Everyone’s heard the famous maxim, generally accredited to legendary music producer Brian Eno: while the Velvet Underground’s debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, sold a paltry 30,000 copies upon release in 1967, every person who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band. Though a slight exaggeration, the line is a testament to the album’s far-reaching influence trumping its commercial failure. Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker merged raw rock and roll with musique concrète and the avant-garde to create an untamed and menacing sound that perfectly underscored their poetic tales of drug deals, sadomasochistic sex and other snapshots of the urban underworld.
Emboldened by manager and patron Andy Warhol—who linked them up with featured vocalist, Nico—the Velvet Underground’s brand of leather-clad Lower East Side cool emerged onto vinyl with all of its grit and daring intact, serving as a beacon to generations of young artists unwilling to conform to pop music niceties. Decades ahead of its time, it planted the seeds for punk, glam, goth, and a host of others genres to flourish.
In honor of the groundbreaking album’s 50th anniversary this month, Cale spoke to PEOPLE about his memories recording The Velvet Underground & Nico. Read on for his exclusive track by track commentary.
“That happened one Sunday morning at Lou’s friend’s house. We were out boozing and running around the Lower East Side and Lou suddenly had a great idea. He said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a friend who lives around the corner, let’s go see him.’ And it was like three o’clock [in the morning]. I said, ‘Yeah, ok!’ We ran over, and he had a harmonium in the corner of his living room. Generally what we did when we went anywhere, we just zeroed in on the instruments and started playing. It was kind of manic—anywhere you’d go, if you saw an instrument you’d just pick it up and start playing. Lou saw the guitar, I saw the harmonium, and off we went writing ‘Sunday Morning.’
“I remember the first gigs we did with just him and me —I had a recorder and a viola, and he had an acoustic guitar. We’d go sit on the sidewalk outside the Baby Grand [bar] up in Harlem on 125th and see if we could make some money. Every time we got moved on the cop always had a suggestion of where we should go. ‘Try 75th on Broadway! That’s a good spot.’ So we’d go down there and make a little bit more money.”
“Andy saw that Lou was moping around the factory, and he gave him a list of words. He said, ‘Here are 14 words, go write songs with these words.’ And Lou was never happier. He had a task in hand and he sat down. That was a lot of fun for him. We had our own thing going [before Warhol] but he showed up and was more of a guy helping us not forget who we were. He would always say things like, ‘Tell Lou, don’t forget to put little swear words in that song.’ He was reminding us of who we really were. And he didn’t have to say very much to do that, he could just be around and it would be like that because he’d notice what was going on around you. He’d notice the art that was going on. We didn’t understand it. We were just flabbergasted by it, but we loved it at the same time.”
“Lou wrote ‘Venus in Furs’ while we were playing around when we met at Pickwick. He told me that the label wouldn’t let him record all of the songs he really wanted to do. That sort of pissed me off. I asked him what they were and he showed them to me. He’d play them on acoustic guitar and I said, ‘These are rock songs. These can be really big and orchestral if you want them to be.’ Then I said, ‘Let’s just do it ourselves, let’s get our own label and get our own recording situation—not here.’ So we put a band together. That was a signature number for us.”
“We had made the arrangement for ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ before Nico came along. That was the result of a year of weekend work—sitting around on the weekend and just playing and playing and playing and playing until you slowly gradually moved out of the folk music side of things.
The record was all done with just us playing, there were no effects involved in that. We tried a version where Nico doubles her vocal, but the vocal just became too heavy. “But the noise of putting paper clips in between the strings of the piano gave it a ring that made it a little more orchestral. We were trying to make orchestral stuff. We were trying to be Phil Spector, really. Phil Spector would mix Wagnerian orchestrations with R&B. That was a really unique combination. We had the drone. The viola wasn’t wasn’t used, so the piano became the drone. Whenever we’d try to do something, we’d always try to find something that would be the drone.”
“’Heroin’ is really special. At that point it was kind of a resident of the band because it was so important to the set. Everybody had heard of it. It was one of the attractions of the set, apart from the attitude of the band. Whatever we were doing, we were trying to get more people in the door. But we had a lot of different ideas of how to do that. My idea of getting people in the door was doing something experimental. I tried to get Lou to see that we don’t have to do the same set every night. That was a direct result of all these club owners in New York saying, ‘You’ve got to play one or two songs that are in the top 10, otherwise you won’t get a gig.’ We said, ‘We’re not doing that. We’ve got our own numbers.’ And until Andy showed up we barely got any venues at all. I thought, ‘One selling point that we can have is that we never do the same set twice.’ We improvised songs every night, which was rather fun with Lou. I said, ‘We can give Dylan a run for his money if we just improvise every night, because our lyrics are just as good.’”
“Lou was writing songs for Nico, and some of the best songs he’d written were written for her. That was one of them. She was becoming more interested at that time in being her own songwriter. She’d sit down and write poetry, and to her it was in a foreign language. She was trying to find poetic language in a foreign language, because she was German-speaking. But she was determined, she bought a harmonium for herself and was really single-minded about doing all that.”
“’Black Angel Death Song’ no one ever got. It would go over everybody’s head. But in general, I think what people responded to, even if they didn’t understand it, was the energy that we had. Lou and I, we knew we could play these songs, but we were never genuflecting to each other about how to play them. The performances were more done as a bald statement of fact: ‘This is what we do. Whether you like it or not, we don’t care.’ And we didn’t care whether we played it well. We really were on top of that. And we were excited about what we were doing. And then the band gets a record deal right away? Come on, that’s great. Really exciting.”
