Episode 164 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “White Light/White Heat” and the career of the Velvet Underground. This is a long one, lasting three hours and twenty minutes. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
Patreon backers also have a twenty-three minute bonus episode available, on “Why Don’t You Smile Now?” by the Downliners Sect.
Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/
I say the Velvet Underground didn’t play New York for the rest of the sixties after 1966. They played at least one gig there in 1967, but did generally avoid the city. Also, I refer to Cale and Conrad as the other surviving members of the Theater of Eternal Music. Sadly Conrad died in 2016.
No Mixcloud this week, as there are too many songs by the Velvet Underground, and some of the avant-garde pieces excerpted run to six hours or more.
I used a lot of resources for this one. Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story by Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga is the best book on the group as a group. I also used Joe Harvard’s 33 1/3 book on The Velvet Underground and Nico.
Information on Cale mostly came from Sedition and Alchemy by Tim Mitchell.
Information on Nico came from Nico: The Life and Lies of an Icon by Richard Witts.
I used Draw a Straight Line and Follow it by Jeremy Grimshaw as my main source for La Monte Young, The Roaring Silence by David Revill for John Cage, and Warhol: A Life as Art by Blake Gopnik for Warhol.
I also referred to the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of the 2021 documentary The Velvet Underground.
The definitive collection of the Velvet Underground’s music is the sadly out-of-print box set Peel Slowly and See, which contains the four albums the group made with Reed in full, plus demos, outtakes, and live recordings. Note that the digital version of the album as sold by Amazon for some reason doesn’t include the last disc — if you want the full box set you have to buy a physical copy. All four studio albums have also been released and rereleased many times over in different configurations with different numbers of CDs at different price points — I have used the “45th Anniversary Super-Deluxe” versions for this episode, but for most people the standard CD versions will be fine. Sadly there are no good shorter compilation overviews of the group — they tend to emphasise either the group’s “pop” mode or its “avant-garde” mode to the exclusion of the other.
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Before I begin this episode, there are a few things to say. This introductory section is going to be longer than normal because, as you will hear, this episode is also going to be longer than normal.
Firstly, I try to warn people about potentially upsetting material in these episodes. But this is the first episode for 1968, and as you will see there is a *profound* increase in the amount of upsetting and disturbing material covered as we go through 1968 and 1969. The story is going to be in a much darker place for the next twenty or thirty episodes.
And this episode is no exception. As always, I try to deal with everything as sensitively as possible, but you should be aware that the list of warnings for this one is so long I am very likely to have missed some. Among the topics touched on in this episode are mental illness, drug addiction, gun violence, racism, societal and medical homophobia, medical mistreatment of mental illness, domestic abuse, rape, and more. If you find discussion of any of those subjects upsetting, you might want to read the transcript.
Also, I use the term “queer” freely in this episode. In the past I have received some pushback for this, because of a belief among some that “queer” is a slur. The following explanation will seem redundant to many of my listeners, but as with many of the things I discuss in the podcast I am dealing with multiple different audiences with different levels of awareness and understanding of issues, so I’d like to beg those people’s indulgence a moment.
The term “queer” has certainly been used as a slur in the past, but so have terms like “lesbian”, “gay”, “homosexual” and others. In all those cases, the term has gone from a term used as a self-identifier, to a slur, to a reclaimed slur, and back again many times.
The reason for using that word, specifically, here is because the vast majority of people in this story have sexualities or genders that don’t match the societal norms of their times, but used labels for themselves that have shifted in meaning over the years. There are at least two men in the story, for example, who are now dead and referred to themselves as “homosexual”, but were in multiple long-term sexually-active relationships with women. Would those men now refer to themselves as “bisexual” or “pansexual” — terms not in widespread use at the time — or would they, in the relatively more tolerant society we live in now, only have been in same-gender relationships? We can’t know. But in our current context using the word “homosexual” for those men would lead to incorrect assumptions about their behaviour.
The labels people use change over time, and the definitions of them blur and shift. I have discussed this issue with many, many, friends who fall under the queer umbrella, and while not all of them are comfortable with “queer” as a personal label because of how it’s been used against them in the past, there is near-unanimity from them that it’s the correct word to use in this situation.
Anyway, now that that rather lengthy set of disclaimers is over, let’s get into the story proper, as we look at “White Light, White Heat” by the Velvet Underground:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “White Light, White Heat”]
And that look will start with… a disclaimer about length.
This episode is going to be a long one. Not as long as episode one hundred and fifty, but almost certainly the longest episode I’ll do this year, by some way. And there’s a reason for that.
One of the questions I’ve been asked repeatedly over the years about the podcast is why almost all the acts I’ve covered have been extremely commercially successful ones. “Where are the underground bands? The alternative bands? The little niche acts?”
The answer to that is simple. Until the mid-sixties, the idea of an underground or alternative band made no sense at all in rock, pop, rock and roll, R&B, or soul. The idea would have been completely counterintuitive to the vast majority of the people we’ve discussed in the podcast. Those musics were commercial musics, made by people who wanted to make money and to get the largest audiences possible.
That doesn’t mean that they had no artistic merit, or that there was no artistic intent behind them, but the artists making that music were *commercial* artists. They knew if they wanted to make another record, they had to sell enough copies of the last record for the record company to make another, and that if they wanted to keep eating, they had to draw enough of an audience to their gigs for promoters to keep booking them.
There was no space in this worldview for what we might think of as cult success. If your record only sold a thousand copies, then you had failed in your goal, even if the thousand people who bought your record really loved it. Even less commercially successful artists we’ve covered to this point, like the Mothers of Invention or Love, were *trying* for commercial success, even if they made the decision not to compromise as much as others do.
This started to change a tiny bit in the mid-sixties as the influence of jazz and folk in the US, and the British blues scene, started to be felt in rock music. But this influence, at first, was a one-way thing — people who had been in the folk and jazz worlds deciding to modify their music to be more commercial. And that was followed by already massively commercial musicians, like the Beatles, taking on some of those influences and bringing their audience with them.
But that started to change around the time that “rock” started to differentiate itself from “rock and roll” and “pop”, in mid 1967. So in this episode and the next, we’re going to look at two bands who in different ways provided a model for how to be an alternative band. Both of them still *wanted* commercial success, but neither achieved it, at least not at first and not in the conventional way. And both, when they started out, went by the name The Warlocks.
But we have to take a rather circuitous route to get to this week’s band, because we’re now properly introducing a strand of music that has been there in the background for a while — avant-garde art music. So before we go any further, let’s have a listen to a thirty-second clip of the most famous piece of avant-garde music ever, and I’ll be performing it myself:
[Excerpt, Andrew Hickey “4’33 (Cage)”]
Obviously that won’t give the full effect, you have to listen to the whole piece to get that.
That is of course a section of “4’33” by John Cage, a piece of music that is often incorrectly described as being four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence. As I’ve mentioned before, though, in the episode on “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”, it isn’t that at all. The whole point of the piece is that there is no such thing as silence, and it’s intended to make the listener appreciate all the normal ambient sounds as music, every bit as much as any piece by Bach or Beethoven.
John Cage, the composer of “4’33”, is possibly the single most influential avant-garde artist of the mid twentieth century, so as we’re properly introducing the ideas of avant-garde music into the story here, we need to talk about him a little.
Cage was, from an early age, torn between three great vocations, all of which in some fashion would shape his work for decades to come. One of these was architecture, and for a time he intended to become an architect. Another was the religious ministry, and he very seriously considered becoming a minister as a young man, and religion — though not the religious faith of his youth — was to be a massive factor in his work as he grew older.
He started studying music from an early age, though he never had any facility as a performer — though he did, when he discovered the work of Grieg, think that might change. He later said “For a while I played nothing else. I even imagined devoting my life to the performance of his works alone, for they did not seem to me to be too difficult, and I loved them.”
[Excerpt: Grieg piano concerto in A minor]
But he soon realised that he didn’t have some of the basic skills that would be required to be a performer — he never actually thought of himself as very musical — and so he decided to move into composition, and he later talked about putting his musical limits to good use in being more inventive.
From his very first pieces, Cage was trying to expand the definition of what a performance of a piece of music actually was. One of his friends, Harry Hay, who took part in the first documented performance of a piece by Cage, described how Cage’s father, an inventor, had “devised a fluorescent light source over which Sample” — Don Sample, Cage’s boyfriend at the time — “laid a piece of vellum painted with designs in oils. The blankets I was wearing were white, and a sort of lampshade shone coloured patterns onto me. It looked very good. The thing got so hot the designs began to run, but that only made it better.”
Apparently the audience for this light show — one that predated the light shows used by rock bands by a good thirty years — were not impressed, though that may be more because the Santa Monica Women’s Club in the early 1930s was not the vanguard of the avant-garde.
Or maybe it was. Certainly the housewives of Santa Monica seemed more willing than one might expect to sign up for another of Cage’s ideas. In 1933 he went door to door asking women if they would be interested in signing up to a lecture course from him on modern art and music. He told them that if they signed up for $2.50, he would give them ten lectures, and somewhere between twenty and forty of them signed up, even though, as he said later, “I explained to the housewives that I didn’t know anything about either subject but that I was enthusiastic about both of them. I promised to learn faithfully enough about each subject so as to be able to give a talk an hour long each week.”
And he did just that, going to the library every day and spending all week preparing an hour-long talk for them. History does not relate whether he ended these lectures by telling the housewives to tell just one friend about them.
He said later “I came out of these lectures, with a devotion to the painting of Mondrian, on the one hand, and the music of Schoenberg on the other.”
[Excerpt: Schoenberg, “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte”]
Schoenberg was one of the two most widely-respected composers in the world at that point, the other being Stravinsky, but the two had very different attitudes to composition. Schoenberg’s great innovation was the creation and popularisation of the twelve-tone technique, and I should probably explain that a little before I go any further. Most Western music is based on an eight-note scale — do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do — with the eighth note being an octave up from the first. So in the key of C major that would be C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C:
And when you hear notes from that scale, if your ears are accustomed to basically any Western music written before about 1920, or any Western popular music written since then, you expect the melody to lead back to C, and you know to expect that because it only uses those notes — there are differing intervals between them, some having a tone between them and some having a semitone, and you recognise the pattern.
But of course there are other notes between the notes of that scale. There are actually an infinite number of these, but in conventional Western music we only look at a few more — C# (or D flat), D# (or E flat), F# (or G flat), G# (or A flat) and A# (or B flat). If you add in all those notes you get this:
There’s no clear beginning or end, no do for it to come back to. And Schoenberg’s great innovation, which he was only starting to promote widely around this time, was to insist that all twelve notes should be equal — his melodies would use all twelve of the notes the exact same number of times, and so if he used say a B flat, he would have to use all eleven other notes before he used B flat again in the piece.
This was a radical new idea, but Schoenberg had only started advancing it after first winning great acclaim for earlier pieces, like his “Three Pieces for Piano”, a work which wasn’t properly twelve-tone, but did try to do without the idea of having any one note be more important than any other:
[Excerpt: Schoenberg, “Three Pieces for Piano”]
At this point, that work had only been performed in the US by one performer, Richard Buhlig, and hadn’t been released as a recording yet. Cage was so eager to hear it that he’d found Buhlig’s phone number and called him, asking him to play the piece, but Buhlig put the phone down on him.
Now he was doing these lectures, though, he had to do one on Schoenberg, and he wasn’t a competent enough pianist to play Schoenberg’s pieces himself, and there were still no recordings of them.
Cage hitch-hiked from Santa Monica to LA, where Buhlig lived, to try to get him to come and visit his class and play some of Schoenberg’s pieces for them. Buhlig wasn’t in, and Cage hung around in his garden hoping for him to come back — he pulled the leaves off a bough from one of Buhlig’s trees, going “He’ll come back, he won’t come back, he’ll come back…” and the leaves said he’d be back.
Buhlig arrived back at midnight, and quite understandably told the strange twenty-one-year-old who’d spent twelve hours in his garden pulling the leaves off his trees that no, he would not come to Santa Monica and give a free performance. But he did agree that if Cage brought some of his own compositions he’d give them a look over.
Buhlig started giving Cage some proper lessons in composition, although he stressed that he was a performer, not a composer. Around this time Cage wrote his Sonata for Clarinet:
[Excerpt: John Cage, “Sonata For Clarinet”]
Buhlig suggested that Cage send that to Henry Cowell, the composer we heard about in the episode on “Good Vibrations” who was friends with Lev Termen and who created music by playing the strings inside a piano:
[Excerpt: Henry Cowell, “Aeolian Harp and Sinister Resonance”]
Cowell offered to take Cage on as an assistant, in return for which Cowell would teach him for a semester, as would Adolph Weiss, a pupil of Schoenberg’s. But the goal, which Cowell suggested, was always to have Cage study with Schoenberg himself. Schoenberg at first refused, saying that Cage couldn’t afford his price, but eventually took Cage on as a student having been assured that he would devote his entire life to music — a promise Cage kept.
