“The East End Theatre was an Off-Off-Broadway theater venue located at 85 East 4th Street. Existing in the 1960s, the theater was the creation and home from January 1, 1965 to December 31, 1965 of the New York Poets Theatre, an experimental theater project founded by artists James Waring, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), Alan Marlowe, Fred Herko and Diane di Prima. Being the last, and arguably the most serious, of the theatres of the New York Poets Theatre group, Marlowe, who spearheaded this property, converted what was once a basic dance hall into ‘A jewelbox of a theatre…like the best art theatres of Europe’ as remarked by Frank O’Hara, according to Diane di Prima’s memoir Recollections of My Life as A Woman: The New York Years. In the memoir she recalls how Marlowe spent a great deal of money decorating the space by ‘buying used…
meeting Andy Warhol, the Velvets acquired what few fledgling bands have
been lucky enough to achieve: a wealthy patron. In addition, Warhol’s
Factory, populated by an enormous range of people of varying talents,
provided a fertile cross-pollination of ideas and personalities, whilst
also constituting a powerful PR machine.
John Cale, Andy Warhol’s Factory was like entering a fountain of ideas,
with “new things happening every day”; for Lou Reed it was “like
landing in heaven”. Everywhere they turned there were odd characters and
odd situations, and Reed would write down in a notebook fragments of
what he heard and overheard. Many of these fragments would end up in
song; others would suggest a title or a story situation. The Factory
crowd also noticed Reed as well. “Everyone was certainly in love with
him — me, Edie, Andy, everyone,” confessed Factory regular Danny
Fields. “He was so sexy. Everyone just had this raging crush… he was
the sexiest thing going”.
Warhol and Morrissey had recently been
approached to get involved with setting up a new discotheque in Long
Island; the plans would come to nothing (after seeing the Velvets, the
club owner hired The Young Rascals instead), but at this point Warhol
was actively looking for a rock band to play there. Bizarrely (according
to Victor Bockris), Warhol had actually contemplated forming his own
rock band three years earlier, with LaMonte Young and Walter De Maria.
The Velvet Underground at Café Bizarre, Warhol liked the fact that Lou
Reed looked “pubescent”, and that the audience left the gig looking
“dazed and damaged” — according to Reed, Warhol saw them the night they
were fired. Paul Morrissey claims that it was his idea to marry
underground films to rock’n’roll, but that it was a purely commercial
decision to work with the Velvets, rather than an artistic one. At the
time, Morrissey also thought that Reed and Cale lacked presence, and
that what the Velvets needed was a singer with “a bit of charisma”. He
suggested someone who was already a part of the Warhol camp: Nico.
The suggestion that Nico should join the band
didn’t go down too well with the Velvets, to put it mildly. Morrissey
played them her single on the Immediate label, and according to him Reed
was “hostile to Nico from the start”. What changed Reed’s mind was the
fact that Warhol was offering them an enticing management and recording
deal. There was of course the recognition that his patronage would
bring. In the end, it was too good a deal for the Velvets to turn down.
According to Nico, Reed agreed simply because he lacked the confidence
to refuse — or perhaps, lacked enough confidence in himself as a
vocalist. Still, at his insistence the billing would distance Nico from
the group, making it crystal clear that she was not a band member. They
would be The Velvet Underground and Nico. So Aronowitz was ousted (he’d
only had a “handshake deal” — something he subsequently regretted) and
Morrissey and Warhol officially became joint managers of The Velvet
Underground. In return for 25%, Warhol would invest in new equipment,
get them gigs and a recording contract. In fact, after buying two
instruments from Vox, Warhol got them to supply further equipment for
free, having arranged an endorsement deal (the band would later endorse
Acoustic, and then Sunn).
But a problem remained: Nico wanted to
sing all the songs, which Reed refused point blank to allow. But since
her presence meant that some gentler songs were now needed, Reed wrote
three ballads for her, which suited her unique, breathy singing style
(“like an IBM computer with a German accent”, as Warhol put it): “Femme
Fatale”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”. The gentler
songs contrasted interestingly with John Cale’s experiments in
According to Cale, Nico was deaf in one ear
(from a perforated eardrum), which caused her to go off-pitch from time
to time, much to the band’s amusement. “Lou never really liked me” Nico
later complained — though that’s hard to believe when you listen to
‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’. She and Reed were lovers early on, and even lived
together for a while. Recalling this period, Nico described Reed as
“very soft and lovely. Not aggressive at all”, and even that “you could
just cuddle him like a sweet person”. Sterling Morrison was more
cynical: “You could say Lou was in love with her, but Lou Reed in love
is a kind of abstract concept”. The relationship lasted eight weeks, and
was supposedly ended by Nico. Cale, meanwhile, had been seduced by Edie
Sedgwick within 48 hours of arriving at the Factory, and moved in with
her for the duration (six weeks) of their relationship. Edie had also
had a brief affair with Nico. John Cale has described the material Reed
wrote for Nico as “psychological love songs”, and even Reed acknowledged
her strengths as a performer. Yet after Nico left the Velvets, Reed
would write no more songs for her — despite being asked to by both Cale
and Nico herself.
