himself and tries to find the boy to give it back but can’t find him. The boy reports it to the police and that is how he broke his parole. This is why Valjean feels that Javert is justified in pursuing him!
The story is quite melodramatic although brilliantly told and is similar to the kind of themes used by Thomas Hardy and Balzac. The characters are very well drawn and serve to bring out the moral ambiguities of the story. Javert is possibly the most interesting character. Although he appears to be remote and cruel and obsessive, his motives are born out of total honesty and respect for the law. Jean Valjean actually respects this about him even though his aim is to bring him down.
Later on the narrative becomes about the love story between Cosette and young middle class revolutionary Marius who is rescued by Valjean from the barricades of the 1832 rebellion against the restored monarchy. This is NOT the French Revolution as many people think but an event that might have been forgotten were it not for it’s inclusion in the book of Les Miserables. It was a storm in a tea cup. At the end of the story both Javert and Valjean, in very different ways, experience a kind of redemption and the world is left a better place. Apparently, Hugo based the two characters on the same person and this is a reason why they are so intrinsically linked. They are two sides of the same man.
In many ways the film is very good and it has really affected audiences emotionally. It is impossible to make a film of the book without seriously compromising the story in many ways but the basic meaning of it remains. I would say the second half is much better than the first although there are some strong episodes in the first like the opening galley scene and Fantine’s rendition of I Dreamed a Dream. I found this very powerful even though the song has become devalued and over familiarised by the Subo and X Factor effect (or was it the other one. Can’t remember!). Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine is astonishing! Despite winning Golden Globes recently I think Russel Crowe and Hugh Jackman are miscast. I think Crowe would have been better as Valjean and Jackman as Javert. An earlier French version had Gerard Depardieu as Valjean and John Malkovich as Javert. This is a superb version and worth seeing if you can get hold of it. Somehow I ended up with a DVD of it that had been given away free with the Daily Express and I have never knowingly bought the Daily Express so I don’t know where I got it from! It is a condensed version of a TV series and gets very close to the original story with some brilliant performances.
Seeing the recent film has renewed my interest in seeing the live theatre production. Film rarely captures the atmosphere and excitement of a live show but, with the live singing on set which is a first, this film is moving in the right direction. Although flawed I think this film is well worth seeing.
I went to see this film this week at the Phoenix Square Cinema, Leicester. It is a very impressive picture. The cast are very natural and believable. It is directed by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi who creates a mystery tale that deals with well intentioned deceit and lies. This is the plot outline:
A group of middle-class Iranian friends travel to the shores of the Caspian Sea on a three-day vacation. They are former classmates at the Law faculty in the university. Three couples include Sepideh and her husband Amir who have a little daughter. Shohreh and her husband Peiman who have two children including their little son Arash. Nazy and her husband Manoochehr are the third family. The trip is planned by Sepideh, who brings along her daughter’s kindergarten teacher Elly in order to introduce her to Ahmad, a friend who has come back from Germany to get married.
They all go to the villa that Sepideh has booked from Tehran, but the rural woman in charge tells them that the owners of the place were going to come back the next day, so they wouldn’t be able stay there. The old woman suggests that they stay in a deserted villa that needs a lot of repairs. There would be no cellphone reception there and they would have to go to the old woman’s house in order to make calls. Sepideh lies to the old woman about the relationship between Elly and Ahmad: she says they’re married and are there for their honeymoon.
Elly is a bit shy, but she begins to feel attracted to Ahmad, who seems to feel the same. She calls her mother and lies to her saying that she’s with her co-workers at the sea-side. She wishes to go back to Tehran the following day, as planned. Sepideh does not want her to leave and hides her luggage. In a twist of events, Elly goes missing after one of the mothers asks her to watch the children playing in the water. The group does not know whether Elly drowned or left for Tehran on her own.
It is interesting, considering media representations of Iran, how ordinary the participants are. They could be a group of people from America or Europe visiting the seaside. It shows the importance of World Cinema in breaking down stereotypes. Many people’s views of Iranian society are probably of mad jihadists and women in burqas. This is far from the truth. The film does deal with things like honour but in a totally comprehensible way. It is both a riveting mystery tale and an exploration of guilt and lies. Highly recommended!