Cage started writing pieces for percussion, something that had been very rare up to that point — only a handful of composers, most notably Edgard Varese, had written pieces for percussion alone, but Cage was:
[Excerpt: John Cage, “Trio”]
This is often portrayed as a break from the ideals of his teacher Schoenberg, but in fact there’s a clear continuity there, once you see what Cage was taking from Schoenberg. Schoenberg’s work is, in some senses, about equality, about all notes being equal. Or to put it another way, it’s about fairness. About erasing arbitrary distinctions. What Cage was doing was erasing the arbitrary distinction between the more and less prominent instruments. Why should there be pieces for solo violin or string quartet, but not for multiple percussion players?
That said, Schoenberg was not exactly the most encouraging of teachers. When Cage invited Schoenberg to go to a concert of Cage’s percussion work, Schoenberg told him he was busy that night. When Cage offered to arrange another concert for a date Schoenberg wasn’t busy, the reply came “No, I will not be free at any time”.
Despite this, Cage later said “Schoenberg was a magnificent teacher, who always gave the impression that he was putting us in touch with musical principles,” and said “I literally worshipped him” — a strong statement from someone who took religious matters as seriously as Cage. Cage was so devoted to Schoenberg’s music that when a concert of music by Stravinsky was promoted as “music of the world’s greatest living composer”, Cage stormed into the promoter’s office angrily, confronting the promoter and making it very clear that such things should not be said in the city where Schoenberg lived.
Schoenberg clearly didn’t think much of Cage’s attempts at composition, thinking — correctly — that Cage had no ear for harmony. And his reportedly aggressive and confrontational teaching style didn’t sit well with Cage — though it seems very similar to a lot of the teaching techniques of the Zen masters he would later go on to respect. The two eventually parted ways, although Cage always spoke highly of Schoenberg.
Schoenberg later gave Cage a compliment of sorts, when asked if any of his students had gone on to do anything interesting. At first he replied that none had, but then he mentioned Cage and said “Of course he’s not a composer, but an inventor—of genius.”
Cage was at this point very worried if there was any point to being a composer at all. He said later “I’d read Cowell’s New Musical Resources and . . . The Theory of Rhythm. I had also read Chavez’s Towards a New Music. Both works gave me the feeling that everything that was possible in music had already happened. So I thought I could never compose socially important music. Only if I could invent something new, then would I be useful to society. But that seemed unlikely then.”
[Excerpt: John Cage, “Totem Ancestor”]
Part of the solution came when he was asked to compose music for an abstract animation by the filmmaker Oskar Fischinger, and also to work as Fischinger’s assistant when making the film. He was fascinated by the stop-motion process, and by the results of the film, which he described as “a beautiful film in which these squares, triangles and circles and other things moved and changed colour.”
But more than that he was overwhelmed by a comment by Fischinger, who told him “Everything in the world has its own spirit, and this spirit becomes audible by setting it into vibration.”
Cage later said “That set me on fire. He started me on a path of exploration of the world around me which has never stopped—of hitting and stretching and scraping and rubbing everything.”
Cage now took his ideas further. His compositions for percussion had been about, if you like, giving the underdog a chance — percussion was always in the background, why should it not be in the spotlight? Now he realised that there were other things getting excluded in conventional music — the sounds that we characterise as noise. Why should composers work to exclude those sounds, but work to *include* other sounds? Surely that was… well, a little unfair?
Eventually this would lead to pieces like his 1952 piece “Water Music”, later expanded and retitled “Water Walk”, which can be heard here in his 1959 appearance on the TV show “I’ve Got a Secret”. It’s a piece for, amongst other things, a flowerpot full of flowers, a bathtub, a watering can, a pipe, a duck call, a blender full of ice cubes, and five unplugged radios:
[Excerpt: John Cage “Water Walk”]
As he was now avoiding pitch and harmony as organising principles for his music, he turned to time. But note — not to rhythm. He said “There’s none of this boom, boom, boom, business in my music . . . a measure is taken as a strict measure of time—not a one two three four—which I fill with various sounds.”
He came up with a system he referred to as “micro-macrocosmic rhythmic structure,” what we would now call fractals, though that word hadn’t yet been invented, where the structure of the whole piece was reflected in the smallest part of it. For a time he started moving away from the term music, preferring to refer to the “art of noise” or to “organised sound” — though he later received a telegram from Edgard Varese, one of his musical heroes and one of the few other people writing works purely for percussion, asking him not to use that phrase, which Varese used for his own work. After meeting with Varese and his wife, he later became convinced that it was Varese’s wife who had initiated the telegram, as she explained to Cage’s wife “we didn’t want your husband’s work confused with my husband’s work, any more than you’d want some . . . any artist’s work confused with that of a cartoonist.”
While there is a humour to Cage’s work, I don’t really hear much qualitative difference between a Cage piece like the one we just heard and a Varese piece like Ionisation:
[Excerpt: Edgard Varese, “Ionisation”]
But it was in 1952, the year of “Water Music” that John Cage made his two biggest impacts on the cultural world, though the full force of those impacts wasn’t felt for some years.
To understand Cage’s 1952 work, you first have to understand that he had become heavily influenced by Zen, which at that time was very little known in the Western world. Indeed he had studied with Daisetsu Suzuki, who is credited with introducing Zen to the West, and said later “I didn’t study music with just anybody; I studied with Schoenberg, I didn’t study Zen with just anybody; I studied with Suzuki. I’ve always gone, insofar as I could, to the president of the company.”
Cage’s whole worldview was profoundly affected by Zen, but he was also naturally sympathetic to it, and his work after learning about Zen is mostly a continuation of trends we can already see. In particular, he became convinced that the point of music isn’t to communicate anything between two people, rather its point is merely to be experienced. I’m far from an expert on Buddhism, but one way of thinking about its central lessons is that one should experience things as they are, experiencing the thing itself rather than one’s thoughts or preconceptions about it.
And so at Black Mountain college came Theatre Piece Number 1:
[Excerpt: Edith Piaf, “La Vie En Rose” ]
In this piece, Cage had set the audience on all sides, so they’d be facing each other. He stood on a stepladder, as colleagues danced in and around the audience, another colleague played the piano, two more took turns to stand on another stepladder to recite poetry, different films and slides were projected, seemingly at random, onto the walls, and the painter Robert Rauschenberg played scratchy Edith Piaf records on a wind-up gramophone. The audience were included in the performance, and it was meant to be experienced as a gestalt, as a whole, to be what we would now call an immersive experience.
One of Cage’s students around this time was the artist Allan Kaprow, and he would be inspired by Theatre Piece Number 1 to put on several similar events in the late fifties. Those events he called “happenings”, because the point of them was that you were meant to experience an event as it was happening rather than bring preconceptions of form and structure to them. Those happenings were the inspiration for events like The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream, and the term “happening” became such an integral part of the counterculture that by 1967 there were comedy films being released about them, including one just called The Happening with a title track by the Supremes that made number one:
[Excerpt: The Supremes, “The Happening”]
Theatre Piece Number 1 was retrospectively considered the first happening, and as such its influence is incalculable.
But one part I didn’t mention about Theatre Piece Number 1 is that as well as Rauschenberg playing Edith Piaf’s records, he also displayed some of his paintings. These paintings were totally white — at a glance, they looked like blank canvases, but as one inspected them more clearly, it became apparent that Rauschenberg had painted them with white paint, with visible brushstrokes.
These paintings, along with a visit to an anechoic chamber in which Cage discovered that even in total silence one can still hear one’s own blood and nervous system, so will never experience total silence, were the final key to something Cage had been working towards — if music had minimised percussion, and excluded noise, how much more had it excluded silence? As Cage said in 1958 “Curiously enough, the twelve-tone system has no zero in it.”
And so came 4’33, the piece that we heard an excerpt of near the start of this episode. That piece was the something new he’d been looking for that could be useful to society. It took the sounds the audience could already hear, and without changing them even slightly gave them a new context and made the audience hear them as they were. Simply by saying “this is music”, it caused the ambient noise to be perceived as music.
This idea, of recontextualising existing material, was one that had already been done in the art world — Marcel Duchamp, in 1917, had exhibited a urinal as a sculpture titled “Fountain” — but even Duchamp had talked about his work as “everyday objects raised to the dignity of a work of art by the artist’s act of choice”. The artist was *raising* the object to art. What Cage was saying was “the object is already art”.
This was all massively influential to a young painter who had seen Cage give lectures many times, and while at art school had with friends prepared a piano in the same way Cage did for his own experimental compositions, dampening the strings with different objects.
[Excerpt: Dana Gillespie, “Andy Warhol (live)”]
Duchamp and Rauschenberg were both big influences on Andy Warhol, but he would say in the early sixties “John Cage is really so responsible for so much that’s going on,” and would for the rest of his life cite Cage as one of the two or three prime influences of his career.
Warhol is a difficult figure to discuss, because his work is very intellectual but he was not very articulate — which is one reason I’ve led up to him by discussing Cage in such detail, because Cage was always eager to talk at great length about the theoretical basis of his work, while Warhol would say very few words about anything at all. Probably the person who knew him best was his business partner and collaborator Paul Morrissey, and Morrissey’s descriptions of Warhol have shaped my own view of his life, but it’s very worth noting that Morrissey is an extremely right-wing moralist who wishes to see a Catholic theocracy imposed to do away with the scourges of sexual immorality, drug use, hedonism, and liberalism, so his view of Warhol, a queer drug using progressive whose worldview seems to have been totally opposed to Morrissey’s in every way, might be a little distorted.
Warhol came from an impoverished background, and so, as many people who grew up poor do, he was, throughout his life, very eager to make money. He studied art at university, and got decent but not exceptional grades — he was a competent draughtsman, but not a great one, and most importantly as far as success in the art world goes he didn’t have what is known as his own “line” — with most successful artists, you can look at a handful of lines they’ve drawn and see something of their own personality in it.
You couldn’t with Warhol. His drawings looked like mediocre imitations of other people’s work. Perfectly competent, but nothing that stood out.
So Warhol came up with a technique to make his drawings stand out — blotting. He would do a normal drawing, then go over it with a lot of wet ink. He’d lower a piece of paper on to the wet drawing, and the new paper would soak up the ink, and that second piece of paper would become the finished work. The lines would be fractured and smeared, broken in places where the ink didn’t get picked up, and thick in others where it had pooled.
With this mechanical process, Warhol had managed to create an individual style, and he became an extremely successful commercial artist. In the early 1950s photography was still seen as a somewhat low-class way of advertising things. If you wanted to sell to a rich audience, you needed to use drawings or paintings. By 1955 Warhol was making about twelve thousand dollars a year — somewhere close to a hundred and thirty thousand a year in today’s money — drawing shoes for advertisements. He also had a sideline in doing record covers for people like Count Basie:
[Excerpt: Count Basie, “Seventh Avenue Express”]
For most of the 1950s he also tried to put on shows of his more serious artistic work — often with homoerotic themes — but to little success. The dominant art style of the time was the abstract expressionism of people like Jackson Pollock, whose art was visceral, emotional, and macho. The term “action paintings” which was coined for the work of people like Pollock, sums it up. This was manly art for manly men having manly emotions and expressing them loudly. It was very male and very straight, and even the gay artists who were prominent at the time tended to be very conformist and look down on anything they considered flamboyant or effeminate.
Warhol was a rather effeminate, very reserved man, who strongly disliked showing his emotions, and whose tastes ran firmly to the camp. Camp as an aesthetic of finding joy in the flamboyant or trashy, as opposed to merely a descriptive term for men who behaved in a way considered effeminate, was only just starting to be codified at this time — it wouldn’t really become a fully-formed recognisable thing until Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp” in 1964 — but of course just because something hasn’t been recognised doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and Warhol’s aesthetic was always very camp, and in the 1950s in the US that was frowned upon even in gay culture, where the mainstream opinion was that the best way to acceptance was through assimilation.
Abstract expressionism was all about expressing the self, and that was something Warhol never wanted to do — in fact he made some pronouncements at times which suggested he didn’t think of himself as *having* a self in the conventional sense. The combination of not wanting to express himself and of wanting to work more efficiently as a commercial artist led to some interesting results. For example, he was commissioned in 1957 to do a cover for an album by Moondog, the blind street musician whose name Alan Freed had once stolen:
[Excerpt: Moondog, “Gloving It”]
For that cover, Warhol got his mother, Julia Warhola, to just write out the liner notes for the album in her rather ornamental cursive script, and that became the front cover, leading to an award for graphic design going that year to “Andy Warhol’s mother”.
(Incidentally, my copy of the current CD issue of that album, complete with Julia Warhola’s cover, is put out by Pickwick Records…)
But towards the end of the fifties, the work for commercial artists started to dry up. If you wanted to advertise shoes, now, you just took a photo of the shoes rather than get Andy Warhol to draw a picture of them. The money started to disappear, and Warhol started to panic.