Nico had little to do on stage when she wasn’t
singing except stand stock-still and play tambourine (usually out of
time), and at times things could get a little tense between her and the
band. Even so, she was a striking vision: dressed all in white in
contrast to the Velvets’ black attire. Her modeling days had certainly
taught her how to strike a dramatic pose. She was also taller than all
the men surrounding her and, inevitably, she captured most of the media
attention. As Maureen Tucker said: “She was this gorgeous apparition,
you know. I mean, she really was beautiful”. Critic Richard Goldstein
described Nico’s stage presence as “half goddess, half icicle”.
Singing For ’Drella
little Andy Warhol knew about music (and he never expressed any noted
preferences), even he must have sensed that in TheVelvet Underground
he’d found more than just another rock band. “Andy told me that what we
were doing with music was the same thing he was doing with painting and
movies i.e. not kidding around” Lou Reed recalled. He was bowled over by
Andy’s way of looking at the world and once remarked that sometimes he
would spend days thinking about something Andy said. Reed was also
impressed by Warhol’s work ethic: “I’d ask him why he was working so
hard and he’d say, ‘Somebody’s got to bring home the bacon’”. Warhol
would ask Reed how many songs he’d written that day; Reed would lie and
say two. Lou also remarked on Andy’s generosity, pointing out that
though Andy was the first to arrive for work at the Factory and the last
to leave he’d still take them all to dinner: “He gave everyone a
But the exact nature of the group’s relationship to their
new manager remains vague. As Sterling Morrison pondered: “Was The
Velvet Underground some happy accident for him, something that he could
work into his grandiose schemes for the show? Would another band have
done just as well? I don’t think another band would have done just as
well. At that time we seemed uniquely suited for each other”.
John Cale described Warhol as “a catalyst” for the Velvets, that he understood exactly what they were about, how best to bring that out. “I doubt that Lou would have continued investigating song subjects like he did without having some kind of outside support for that approach other than myself” he elaborated. “I think it was just basically Andy and I who really encouraged that side of a literary endeavour”. Morrison echoes the fact that Warhol gave them “the confidence to keep doing what were doing”.
It’s probable that Reed and Warhol each saw
echoes of themselves in the other. But Warhol had earned the nickname of
’Drella (a combination of Dracula and Cinderella) that Ondine, another
of the Factory crowd, had given him. Warhol had an acid wit that Reed
could seldom match, and his jibes were less malevolent than Reed’s —
they could be bitchy and funny at the same time, whereas Lou was often
just bitchy. But as Malanga states, Warhol also had his dark side: “he
could slice a person with a glance”. In fact, Lou actually came in a
poor third to Nico when it came to put-downs. Meeting again shortly
after their break-up, there was a moment of frosty awkwardness between
the two, followed by a long pause after which Nico came out with the
charmless “I cannot make love to Jews any more.”
In the end, the
Velvets’ relationship with Warhol is best summed up by Mary Woronov,
artist and collaborator: “They were with Andy and Andy was with them and
they backed him absolutely. They would have walked to the end of the
earth for him”. All of the Velvets spoke highly of Warhol ever after,
Cale perhaps most succinctly of all: “He was magic”.
At this point the Velvets had been ordered by
police to stop rehearsing in their West 3rd Street apartment (above a
firehouse), and told to rehearse in the country if they were going to
make that kind of noise. Cale was experimenting with an electronic
“thunder machine” at the time. The same cop had also accused them of
throwing human excreta out of their window. So they began to rehearse at
the Factory every day, accompanying Warhol in the evenings to art
openings, cocktail parties, dinners and nightclubs, as part of his
permanent 10–20-strong retinue. It’s doubtful whether the drug-free
Tucker tagged along, and she must have been somewhat bemused by the
Factory’s denizens. (They in turn liked the fact that she looked boyish,
which fitted right in with all the blurring of gender going on there.)
Later on, Moe worked at the Factory briefly, transcribing tapes of
Ondine’s rantings for Warhol’s book A: A Novel. However, she
refused to type any of the swear words, substituting asterisks instead.
