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 is a tricky one. I’ve never been that impressed with ‘best of’ lists but I found myself sitting in a hotel room listening to music on my phone and I began thinking about what my favourite (and most influential) albums of all-time were. I say influential because, as some of you know, I am a musician and song-writer who has followed in the footsteps of numerous greats. It’s a hard choice but here’s my favourite 10. I’ve limited myself to two albums by the same artist or else they would probably be all by Bob Dylan ! I also realise, having completed the list, that, with the exception of the first 5, the rest are in no particular order. I’m also aware that there are countless others that could, and probably should, be included. Alright, it’s a stupid idea but here it is!
Okay, what can I say about this album apart from the fact that it is probably the most inspired piece of work I have EVER heard (notice the Dylanesque emphasis) and I’m not just talking about music! I have read reports about the session and all participants agree that something very special happened here. It contains, in my opinion, the greatest rock song of all time “Like a Rolling Stone” but this is not really the essence of the album. It stands apart and, indeed, was produced by a different person from the rest of the record. The remainder contains Dylan at his most aggressive and elusive best. The most interesting song, again in my opinion, is Desolation Row, a surreal trawl through 20th Century culture and ideas. “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower, while calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers”. This isn’t just poetry and music it is an assault on the senses and intellect! “The Agents” and “The Superhuman Crew” check to see that no one is escaping to Desolation Row. The famous voice that people either love or hate is at it’s expressive best. Like many albums on my list this one is unique. There was nothing like it before and there’s been nothing like it since. Even the titles of the songs were a new departure with weird names like “Queen Jane Approximately”, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” that seemed to have nothing to do with the lyrics of the songs but probably did have. Pop music had found Symbolist poetry and the kids loved it!! (Well, this one did). It stands alone and sounds forever modern and archaic at the same time. Dylan himself has said that he had no idea how he wrote the songs and wouldn’t be able to do them now. The musicianship is impeccable especially the electric guitar playing of Mike Bloomfield and the acoustic lead of Charlie McCoy imported especially from Nashville for just one track!
If Bob Dylan in the mid sixties was on an amphetamine fueled creative voyage into oblivion Leonard Cohen was on a quietly mannered journey back from it. This album emerged in 1968 and gradually became a bedsit legend as many sad young men and women took the songs to heart. Okay, it has been called music to slit your wrists to and Cohen’s voice has probably been even less complimented than Dylan’s but to those in the know this is an album of beautifully crafted songs whose underlying message is surprisingly optimistic completely unlike the eternal whinging of say Morrissey and the Smiths who actually DID create music to slit your wrists to. Cohen’s songs deal with ideas that had seldom been dealt with by popular music before. Despair, spirituality, sexual love and he wrote like a real poet which of course is what he was. He was also a well known novelist before he became a singer and a songwriter. A very different pedigree to most of the pop singers and rock and rollers at the time. He was a remarkable performer though and managed to follow Jimi Hendrix at 4 in the morning at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival and still get a standing ovation. Producer Bob Johnson was so impressed with him that he gave up producing and joined his band as a keyboardist. This was his first album and contains classics like “Suzanne” and “Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”. My favourite is “The Stranger Song” that manages to evoke feelings of loss, alienation and redemption. ” And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind you find he did not leave you very much not even laughter. Like any dealer he was watching for the card that is so high and wild he’ll never need to deal another.He was just some Joseph looking for a manger”. It also has his trade mark guitar ripple which is quite difficult to do. The perfect song for existentialists.
If Leonard Cohen was the poet laureate of despair and alienation the Velvet Underground were like a sound track to the heroin drenched ravings of William Burroughs in “The Naked Lunch”. Here we have tracks like “Heroin”, “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and “Waiting for the Man” complete with drones and excruciating feed back. This is like the antithesis of pop music, both disturbed and deranged. Not surprisingly it was neither played on the radio nor bought in any quantity by the general public at the time. It has since of course been cited as one of the greatest records of all time and was a massive influence on punk rock. Famously produced by Andy Warhol (or should that be non-produced as he knew nothing about music or record production!) it also contained some sweet ballads dealing with wholesome events like “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “Femme Fatale” and “Venus in Furs” that reference both mental insecurity and sado-masochistic sex. Not your typical pop song.! This is a truly adorable record that managed to both scare and make me smile. Lou Reed thinks that if it had NOT been produced by Warhol it might have sold a lot more as he was so universally detested at the time (Warhol that is. Lou Reed has only become detested more recently!) and his name on the record put people off. On the other hand it would never have been released as it is without his influence. Some PROPER record producer would have cleaned it up and totally ruined it.
You may wonder why this record by the Doors is so high up the chart and not their dazzling first LP. Well, the answer is simple. Apart from a couple of singles like “Light My Fire” I missed the first one and went straight into “Strange Days” which I think is absolutely brilliant. The sound of the Doors is wonderful and the quality of Jim Morrison’s voice is just perfect. He described it as “sick crooning” as he had based it on the sound of Frank Sinatra. Mind you, he doesn’t sound much like Frank when he bellows out “Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection!!” He was a great lyricist who raided the poems of William Blake and created something new. The final song “When the Music’s Over” is monumental and gives the impression of spontaneity and improvisation. Morrison introduced performance poetry to pop music and created the way for great artists like Patti Smith. I just love the line “Before I sink into the big sleep, I want to hear the scream of the butterfly”. It has been said by some critics that this album is not as good as the first and they used up all their best songs on that one. I disagree, I think this is just as good and,in my mind, perhaps even better. Mind you, I also love “Waiting for the Sun” and even the song “Hello, I Love You” which attracted some derision at the time because it was seen as cynically commercial (and plagiarised The Kinks)! I guess the Doors can do no wrong for me!
In a similar way that I missed the first Doors album I also missed “Rubber Soul” by the Beatles. If I hadn’t have done it would probably have been my favourite Beatles record. As it is, I didn’t listen to it in it’s entirety until years later! However, “Revolver” still stands up as the most ambitious Beatles record until that date. “Sgt. Pepper” is probably more ambitious but it is not as interesting, in my opinion, with the exception perhaps of “Day in the Life”. “Revolver” totally knocked my socks off. From the opening count-in of “Taxman” to the wailing drones of “Tomorrow Never Knows” I was captivated. This was music I had never heard before and I loved it! It also had the first real use of Indian music. Sure, George had used the sitar on “Rubber Soul” but here we have a full Indian ensemble including tabla with George crooning mystically over the top of it. Totally brilliant!! There is also the first use of experimentation with the recording of reverse guitar tracks and tape loops. The Beatles are growing up and trying new things! This record probably has the Beatles playing together at their best. George’s lead guitar playing has improved and changed considerably. Ringo’s drumming has never been better. John and Paul’s voices are perfectly matched. It is interesting that in the same year that they gave up playing live they produced their tightest recordings ever. Songs like “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “She Said, She Said” are miniature gems of great writing and playing. Oh, and the sleeve’s pretty cool as well!