If there was no room for him in graphic design any more, he had to make his living in the fine arts, which he’d been totally unsuccessful in. But luckily for Warhol, there was a new movement that was starting to form — Pop Art.
Pop Art started in England, and had originally been intended, at least in part, as a critique of American consumerist capitalism. Pieces like “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” by Richard Hamilton (who went on to design the Beatles’ White Album cover) are collages of found images, almost all from American sources, recontextualised and juxtaposed in interesting ways, so a bodybuilder poses in a room that’s taken from an advert in Ladies’ Home Journal, while on the wall, instead of a painting, hangs a blown-up cover of a Jack Kirby romance comic.
Pop Art changed slightly when it got taken up in America, and there it became something rather different, something closer to Duchamp, taking those found images and displaying them as art with no juxtaposition. Where Richard Hamilton created collage art which *showed* a comic cover by Jack Kirby as a painting in the background, Roy Lichtenstein would take a panel of comic art by Kirby, or Russ Heath or Irv Novick or a dozen other comic artists, and redraw it at the size of a normal painting.
So Warhol took Cage’s idea that the object is already art, and brought that into painting, starting by doing paintings of Campbell’s soup cans, in which he tried as far as possible to make the cans look exactly like actual soup cans.
The paintings were controversial, inciting fury in some and laughter in others and causing almost everyone to question whether they were art.
Warhol would embrace an aesthetic in which things considered unimportant or trash or pop culture detritus were the greatest art of all. For example pretty much every profile of him written in the mid sixties talks about him obsessively playing “Sally Go Round the Roses”, a girl-group single by the one-hit wonders the Jaynettes:
[Excerpt: The Jaynettes, “Sally Go Round the Roses”]
After his paintings of Campbell’s soup cans, and some rather controversial but less commercially successful paintings of photographs of horrors and catastrophes taken from newspapers, Warhol abandoned painting in the conventional sense altogether, instead creating brightly coloured screen prints — a form of stencilling — based on photographs of celebrities like Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor and, most famously, Marilyn Monroe. That way he could produce images which could be mass-produced, without his active involvement, and which supposedly had none of his personality in them, though of course his personality pervades the work anyway.
He put on exhibitions of wooden boxes, silk-screen printed to look exactly like shipping cartons of Brillo pads. Images we see everywhere — in newspapers, in supermarkets — were art.
And Warhol even briefly formed a band. The Druds were a garage band formed to play at a show at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, the opening night of an exhibition that featured a silkscreen by Warhol of 210 identical bottles of Coca-Cola, as well as paintings by Rauschenberg and others.
That opening night featured a happening by Claes Oldenburg, and a performance by Cage — Cage gave a live lecture while three recordings of his own voice also played. The Druds were also meant to perform, but they fell apart after only a few rehearsals. Some recordings apparently exist, but they don’t seem to circulate, but they’d be fascinating to hear as almost the entire band were non-musician artists like Warhol, Jasper Johns, and the sculptor Walter de Maria.
Warhol said of the group “It didn’t go too well, but if we had just stayed on it it would have been great.”
On the other hand, the one actual musician in the group said “It was kind of ridiculous, so I quit after the second rehearsal”.
That musician was La Monte Young:
[Excerpt: La Monte Young, “The Well-Tuned Piano”]
That’s an excerpt from what is generally considered Young’s masterwork, “The Well-Tuned Piano”. It’s six and a half hours long.
If Warhol is a difficult figure to write about, Young is almost impossible. He’s a musician with a career stretching sixty years, who is arguably the most influential musician from the classical tradition in that time period. He’s generally considered the father of minimalism, and he’s also been called by Brian Eno “the daddy of us all” — without Young you simply *do not* get art rock at all. Without Young there is no Velvet Underground, no David Bowie, no Eno, no New York punk scene, no Yoko Ono. Anywhere that the fine arts or conceptual art have intersected with popular music in the last fifty or more years has been influenced in one way or another by Young’s work.
BUT… he only rarely publishes his scores. He very, very rarely allows recordings of his work to be released — there are four recordings on his bandcamp, plus a handful of recordings of his older, published, pieces, and very little else. He doesn’t allow his music to be performed live without his supervision.
There *are* bootleg recordings of his music, but even those are not easily obtainable — Young is vigorous in enforcing his copyrights and issues takedown notices against anywhere that hosts them.
So other than that handful of legitimately available recordings — plus a recording by Young’s Theater of Eternal Music, the legality of which is still disputed, and an off-air recording of a 1971 radio programme I’ve managed to track down, the only way to experience Young’s music unless you’re willing to travel to one of his rare live performances or installations is second-hand, by reading about it.
Except that the one book that deals solely with Young and his music is not only a dense and difficult book to read, it’s also one that Young vehemently disagreed with and considered extremely inaccurate, to the point he refused to allow permissions to quote his work in the book. Young did apparently prepare a list of corrections for the book, but he wouldn’t tell the author what they were without payment.
So please assume that anything I say about Young is wrong, but also accept that the short section of this episode about Young has required more work to *try* to get it right than pretty much anything else this year.
Young’s musical career actually started out in a relatively straightforward manner. He didn’t grow up in the most loving of homes — he’s talked about his father beating him as a child because he had been told that young La Monte was clever — but his father did buy him a saxophone and teach him the rudiments of the instrument, and as a child he was most influenced by the music of the big band saxophone player Jimmy Dorsey:
[Excerpt: Jimmy Dorsey, “It’s the Dreamer in Me”]
The family, who were Mormon farmers, relocated several times in Young’s childhood, from Idaho first to California and then to Utah, but everywhere they went La Monte seemed to find musical inspiration, whether from an uncle who had been part of the Kansas City jazz scene, a classmate who was a musical prodigy who had played with Perez Prado in his early teens, or a teacher who took the class to see a performance of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra:
[Excerpt: Bartok, “Concerto for Orchestra”]
After leaving high school, Young went to Los Angeles City College to study music under Leonard Stein, who had been Schoenberg’s assistant when Schoenberg had taught at UCLA, and there he became part of the thriving jazz scene based around Central Avenue, studying and performing with musicians like Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and Eric Dolphy — Young once beat Dolphy in an audition for a place in the City College dance band, and the two would apparently substitute for each other on their regular gigs when one couldn’t make it.
During this time, Young’s musical tastes became much more adventurous. He was a particular fan of the work of John Coltrane, and also got inspired by City of Glass, an album by Stan Kenton that attempted to combine jazz and modern classical music:
[Excerpt: Stan Kenton’s Innovations Orchestra, “City of Glass: The Structures”]
His other major musical discovery in the mid-fifties was one we’ve talked about on several previous occasions — the album Music of India, Morning and Evening Ragas by Ali Akhbar Khan:
[Excerpt: Ali Akhbar Khan, “Rag Sindhi Bhairavi”]
Young’s music at this point was becoming increasingly modal, and equally influenced by the blues and Indian music. But he was also becoming interested in serialism.
Serialism is an extension and generalisation of twelve-tone music, inspired by mathematical set theory. In serialism, you choose a set of musical elements — in twelve-tone music that’s the twelve notes in the twelve-tone scale, but it can also be a set of tonal relations, a chord, or any other set of elements. You then define all the possible ways you can permute those elements, a defined set of operations you can perform on them — so you could play a scale forwards, play it backwards, play all the notes in the scale simultaneously, and so on. You then go through all the possible permutations, exactly once, and that’s your piece of music.
Young was particularly influenced by the works of Anton Webern, one of the earliest serialists:
[Excerpt: Anton Webern, “Cantata number 1 for Soprano, Mixed Chorus, and Orchestra”]
That piece we just heard, Webern’s “Cantata number 1”, was the subject of some of the earliest theoretical discussion of serialism, and in particular led to some discussion of the next step on from serialism. If serialism was all about going through every single permutation of a set, what if you *didn’t* permute every element?
There was a lot of discussion in the late fifties in music-theoretical circles about the idea of invariance. Normally in music, the interesting thing is what gets changed. To use a very simple example, you might change a melody from a major key to a minor one to make it sound sadder.
What theorists at this point were starting to discuss is what happens if you leave something the same, but change the surrounding context, so the thing you *don’t* vary sounds different because of the changed context. And going further, what if you don’t change the context at all, and merely *imply* a changed context?
These ideas were some of those which inspired Young’s first major work, his Trio For Strings from 1958, a complex, palindromic, serial piece which is now credited as the first work of minimalism, because the notes in it change so infrequently:
[Excerpt: La Monte Young, “Trio for Strings”]
Though I should point out that Young never considers his works truly finished, and constantly rewrites them, and what we just heard is an excerpt from the only recording of the trio ever officially released, which is of the 2015 version. So I can’t state for certain how close what we just heard is to the piece he wrote in 1958, except that it sounds very like the written descriptions of it I’ve read.
After writing the Trio For Strings, Young moved to Germany to study with the modernist composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. While studying with Stockhausen, he became interested in the work of John Cage, and started up a correspondence with Cage. On his return to New York he studied with Cage and started writing pieces inspired by Cage, of which the most musical is probably Composition 1960 #7:
[Excerpt: La Monte Young, “Composition 1960 #7”]
The score for that piece is a stave on which is drawn a treble clef, the notes B and F#, and the words “To be held for a long Time”. Other of his compositions from 1960 — which are among the few of his compositions which have been published — include composition 1960 #10 (“To Bob Morris”), the score for which is just the instruction “Draw a straight line and follow it.”, and Piano Piece for David Tudor #1, the score for which reads “Bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage for the piano to eat and drink. The performer may then feed the piano or leave it to eat by itself. If the former, the piece is over after the piano has been fed. If the latter, it is over after the piano eats or decides not to”.
Most of these compositions were performed as part of a loose New York art collective called Fluxus, all of whom were influenced by Cage and the Dadaists. This collective, led by George Maciunas, sometimes involved Cage himself, but also involved people like Henry Flynt, the inventor of conceptual art, who later became a campaigner against art itself, and who also much to Young’s bemusement abandoned abstract music in the mid-sixties to form a garage band with Walter de Maria (who had played drums with the Druds):
[Excerpt: Henry Flynt and the Insurrections, “I Don’t Wanna”]
Much of Young’s work was performed at Fluxus concerts given in a New York loft belonging to another member of the collective, Yoko Ono, who co-curated the concerts with Young. One of Ono’s mid-sixties pieces, her “Four Pieces for Orchestra” is dedicated to Young, and consists of such instructions as “Count all the stars of that night by heart. The piece ends when all the orchestra members finish counting the stars, or when it dawns. This can be done with windows instead of stars.”
But while these conceptual ideas remained a huge part of Young’s thinking, he soon became interested in two other ideas. The first was the idea of just intonation — tuning instruments and voices to perfect harmonics, rather than using the subtly-off tuning that is used in Western music. I’m sure I’ve explained that before in a previous episode, but to put it simply when you’re tuning an instrument with fixed pitches like a piano, you have a choice — you can either tune it so that the notes in one key are perfectly in tune with each other, but then when you change key things go very out of tune, or you can choose to make *everything* a tiny bit, almost unnoticeably, out of tune, but equally so.
For the last several hundred years, musicians as a community have chosen the latter course, which was among other things promoted by Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, a collection of compositions which shows how the different keys work together:
[Excerpt: Bach (Glenn Gould), “The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II: Fugue in F-sharp minor, BWV 883”]
Young, by contrast, has his own esoteric tuning system, which he uses in his own work The Well-Tuned Piano:
[Excerpt: La Monte Young, “The Well-Tuned Piano”]
The other idea that Young took on was from Indian music, the idea of the drone. One of the four recordings of Young’s music that is available from his Bandcamp, a 1982 recording titled The Tamburas of Pandit Pran Nath, consists of one hour, thirteen minutes, and fifty-eight seconds of this:
[Excerpt: La Monte Young, “The Tamburas of Pandit Pran Nath”]
Yes, I have listened to the whole piece. No, nothing else happens. The minimalist composer Terry Riley describes the recording as “a singularly rare contribution that far outshines any other attempts to capture this instrument in recorded media”.
In 1962, Young started writing pieces based on what he called the “dream chord”, a chord consisting of a root, fourth, sharpened fourth, and fifth:
That chord had already appeared in his Trio for Strings, but now it would become the focus of much of his work, in pieces like his 1962 piece The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer, heard here in a 1982 revision:
[Excerpt: La Monte Young, “The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer”]
That was part of a series of works titled The Four Dreams of China, and Young began to plan an installation work titled Dream House, which would eventually be created, and which currently exists in Tribeca, New York, where it’s been in continuous “performance” for thirty years — and which consists of thirty-two different pure sine wave tones all played continuously, plus purple lighting by Young’s wife Marian Zazeela.