“’European Son’ in my mind was purely for improvisation. Whenever we played anywhere, we couldn’t wait to get to the point where we’d improvise and do ‘European Son.’ It was always different. That was the fun part for us, doing those improvisations. And those improvisations would really get the best of us in the end, because they’d go on and on and on and on. We’d be up there for an hour just improvising before we’d even done a song! In San Diego we did that. That’s kind of the rep we had when we got to San Francisco and L.A.
Bill Graham didn’t appreciate all the songs and improvisations that were going on. He thought we were invading [the San Francisco group’s] territory. There wasn’t much love lost between us and the West Coast. Lou was always talking about, ‘Never mind the flower children, give us the hard drugs!’ We were happy that Woodstock ended up in the mud—that kind of resentment was very healthy, I thought.”
The way John Cale tells it, he had a revelation one day in the mid-Sixties. He’d dedicated the majority of his first two decades to classical and avant-garde music, to such an extent that, he says dryly, “I may have missed out on my puberty.
“I woke up one day and said, ‘Wait a minute, there are people running around singing Beatles songs,'” he recalls. “The Beatles Invasion was going on. All the enjoyment that I’d gotten as a kid out of rock & roll was receding, and I thought, ‘Let’s put something together that blends the two.’ I wanted to cross-pollinate rock with the avant-garde, and then I met Lou Reed, and that was the solution.”
The union of Cale’s musical wanderlust, spurred on by collaborating with minimalist composer La Monte Young, and Reed’s rock-steady songwriting, which he had been exercising as an in-house songwriter at Pickwick Records, became the soul of the Velvet Underground. This weekend will mark the 50th anniversary of their most daring experiment – their debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico – the Andy Warhol–produced LP that found Cale, Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker fusing gritty garage rock with overdriven viola noise and, on some songs, the lilting, expressionistic vocals of German chanteuse Nico.
The record, whose songs vividly described drug abuse and sexual deviance at a time when the Beatles were dominating the charts with a gentler, more whimsical countercultural vision, was far from a commercial hit, but its influence over the past half century has been undeniable. Artists ranging from David Bowie to Duran Duran have covered its songs, and Brian Eno is fabled to have once said, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
Cale, who typically only looks forward to the next project and is currently in the midst of finishing up a new album, is in the process of celebrating the milestone. Last year, he performed the LP – along with songs from its follow-up, White Light/White Heat – with a number of guests, including Pete Doherty, Mark Lanegan and Animal Collective, among others, at a special concert in Paris. He’ll be doing it again, possibly with another set of collaborators, in Liverpool this coming May and will do a third final show in the U.S. this year. He’s invited the only other surviving member of the group from the time, Tucker, to join him but says she’s uncomfortable with flying so it’s up to her if she will participate in future celebrations.
In the meantime, Cale took a moment to look back on the album’s achievement.
What are your most vivid memories of the Velvet Underground and Nico sessions?
I remember how excited we were, and how we really didn’t care about the equipment we had. We had to walk carefully across the floor because the floorboards were up and you didn’t know if it’d make noise. We had no earphones. We just stood there and did it in a broken-down studio. Lou had headphones for doing vocals, but the rest of us were just trying to do what we did [at the rehearsal space] on Ludlow Street. It was a strange, exciting environment. I mean, here we are, “Hey, we’re making a record, guys.”
What did the Ludlow Street apartment look like when you rehearsed there?
I went back there with The Wall Street Journal a few years ago. I really felt like I was intruding on somebody’s house, but the people who live there now were very accommodating.
It’s very different now. It was a little disorienting, looking out at the window. I had a spring mattress over the window to stop burglars from getting in. Tony Conrad put that up. We nailed the mattress up on the window, but you could see through it. It was just a spring, but it was an excellent guard for the window. Back then, when you looked down, you could see the doorway across the street where all the high school kids would do doo-wop in the morning. We were there for about two-and-a-half years.
Andy Warhol is listed as the producer of the album. Did he give much input during the recording sessions?
He didn’t say much but he was there. That’s usual with Andy. He’d say a few things, but they’d be effective at getting things done. Even when he was making his films, he didn’t say much, but without him, they wouldn’t have happened. But we were glad to have Andy because we thought he was somebody would could talk to, and what I mean by that is that we didn’t say very much ourselves. We were pretty terse in our discussions of music. “Just try this. Just try that.” That’s about it.
Do you remember any specific advice Andy gave you in the studio?
Yeah. He told Lou, “Don’t forget to put the swear words in the songs.” We never used swear words. We felt the intellectual strength in what we were trying to do came from not using swear words. And then Lou wrote a few songs that were very different.
I think what happened was Andy gave Lou 14 titles and he said, “Now go away and write these songs,” because we were hanging around the Factory. He probably saw him as indolent and trying to figure out what to do next. And Lou was never happier than, “Hey, here’s a task. I got 14 titles. I can do that.”
It’s hard to imagine creating that way.
Yeah, but Andy’s really unlocking something. It’s very unorthodox and it worked perfectly.
According to legend, you wrote “Sunday Morning” with Lou in a bedroom. Was that on Ludlow Street?
No, we were at a friend’s house on Saturday late night. There was a harmonium in the corner of the room, and we got to it. And it was really Sunday morning by the time we finished. … It was one of those things where you didn’t expect it to happen, but you’re out for a Saturday night and … it shows how comfortable we were being players and musicians. The safety blanket was always the instrument. You’d grab it because you’d need something to hang onto and because you felt you were wasting time and that you had to goals to accomplish and it was a chance to do it, and we can do this with a friend. Wherever we were, if there was an instrument there, we’d zero in on it.