Meanwhile, Ondine had turned Lou Reed on to methedrine, which became
became his main indulgences for years to come.
poet and photographer in his own right, Gerard Malanga (b.1943) met
Andy Warhol while still a student at Wagner College on Staten Island. He
soon became Warhol’s assistant in silk-screening (where he probably did
most of the actual physical work, and originated at least some of the
ideas), also introducing him to New York’s literary, theatrical and
movie crowds. Malanga also eventually assisted Warhol in his own
movie-making. His habit of carrying a leather bullwhip everywhere led to
his “whipdance” routine on stage with the Velvets during ‘Venus in
Furs’ (Malanga had earlier been a dancer on DJ Alan Freed’s Big Beat TV show). He went on to found Interview magazine with Warhol. in 1983, Malanga co-wrote (with Victor Bockris) Up-tight: The Velvet Underground Story, the first book to appear on the Velvets.
photographer and lighting designer who subsidized his artistic work
with hairdressing, Billy name (real name Billy linich) once decorated
his entire apartment with silver foil. Warhol liked the look so much
(“Silvermakes everything disappear”) that he asked Linich to decorate
his new studio — the original Factory — in the same way. Billy also
worked with Gerard Malanga as an assistant on Warhol’s silk screens,
designed the cover for White Light/White Heat, and claims to have
been one of Reed’s lovers. Also a musician, Linich was in LaMonte
Young’s group for a year, leaving them just before the arrival of John
Cale. A genuinely eccentric character, Name was effectively the
Factory’s caretaker, living in one of its black-painted toilets (which
he used as a photographic darkroom) for years, studying astrological
charts and books on the occult given him by Reed; when the Factory moved
home, Billy simply moved into the equivalent space in the new one. In
1968, he sealed himself into this room, and was seldom seen at all
between then and the time he finally left the Factory (in the middle of
the night) at some point in Spring 1970, leaving a note behind telling
Warhol not to worry. Linich subsequently gave up amphetamines, moved
back home to Poughkeepsie and pursued his own individualistic
spirituality. Today, his photographs of the Factory era are much in
Californian debutante from a rich but troubled Bostonian socialite
background, Edith Minturn Sedgwick (b.1943) had spent her late teens in a
mental institution (as had several of her brothers, two of whom
committed suicide). In 1964, at the age of 21, she moved to New York and
met Andy Warhol in early ‘65; for the following year, they were
virtually inseparable. She dyed her hair silver to match Warhol’s wig
and became a kind of mirror image of him, escorting him to society
parties and appearing in a dozen of his movies. “She had more problems
than anybody I’d ever met”, Warhol later said. Perhaps that was the
appeal of their relationship, which was certainly not sexual (Truman
Capote thought that Andy wanted to be Edie).
She became the face of young Manhattan; Vogue
magazine dubbed her a “youthquaker”, and she seemed the archetypal poor
little rich go-go girl. Reed wrote “Femme Fatale” about her (at
Warhol’s request) and, according to some, Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A
Woman” and “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” are both about her. But though
undeniably beautiful and pursued by innumerable suitors (including John
Cale), Edie was not so much a femme fatale as a femme catastrophique.
She might have been a mainstay of Warhol’s movies and danced on stage
with the Velvets during their first couple of gigs, but most of the time
she was out of her head on a cocktail of drugs of every description,
many prescribed by the legendary “speed-doctor” Dr Roberts (immortalized
by the Beatles as “Dr Robert”). She later blamed Warhol for her
condition. “Warhol really fucked up a great many people’s — young
people’s — lives”, she once complained. “My introduction to heavy drugs
came through the Factory. I liked the introduction to drugs I received.
I was a good target for the scene. I bloomed into a healthy young drug
addict”. “Edie never grew up”, Warhol responded, probably accurately.
However, comments of his such as “a girl always looks more beautiful and
fragile when she’s about to have a nervous breakdown” don’t show him in
too sympathetic a light. When Edie left him in 1966, Warhol joked
bleakly to playwright Robert Heide: “When do you think Edie will commit
suicide? I hope she lets us know so we can film it”. After Warhol, Edie
attempted to carve a career as an actress (but didn’t really have the
talent) and a model (but her reputation as an unreliable druggie
preceded her), without much success. She died in 1971 of an overdose of
barbiturates, at the age of 28.
filmmaker Morrissey (b.1938) had made his own movies ever since his
teenage years. As well as managing Warhol’s business affairs for many
years, from 1966 Morrissey worked closely on numerous movies with him,
eventually making several of his own movies under the Warhol banner. The
best known of these are the trilogy of Flesh (1968), Trash (1970) and Heat
(1972), all of which starred hustler Joe Dallesandro. Morrissey parted
company with Warhol in the mid-1970s, after two final exploitation
films, Flesh For Frankenstein (1973) and Blood For Dracula (1974), made with Warhol’s backing. he continued to make movies into the late 1980s.
name Bob Olivo (b.1939) he was also nicknamed “the Pope”. Ondine was a
manic and charismatic actor and writer, the hub of the
amphetamine-driven “Mole People” gay crowd at the Factory. he had
nothing to do with the fashionable new York nightclub Ondine’s — Olivo
had adopted the name of the lead character in Jean giraudoux’s 1939 play
Ondine, which had been played on Broadway by the iconic Audrey Hepburn. He appeared in numerous Warhol movies, beginning with Batman Dracula (1964), and Warhol’s A: A Novel
was simply a transcription of tape-recordings of Ondine’s speed-fuelled
rantings over a 24-hour period. he toured the college lecture circuit
during the 1970s, talking about Warhol and screening his performances in
Warhol’s S&M movie Vinyl (1965) and Chelsea Girls
(1966). In the 1980s, he appeared in numerous off off-Broadway plays,
until ill health forced him to retire. After Ondine’s death from liver
failure in April 1989, his mother burnt all his writings.