But as an initial step towards creating this, Young formed a collective called Theatre of Eternal Music, which some of the members — though never Young himself — always claim also went by the alternative name The Dream Syndicate. According to John Cale, a member of the group, that name came about because the group tuned their instruments to the 60hz hum of the fridge in Young’s apartment, which Cale called “the key of Western civilisation”. According to Cale, that meant the fundamental of the chords they played was 10hz, the frequency of alpha waves when dreaming — hence the name.
The group initially consisted of Young, Zazeela, the photographer Billy Name, and percussionist Angus MacLise, but by this recording in 1964 the lineup was Young, Zazeela, MacLise, Tony Conrad and John Cale:
[Excerpt: “Cale, Conrad, Maclise, Young, Zazeela – The Dream Syndicate 2 IV 64-4”]
That recording, like any others that have leaked by the 1960s version of the Theatre of Eternal Music or Dream Syndicate, is of disputed legality, because Young and Zazeela claim to this day that what the group performed were La Monte Young’s compositions, while the other two surviving members, Cale and Conrad, claim that their performances were improvisational collaborations and should be equally credited to all the members, and so there have been lawsuits and countersuits any time anyone has released the recordings.
John Cale, the youngest member of the group, was also the only one who wasn’t American. He’d been born in Wales in 1942, and had had the kind of childhood that, in retrospect, seems guaranteed to lead to eccentricity. He was the product of a mixed-language marriage — his father, William, was an English speaker while his mother, Margaret, spoke Welsh, but the couple had moved in on their marriage with Margaret’s mother, who insisted that only Welsh could be spoken in her house. William didn’t speak Welsh, and while he eventually picked up the basics from spending all his life surrounded by Welsh-speakers, he refused on principle to capitulate to his mother-in-law, and so remained silent in the house. John, meanwhile, grew up a monolingual Welsh speaker, and didn’t start to learn English until he went to school when he was seven, and so couldn’t speak to his father until then even though they lived together.
Young John was extremely unwell for most of his childhood, both physically — he had bronchial problems for which he had to take a cough mixture that was largely opium to help him sleep at night — and mentally. He was hospitalised when he was sixteen with what was at first thought to be meningitis, but turned out to be a psychosomatic condition, the result of what he has described as a nervous breakdown. That breakdown is probably connected to the fact that during his teenage years he was sexually assaulted by two adults in positions of authority — a vicar and a music teacher — and felt unable to talk to anyone about this.
He was, though, a child prodigy and was playing viola with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales from the age of thirteen, and listening to music by Schoenberg, Webern, and Stravinsky. He was so talented a multi-instrumentalist that at school he was the only person other than one of the music teachers and the headmaster who was allowed to use the piano — which led to a prank on his very last day at school. The headmaster would, on the last day, hit a low G on the piano to cue the assembly to stand up, and Cale had placed a comb on the string, muting it and stopping the note from sounding — in much the same way that his near-namesake John Cage was “preparing” pianos for his own compositions in the USA.
Cale went on to Goldsmith’s College to study music and composition, under Humphrey Searle, one of Britain’s greatest proponents of serialism who had himself studied under Webern. Cale’s main instrument was the viola, but he insisted on also playing pieces written for the violin, because they required more technical skill. For his final exam he chose to play Hindemith’s notoriously difficult Viola Sonata:
[Excerpt: Hindemith Viola Sonata]
While at Goldsmith’s, Cale became friendly with Cornelius Cardew, a composer and cellist who had studied with Stockhausen and at the time was a great admirer of and advocate for the works of Cage and Young (though by the mid-seventies Cardew rejected their work as counter-revolutionary bourgeois imperialism). Through Cardew, Cale started to correspond with Cage, and with George Maciunas and other members of Fluxus.
In July 1963, just after he’d finished his studies at Goldsmith’s, Cale presented a festival there consisting of an afternoon and an evening show. These shows included the first British performances of several works including Cardew’s Autumn ’60 for Orchestra — a piece in which the musicians were given blank staves on which to write whatever part they wanted to play, but a separate set of instructions in *how* to play the parts they’d written.
Another piece Cale presented in its British premiere at that show was Cage’s “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra”:
[Excerpt: John Cage, “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra”]
In the evening show, they performed Two Pieces For String Quartet by George Brecht (in which the musicians polish their instruments with dusters, making scraping sounds as they clean them), and two new pieces by Cale, one of which involved a plant being put on the stage, and then the performer, Robin Page, screaming from the balcony at the plant that it would die, then running down, through the audience, and onto the stage, screaming abuse and threats at the plant.
The final piece in the show was a performance by Cale (the first one in Britain) of La Monte Young’s “X For Henry Flynt”. For this piece, Cale put his hands together and then smashed both his arms onto the keyboard as hard as he could, over and over. After five minutes some of the audience stormed the stage and tried to drag the piano away from him. Cale followed the piano on his knees, continuing to bang the keys, and eventually the audience gave up in defeat and Cale the performer won.
After this Cale moved to the USA, to further study composition, this time with Iannis Xenakis, the modernist composer who had also taught Mickey Baker orchestration after Baker left Mickey and Sylvia, and who composed such works as “Orient Occident”:
[Excerpt: Iannis Xenakis, “Orient Occident”]
Cale had been recommended to Xenakis as a student by Aaron Copland, who thought the young man was probably a genius. But Cale’s musical ambitions were rather too great for Tanglewood, Massachusetts — he discovered that the institute had eighty-eight pianos, the same number as there are keys on a piano keyboard, and thought it would be great if for a piece he could take all eighty-eight pianos, put them all on different boats, sail the boats out onto a lake, and have eighty-eight different musicians each play one note on each piano, while the boats sank with the pianos on board.
For some reason, Cale wasn’t allowed to perform this composition, and instead had to make do with one where he pulled an axe out of a single piano and slammed it down on a table. Hardly the same, I’m sure you’ll agree.
From Tanglewood, Cale moved on to New York, where he soon became part of the artistic circles surrounding John Cage and La Monte Young. It was at this time that he joined Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, and also took part in a performance with Cage that would get Cale his first television exposure:
[Excerpt: John Cale playing Erik Satie’s “Vexations” on “I’ve Got a Secret”]
That’s Cale playing through “Vexations”, a piece by Erik Satie that wasn’t published until after Satie’s death, and that remained in obscurity until Cage popularised — if that’s the word — the piece. The piece, which Cage had found while studying Satie’s notes, seems to be written as an exercise and has the inscription (in French) “In order to play the motif 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.”
Cage interpreted that, possibly correctly, as an instruction that the piece should be played eight hundred and forty times straight through, and so he put together a performance of the piece, the first one ever, by a group he called the Pocket Theatre Piano Relay Team, which included Cage himself, Cale, Joshua Rifkin, and several other notable musical figures, who took it in turns playing the piece. For that performance, which ended up lasting eighteen hours, there was an entry fee of five dollars, and there was a time-clock in the lobby. Audience members punched in and punched out, and got a refund of five cents for every twenty minutes they’d spent listening to the music.
Supposedly, at the end, one audience member yelled “Encore!”
A week later, Cale appeared on “I’ve Got a Secret”, a popular game-show in which celebrities tried to guess people’s secrets (and which is where that performance of Cage’s “Water Walk” we heard earlier comes from):
[Excerpt: John Cale on I’ve Got a Secret]
For a while, Cale lived with a friend of La Monte Young’s, Terry Jennings, before moving in to a flat with Tony Conrad, one of the other members of the Theatre of Eternal Music. Angus MacLise lived in another flat in the same building. As there was not much money to be made in avant-garde music, Cale also worked in a bookshop — a job Cage had found him — and had a sideline in dealing drugs. But rents were so cheap at this time that Cale and Conrad only had to work part-time, and could spend much of their time working on the music they were making with Young.
Both were string players — Conrad violin, Cale viola — and they soon modified their instruments. Conrad merely attached pickups to his so it could be amplified, but Cale went much further. He filed down the viola’s bridge so he could play three strings at once, and he replaced the normal viola strings with thicker, heavier, guitar and mandolin strings. This created a sound so loud that it sounded like a distorted electric guitar — though in late 1963 and early 1964 there were very few people who even knew what a distorted guitar sounded like.
Cale and Conrad were also starting to become interested in rock and roll music, to which neither of them had previously paid much attention, because John Cage’s music had taught them to listen for music in sounds they previously dismissed. In particular, Cale became fascinated with the harmonies of the Everly Brothers, hearing in them the same just intonation that Young advocated for:
[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “All I Have to Do is Dream”]
And it was with this newfound interest in rock and roll that Cale and Conrad suddenly found themselves members of a manufactured pop band.
The two men had been invited to a party on the Lower East Side, and there they’d been introduced to Terry Phillips of Pickwick Records. Phillips had seen their long hair and asked if they were musicians, so they’d answered “yes”. He asked if they were in a band, and they said yes. He asked if that band had a drummer, and again they said yes.
By this point they realised that he had assumed they were rock guitarists, rather than experimental avant-garde string players, but they decided to play along and see where this was going. Phillips told them that if they brought along their drummer to Pickwick’s studios the next day, he had a job for them.
The two of them went along with Walter de Maria, who did play the drums a little in between his conceptual art work, and there they were played a record:
[Excerpt: The Primitives, “The Ostrich”]
It was explained to them that Pickwick made knock-off records — soundalikes of big hits, and their own records in the style of those hits, all played by a bunch of session musicians and put out under different band names. This one, by “the Primitives”, they thought had a shot at being an actual hit, even though it was a dance-craze song about a dance where one partner lays on the floor and the other stamps on their head. But if it was going to be a hit, they needed an actual band to go out and perform it, backing the singer. How would Cale, Conrad, and de Maria like to be three quarters of the Primitives?
It sounded fun, but of course they weren’t actually guitarists. But as it turned out, that wasn’t going to be a problem. They were told that the guitars on the track had all been tuned to one note — not even to an open chord, like we talked about Steve Cropper doing last episode, but all the strings to one note.
Cale and Conrad were astonished — that was exactly the kind of thing they’d been doing in their drone experiments with La Monte Young. Who was this person who was independently inventing the most advanced ideas in experimental music but applying them to pop songs?
And that was how they met Lou Reed:
[Excerpt: The Primitives, “The Ostrich”]
Where Cale and Conrad were avant-gardeists who had only just started paying attention to rock and roll music, rock and roll was in Lou Reed’s blood, but there were a few striking similarities between him and Cale, even though at a glance their backgrounds could not have seemed more different.
Reed had been brought up in a comfortably middle-class home in Long Island, but despised the suburban conformity that surrounded him from a very early age, and by his teens was starting to rebel against it very strongly. According to one classmate “Lou was always more advanced than the rest of us. The drinking age was eighteen back then, so we all started drinking at around sixteen. We were drinking quarts of beer, but Lou was smoking joints. He didn’t do that in front of many people, but I knew he was doing it. While we were looking at girls in Playboy, Lou was reading Story of O. He was reading the Marquis de Sade, stuff that I wouldn’t even have thought about or known how to find.”
But one way in which Reed was a typical teenager of the period was his love for rock and roll, especially doo-wop. He’d got himself a guitar, but only had one lesson — according to the story he would tell on numerous occasions, he turned up with a copy of “Blue Suede Shoes” and told the teacher he only wanted to know how to play the chords for that, and he’d work out the rest himself.
Reed and two schoolfriends, Alan Walters and Phil Harris, put together a doo-wop trio they called The Shades, because they wore sunglasses, and a neighbour introduced them to Bob Shad, who had been an A&R man for Mercury Records and was starting his own new label. He renamed them the Jades and took them into the studio with some of the best New York session players, and at fourteen years old Lou Reed was writing songs and singing them backed by Mickey Baker and King Curtis:
[Excerpt: The Jades, “Leave Her For Me”]
Sadly the Jades’ single was a flop — the closest it came to success was being played on Murray the K’s radio show, but on a day when Murray the K was off ill and someone else was filling in for him, much to Reed’s disappointment. Phil Harris, the lead singer of the group, got to record some solo sessions after that, but the Jades split up and it would be several years before Reed made any more records.
Partly this was because of Reed’s mental health, and here’s where things get disputed and rather messy.
What we know is that in his late teens, just after he’d gone off to New York University, Reed was put through a course of electroconvulsive therapy, and that for the rest of his life he resented his parents for putting him through that. According to Reed himself, the primary “illness” for which he was being treated was his sexual attraction to other men, and he was forced to undergo it by his domineering, abusive, father. According to Reed’s younger sister, who is now herself a mental health professional, the shock treatment was not for his sexuality, and their father was a kind, liberal, man with enlightened attitudes about sexuality for the time period. According to her, the treatment was for anxiety and depression, which he had been suffering from for several years.