The first song Lou played for you that he’d written was “Heroin,” and you’ve said previously that you felt it fit perfectly with the musical concept you’d come up with. How was that? I just wanted to move out of La Monte [Young]’s sphere. When Lou played me the songs at Pickwick and said, “They won’t let me record these songs,” it kind of pissed me off. I said, “Let’s go and do it ourselves.” And he was so taken aback.” He said, “How are you gonna … ?” and I said, “Let’s just go do it ourselves. Let’s put a band together and go out there and play them.” And that’s where it started.
Then we started rehearsing, and you can tell from the box set how things changed over a year. We really developed all the music that was on the Banana Album. We never spent that amount of time on any of the other material after that. We became a road band, and the thing about a road band is that you put the backbeat in there no matter what and you’re safe. And if you start doing something strange, like “All Tomorrow’s Parties” or “Black Angel’s,” then people stand there with their mouths open. But there was a lot we tried to cover. I thought we could use both of those things [rock and avant-garde music] and make it work. And Lou did too.
So my initial reaction was just anger at the arrogance of a record company, which was boilerplate. But any young artist was always looking for the arrogance of the record company.
You tried many innovative things, including putting guitar strings on your viola, a practice that went back to your La Monte Young days. What was it about that sound that stuck with you?
It was very abrasive. And the pickups we had then were really not terrific. They had a lot of noise. It was a good racket. And we needed it to work with the guitars and bass.
What was it that attracted you to the viola in the first place? Oh, I was the fall guy for the school orchestra in Wales. They’d palmed out all the other instruments; the only one left was a viola, and I took it. And then I learned the material written for viola is really nowhere near as good as the material for violin. It’s disappointing. You end up playing stuff that was written for the violin on the viola.
One of the greatest viola songs on the album is “The Black Angel’s Death Song.” How did that come to be?
It’s taking a drone and creating a landscape. It becomes big because of the drone.
Did you and Lou work with a lot of drones as starting points for songs?
No. He had all the songs written. And then I would come in and put a drone on after it. As it turned out, most of the songs were in D or G, and that works with the viola.
Another standout is the jammy “European Son,” which had so much noise on the original, like glass breaking.
Yeah, that was in the studio. They had these little plates of tin that sounded like glass breaking. It happened to work out.
What were your concerts like back then, like the gigs under the Exploding Plastic Inevitable banner?
Chaotic. They were different wherever we went. We would always end with “European Son,” and everybody put down their instruments and thrashed around with the drums.
One time in San Francisco, Lou was feeding back with his guitar, and we all attacked the drums. I knocked the cymbal off Moe’s upper stand, and Lou was bending down in front of it when I hit it and it came down on his head and cut him.
Bill Graham was the owner of the place, and he had pissed off everybody before [we played], because he threw Sterling out of the club. He was so ornery. We were setting our equipment up, and everybody went out for a coffee or a beer and Sterling was left there. Bill came in and said, “Who the hell’s stuff is that?” Sterling, being his usual diffident self, said, “Yeah, some of that is ours.” And Bill said, “Well, move it over there.” He came back an hour later and said, “You haven’t moved that shit yet? Get out of here. Don’t come back.” We had to tell him, “Hey, he’s in the band.” But when we were done saying, he said, “That’s a short set. Get back onstage.” And he found out Lou had his head sliced and was bleeding and immediately the idea of insurance came down on his head, and he said, “Ahh.” [Laughs] It was shock and horror.
Did the chaos ever dissipate?
No, it wasn’t our style to discuss what we wanted to do. It was totally absurd. The worst kind of band you’d want.
The box set that came out five years ago has some photos of you all playing the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry. What did they make of you?
They gave us stony glances. They didn’t like us very much. They told us we all needed some help and we would have agreed with them absolutely. Give us these pills and those pills and those pills and we’ll be fine.
Were you disappointed by the initial lack of success for the album?
No, I was used to that with avant-garde music anyway. You never got any kinds of accolades for that. It was a small coterie of people. And with La Monte, the coterie kept getting smaller and smaller. I was ready for that. It was the rest against us. And we had a point to make: “We weren’t there to fuck around. We’re doing this song about this subject and that subject. Have you ever heard a song about this subject?” We had a point to what we were doing, and we refused to be treated like the trash we were treated as.
You went in with a point, and then your next album, White Light/White Heat, was harder and heavier than the first one.
Yeah, we were becoming a road band. Everything on the Banana Album was rehearsed and rejiggered and rearranged, and on White Light/White Heat, it was whatever we threw together in the studio. “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” I mean, [producer] Tom Wilson did his best with what was available. He did very well on “Lady Godiva,” but it was all very spontaneous and in the studio. We had a rough idea of what were doing on the road, but we could barely rehearse on the road. The songs were improvised on the road or written in the studio. We’d do a lot of improvisational work, and it went on for hours.
Do you feel the improvisations were the best of what the Velvet Underground did?
Sometimes, yeah. I’ve heard some improvisations on bootlegs that had some interesting noises in it. It wasn’t as if everybody was drunk out of their minds and not paying attention. Everybody was trying really hard. Incessantly sometimes.
How was it having Nico on the road at those times?
Oh, just special. She had her own thing going. She arrived whenever she felt like it and left whenever [laughs]. It was all drifting from place to place. The people that really made sure they were at every gig was the Frank Zappa band, because [manager] Herbie Cohen wanted to make sure Frank got as much publicity as we did from all the stuff Andy would generate. He’d just make sure he’d get there when the TV crews showed up.
You’re typically not one to look back at your career. Why did you decide to mark the album’s 50th anniversary?