Brigid Polk (Berlin)
Berlin (b.1939) and her sister Richie, who also hung out at the
Factory, were heirs to the Hearst publishing empire. Brigid created
montage “trip books” — scrapbooks of anything that took her fancy, the
most extraordinary containing the impressions of the scars, genitalia,
breasts or navels of anyone willing to contribute. She appeared in Chelsea Girls (1966), and also with Edie Sedgwick in the film based on the Factory crowd Ciao! Manhattan
(1972). She tape-recorded pretty much everything she encountered, from
phone calls to orgies. This led to her taping Lou Reed’s last concert
with The Velvet Underground in 1970 — eventually released commercially
as Live At Max’s Kansas City in 1972. Her “Polk” nickname evolved
from Factory slang — “taking a poke” meant shooting up with a needle.
Berlin gave up amphetamines and alcohol in the 1980s.
Woronov (b.1943) was an art student at Cornell University when she met
Andy Warhol and became involved with the Factory. She was one of the
principal dancers with The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, accompanying
Gerard Malanga’s whipdance to ‘Venus In Furs’. Having appeared in
Warhol’s movies Hedy The Shoplifter and Chelsea Girls, Woronov moved to Los Angeles and acted in a zillion B-movies, of which the most notable is probably Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000 (1975). She revealed herself as a talented comedy actress in Rock And Roll High School (1979), and Paul Bartel’s black comedies Eating Raoul (1982) and Scenes From The Class Struggle In Beverley Hills
(1989), as well as making cameos in mainstream Hollywood movies. Liver
damage caused her to give up all drugs and alcohol in the 1980s. She has
been a writer-director for the TV show The Women’s Series and is the author of four volumes of fiction: Snake, Niagara, Blind Love and Wake For Angels, which also contains some of her paintings, and Swimming Underground (a memoir of her time with the Factory).
from The Rough Guide to the Velvet Underground, publishing 1 September
2007 by Rough Guides, a division of Penguin Group International.
Copyright 2007 by Rough Guides. All rights reserved.velvet undergroundrough guidesnicoandy warhol
The Velvet Underground and Nico embodies a seldom realised idea: that music really can change the world. A financial failure in its time, the loose collection of these New York artists’ self-titled debut took a decade to sell 100,000 copies.
However, despite its commercial failings, The Velvets’humble flop was a primitively bright conceptual spark. While simultaneously hitting the bargain bins, greater forces were at play. Ripples of inspiration were subtlety mutating the face of popular culture. A powerful influence, the group’s deep-seated creative forces unified into something truly iconic.
Over a prolonged period of gestation word of mouth built in the musical underground. The innovative album passed hands while outspoken critics like Lester Bangs lionised the group’s achievement. To cite Brian Eno’sfamous remarks to the LA Times in 1982:
“I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”
The Velvet Underground and Nico embodied the ultimate album ideal: how the creative influence of five musicians could inform the next twenty years of music.
A central reference point in seemingly every shake-up in rock music since its release, generations of unrelated musical movements drew something different from between the vinyl grooves. Post-punk, glam rock, art rock, new wave, noise, and even industrial can trace their twisted lineages to the iconic album. Its influence still courses fluidly throughout modern music, and remains a seminal name-check for anything primal and completely outside the norm.
Commercial pressures, powerful personalities and creative impulse can often lead to compromise in a band. The Velvets were by no means immune to these factors, but what is remarkable is how true each creative contributor remained to their individual inspirations. Take a moment to profile the unlikely constituents which gave rise to the sonic schizophrenia of the band.
Lou Reed was the cantankerous black sheep of a middle-class Jewish family. Informed by literary studies and a stint in a mental institution at age 17, Reed looked to expand the idea of what popular music could entail. Musically the young songwriter cut his teeth churning out Motown, surf rock and bubblegum pop sound-alikes for the unscrupulous Pickwick Records.
Yet the Long Island native sought to follow in the steps of the visceral literature of William S. Burroughs and his beat generation forbears. Hidden behind the clichés of rock and roll, Reed saw an unlimited potential to accommodate a broader range of meaning.
Breaking down the barrier between rock music and poetic narrative, Lou injected sleaze and degradation into rock. At a time when puritanical values and obscenity laws could still place a chokehold on the avant-garde, Reed sang about heroin, transvestites and rent boys. Yet the band didn’t kick off as some grand artistic endeavour. Looking to capitalise on a more contrary sound Pickwick encouraged Reed to bring together a mock rock group to perform single Ostrich live. Known as The Primitives, the group started gigging live; securing a fortuitous residency at New York’s Cafe Bizarre in 1965.