Whatever the truth, Reed’s memory suffered as a result of the treatment (which was much, much, stronger than the similar treatments used today) and whatever it was intended to treat it did the opposite — Reed’s personality became much bleaker and more cynical, his depressive phases got worse, and he started registering copyrights on songs with titles like “You’ll Never, Ever, Love Me” and “Kill Your Sons”.
After the treatments he didn’t go back to NYU, but instead started to study at Syracuse, where among other things he had his own college radio show, “Excursions on a Wobbly Rail”, named after a jazz piece by Cecil Taylor he used as the theme tune:
[Excerpt: Cecil Taylor, “Excursion on a Wobbly Rail”]
The show was ostensibly a jazz show, but it was actually just based around Reed’s personal tastes, so it combined the free jazz of people like Ornette Coleman with soul and R&B records by groups like the Marvelettes and doo-wop records by Dion, his favourite singer at this point. Reed later described his musical influences by saying “I was a very big fan of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp. Then James Brown, the doo-wop groups, and rockabilly. Put it all together and you end up with me.”
Reed was still trying to make it as a rock and roller. He formed a band at university, LA and the Eldorados, who played various college and fraternity parties, and he also went back to Bob Shad to record a couple more tracks, clearly showing the influence of Dion, though those wouldn’t get released for decades:
[Excerpt: Lewis Reed, “Your Love”]
But at the same time he was trying to become a writer, and one influenced by serious writers like William Burroughs. He was studying under the acclaimed poet Delmore Schwartz, who thought Reed had great potential as a writer, and the two became very close. Reed took Schwartz’s teachings about writing, and about integrity, very seriously, but also found himself having to hide many of his own ambitions and huge chunks of his own life, because Schwartz had a deep loathing for rock and roll music and found it contemptible, and was also virulently homophobic.
Reed, who was having affairs with both men and women, and was playing rock and roll music, found himself feeling split in two. He was also, by this point, a serious user of heroin. And it was his experiences buying and using the drug that gave him the ideas for some of what would become his best-known songs.
At this point, Reed was still absorbing all the popular music of the time. He would later emphasise the influence of Brill Building songwriters like Goffin and King, and Bacharach and David, of Steve Cropper and the other writers at Stax, and of Brian Wilson’s writing for the Beach Boys, and one can see all those absolutely in his later work. But one huge influence he always pretended had never influenced him at all was Bob Dylan, and around this time Reed was slavishly imitating him:
[Excerpt: Lou Reed, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (home recording 1963)”]
And as Dylan was broadening the definitions of what could count as a rock and roll lyric, Reed saw ways to push it further. He said later “I thought, look, all these writers are writing about only a very small part of the human experience,whereas a record could be like a novel, you could write about this. It was so obvious, it’s amazing everybody wasn’t doing it. Let’s take Crime and Punishment and turn it into a rock-and-roll song! But if you’re going to talk about the greats, there is no one greater than Raymond Chandler. I mean, after reading Raymond Chandler and going on to someone else, it’s like eating caviar and then turning to some real inferior dish. Take the sensibility of Raymond Chandler or Hubert Shelby or Delmore Schwartz or Poe and put it to rock music.”
So Reed started to write songs about the kind of dark, real-life, topic a Chandler might write about — like going to buy heroin:
[Excerpt: Lou Reed, “Waiting for the Man (May 1965 alternate version)”]
But these Chandleresque songs were not going to get recorded any time soon — indeed that recording we just heard is from May 1965, roughly two years after Reed wrote “Waiting for the Man”. Reed’s move into the rock and roll business was going to be with lyrics that were a little less challenging:
[Excerpt: The Beach Nuts, “I’ve Got a Tiger in My Tank”]
Don Schupak, the manager of LA and the Eldoradoes, had gone to work for Pickwick Records after leaving university, and Schupak got Reed a job as a staff songwriter, performer, and producer. For twenty-five dollars a week, he and three other staffers, Terry Phillips, Jerry Vance, and Jimmy Sims, would write and record whatever Pickwick needed. Often Pickwick would have managed to license one or two early tracks by someone who’d just had a big hit, and then they’d need to fill out a compilation with recordings by other supposed bands in the same style.
As Reed told it “There were four of us literally locked in a room writing songs. We just churned out songs, that’s all. They would say, ‘Write ten California songs, ten Detroit songs,’ then we’d go down into the studio for an hour or two and cut three or four albums really quickly, which came in handy later because I knew my way around a studio, not well enough but I could work really fast. While I was doing that, I was doing my own stuff and trying to get by, but the material I was doing, people wouldn’t go near me with it at the time. I mean, we wrote ‘Johnny Can’t Surf No More’ and ‘Let the Wedding Bells Ring’ and ‘Hot Rod Song.’ I didn’t see it as schizophrenic at all. I just had a job as a songwriter. I mean, a real hack job. They’d come in and give me a subject, and we’d write.”
Reed and his collaborators, and a handful of session singers and musicians, would sometimes be the Beach Nuts:
[Excerpt: The Beach Nuts, “Cycle Annie”]
Sometimes the Hi-Lifes:
[Excerpt: The Hi-Lifes, “Soul City”]
Sometimes The J Brothers:
[Excerpt: The J Brothers, “Ya Running, But I’ll Getcha”]
And, fatefully, they’d become The Primitives:
[Excerpt: The Primitives, “The Ostrich”]
Reed, Cale, Conrad, and de Maria had a very brief career playing as the Primitives, but while they played in front of the normal audiences of screaming girls, the record didn’t do anything on the charts, and the group, such as it was, soon split up. Cale also developed a dislike of de Maria’s style of drumming, which was very influenced by jazz. If he *was* going to do any more rock and roll, he wasn’t going to do it with someone who played so much on the ride cymbal.
But as well as Cale and Conrad continuing to perform together with Young, Cale and Reed continued to hang out together, and even started writing songs together. Their first collaboration, written with Reed’s normal partners Phillips and Vance, was this, released as a B-side by The All-Night Workers, some friends of Reed’s:
[Excerpt: The All-Night Workers, “Why Don’t You Smile Now?”]
Reed kept trying to get Cale to listen to the *other* songs he was writing, the ones that he’d played for Pickwick but they’d turned down, but at first Cale was totally uninterested. Reed was playing them on an acoustic guitar, in a Bob Dylan style, and Cale *despised* the folk music scene and everything about it. He refused to listen.
But eventually Reed wore him down. Cale said later “He kept pushing them on me, and finally I saw they weren’t the kind of words you’d get Joan Baez singing. They were very different, he was writing about things other people weren’t. These lyrics were very literate, very well expressed, they were tough.”
He later explained “I recognised a tremendous literary quality about his songs which fascinated me—he had a very careful ear, he was very cautious with his words. I had no real knowledge of rock music at that time, so I focused on the literary aspect more.”
[Excerpt: Lou Reed, “Heroin (1965 demo)”]
And Reed also introduced Cale to the life he was writing about. As Cale put it “before I met Lou, I had snorted, smoked, and swallowed the best drugs in New York, courtesy of La Monte, but I had never injected anything. We smoked pot, took acid and other pills, mostly downs or Benzedrine. Now dime and nickel bags of heroin were added to the menu.”
Reed moved in with Cale, after Conrad moved out of the flat they shared, and they started jamming with the Eternal Theatre’s percussionist Angus MacLise, who lived in the same building. By this point Reed was no longer working for Pickwick — he was determined to make the music he wanted to make — and the two of them scraped together money by giving blood, and by having their photos taken to be used in fake tabloid newspaper articles, where they were accused of being child molestors and serial killers. Reed also around this time had a sideline in selling powdered sugar to gullible people and telling them it was heroin, then hanging around with them pretending to be stoned, as he put it, “watching carefully to make sure they didn’t OD on sweets”.
The fourth part of their new group, which they called The Warlocks, came when Reed happened to bump into an old friend, Sterling Morrison, on the subway. Morrison was someone he had known at Syracuse, though Morrison hadn’t been a student there, but they’d been introduced by a mutual friend who was, Jim Tucker, and had bonded over a shared love of the guitar and of the music of Ike and Tina Turner.
The new group thus had two contingents with different influences. The rhythm section — Cale played bass as well as viola — were from the experimental tradition, while Reed and Morrison’s tastes ran to Brill Building pop, the Beach Boys, hardcore R&B and doo-wop.
One thing they were all agreed on though was what they were *not* going to do, which was turn into one of the white blues bands that were starting to spring up.
“We actually had a rule in the band,” Reed explained. “If anybody played a blues lick, they would be fined. Everyone was going crazy over old blues people, but they forgot about all those groups, like the Spaniels, people like that. Records like ‘Smoke from Your Cigarette,’ and ‘I Need a Sunday Kind of Love,’ the ‘Wind’ by the Chesters, ‘Later for You, Baby’ by the Solitaires. All those really ferocious records that no one seemed to listen to anymore were underneath everything we were playing. No one really knew that.”
[Excerpt: The Solitaires, “Later For You Baby”]
Reed was very vehement about his love of these forms that were already starting to fall out of fashion somewhat. In an essay he wrote around this time for a literary magazine — he was still trying to make it as a writer as well — he wrote “How can they give Robert Lowell a poetry prize? Richard Wilbur. It’s a joke. What about the Excellents, Martha and the Vandellas (Holland, Dozier, Jeff Barry, Elle Greenwich, Bacharach and David, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, the best songwriting teams in America). Will none of the powers that be realize what Brian Wilson did with the CHORDS. Phil Spector being made out to be some kind of aberration when he put out the best record ever made, ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.’”
Another inspiration for the group came from the records that Cale would bring back from his regular trips to the UK — bands like the Who and the Kinks who weren’t having hits in the US at this point but were big in Britain.
On his trips home, Cale also brought a tape of the new band, now renamed the Velvet Underground, and tried to get some interest from Andrew Loog Oldham, thinking some of the songs might be suitable for Marianne Faithfull:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “Venus in Furs (demo)”]
Faithfull was not interested in recording “Venus in Furs”, even though there was a family connection — her great-great uncle, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name we get the word “masochism”, had written the novel on which that song was based.
The group’s new name also came from a book — in this case a cheap sexploitation book that Tony Conrad had literally found in a gutter. The group liked the book’s title because it implied a connection with underground film, the only art form at this point that was really called underground, and indeed the group’s first performances were as live accompaniment to projections of silent underground films at various happenings.
Indeed it was at one of these performances that the group were filmed for the first time, for a TV piece about underground film. Shortly after that Al Aronowitz, the pop music correspondent for the New York Post, offered to manage the group.
Aronowitz booked them as the support act for another group he managed, The Myddle Class — and MacLise quit the group. The idea of showing up *at a specific time* to play music, and then *finishing* at a specific time to let the next band go on, was completely alien to him, and he wanted no part of this at all.
With only days to go, the group needed a new drummer *fast*, and they found what they assumed would be a temporary replacement in Jim Tucker’s sister Maureen.
Moe Tucker, as she was always known, was nineteen at the time and didn’t play in a band, but she did have a drum kit, which she played at home along with Rolling Stones and Bo Diddley records:
[Excerpt: Bo Diddley, “Bo Diddley”]
Tucker’s style was a unique one. As she put it herself “I always hated drummers like Ginger Baker, oh my God, every possible moment smashing something. I just hated that, even before I started playing drums. So, when I started to play, Charlie Watts was a big influence on me, and I don’t think I even realised at the time why I liked him so much. He plays so simply. He never does anything that is unnecessary. I just find it so much more effective.” — and when she started playing, that’s what she did too.
Her musical tastes in R&B went in much the same direction as Reed and Morrison, but there was a problem — Cale was adamant. There would be “no chicks”, in the wording he used, in his band. Eventually he was placated by the idea that she would be only temporary, just for this one gig. And as it turned out, Tucker’s style was one that the rest of the group all appreciated for their own reasons.
Cale, as I’ve said already, strongly disliked the overuse of ride cymbal, and Tucker didn’t use cymbals at all, just snare, tom, and bass drum — which she turned on its side and hit with a stick like she would the other drums, while playing standing up.
This lack of cymbals actually resonated with two of Reed’s musical passions, too. While Al Jackson at Stax records did play the cymbals, he stuck to the hi-hat and barely ever played the ride, and his hi-hat was never miced and only showed up on the recordings through leakage — Steve Cropper always said that women bought most records, and women’s ears were more sensitive to high frequencies than men’s, so high-pitched noises from cymbals were a bad idea.
Similarly, when Brian Wilson was producing the Beach Boys’ records, from 1964 onwards he got the session drummers to play without cymbals — if there was going to be any high-frequency percussion on any Beach Boys records, it would be hand percussion like sleighbells or tambourines, not ride cymbal or hi-hat.