There was no way to avoid it; it was going to be asked of me. This venue in Paris popped up and it seemed like the best situation for us to do it. And it had an exhibit with it that was really good. I’ve seen a bunch of exhibits about the V.U., but this one was very good. It had stuff I’d never seen before. It was intriguing to look at.
What piqued your interest?
There were films. We invited Jonas Mekas and a bunch of people from New York who showed their films. There was a film of Lou, one of me, one of Sterling, one of Moe, and it was all these things – footage, photography, writing – I’d never seen before. It was the best exhibit I’d ever seen about the V.U. and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. It had everything from the cinema tech and the cultural revolution. I’m not sure yet if I’ll be able to bring it to the other shows. I hope so.
You recently relistened to the album as you’ve been planning the 50th-anniversary shows. What strikes you about it when you hear it now?
It’s exciting to figure out who can do what songs. Some people, for instance, can’t sing “Heroin.” And others can’t sing “Black Angel’s [Death Song].” There are so many new ways to do these songs and give them props.
Did rearranging the songs come together easily for the Paris show?
Well, with that one I just used what was there and got some wild and crazy guys to come in and play, Pete Doherty and a lot of others. “Heroin” was really difficult, but it worked. I don’t know how far astray I want to go in the arrangements. When you come to a 50th-anniversary show, you expect to hear exactly what you heard before, or you at least hope it’s just as intense as it was before. I’m still reviewing who I’m interested in approaching for the Liverpool concert.
Will the song arrangements in Liverpool be like the ones in Paris?
I don’t know yet. We’ll look at the artists we end up with and see which ones can handle a new arrangement. I don’t want to offend people who are coming to see us. I want to be careful with how outlandish I want to be.
There have been many covers of these songs, and the ones that have been covered make me think, “I want to do ’em another way.” There’s plenty of scope with electronica and everything else to change the arrangement and the emphasis of the songs. But I want people to be able to recognize the songs, so I try to hold it together.
Well, the very nature of the Velvets was to experiment.
Yeah. I’m torn between that and really providing people with what they know. I love doing new things anyway. It can go on forever.
When you did the Paris show, and you worked on finding the intensity of the songs, did you glean anything new from them? It was great with Pete Doherty onstage, and seeing the shambles of the music come to life. That was very familiar to me. It was so much fun watching people trip over each other onstage. It was a great concert, but we also had a lot of fun up there.
Did you feel like you came close to the feeling of the Velvet Underground shows at your Paris gig?
Yeah. It sounded a lot better. It had all the energy that I remember. You just cut loose.
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.
I came across Adam Ritchie when I was researching into the Velvet Underground. Most of the early pictures of the band were taken by him and Lisa Law. It seems strange that there are not more pictures of the band from this time when you consider the number of photos taken at Andy Warhol’s Factory by Billy Name and various others. The quality of Richie’s pictures are brilliant, especially as he had no training as a photographer (mind you, neither did Billy Name who also produced some outstanding prints).
His pictures of the Velvet’s first gigs at Cafe Bizarre in New York are fascinating as are the only pictures I have seen of the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry annual dinner at the Delmonico Hotel, New York, 13 January 1966. This still seems like one of the oddest events ever staged. What did the guests think whilst Gerard Malanga wielded his whip and the band churned out distortion and feedback at maximum volume? I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall! The fact that it was a psychiatrist’s convention makes it even more surreal.
His photographs of Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett at the UFO club in London in 1966 also give a real insight into the period. Both the Floyd and Andy Warhol were experimenting with light shows at the time.
I went from London to New York in 1962. Found a loft on Bond Street just off the Bowery and got work doing international economic research. I moved to 277 East 10th Street in the East Village. In 1964 I bought a 35mm camera and became a photographer instead. I worked for Conde Nast’s Mademoiselle and Glamour, Esquire, Look, ESP Disk, etc. I was always interested in alternative culture and jazz. Working at night at the Bleeker Street Cinema, I got to know Jonas Mekas, Barbara Rubin, Betsey Johnson Cecil Taylor, Sunny Murray and some of the Fugs.
I disliked Andy Warhol’s celebration of tinsel and superficial glamour until I found myself on the 27th floor of an advertising agency showing my pictures to an art director. One of Andy’s helium filled silver pillows floated very slowly in a straight, even line across the huge window behind him. I was spellbound with amazement. It seemed impossible for steady movement and a lack of gusting outside the window at the 27th floor level. I didn’t say anything about it to the art director but it was clear that Andy’s understanding of the time was profound. Barbara Rubin introduced me to the Velvet Underground before she introduced them to Andy Warhol. I was mad about them because of their music and how they felt serious about what they were doing.
I came back to London in 1966 and immediately went to John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins and Joe Boyd’s new UFO Club. I took photos of Pink Floyd’s earliest performances at the club and at the Round House. I taught photography at Central School of Art as well until 1973 when I started building houses for people in Wales and later in London until 1995.
While I was building houses, my photo lab closed down suddenly. All my photos and negatives were destroyed without my knowledge. Later I just happened to discover a battered old paper carrier bag with the Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd photos in it. That, apart from a few prints, was all that was left of 10 years professional photography.
I had always kept in touch with Rudy Franchi from the Bleeker Street Cinema. In 1997 he offered me my first exhibition, called “The Lost Photographs” at his gallery in Boston. Since then they have appeared in 40 or more books and hundreds of magazines and newspapers. They have been in exhibitions at the Whitney Museum and Boo-Hooray Gallery in New York, Victoria & Albert Museum, Tate Liverpool, Idea Gallery and Artisan Gallery in London, in Paris, Bologna, Vienna, Tokyo and in Sweden and Australia. There will be many of my photos in a new Velvet Underground show at the Cité de la Musique opening between March and August 2016.