Playing alongside Reed at this time was John Cale. A Welsh emigrant, Cale was an acolyte of the avant-garde. After finishing his study in London he relocated to New York in 1963 where he made a name for himself playing alongside influential neo-classical musicians like John Cage and Terry Riley. The young artist was probably just as happy to play a single piano chord 50 times with his elbows as anything else, but after meeting Reed at a party, he agreed to join his group.
Sterling Morrison was a Syracuse University graduate who was invited to play with The Primitives after a chance meeting with Reed, his old high school acquaintance, on a Manhattan subway. Contributing a more conventional grounding to his counterparts, he provided both rhythmic bedrocks and duelling solos to ground Reed’s more obtuse fretwork. Leaving the band in the early 70s, Morrison would evaporate from popular music entirely until a brief return in the early 90s.
Filling in for Primitives’ drummer Angus MacLise, Maureen “Mo” Tucker’s biting percussive edge kept the group together. Like Cale, Tucker looked to music from further afield when informing her self-tutored approach. While MacLise had introduced ideas from eastern music into the band’s sound, Tucker made an even greater impact with her appetite for the African beats of Babatunde Olatunji and the economic rhythms of Bo Diddly. The metronomic Tucker provided a viciously pervasive thump. She would only play standing.
Indirectly Andy Warhol remains one of the great unacknowledged influences in popular music. Although he did little in helping the group sculpt its sound, few would deny his influence in fostering their attitude and style. “The Velvet Underground was part of Andy’s group, and Andy wasn’t part of anything,” Reed told Spin in 2008.
Even prior to meeting The Velvets, Warhol shared many links with the group. Andy was familiar with avant-garde musicians La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, both of whom had played with Cale in the Theatre of Eternal Music. This aristocrat of the New York scene also had associations with artist Walter De Maria, a drummer from an early iteration of The Primitives. Introduced through a shared acquaintance, Warhol quickly extended his patronage to the fledgling Velvets.
As art took an interest in popular culture and the mundane, pop and art collided with the Velvet Underground. Trashy could be classy. Ugly could be beautiful. He deconstructed consumer culture and captured unfiltered depictions of modern life. Like Warhol, Reed and company were particularly engrossed with that which was ignored or glossed over by the mainstream. As manager of the group, Warhol impressed into The Velvet Underground the idea that everything and anything could be art.
It was with Warhol’s patronage that the group was brought into the nexus of New York’s underground scene. The group transplanted from Cafe Bizarre to The Factory. With Warhol’s encouragement they become a house band and the sonic centrepiece of Warhol’s multimedia phenomena the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
The group’s immersion within the polaroid art world of Warhol’s Factory placed them within a surrealistic scene where hustlers, transvestites, socialites and living theatre converged. Warhol would also help co-finance their debut album along with Norman Dolph, a Columbia Records sales exec.
Chanteuse Nico was a late addition to the band. Thrown in by Andy Warhol, it was his belief that the chic actor, model and vocalist could provide the group with some extra edge. In his on words the group were lacking a much needed “charisma.” Noted for her acting in French drama La Dolce Vita, the femme fatale’s icy persona belied a burgeoning (if moth-like) creative impulse. In line with Warhol’s fetish for film, she lent a detached and cinematic quality to the group.
Her injection into the band was far from a smooth transition. The German expat struggled to find acceptance amongst her peers. She would often clash with her bandmates due to her partial deafness and general eccentricity. But with her addition the cards were stacked; recording the album in early 1966 the group had few creative restrictions other than what the ubiquitous clarion call of “no blues.”
The deceptively tranquil Sunday Morning opens the album with sweetened pop. A crooning Reed embodies an effortless cool. Jangled guitar and beguiling innocence provide a moment of alluring misdirection, while subtly paranoiac lyrics anticipate the album’s darker undertow.
Things take a turn towards the more abrasive with Waiting For a Man. The second track’s lyrical world is intended to be real. Relating the details of a drug exchange, it weaves outsider depictions of the stark realities of street life and subterranean culture. A jilted piano echoes the Tucker’s juddering pulse.
With all the defiant deviance the group can muster, I’m Waiting For The Manconflates drugs and sexuality. The song lives within a reality aligned against the prevailing values of the day. It conveys a sense of moral decay which would see the record banned from major retailers and banned from radio airplay. Reed is the model of passivity and dependence. As raunchily as the song resounds, its feeling is voyeuristic.
While earlier tracks exude desperation and the idea of living on the edge, Femme Fatal swirls into gentle fantasy. The track places Nico in central focus. Her alluringly deadpan vocals are carried above a baroque chord progression.
The velour S&M fantasy of Venus in Furs verges on hypnotic. While the band averted themselves from the lysergic ripples of West Coast counterculture, it’s difficult to classify the paradoxical Venus in Furs as anything but psychedelic.
Run Run Run raggedly demonstrates the group’s celebration of stupidity and ugliness. Musically they revel in circular-minded banality. All Tomorrow’s Partiesmakes musical sketches of Warhol’s Factory scene.