The new lineup of the group gelled almost instantly. Moe Tucker played simple but powerful rhythms, holding down the bottom end, steady as a rock. Reed and Morrison would play twin guitars, in styles taken from the R&B records they loved, but also employing the feedback techniques Cale had been using with La Monte Young. Cale would either play bass — in an unconventional style, as he was unfamiliar with the cliches of rock bass playing and so never resorted to them — or, more often, his electric viola, creating ear-splitting sheets of sound. And Reed would sing his lyrics about heroin and sadomasochism in a monotone voice that bore some resemblance to his Bob Dylan impression, but was much less emotional and inflected than Dylan ever was.
There was a large improvisational component to the music, but in contrast to the style of the bands becoming successful on the West Coast, where improvisational instrumental sections were a vector for individual self-expression in the eyes of the music’s fans, or self-indulgence in the eyes of detractors like the Velvets, this was collective improvisation in the service of the overall sound, with individuality sublimated to the collective:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “Heroin (Factory Rehearsal)”]
After the gig supporting The Myddle Class, Aronowitz thought the group needed to get a good solid run of live performances behind them, and so he booked them into a residency at the Cafe Bizarre. There the group played a mixture of their own material and as many cover versions as they could work up in the time — songs like Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” and Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City”. This R&B core to the Velvets’ work is overlooked, but if you listen to the few recordings that have surfaced of their rehearsals from this period, you can hear a clear link between, for example, them running through Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up”:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “Crackin’ Up (Factory Rehearsal)”]
And the early arrangement of Reed’s song “There She Goes Again”:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “There She Goes Again (Factory Rehearsal)”]
At one of the group’s early shows at the Cafe Bizarre, Barbara Rubin, an underground film-maker the group had worked with, came to see them and brought an acquaintance, Gerard Malanga. Malanga loved the band’s music, and got up and started dancing, using a bullwhip in his dance. During a break Reed and Cale came up to Malanga and told him that he could come back and dance any time.
Malanga loved this — he was someone who desperately desired recognition and attention — and so he became a big fan of the band. The next day he and Rubin came back with two more friends — Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol.
Warhol was by this point one of the most famous artists in the world, possibly *the* most famous, but he’d actually given up for the moment on paintings and screen-printings. According to Morrissey, who was Warhol’s business manager, this was to create an artificial scarcity in the market and make his paintings appreciate in value so when he did do more they’d make more money.
But of course, he still needed to be creating *something* to keep his reputation, and thus his earning potential, alive, and he’d also needed to do some expensive work so he could write the costs off against tax. So he’d bought some film equipment and gone into a new medium — underground film. Partially inspired by La Monte Young’s minimalism — Warhol was a big fan of Young’s work — he’d created a series of films like “Sleep”, a five-and-a-half hour film of Warhol’s then-boyfriend sleeping; “Eat”, a forty-five minute silent film of the painter Robert Indiana eating a mushroom (to which La Monte Young had performed a live soundtrack when it was shown); “Taylor Mead’s Ass”, a seventy-six-minute film of Warhol’s friend Taylor Mead’s buttocks (including some “special effects” shots that make it look like he’s shoving dollar bills, magazines, and books up his anus); and “Empire”, a film he co-directed with John Palmer which consists of eight hours and five minutes of footage of the top of the Empire State Building from a single fixed location.
In total, Warhol directed somewhere in the region of a hundred and fifty films. Many of them were conceptual ones like those I’ve just listed, but there were also quite a few that had attempts at conventional narrative, though done deliberately shoddily, and often using characters from pop culture which Warhol didn’t bother to get permission to use, like his 1964 film Batman Dracula, or 1963’s Tarzan and Jane Regained… Sort of.
These films, which helped establish the camp and trash cinema aesthetic, attracted to Warhol a crowd of wannabe stars, who flocked to The Factory, Warhol’s studio, which had been painted all in silver by Billy Name, the photographer and artist who had been part of the first lineup of the Theatre of Eternal Music. Warhol referred to these people as his “superstars” — a term he got from the underground filmmaker Jack Smith, and which Warhol popularised.
These “superstars” saw appearing in Warhol’s underground films as their ticket to fame and fortune. Most of them got neither, and there is an argument to be made that Warhol exploited these people, many of whom were vulnerable in one way or another — mostly queer at a time of repressive laws against their sexualities, often drug addicts, often mentally ill, all younger than him. Warhol and his defenders on the other hand would point out that he always encouraged those people to look after their own careers, and to use the publicity he got them the way he did himself, to further their ambitions. After all, *he* wasn’t making money directly from the films a lot of the time himself, just indirectly from what they did for his reputation.
That reputation was now at the point where he was a major celebrity, and as you may remember from the episode on “The Twist”, one thing that happened to celebrities at this time was that when nightclubs wanted publicity, they would pay celebrities to go to the club.
Michael Myerberg, a Broadway producer with a penchant for the slightly arty — he had been the first person to produce Beckett’s Waiting For Godot in the US — had decided he wanted to open his own discotheque, and offered to pay Warhol to go there every night.
According to Morrissey, he made a counteroffer. “I immediately said, ‘I have a better suggestion. There’s no real reason to just come out and sit there and get paid.’ (It wasn’t much money anyway.) ‘The only reason Andy will go is if he could be like Brian Epstein and present a group he managed.”
According to Morrissey, Myerberg liked the idea, so Morrissey expanded on it: “‘Not only will Andy’s presence be justified because his group is there, but behind the group we’ll be projecting two or three images of film footage,’ because we were making all these movies that we’d been showing at the Cinematheque that had no commercial value, and I thought this would be a good way to have them generate some money too. This was agreed upon and I was set to go out and find a rock’n’roll group. I didn’t know what group it was going to be.”
The Velvet Underground seemed the perfect group for Warhol to manage — Warhol and Cale had even appeared together in underground films before — but there was one problem. Morrissey thought that Lou Reed couldn’t sing and had no charisma. Luckily, almost simultaneously, a solution presented herself, someone who Warhol described as “a new kind of Superstar”:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground and Nico, “Femme Fatale”]
Nico’s life before her late teens is difficult to untangle. By all accounts, she lied all the time, about everything. Some of this seems to have been just for fun, telling a good story rather than the truth, but other parts seem to have been a psychological defence mechanism — she was born in Cologne in 1938 and grew up just outside Berlin, her earliest years being those of the Second World War, and she never seems to have fully recovered from the trauma of the war and occupation. Many who knew her have said she was suffering from what we would now call PTSD, and that seems to be borne out by things she said herself. She later said “I cannot be surprised by hell, which I do believe in. I have seen hell, I have smelt hell, which was in Berlin when the bombs destroyed it. Hell is like a city destroyed, and it is beautiful to see.”
Of herself, she said “Yes, I remember the war years very well. But that was not me, that was another girl. I seem to myself to be a criminal who spends her entire life with faked documents. I can’t identify myself with the past. Life consists of experiences which one accepts or refuses; you are formed by the things you accept. My memory consists of shreds and short flashes, never the whole picture.”
One thing she did remember was the music she listened to as a child. Her mother would regularly take her to the Berlin Opera House, which was kept open after the war with very cheap tickets, as a propaganda tool for the Soviets, who ran that section of occupied Berlin. Her mother was also a fan of Zarah Leander, the Swedish schlager singer whose career had been promoted by Goebbels, and who became the German equivalent of Britain’s “Forces’ Sweetheart” Vera Lynn. In later years, Nico’s own vocals would bear a remarkable resemblance to Leander’s:
[Excerpt: Zarah Leander, “Ich weiß, es wird einmal ein Wunder gescheh’n”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76wGnsMUgOQ ]
Nico was first discovered as a teenager. She had started hanging around a prestigious German shop called the KaDeWe, because she thought that fashion designers and photographers went there regularly. Eventually one did, and she became a model, at first working as a “mannequin” — someone who shows off dresses in expensive shops for upmarket customers.
She soon moved to Paris, though, and became an in-demand photographic model. There she made two changes. The first was to change her name to Nico, after Nico Papatakis, a nightclub owner who one of her gay friends lusted after. She liked the idea of having a male name, and later made many comments like “The most beautiful boys were interested in the most beautiful boys – I can understand that. I wanted to be a boy myself. I mean, why should I want to be a woman? I liked my homosexual friends the best” and “I gave the impression of being a boy, with my short hair and low voice. In those days I had a weakness for gay men and wanted to be one myself, so I told everyone that I was.”
The other change she made was to start dying her hair blonde. She would later always claim that she started doing this after an encounter with Ernest Hemingway, saying “He had just won the Nobel Prize and I thought that if a winner of the Nobel Prize told you to do something about your hair, there is something to consider. I could be a Nobel blonde. I did this eventually. It was not so easy then as it became, to keep your hair blonde. But it was good for me to do it. Don’t they say “blondes have more fun”? Well, I don’t agree. It is more correct to say “blondes have more money”.’”
Whether that’s true or not, nobody can know, but it *is* true that throughout her life Nico would have many, many, encounters with famous men — and that most of them, unlike that one, caused her a great deal of harm.
In Paris, she started hanging around with a much artier, more sophisticated, crowd than she had in Berlin, including people like the DaDaist artist Tristan Tzara, and started thinking of herself as a beatnik. She said of the beatniks “It took me a long time to understand anything, because it was a foreign language inside a foreign language, but I knew I was not alone in my thinking.”
The beatniks also widened her musical interests. Now as well as opera and schlager, she was listening to the modern jazz of Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell, and to the chansons of singers like Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens:
[Excerpt: Georges Brassens, “Le Gorille”]
She particularly liked the simplicity of this style, with just a singer and a guitar, and when she eventually started to do her own musical performances that was the style she liked to go back to.
She was also given a small part in Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita, playing a model called Nico. This was actually a problem for her — the way Fellini saw it, she was just playing herself, so it should have been easy. The way Nico saw it, though, “Nico” was herself a character, so she was playing a character playing a character, and she had no idea how to do this. Eventually Fellini hit on the solution of having her play a character utterly *unlike* herself, though still using the same name — Nico was very quiet and didn’t say much, so Fellini insisted she be talking constantly every time she was on screen, getting her to babble nonsense words which were later overdubbed with sensible dialogue.
She only had a small role in the film, but she was a hit, and she appeared in another, more conventional, film, with Alain Delon.
She then started a relationship with the man she’d named herself after, Nico Papatakis, and they spent two years together, moving to New York where she studied acting at Lee Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio, and where she developed a nodding acquaintance with Allen Ginsberg. But then she had a brief fling with Delon, which resulted in a child who Delon disowned, but who was eventually adopted by Delon’s mother, and she moved to Ibiza to be near her own mother.
In the suite above hers was a jazz band, led by Victor Brox, who I have to mention here attended the same school as I did, though many decades before me, and who died last month. Brox is now most famous for having played the role of Caiaphas on the original concept album version of Jesus Christ Superstar:
[Excerpt: Jesus Christ Superstar cast, “This Jesus Must Die”]
But he had a very long career in blues and jazz, as both a singer and an instrumentalist. Brox and Nico had a brief affair, but his main importance to her was teaching her about music. He said later “She’d been curious about the free music group I ran and she wanted to know everything about jazz and blues, absolutely everything. She started to come upstairs and I’d talk her through the history of the forms, the styles, the key musicians, the singers like Bessie Smith – just everything I could tell her and play her. She just sat there and listened intently, though I had no way of knowing how much she took in. Then she came over to the improvisation sessions. There was a rule for entry – you had to bring an instrument. Nico brought her tape recorder.”
For the rest of her life, she credited Brox, the “professor of jazz” as she called him, with introducing her properly to music and teaching her how to sing.
She then moved on to Paris, where she was introduced by a mutual friend to Bob Dylan, with whom she had a brief affair. She’d been aware of him, though she didn’t think much of his music, saying she didn’t understand his lyrics. “Twing, twang, twing, twang, baybee: that’s how it went” was Nico’s summary of Dylan’s work at that point.
Dylan did though write a song while they were together for those few days, supposedly about Nico, which she later recorded:
[Excerpt: Nico, “I’ll Keep it With Mine”]
According to Nico, “he didn’t like it when I tried to sing along with him. I thought he was being chauvinistic and a little annoyed that I could sing properly – at least in tune – so he made me more determined to sing to other people.”
Dylan did, though, suggest that if Nico wanted to become a singer, she should try the Blue Angel club in New York, and the next time she was in the city, in autumn 1964, she got herself a booking there, doing torch songs. Her favourite song to sing in the show was “My Funny Valentine”, a song she would keep in her solo sets for the rest of her life, and which she modelled on the version by the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, who she said introduced her to heroin:
[Excerpt: Nico, “My Funny Valentine”]
At the end of 1964, she moved again, this time to London, because Swinging London was becoming the centre of the new youth culture and she wanted to be a part of it. Unfortunately, at twenty-six she was already past her prime as a model, and she was also no longer the fashionable type of figure.
She was, though, still a good-looking woman, and she got herself introduced to Andrew Oldham, who she had heard was looking for another female star to go with Marianne Faithfull, who he was managing. Oldham was interested, especially after she told him about being in La Dolce Vita and having Dylan write a song for her, but he took a while to decide on what to do with her.