Some of the Velvet Underground photos are also in the Andy Warhol Museum collection.
Since then it has been cabinet making, teaching furniture design, local community organising, then running a furniture company for 8 years and now I’m retired, singing in two choirs, growing delicious fruit and vegetables in allotments, Irish set dancing every week and going to classes.
What follows is an interview with Adam Ritchie from ‘Wombat’ photography and arts blog. He seems to have been equally blessed and ill-fated!
Are you a self-taught photographer?
In 1962/63 I was working doing international economic research for a New York company called Business International and living on the Lower East Side. One day I saw a rat walking calmly along my street, East 10th St, between 1st Avenue and Avenue A. I wanted to photograph what I saw. A friend, Larry Fink, was a professional photographer and he helped me buy a 35mm camera one friday, after work. I took my first photographs on Saturday, developed the film in Larry’s darkroom that evening, spent Sunday printing with his help. I went to work early on monday and covered the wall of my office with 20 prints. Everyone came in and looked at the pictures, pretty amazed that it had all happened since the office closed on friday.
The boss suggested that there was such feeling in the photos, that that is what I should really be doing. I said it was just a new hobby I had taken up that weekend for the first time and underneath it all, I was a serious economist. He kept on at me about it until finally, he fired me with three months salary in advance to force me to try and earn a living from photography. I already had a holiday back to England booked and paid for. I planned a series of photographs of people in London. Mademoiselle Magazine bought and published six pages of them. Following that I got published by Glamour Magazine (also Conde Nast), Esquire, Look and others.So yes, I was self taught.
What is your educational background?
Normal, except that I did my last two years of school at the Lycee Français de Londres and then two years of a degree in Economics at Amherst College in Massachusetts on a scholarship.
Why do I take pictures?
I’ve always being interested in seeing things and how you organize what you see. I was involved in the Underground Avant-garde in London and New York, so I wanted to show people what I saw. I saw John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Cecil Taylor and Velvet Underground and others in New York and when I went back to London in summer 1966, I photographed Pink Floyd earliest performances.
I taught photography at Central School of Art in London from 1966 to 1973 and took lots of other photographs, but in 1973 I resigned from teaching, went to Wales and built houses for other people. I learned from books and experience. I built houses there for 4 years and then moved back to London still building for another 8 years. I discovered about then that all my photographs and negatives had been destroyed (except for Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd pictures and a few prints. I spent a couple of years at a furniture college learning cabinet making and furniture design and launched my own studio and also taught furniture design.
Were you friends with the Velvet Underground?
I talked a bit with John Cale while I was photographing the making of the Venus in Furs film but mainly I photographed them because I loved their music. My friend, Barbara Rubin, was playing a nun in the Venus in Furs film and phoned me to say I had to come and listen to this amazing new band. Obviously I took cameras. Piero Heliczer, whose film it was, was very informal, sometimes with a film camera, sometimes blowing an alto sax. There was a CBS News film crew doing a story about The Making of an Underground Film as well so the whole thing was like a happening with everything going on at the same time.
What were your influences?
In the early 1960s, I lived in an apartment in London together with 6-7 men and women. We all read William Burroughs (Naked Lunch). He visited our apartment. We read Genet, Kerouac, Flan O’Brian, Dostoievski, Samuel Becket, etc. We listened to Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Miles Davis Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell every night.
I worked in Better Books, the most avant-garde bookshop in London with all the artists and intellectuals constant visitors. We organized happenings and spontaneous demonstrations.
The truth is I was young, intelligent, very interested in culture and alternative underground culture.
I had lived for three years in New York as a child and had later got a scholarship to attend university in Massachusetts1958-60. I had not enjoyed the university in the States but wanted to try again, so I got a work permit and went to New York in 1962 for four years. Although being an economist for work in the day, the rest of the time I listened to and saw Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Monk. I went to many art galleries. I also worked as assistant Night Manager at the Bleeker Street Cinema and met Barbara Rubin and Jonas Mekas. I went to happenings and jazz and movies every week. I became a photographer in order to photograph what I saw. Back in London in 1966, I started a campaign in my very poor neighborhood for playgrounds and community facilities. I spent three or four years working for that in my free time and it became the largest community scheme of its sort in Europe. It is 115 000 m2 in west London built underneath an elevated motorway called Westway. Later I built houses for ten years and afterwards became a furniture maker/designer.
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
The album “The Velvet Underground & Nico” is remarkable for many reasons–not least the music. a. It is one of only two albums that I know of that names the cover designer rather than the band or the record’s title on the front (the other being Swedish band bob hund‘s 1996 LP “Omslag: Martin Kann“.) b. The cover provoked two lawsuits (more on those later). c. Gatefold covers had generally only been used for double albums. Elvis Presley’s “Elvis Is Back!” from 1956 is said to be the first gatefold cover for a single LP and “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was not released until two months after the Velvets’ album.
In 1965 Andy Warhol became The Velvet Underground‘s manager and he booked them into New York’s Scepter Studios in April 1966 to record the group’s first album which was de…
Paris in Springtime. According to the songs that is the time to go. Unfortunately, my trip was a bit early for that and it didn’t really look any different to Leicester apart from the buildings and river etc. I guess you should go there late rather than early April, or maybe even early May. Still, I had a good time over all. You can get special offers on Eurostar for £29 each way and I availed my self of this. From London to Paris takes about two and a half hours on the high speed train. Amazing! In the old days it took about twelve hours on the boat and train. You can get to Paris quicker than you can get to Manchester now and it is very romantic, at least in my imagination.