Despite Reed’s contentions that he wasn’t glorifying anything in his music, Heroinprovided a directness and frankness about substance abuse which made the missives of counterculture seem childish in comparison. Cale’s sound experiments drone over the ostinato of a two-chord motif. Tucker’s percussion imitates a pulsing heart before inexplicably dropping out. Out of tune, primitive and never far from falling apart, here the group remain vital at every moment.
The punchy There She Goes Again situates itself as a straight ahead rocker, albeit one incorporating elastic time signatures. I’ll Be Your Mirror shimmers, while The Black Angel’s Death Song teeters into formless noise. Closer European Son pays homage to poet Delmore Schwartz while distortion and feedback dominate the album’s dissonant conclusion.
The black-clad Velvets would not last long. The group quickly parted ways with Warhol and exited The Factory scene in ’68. Nico and Cale would also depart. After dropping another two albums the group had all but disintegrated. 50 years onward the beauty and rawness of the group’s untamed innovation continues to resound throughout popular culture.
Much of music’s modern history has crossed currents with these New Yorkers’ commercial folly. It provides proof of concept that a group of individuals can instil music with a sense of intelligence and meaning. The Velvet Underground and Nico remains an enduring cornerstone of popular culture, echoing through time with an unwavering magnetism.
“NO ONE LISTENED TO IT. BUT THERE IT IS, FOREVER – THE QUINTESSENCE OF ARTICULATED PUNK. AND NO ONE GOES NEAR IT.”– Lou Reed, August, 2013
BY MID-1967, ONLY a few months after The Velvet Underground’s debut album was released, their iconic ice queen singer Nico was a solo artist, and pop art svengali Andy Warhol was no longer managing and feeding the group. Warhol’s parting gift: the all-black cover idea for their follow-up – the album they would name White Light/White Heat. Meanwhile, the band scrabbled to survive in the drug-soaked art-scene demi-monde of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“Our lives were chaos,” VU guitarist Sterling Morrison told me in 1994. “Things were insane, day in and day out: the people we knew, the excesses of all sorts. For a long time, we were living in various places, afraid of the police. At the height of my musical career, I had no permanent address.”
There were mounting internal tensions, too, over direction and control between Lou Reed and John Cale, the group’s founders, especially after their debut album’s failure to launch. “White Light/White Heat was definitely the raucous end of what we did,” Morrison affirmed. But, he insisted, “We were all pulling in the same direction. We may have been dragging each other off a cliff, but we were definitely all going in the same direction.”
From that turbulence and frustration, Reed, Cale, Morrison and drummer Moe Tucker created their second straight classic. Where The Velvet Underground And Nico was a demonstration of breadth and vision, developed in near-invisibility even before the band met Warhol – “We rehearsed for a year for that album, without doing anything else,” Cale claims – White Light/White Heat was a more compact whiplash: the exhilarating guitar violence starting with the title track, peaking in Reed’s atonal-flamethrower solo in I Heard Her Call My Name; the experimental sung and spoken noir of Lady Godiva’s Operation and The Gift; the propulsive, distorted eternity of sexual candour and twilight drug life, rendered dry and real in Reed’s lethal monotone, in Sister Ray.
“By this time, we were a touring band,” Cale explains. “And the sound we could get on stage – we wanted to get that on the record. In some performances, Moe would go up first, start a backbeat, then I would come out and put a drone on the keyboard. Sterling would start playing, then Lou would come out, maybe turn into a Southern preacher at the mike. That idea of us coming out one after the other, doing whatever we wanted, that individualism – it’s there on Sister Ray, in spades.”
White Light/White Heat was also the Velvets’ truest record, the most direct, uncompromised document of their deep, personal connections to New York’s avant-garde in the mid-’60s; the raw, independent cinema of Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas and Piero Heliczer; Cale’s pre-Velvets experiences in drone, improvisation and radical composition with John Cage and the early minimalists La Monte Young and Tony Conrad; Reed’s dual immersion, from his days at Syracuse University, in the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and the metropolitan-underworld literature of William Burroughs and Hubert Selby, Jr.
“I’m in there with a B.A. in English – I’m no naif,” Reed told me shortly before his death. “And being in with that crowd, the improvisers, the film-makers, of course it would affect where I was going. We said it a hundred times; people thought we were being arrogant and conceited. We’re reading those authors, watching those Jack Smith movies. What did you think we were going to come out with?”
The Velvet Underground as they were on the eve of White Light/White Heat’s release. Clockwise from top left: Maureen “Moe” Tucker, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale.