In the meantime, she started dating Brian Jones, in what turned into an on-again, off-again relationship for the next couple of years. At first, it was very much on, and she travelled with the Stones to France, where she met Andy Warhol for the first time, and to America on their 1965 US tour.
Unfortunately, Jones treated her the way he treated all the women in his life, and while they seem to have at times enjoyed a relationship that was at least partly based around consensual BDSM, from reading the accounts of it he also crossed a line, several times, into some quite horrific nonconsensual physical and sexual abuse of her. As Nico put it, “He was charming, until he locked the door.”
But her relationship with Jones did keep her around Andrew Oldham, and Oldham eventually offered her a record deal with his new label, Immediate. Nico decided that her first single should be the song Bob Dylan wrote for her, and handily Dylan was soon in London playing the last shows of his 1965 tour:
[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, “Mr Tambourine Man (live in London)” ]
Nico missed the gig, but did manage to get to the aftershow party, and there she asked Dylan to let her record the song (not realising he’d just given it to Judy Collins, who would soon release it as a single, or that Dylan had told Collins he’d written the song about *her*).
She tried to persuade Dylan to let her record the song, and at first he wasn’t keen — according to Nico, he had been put off the idea of having women sing his songs by Joan Baez. But eventually Dylan told her he was planning to go into the studio with some British musicians after a few days in Portugal, and they could try it then.
That session had to be put off, due to the illness and/or bad trip we talked about in the episodes on “Brand New Cadillac” and “Like a Rolling Stone”, and when the session did happen, with Dylan attempting to record with members of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, with Nico present, it didn’t go well, and only a fragment of that recording circulates, and not a fragment featuring Nico:
[Excerpt: Bob Dylan and the Bluesbreakers, “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”]
She also had a talk with Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, who agreed to manage her, but only in the US.
At the session, they did cut a quick, one-take, demo of “I’ll Keep it With Mine”, with Dylan on piano and Nico singing, and Nico played it excitedly to Oldham, but Oldham said that while it was a good song, it should be her second single, not her first. The first should be something more uptempo. He decided on a song by another of Grossman’s clients, Gordon Lightfoot:
[Excerpt: Nico, “I’m Not Saying”]
The B-side, “The Last Mile”, was written by Oldham and the record’s producer, Jimmy Page, and is a simple track with just Nico and two guitars. Discographies differ over whether Page, Brian Jones, or both of them play the guitars, though the simple acoustic strumming could be anyone:
[Excerpt: Nico, “The Last Mile”]
Nico made an appearance on Ready, Steady, Go! performing “I’m Not Saying”, on an episode with Jonathan King and the Walker Brothers, but that wasn’t enough to get the record into the charts, and while Immediate Records would soon become successful, Oldham didn’t ever get round to making the promised second record.
Nico left for New York, to try to connect again with Albert Grossman. But she also had the business card of Gerard Malanga, who had visited her in London and remembered her from her meeting with Warhol in Paris. She visited the Factory, just as Warhol and Paul Morrissey had decided to start managing the Velvets, and just as Morrissey was trying to persuade the group that they needed a new frontperson. After she played them her new single, and her acetate copy of the demo she’d made with Dylan, Morrissey was convinced. Instead of dull, uncharismatic, Lou Reed, the group’s singer should be Nico, who was going to be the latest Warhol “Superstar”.
The group were unsure about this. They already had some doubts about Warhol — Cale said of him “So much of what Andy did seemed to be a diluted version of the Downtown avant-garde scene. I had previously worked with the composer La Monte Young and we were concerned with philosophical attitudes to art. La Monte was concerned with durations and longevity, and so we viewed Andy’s dollar bills and Elvises and soup cans with grave suspicion. La Monte’s work was about long duration, and Andy dealt in repetition. We got the feeling that strong ideas were being recycled and thinned out by people like Andy.”
Now they were having another member foisted on them — and to make matters worse, it was another “chick”. But also, Warhol was going to be their ticket to the big time. They eventually compromised — Nico could perform with them, but would be billed separately. They would be The Velvet Underground And Nico:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground and Nico, “Femme Fatale”]
Reed, in particular, was unhappy with this, but none of the band were happy. In particular, they all felt that her voice just didn’t suit most of the group’s material, but she wanted to sing it all. According to Tucker, Nico “was a schmuck, from the first. She was this beautiful person who had travelled through Europe being a semistar. Her ego had grown very large. The songs Lou wrote for her were great, and she did them very well. Her accent made them great, but there was a limit! I kept to myself until she wanted to sing ‘Heroin.’ But then I had to speak my piece.”
Things got a little better when Reed and Nico started a brief affair, and Reed wrote a handful of songs specifically for her to sing, like the lovely ballad “I’ll Be Your Mirror”:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground and Nico, “I’ll Be Your Mirror”]
But that affair soon ended, and Reed became more resentful of her than ever, especially after she made antisemitic comments about him.
The new expanded lineup of the group made their first appearance on January the thirteenth, 1966, at a psychiatrists’ convention. Warhol had been asked to give an after-dinner speech at the convention, and had offered instead to show some of his films. What they got for their after-dinner performance was a happening, which started with Barbara Rubin rushing in and pointing a film camera with a bright light directly in the faces of the diners and loudly asking them personal questions about their penis size and sex lives. Then on came the Velvet Underground, performing their songs about BDSM and heroin in front of the shocked audience.
Soon this became the basis of a multimedia happening, first titled Andy Warhol’s Up-Tight, and then later renamed first the Erupting Plastic Inevitable and then the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Several of Warhol’s films were projected simultaneously, including on to the performers, while the Velvet Underground played and Gerard Malanga and another of Warhol’s “superstars”, Mary Woronov, danced improvised dances in fetish gear, brandishing a whip. Warhol also put together a series of slides and a coloured light show which were also projected onto the stage, and used a mirrorball and strobe lights, a decade before such things became commonplace. Nico sang the three songs Reed had written for her, sang along with her demo recording of “I’ll Keep it With Mine”, and banged a tambourine out of time the rest of the time.
After the psychiatrists’ convention, a brief run at the Cinematheque in New York, and some out-of-town tryouts in places like Ann Arbor Michigan, the group were ready for their residency at the new club. But then Morrissey was informed by the manager the day before the residency that Myerberg had decided to book the Young Rascals instead.
But then someone overheard Warhol and Morrissey talking about their lack of a venue in a cafe, and recommended somewhere called The Dom, which they could rent relatively cheap for a residency.
The shows at the Dom went down a storm, taking in somewhere in the region of $18,000, and soon the group were in the recording studio, putting together an album that Warhol, who would be the credited producer, hoped to sell to Columbia Records:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “Venus in Furs (alternate version)”]
Warhol knew a man named Norman Dolph, who at the time was working for Columbia, though he’d given his notice, working for the division that pressed up records for small independent labels with no pressing plants of their own. On the side Dolph ran a mobile disco and provided music for art shows, which he’d do in exchange for free paintings, and he’d also done the sound at the Dom.
Dolph got in touch with John Licata, an engineer at Scepter Records, who had their own studio. The idea was that the group would record a quick album in four days, and Dolph would use his connections at Columbia to get it released. The job of producer was split multiple ways, though Warhol is the only one to get label credit. From all accounts, Licata took charge of the technical aspects, Dolph acted as “line producer”, doing all the organisational work, Cale supervised the arrangements, Reed, who was the only member of the band with any real studio experience, made sure that the sound Licata was getting on tape was the same sound the band wanted, and Warhol, in Reed’s words, was “behind the board gazing with rapt fascination at all the blinking lights”, doing little or nothing of the actual production.
Though Reed would go on to qualify this, saying “In a sense he really did produce it, because he was this umbrella that absorbed all the attacks when we weren’t large enough to be attacked … as a consequence of him being the producer, we’d just walk in and set up and do what we always did and no one would stop it because Andy was the producer. Of course he didn’t know anything about record production—but he didn’t have to. He just sat there and said “Oooh, that’s fantastic,” and the engineer would say, “Oh yeah! Right! It is fantastic, isn’t it?””
They recorded a ten-track album in four days — two days to record, one to play back and choose takes, and one to mix — featuring the three songs Nico sang with the band — “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “Femme Fatale”, and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” — plus seven other songs, ranging from the abrasive “Black Angel’s Death Song”, which unlike most of the album has Cale credited as a co-writer:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “Black Angel’s Death Song”]
to the poppy “There She Goes Again”, which shows Lou Reed’s experience as a writer of catchy three-minute pop songs:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “There She Goes Again”]
According to Dolph “There were three separate ambiences. One was when Lou sang “Heroin” and “Waiting for the Man,” and he was deeply concerned that it not break down—that he got it all down in one shot… and in those there was a great deal of intensity in the room. In the songs that Nico sang, there was a very delicate, deferential “let’s see what we have to do to get this done” ambience … and the third was a workmanlike attempt to recreate just what they had done the night before in the live gig.”
Everyone was convinced the album was a masterpiece, but in quick succession Columbia, Atlantic, and Elektra Records, the three labels with a substantial East Coast presence that would have been most likely to take it, turned the album down.
Luckily, they were about to go to the West Coast, for a booking at the Trip on the Sunset Strip followed by the Fillmore, where they were sure they’d go down well. They were sure of this right until they turned on the radio in California for the first time:
[Excerpt: The Mamas and the Papas, “Monday Monday”]
The Velvet Underground, all of them, *loathed* the hippie scene and everything about it, and hearing the Mamas and the Papas on the radio seemed to summarise everything they despised about the hippies and about the West Coast. As Reed put it “The West Coast bands were into soft drugs. We were into hard drugs.”
The booking at The Trip was a bust — on their opening night, plenty of celebrities turned up, but most of them reacted like Cher, who left early and was quoted saying their music wasn’t “going to replace anything except suicide”. Though a young student named Jim Morrison also attended, and seemed very taken with Malanga’s leather persona.
The club was closed down by the police after three days of their residency, but by musicians’ union rules, so long as they stayed in LA and remained theoretically available for work for the full length of the residency, they would get paid as if they’d played, so they spent the time in LA *not* working, and staying at The Castle, a large mansion house in Los Feliz where lots of rock groups stayed. Which, just to make life difficult for people like me, is *not* The Castle, the large mansion house in Los Feliz that Love moved into around the same time and which also hosted other rock musicians. (This explains, incidentally, the rumours that Bob Dylan stayed at the “Love” Castle, which Johnny Echols denies — he didn’t, he spent time at the Velvets Castle, in 1965).
After that, they went on to the Fillmore, where they played third on the bill to Jefferson Airplane and the Mothers of Invention.
They did not go down well there. Ralph Gleason, whose word was taken more or less as gospel by the San Francisco scene, said of their performance “Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable show was nothing more than bad condensation of all the bum trips of the Trips Festival. Few people danced (the music was something of a dud, the Velvet Underground being a very dull group). It was all very campy and very Greenwich Village sick. If this is what America’s waiting for, we are going to die of boredom because this is a celebration of the silliness of cafe society, way out in left field instead of far out, and joyless.”
The feeling was mutual — Reed said of the West Coast bands “We had vast objections to the whole San Francisco scene. It’s just tedious, a lie and untalented. They can’t play and they certainly can’t write. I keep telling everybody and nobody cares. We used to be quiet, but I don’t even care anymore about not wanting to say negative things, ’cause somebody really should say something. Frank Zappa is the most untalented bore who ever lived. You know, people like Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, all those people are just the most untalented bores that ever came up. Just look at them physically. I mean, can you take Grace Slick seriously? It’s a joke.”
Oddly, in all their discussions of their hatred of the San Francisco scene, all of the Velvet Underground lumped Frank Zappa in with the San Francisco groups and indeed single him out as being an example of the “love and peace” music they despised, even though he was an LA musician who shared all their criticisms of the San Francisco scene and would articulate them viciously, and more publicly than they did, on songs like “Who Needs the Peace Corps?”:
[Excerpt: The Mothers of Invention, “Who Needs the Peace Corps?”]
Lou Reed would later retract some of his criticisms, and indeed would posthumously induct Zappa into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but at the time the two groups had an intense, vicious, rivalry that seems at least in part to have been the narcissism of small differences. Both of them had similarly cynical attitudes, both namechecked many of the same old doo-wop records, both were influenced by the same avant-garde composers and free jazz musicians — of *course* they hated each other!
And both bands turned out to have the same producer.