The good thing about travelling by rail is that you can take a musical instrument with you without paying extra. On my European Musical Trip last year I took my accordion which weighed a ton and nearly wore me out. This time I took my guitar which is a lot lighter but is rather bulky and gets stuck in the doors and exits. Very disconcerting! Also, it proved very embarrassing on the Paris Metro which was very crowded and I managed to annoy several people with the guitar on my back knocking into them. Still, I eventually managed to get to my hotel on the outskirts of Paris and settle in. The view from my window was not what I was expecting but the hotel was very cheap and there was a metro station very close by.
That night I decided to go to an open mic. That was the main reason I had decided to go to Paris. To check out the live music scene. Because of the problems I’d had with my guitar on the Metro I decided to leave it behind and hope to borrow one when I got there. Maybe take my guitar the next day when I was a bit more confident.
I checked out the possible venues on my phone and found quite a lot of places I could go to. I decided on the Bombardier Pub in the Latin Quarter with a possible back up at The Galway Irish Pub just around the corner and near the Seine. I also planned how I could get back to my hotel. It was quite a way out and the Metro closes just after 12 and taxis are expensive. I found out there was a night bus that went near Bagnolet so I decided I would get this! More about that later!
There was no open mic at the Bombardier but I ended up getting a free burger meal that had been made by mistake. I guess they took pity on me or thought I needed it! Unfortunately, I don’t really like burgers or chips but I thought it would be rude not to eat it! At least it filled me up.
From there I went to the Galway Irish Pub which did have an open mic and I performed and had a really good time. It was a really cosmopolitan crowd with a big American contingent and the standard of the acts was very high. The bar staff were really friendly and told me about another open mic I could go to at a pub called The Highlander Scottish Bar in two days time which, apparently, was the best one in Paris. I noted that down. It was virtually next to the Pont Neuf, a bridge I’d played my guitar under many years ago.
Getting the night bus was pretty easy but I wasn’t that sure where to get off. It was a strange experience. Most of the passengers were workers returning from a late shift and looked tired and morose. There weren’t any other late night revellers like me! I got off too early and proceeded to have a real problem getting to my hotel. I could see it in the distance but there were about three motorways in between. It took me over an hour to get through. I then found there was a bus stop just outside the hotel. A bit annoying but at least I knew where to go for the rest of the trip!
Next day I decided to go to Pere Lachaise cemetery which was only a couple of stops from my hotel at Bagnolet. It is an incredibly interesting place. Apart from having the tomb of Jim Morrison, which was perhaps my principal reason for going there, it has the graves of luminaries like Colette, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde and many others. I took lots of photos there. It is a very evocative place that reminded me in some ways of the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. I find the statuary quite compelling.
I spent a long time in the cemetery and it was quite tiring. It is very big, so I decided to go and hire one of the public bikes and cycle into the city. As usual it took me a while to sort out how to use it and had to phone the help line. They were a lot better and more helpful than the equivalent in Frankfurt a few months before. I was soon on the road and on my way to the centre. Notre Dame here I come! And yes, I took lots of pictures of the magnificent cathedral all the way round. I also went around the city centre and into the Latin Quarter. The buildings are amazing and I went into a reverie imagining I was one of the poets and Existentialists in the 1940s and 50s, talking earnestly in sidewalk cafes.
The Paris bikes are easy and cheap to use. After an initial charge you get the first half hour for free. If you know where you are going you can use them for virtually nothing, changing over every half hour. There are plenty of cycle tracks but the roads in Paris are quite scary. I abandoned my original plan of cycling back to the hotel and took the metro. That night I was so tired I just fell asleep and didn’t go anywhere. Spent the night in!
Next day I decided to go to the Philharmonie de Paris where an exhibition of the Velvet Underground was being held. There were amazing posters all over Paris advertising this. I decided to cycle there but unfortunately I went in completely the wrong direction and ended up miles away. My sense of direction seemed to abandon me in Paris. I swallowed my pride and took the metro. I don’t like travelling underground but at least you get where you want. I arrived at the exhibition hall and there was a court yard with an excruciating loud noise going on. I thought it was the beginning of the exhibition and filmed it with my camera. It wasn’t! It was just good old fashioned construction work! What a fool I felt, but it was a noise worthy of the Velvets so I kept the recording.
I first heard the Velvet Underground in 1968 and they became one of my favourite bands. The exhibition traced their early period from 1965 to 1968. It was very good with lots of film and exhibits that I have never seen before. It really caught the essence of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and Warhol’s Silver Factory. It was a true assault on the senses. I spent a lot of time there and would recommend it to any Velvet Underground fans.
From there I decided to visit Montparnasse. It’s an area of Paris I have not been to before that was associated with artists and Bohemians. I must admit it was a bit of a disappointment. I did get there fairly late but the cemetery was closed and the neighbourhood looked quite ordinary apart from the strange, grotesque and enormous tower. Who put THAT there?? Maybe I just missed the good bits and need to go back, but I did end up in a rather good cocktail bar in the middle of it’s happy hour. Happy I was indeed!
I decided to go straight to the open mic at The Highlander Scottish Pub. By the time I got there it was already full and there was a long list of performers waiting to play. It was a great night though and everyone ends up with three songs which means you can really get into it. Because I was high on the Velvet Underground I decided to do one of their songs Heroin. This could have been a disaster but it wasn’t. It went down a storm! I did my other two songs and from then on I had a room full of new friends and the bar staff kept giving me free drinks! I couldn’t have wished for a better night, and the other acts were brilliant too. I filmed a couple of them with my phone. Again, there was a large American contingent. Like in a lot of European cities the British pubs and Irish bars are the place for live local music and open mics. There is also a receptive listening audience. The Highlander’s music cellar had bags of atmosphere. Definitely worth a visit.