“WE WERE ALL PULLING IN THE SAME DIRECTION. WE MAY HAVE BEEN DRAGGING EACH OTHER OFF A CLIFF…”– Sterling Morrison
The Velvets were also a rock band, with roots in that ferment but ambitions charged by the other modern action around them. “There was close competition with Bob Dylan,” Cale admits. “He was getting into people’s heads. We thought we could do that.”“Maybe our frustrations led the way,” Morrison said of White Light/White Heat. “But we were already pretty much into it. We had good amps, good distortion devices. We were the first American band to have an endorsement deal with Vox.” The album, he contended, “was just us using the Vox amps and playing them emphatically.”“They say rock is life-affirming music,” Reed says. “You feel bad, you put on two minutes of this – boom. There’s something implicit in it. And we were the best, the real thing. You listen to the Gymnasium tape [the live set included with December’s Deluxe reissue], this album – there is the real stuff. It’s aggressive, yes. But it’s not aggressive-bad. This is aggressive, going to God.”
1942-2013. Guitarist/vocalist and primary songwriter. “No one censured it,” he said of WL/WH. “Because no one listened to it.”
Bass guitar/viola/keyboards. The classically trained Welshman provided the deadpan monologue for The Gift: “Everyone was hellbent on being heard.”
1942-1995. Guitar and “medical sound effects” on Lady Godiva’s Operation: “Maybe our frustrations led the way.”
Drums. Provider of the group’s relentless, unfussy propulsion. “The songs were the songs,” she drily notes.
1928-1987. Pop art icon, art-director and manager of The Velvet Underground. Parted ways with the group in the run-in to White Light/White Heat.
1931-1978. WL/WH producer and babe magnet. Notable track record with Dylan, Zappa, Simon & Garfunkel, the VU and Nico (pictured).
HUBERT SELBY JR.
1928-2004. Novelist/poet of the New York demi-monde. Inspired Sister Ray: “It’s a taste of Selby, uptown,” said Reed.
Saxophonist/composer, architect of free jazz. His lines influenced Reed’s splintering lead guitar approach on I Heard Her Call My Name.
Jazz pianist and poet admired by Lou Reed. His experimental approach fed into WL/WH. Tom Wilson produced his 1956 album, Jazz Advance.
Players Photos: Getty / Rex
In September 1967 at Mayfair Studios – located on Seventh Avenue near Times Square and the only eight-track operation in town – The Velvet Underground put White Light/White Heat to tape. “I think it was five days,” Cale once told me.
Gary Kellgren, Mayfair’s house engineer, previously worked with the Velvets on part of the debut ‘Banana’ album and engineered the spring-’67 recording of Nico’s solo debut, Chelsea Girl. The producer, officially, was Tom Wilson, also with a track record with the group. In 1965, when the producer was still at Columbia, he invited Reed and Cale to play for him in his office. “We dragged Lou’s guitar, my viola and one amplifier up there,” said Cale. “We played Black Angel’s Death Song for him. He knew there was energy and potential.” At Mayfair, Cale mostly remembered Wilson’s “parade of beautiful girls, coming through all the time. He had an incredible style with women.”
But the Velvets’ volume and aggression posed problems for the recording men, and Reed insisted that Kellgren simply walked out during Sister Ray. “At one point, he turns to us and says, ‘You do this. When you’re done, call me.’ Which wasn’t far from the record company’s attitude. Everything we did – it came out. No one censured it. Because no one listened to it.”
On Sister Ray, Reed sang live across the feral seesawing of the guitars, drums and Cale’s Vox organ as each pressed for dominance in the mix. “It was competition,” Cale says. “Everyone was hellbent on being heard.” The ending, though, was easy. “We just knew when it was over,” Morrison remembered. “It felt like ending. And it did.”
There was a real Sister Ray: “This black queen,” Reed says. “John and I were uptown, out on the street, and up comes this person – very nice, but flaming.” Reed wrote the words, a set of incidents and character studies, on a train ride from Connecticut after a bad Velvets show there. “It was a propos of nothing. ‘Duck and Sally inside’ – it’s a taste of Selby, uptown. And the music was just a jam we had been working on” – provisionally titled Searchin’, after one of the lyrics (“I’m searchin’ for my mainline”).
“The lyrics aren’t negative,” Reed argues. “White Light/White Heat – it has to do with methamphetamine. Sister Ray is all about that. But they are telling you stories – and feelings. They are not stupid. And the rhythm is interesting. But you’d think that. I studied long enough.”
White Light/White Heat is renowned for its distortion and unforgiving thrust. But it also features the simple, airy yearning of Here She Comes Now, one of the Velvets’ finest ballads. And there are telling, human details even in the noise, like the breakdown at the end of White Light/White Heat, when Cale’s frantic, repetitive bass playing leaps forward in an out-of-time spasm. “I’m pretty sure it broke down,” he says of his part, “because my hand was falling off.”
Lady Godiva’s Operation was, Cale explains, “a radio-theatre piece, trying to use the studio to create this panorama of a story” – lust, transfiguration and ominously vague surgery that goes fatally wrong. The Gift was just the band and Cale’s rich Welsh intonation. Reed wrote the story – an examination of nerd-ish obsession peppered with wily minutiae (the Clarence Darrow Post Office) and ending in sudden death – at Syracuse University, for a creative writing class. Reed: “The idea was two things going at once” – Cale in one stereo channel, music in the other. “If you got tired of the words, you could just listen to the instrumental.”