Next day I got the Eurostar back to England. I hadn’t used my guitar once. It only takes two and a half hours to get to London. Paris will become one of my regular haunts I think!
I have recently got into making videos of the photos of some of my trips accompanied by music that has been important to me over the years. This includes tracks by the likes of the Velvet Underground, Country Joe and the Fish and Bix Beiderbecke. Quite a variety really. It is amazing how the music changes the way I look at the photos, and they seem to take on a different meaning. It’s quite an eye opener really.
The first one is of Essex and Suffolk when I went on a tour playing with my old friends, folk group Bodger’s Mate. It is accompanied by “I’m Coming Virginia”, one of my favourite tracks by Bix Beiderbecke from 1927. I’m amazed how well the music stands up. It could almost be contemporary. The guitar playing by Eddie Lang is incredibly subtle, considering it is the main rhythm part.
The next one is of the Old Town of Marbella with “Grace” by Country Joe and the Fish. “Electric Music for the Mind and Body” was one of my favourite albums when I was young, along with the even better “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die”. I first went to Marbella in 1971 and didn’t go back there until last year. It was virtually unrecognisable until I found the Old Town, which was actually the only bit that existed when I went there before, and it was just the same and the memories came flooding back.
The last one is of my photos of New York when I visited there in 2012. This was the first time I had ever been to America and I had a brilliant time. I went to all the places I had heard of when I first started playing the guitar and it felt like I had gone home. I think New York is the only place I have been where people seem to know what I’m talking about. Fantastic! Greenwich Village may have changed but it resonated with meaning for me. This is accompanied by “Sister Ray” by the Velvet Underground who were one of my favourite bands in 1968. It’s worth watching this just to hear “Sister Ray” all the way through although it is very long.
Astral Weeks is unique like many of the albums on my list. I’m not that much of a Van Morrison fan. I find most of his records fairly bland and stylised. I’ve heard most of them and am not that impressed apart from his early work with the seminal rock band Them. Here Comes The Night is a genius three minutes of pop and Baby Please Don’t Go is the essence of R&B. Astral Weeks was recorded and released soon after Them split up. As already said, it is unique and genre busting. Yes, it’s kind of jazz, kind of folk and kind of poetry but more of an amalgam of all three with a dose of unintentional classical music thrown in. How it ever came to be recorded by a major label is one of the wonders of the late sixties when good music came to be commercial. Or was it? It was quite a long time before anyone heard it or was aware of it. However, it ranks as one of the most creative records released by a commercial record company ever.
Without knowing the full details behind the creation of this album I feel that it contains the essence of a real sadness and sense of loss. I don’t know this, I feel it! It is like a folk/jazz equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land with it’s evocative phrases and overwhelming sense of sorrow and psychic pain. This really IS the blues. Not the black American blues of the southern plantations and urban ghettos but the white blues of a psychologically dislocated Brit in the heart of Belfast, Northern Ireland. To add to the sense of alienation it was recorded in New York in 1968.
You know you’re in a different creative universe right from the word go. The first song Astral Weeks tells the listener that he is nothing but a stranger in this world and would like to be born again. The final song Slim Slow Slider describes a woman who has a brand new boy and a Cadillac but who is dying and every time I see you I just don’t know what to do. The song ends in a blast of free jazz. Pretty bleak stuff!
In the meantime we have various shades of misery apart from The Way Young Lovers Dowhich is surprisingly upbeat and even optimistic. The real standout track is Madam George which in his Belfast/American drawl seems to sound like Madam JOY. He seems to plaintively be singing say goodbye to Madam JOY, wonder why for Madam JOY while the violins weep and intertwine around the three chord riff . Amazing stuff!!
Blonde on Blonde is a truly amazing album. The first double album in history with a price tag to match. How did anyone afford to buy it? I don’t know but I certainly couldn’t. I had to make do with the single releases until years later when I had a girlfriend who owned it. No, it wasn’t her only attraction!
This record continues the surreal imagery of Highway 61 Revisitedbut his voice has changed and the playing seems thinner and less aggressive. It was a thin, mercurial sound. When I first heard I Want You on a radio in Glasgow I thought it was a joke, a bad imitation of Dylan but I was wrong. I bought the single and soon realized it’s brilliance. The B side contained the rarely heard since version of Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues recorded live in Liverpool 1966. With screaming feedback and yelled lyrics it’s a complete contrast to the studio version.
Dylan in the 60s never stood still and he was a complete enigma. Not only did his voice change with each record so did the way he looked. It was like he was trying to stay one step ahead of everyone but he couldn’t, especially the growing army of crazies who were hanging on to his every word and before long were going through his garbage in search of even deeper meanings.
The real standout tracks on this album in my opinion are Visions of Johanna, Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, Just Like a Womanand I Want Youbut the rest is incredibly interesting. The anger has been dissipated and he is investigating relationships and general absurdity. He’s like the bastard offspring ofAlbert Camuslost in an absurd universe. In fact, throughout the album there is an expressed desire not to have togo through all of these things twice. A really brilliant record!
Dylan had the thin, mercurial sound but the Velvet Underground had the loud, distorted, grating sound delivered to perfection on this second album. Nico is no longer present and the soft, folky ballads have gone apart from the song Here She Comes Now. The rest of it is self-consciously anti-beauty. According to Lou Reed the producer, Tom Wilson ( who also producedBob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone), was so pissed off with the cacophony of Sister Ray that he left the studio and showed them the record button and told them to do it themselves. Fantastic, it’s one of my favourite tracks. Although, Andy Warhol was no longer involved with the Velvets his influence is still felt with the extremity of the lyrics and the overall sound.