Cale’s reading was a first take. The sound of the blade plunging through the cardboard, “right through the centre of Waldo Jeffers’ head,” was Reed stabbing a canteloupe with a knife. Frank Zappa, also working at Mayfair with The Mothers Of Invention, was there. “He said, ‘You’ll get a better sound if you do it this way,’” Reed recalled. “And then he says, ‘You know, I’m really surprised how much I like your album,’” referring to the ‘Banana’ LP. “Surprised? OK.” Reed smiled. “He was being friendly.”
Wayne McGuire’s ecstatic review of White Light/White Heat, in a 1968 issue of rock magazine Crawdaddy, cited Reed’s playing in “I Heard Her Call My Name” as “the most advanced lead guitar work I think you’re going to hear for at least a year or two.” McGuire also noted the jazz in there, comparing the album – especially Sister Ray – to recordings by Cecil Taylor and the saxophonists John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. “Sister Ray is much like [Coltrane’s] Impressions,” McGuire wrote, “in that it is a sustained exercise in emotional stampede and modal in the deepest sense: mode as spiritual motif, mode as infinite musical universe.”
It was rare understanding for the time. A brief review in the February 24, 1968 edition of Billboard was more measured: “Although the words tend to be drowned out by pulsating instrumentation, those not minding to cuddle up to the speakers will joy [sic] to narrative songs such as The Gift, the story of a boy and girl.” Still, the trade bible promised, “Dealers who cater to the underground market will find this disk a hot seller.”
“THERE WAS CLOSE COMPETITION WITH BOB DYLAN. HE WAS GETTING INTO PEOPLE’S HEADS. WE THOUGHT WE COULD DO THAT.”– John Cale
That didn’t happen. There was a single, the title track coupled with Here She Comes Now. It didn’t help. By the fall of 1968, Cale was gone. Forced to leave the group he co-founded, the Welshman embarked on a second career as a producer, composer and solo artist that continues to this day.
The Velvets went back on the road, and soon into the studio, with a new bassist, Doug Yule. They found a new power in quiet and more decorative pop on their next two albums, until Reed left in 1970 to begin, eventually, his own extraordinary solo life. Live, without Cale, the Velvets still played Sister Ray.
This new Deluxe collection includes Cale’s last studio sessions with The Velvet Underground. Temptation Inside Your Heart and Stephanie Says were recorded in New York in February, 1968, produced by the band for a prospective single (according to Cale and Morrison). Temptation was their idea of a Motown dance party, with congas and comic asides caught by accident as Reed, Cale and Morrison overdubbed their male-Marvelettes harmony vocals. Stephanie Says was the first of Reed’s portrait songs, named after women in crisis and overheard conversation (Candy Says, Lisa Says, Caroline Says I and II). Cale’s viola hovered through the arrangement like another singer: graceful and comforting.
On a spare day in May, 1968, between shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Velvets returned to L.A.’s T.T.G. Studios – where they had worked on The Velvet Underground And Nico – and taped two versions of another viola feature, Hey Mr. Rain. In a 1994 interview, Cale described the song’s droning melancholy and rhythmic suspense as “trying to have a pressure cooker. That’s what those songs were about – Sister Ray, European Son [on The Velvet Underground And Nico], Hey Mr. Rain. They were things we could exploit on stage, flesh out and improvise. But we were driving it into the ground. We hadn’t spent any time quietly puttering around the way we did before the first album.”
The classic quartet cut another song at T.T.G., a recently unearthed attempt at Reed’s Beginning To See The Light. The song, briskly redone with Yule, would open Side Two of the Velvets’ third album. This take has a vintage kick – Martha & The Vandellas’ Dancing In The Street taken at the gait of I’m Waiting For The Man. You also hear the impending change. “Here comes two of you/Which one would you choose?,” Reed sings, an intimation of the cleaving that would alter the Velvets for good.
“John has said we didn’t get to finish what we started – that is sadly true,” Reed acknowledged. “However, as far as we got, that was monumental.” White Light/White Heat, everything leading to it and gathered here – “I would match it,” he says, “with anything by anybody, anywhere, ever. No group in the world can touch what we did.”
Back in 1994, I asked Moe Tucker about the fuzz and chaos of White Light/White Heat – how much they reflected the daily trials and tensions of being The Velvet Underground, always first and alone in their ideals and attack. She replied with her usual, common sense: “I don’t know if I go along with that. The songs were the songs, and the way we played them was the way we each wanted to play them.”
Anything else, she declared with a grin, was “a little too philosophical.”
“THAT WAS MONUMENTAL. I WOULD MATCH IT WITH ANYTHING BY ANYBODY, ANYWHERE, EVER. NO GROUP IN THE WORLD CAN TOUCH WHAT WE DID.”– Lou Reed
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.”
John Cale reflects on the 50th anniversary of ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’ and the chaos that surrounded it. Everett Collection/Alamy
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.