Although it sold few copies when first released it became one of the biggest influences on British Punk Rock. Apparently The Buzzcocks formed after members followed an advertisement looking for musicians who could collaborate on a Sister Ray cover.
Apart from the title song another truly great track is I Heard Her Call My Name which features uncontrolled guitar feedback accompanied with the cry of And then my mind split open by Lou Reed. It seems the band were disappointed with the recording of this because it didn’t match the energy or intensity of their live performance. Mercy!!
I actually bought this record when it was first released but I couldn’t convince many of my friends to share my love of it. In fact most of them thought it was terrible. How wrong they were!! Interestingly, Lou Reed was a very reluctant hero of Punk and, in fact, he had no time for it even though he is often presented as the ultimate Junkie Punk Persona. Many of his songs are quite complex both musically and lyrically and don’t fit into the simplistic barbarism of Punk. Okay, White Light, White Heat is the exception!
White Light, White Heat leads neatly into this album because David Bowie was a big fan of the Velvets. He featured that song in his live sets and even recorded it twice. He also references the Velvet Underground on the sleeve notes of Hunky Dory as an influence on the song Queen Bitch.
Hunky Dory didn’t sell much when it was released in 1971 but people in the right places were aware of it and liked it. Bowie says that it was the first album he made that other people talked about and were interested in. Until then he was a promising singer/songwriter who had had one big hit with Space Oddity. His record company still had a lot of confidence in him, obviously.
It is a surprisingly mature piece of work for someone who is still finding his voice. It ranges from total all out pop to introspective gloom. He includes songs about Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol which are hard to fathom. Are they hero-worship or sneering sarcasm? There seems to be a bit of both there. Andy Warhol looks a scream hanging on my wall, Andy Warhol silver screen can’t tell them apart at all. The sleeve is interesting in that he deliberately creates an androgynous image, based on a picture of Marlene Dietrich apparently. He is developing and extending the kind of cross-dressing and gender-bending that had already begun with Mick Jagger who wore a dress at the Hyde Park Free Concert in 1969. Bowie also wears a dress on the cover of his album The Man Who Sold The World.
This really is a seminal album that throws up all kinds of interesting things. When William Burroughs interviewed Bowie he said that he thought the 8 Line Poem was referring to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Bowie professed to know nothing about T.S. Eliot but, almost certainly, went away and found out about him because he was so in awe of William Burroughs. Burroughs describes The Waste Land as the first cut-up poem, a technique that Bowie used in many of his songs.
One of the standout tracks is Life On Mars which along with O You Pretty Things illustrates one of the aspects I find most disturbing about Bowie’s work i.e. his flirtation with Nietzscheanism and the idea of the Superman. This idea features in many of Bowie’s songs e.g. The Man Who Sold The World, The Supermen etc. I’m not saying he is a Nazi but he comes dangerously close at times, especially when he gave a Nazi salute in Berlin in the mid 70s (he blamed it on the coke!). Oh you pretty things don’t you know you’re driving your Mamas and Papas insane let me make it plain, you’ve got to make way for the Homo Superior! Hippie ideology this aint!! And it’s all wrapped up in a fluffy pop package.
This is a brilliant record, though and gets better with each play. I particularly like the Bewley Brothers. This song has a sense of mystery and loss about a musical group who obviously make a big impact but maybe were never famous (or were they like the Beatles?). Like all good poems you can draw your own conclusions and read many different things into it.
This album became a hit after the success of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Ziggy made Bowie a big star but the standout record of this time, I think, is Hunky Dory.
I discovered this record in 1975 about the first time I met Ric Grech. I was running a folk club in the top room of the Town Arms, LeicesterU.K.at the time where many aspirational songwriters turned up. One night Ric arrived in his Ferrari with a violin and joined in. He had recently arrived from America having just made a record with super-group KGB. Okay, why he left LA and came to Leicester I don’t know but he was in awe of Gram Parsons and was interested in forming a country group with Leicester musicians playing his ( Ric’s) songs which were actually very good. He had collaborated with Gram on his two solo albums before he inconveniently died (Parsons that is. Ric inconveniently died some time later!) and two of the songs are written by him Kiss the Children and Las Vegas. He also had Gram’s guitar, a Gibson Dove, with him.
Gram Parsons had a big effect on people he met. English musician and hippie doctor Hank Wangfordbecame a country singer because of his influence. By proxy, through Ric, he became a big influence on the local Leicester scene where many people turned to Country which had previously been a much maligned genre and was considered reactionary, corny and simplistic.
Parsons is considered the inventor of Country Rock but this isn’t apparent from his solo records which are actually quite traditional in many ways. He certainly didn’t like the sound of the Eagles who were becoming very successful at the time, members of which had played in various groups with him. What really stands out in his records are the ethereal quality of his songs, his voice, the brilliance of the band that included many top musicians like guitarist James Burton and the duets he sang withEmmylou Harris. In fact, after his death Emmylou Harris became a major star in her own right and continued Gram’s ideas for many years.
These records don’t leap out at you like Astral Weeks and others on this list but they definitely grow on you. Standout tracks include $1000 Dollar Wedding and Love Hurts. Gram and Emmylou are outstanding together, something that Bob Dylan picked up on when he hired Emmylou to sing on the Desire album. He also makes you aware of some really great country singers and songwriters that were not well-known at the time like The Louvin Brothers.
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 many of you know I am a musician and song-writer who has followed in the footsteps of many greats. It’s a hard choice but here’s my favourite 20. 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. Okay, 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!