It seems to be on this first LA trip — I say “seems to be” because there are some nuances of the timeline that just don’t fit right — that the Velvet Underground first encountered Tom Wilson. Wilson had just moved from Columbia Records to MGM/Verve, and in 1966 as well as producing the Mothers he was working on everything from live albums by Connie Francis to the Blues Project’s Projections album:
[Excerpt: The Blues Project, “You Can’t Catch Me”]
More interestingly, he worked on two separate projects that might have appealed to Warhol’s Pop aesthetic, both of them combining experimental music with a cash-in on the popularity of the Batman TV show. One was an album of instrumentals, titled Batman and Robin, performed by “The Sensational Guitars of Dan and Dale”:
[Excerpt: The Sensational Guitars of Dan and Dale, “Batman Theme”]
The Sensational Guitars of Dan and Dale were, in this instance, actually a supergroup consisting of members of the Blues Project and of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, with Sun Ra and Al Kooper sharing keyboard duties. The album has since been reissued as by “Sun Ra and the Blues Project”.
Then there was “Boy Wonder I Love You”:
[Excerpt: Burt Ward, “Boy Wonder I Love You”]
That was the one single released by Burt Ward, who played Robin in the TV series, and was written for Ward by Zappa, who also conducted the orchestra.
Given Wilson’s background in the experimental jazz music the Velvets loved, his production of Dylan’s folk-rock records which were probably the closest thing to their music in the commercial realm, and his current work with Zappa, who despite what they all said was a very similar artist to them, he was clearly the one producer in the world who was working for a major label and likely to actually be receptive to the Velvet Underground.
Wilson immediately started work on fixing up their first album for release. He started producing overdubs and editing the tracks they’d recorded in New York for release. The first thing to come out of these sessions was a version of “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, edited down to three minutes and released as a single in July 1966 backed with “I’ll Be Your Mirror”:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground and Nico, “All Tomorrow’s Parties (single version)”]
Wilson also produced new recordings of what he thought were the three weakest performances on the album — “I’m Waiting for the Man”, “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin”:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “Heroin”]
While all this was going on, though, the band were in crisis. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable show basically ended in May, because it became unsustainable to tour a show with lights, dancers, and projections. There would be occasional shows for the rest of the year and into the next but with decreasing frequency and diminishing returns.
After the shows in California, Reed ended up in hospital for six weeks with hepatitis, and the rest of the group (minus Nico, who’d gone off to Ibiza) had to pull together a show they could perform without him as they were booked in for a week-long stint in Chicago.
For those shows, Angus MacLise returned to the band on drums, allowing Moe to take over the bass, so Cale could play Reed’s guitar parts and sing lead. After performing again with the group, MacLise started pushing to rejoin, realising he had made a mistake in quitting the group. Reed refused to even countenance the idea, and lectured MacLise from his hospital bed while yellow with jaundice, telling him that he was only back temporarily and not to get any ideas.
Reed was already beginning to realise that there was a tension in the band between his pop songwriting, however dark the subject matter, and Cale’s avant-garde tendencies. Not only was he loyal to Tucker on principle, but this meant that if he allowed MacLise to take over from her, Cale would have an ally in the group.
There was another problem as well — the group had lost the Dom. While they’d been away on their disastrous Californian adventure, the agent who’d booked them for the California shows had gone behind their back and worked with Albert Grossman to take over the club, which they renamed the Balloon Farm. They then offered to let the Velvets play there, but just as a regular band, not with Warhol and Morrissey promoting, so they’d make much less money for the same thing.
The group refused the offer, and indeed were so disgruntled that this most New York of bands didn’t play in New York again for the rest of the sixties, making their musical base in Boston, where they would build up their biggest following.
While Nico was still performing with them on some occasions, more and more Reed in particular was resenting this. When Tom Wilson suggested that they needed another commercial track for the album before it could be released, to put out as a single, and that it should be sung by Nico like the first single had been, Reed initially agreed, and wrote a song for Nico to sing, but eventually insisted on singing it himself on the record, though Nico would sing it live. That single, “Sunday Morning” was inspired by Warhol suggesting that he write a song about paranoia — but some have pointed out that it also seems to have been inspired by that Mamas and Papas song the group had hated so much in California:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “Sunday Morning (single version)”]
Nico was a semi-detached part of the band, but she was trying to build a career in her own right — she had spent part of the summer starring in a film Warhol and Morrissey were making, Chelsea Girls, about the Chelsea Hotel. Reed had been asked to write a song for her to sing for its theme, but had been dragging his feet, and the film was eventually released without its song.
There was a space below the Balloon Farm which was looking for an act. According to Morrissey its reasoning was quite awful — the owner of the venue thought they were getting too many Black customers and not enough white ones. The owner decided to ask Nico to perform there while the group weren’t playing live much, as he thought she’d put Black people off.
But when Morrissey asked the group members if any of them would back Nico on solo electric guitar — he didn’t want them to be seen as folk musicians — for her solo performances, all any of them would do was record some tapes for her to play. She had to bring a tape player on stage with her and press play at the start of each song, and stop at the end. Apparently Cale or Morrison would occasionally show up and back her, but not very often.
Eventually, Danny Fields — who you may remember from the episode on “All You Need is Love” as the managing editor of Datebook Magazine when the “bigger than Jesus” story made its cover, but who was by this time working for Elektra Records and with the Doors, suggested that they get in an Elektra artist, Tim Buckley, as both Nico’s support act and her guitarist:
[Excerpt: Tim Buckley, “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses”]
Buckley played with Nico for a while, before being replaced by another Tim, Tim Hardin:
[Excerpt: Tim Hardin, “If I Were a Carpenter”]
Hardin caused problems though — he quickly got nicknamed “Tim Heroin” — but luckily a replacement was at hand, a teenage fan of Tim Buckley’s who had been coming to all of the shows that Buckley had played, and had got to know Morrissey. Soon Nico’s accompanist was Jack Browne:
[Excerpt: Jackson Browne, “These Days”]
Browne would of course soon start going by his full name, Jackson Browne.
After extensive delays, the Velvet Underground and Nico album finally came out in March 1967, almost a year after it was recorded, in an expensive package designed by Warhol showing a banana skin. The skin, on these early pressings, was a sticker you could peel off to reveal a very phallic, pink, banana underneath.
There’s a line attributed to Brian Eno that the record only sold thirty thousand copies (it actually sold about twice that) but that everyone who bought a copy formed a band. That actually, if anything, undersells its influence, because the record was starting to influence musicians *even before it was released*. A British manager called Kenneth Pitts had visited the Factory in November 66, and had been given an acetate of the album.
The band The Riot Squad, who had been working with Joe Meek up until Meek’s suicide, took on a new lead singer who was a client of Pitt’s after Meek’s death, and they started performing “Waiting For The Man” live with the new singer, who would not perform under his own name but only as “the Toy Soldier”, months before the record even came out. And shortly after the album did come out, the Riot Squad went into the studio to cut an original written by “the Toy Soldier”, titled “Little Toy Soldier”. Well, I say an original… this verse may sound very familiar:
[Excerpt: The Riot Squad, “Little Toy Soldier”]
That track didn’t get released at the time, and soon David Bowie was back to being a solo artist.
However, while the album immediately started influencing people, it was a commercial failure. It looked at first as if it might be a success, but then one of the Warhol “superstars”, Eric Emerson, sued because the back cover included a photo of the group performing in front of a Warhol film in which Emerson’s face was visible. He needed money and hadn’t given likeness permission, and so sued hoping to shake down MGM Records. Instead they recalled the album, expensive packaging and all, and reissued it with an airbrushed version of the photo. But the album not being available during the crucial period when it was just beginning to become popular killed all of its momentum.
By that point, though, work had started on Nico’s first solo album, titled Chelsea Girl after the theme song Reed had belatedly co-written with Morrison:
[Excerpt: Nico, “Chelsea Girls”]
The album was produced by Tom Wilson, and contained songs written for Nico by Reed, Cale, and Morrison, plus one by Tim Hardin, her version of “I’ll Keep it With Mine”, and a few by Jackson Browne. For the initial sessions, Nico was backed by one or two accompanists — Reed and Cale, Reed and Morrison, or Cale alone for the songs written by them, and Browne on the other songs — but then as he had done successfully with Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, Wilson supervised an overdub session to which the artist was not invited, this time adding strings and flute:
[Excerpt: Nico, “Chelsea Girls”]
Nico said later “I cried when I heard the album. I cried because of the flute. I hate it so much! It is a great mistake. The arrangements in general were not so good. Even so, I could bear the string sound. But I wish I could take the flute off. There should be a button on record players, a “No Flute” button. There could be an “Add drums” button, too, why not? You would think they could do this. It would be fun to orchestrate some things and to un-orchestrate some things. Well, I wish I could un-orchestrate Chelsea Girl. The flute, anyway. ”
Reed agreed, saying “If they’d just have allowed Cale to arrange it and let me do more stuff on it. I mean everything on that song ‘Chelsea Girls,’ those strings, that flute, should have defeated it, but the lyrics, Nico’s voice, managed somehow to survive.”
Nico’s romantic life had grown ever more complex — after dating Reed for a while, she’d had a brief affair with Cale, and then had dated Browne, and was now in the process of dumping him for Jim Morrison. Partly to escape from these increased entanglements, and partly to seek medical treatment for a problem with her ears, she flew off to London.
She turned up at the house of an acquaintance, the photographer David Bailey, expecting to be able to stay with him, but he panicked when he saw her on the doorstep with her suitcases, and instead suggested she go to stay with Paul McCartney, who he knew.
She did, and was with him around the time of the release of Sgt Pepper:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “A Day in the Life”]
That track caused a bit of a faux pas, though. In Nico’s words:
“There is a song I liked on Sgt Pepper, called ‘A Day in the Life’. It has a beautiful song and then this strange sound like John Cale would make (he told me it was an orchestra, actually) and then this stupid little pop song that spoils everything so far. I told this to Paul, and I made a mistake, because the beautiful song was written by John Lennon and the stupid song was written by Paul. It can be embarrassing when you speak the truth.”
After Nico had stayed with McCartney for a couple of weeks, Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey turned up in London, wanting to speak with Brian Epstein about the possibility of Epstein promoting a Velvet Underground tour, having heard that he liked the album. When they realised that Nico was trying McCartney’s patience, they dragged her back to America, telling her that there was a Velvet Underground gig she had to be at in Boston.
There *was* a Velvet Underground gig in Boston, but when they got there the group refused to let Nico on stage, saying they’d been doing fine without her. Nico essentially told them they could stick their group — after all, she’d recorded an album by herself and they hadn’t — and flew off to California, where she met up again with her on-again off-again lover Brian Jones and went with him to the Monterey Pop Festival.
This brought to a head things that had been brewing for some time. The group had been getting more and more convinced that Warhol, who had been such an advantage for them early on, was losing interest in them, while Morrissey was always more interested in Nico than in the rest of the band.
The group sacked Warhol and Morrissey at a business meeting the day after the Boston gig, and there are conflicting reports about how amicable the split was, with everyone involved saying different things at different times. There seems to have been some bitterness over some of the business affairs, but still some remaining friendship, if slightly strained, between Reed and Cale on one side and Warhol on the other.
By this time, the group had already been performing, for months, much of the material that would make up their second album — an album that wouldn’t have had any room in it for Nico anyway:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “White Light/White Heat”]
White Light/White Heat was the first studio album just to be released by the Velvet Underground, without any additional members. As it turned out, it was the *only* studio album to be released by the original pre-Nico lineup of the Velvet Underground — there were five studio albums credited to the group between 1967 and 1973, and no two of them had the same lineup.
Where The Velvet Underground and Nico had been an eleven-track album where Lou Reed’s pop sensibility and Cale’s avant-garde experimentalism were in a creative tension, here the entire band were united in a drive to make a record that was, in Cale’s words, “consciously anti-beauty”. Where the majority of the songs on the first album had been credited to Reed alone, as he had brought in the words, chord sequences and melodies around which the band had created the arrangements, this time three of the six songs were credited either to all four of the group members or to Reed, Morrison and Cale, suggesting (and interviews about the album back this up) that they evolved from jam sessions and improvisations.
The lengths of the tracks also bear this out, with two of the three collaborative tracks coming in at mammoth lengths. One, “The Gift”, is over eight minutes long and features a rare vocal from Cale. That track was originally an instrumental the group had titled “Booker T.”, but Cale suggested that over the instrumental he should recite a short story Reed had written a few years earlier. The story had originally been written as a letter to a long-distance girlfriend of Reed’s, with whom he was in an on-again, off-again, relationship for much of the time covered by this episode, and was about a man in a similar relationship who mails himself as a surprise present to his girlfriend — who then in her haste to open the box and see what’s inside stabs it, killing him:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “The Gift”]
The other extra-long track on the album is “Sister Ray”, included partly as a favour to Warhol, who while he was no longer the group’s manager was still close enough to them to design the cover of the album, uncredited. Warhol apparently told them they had to include that “sucking on my ding-dong song”, and so they did, all fourteen minutes of it:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “Sister Ray”]
The album is relentless, dark, and brooding. It’s a paranoid, angry, scary album, and one that can partly be explained by the change in the principal band members’ drug of choice in the two and a half years since the writing of the first album from heroin — a drug which pacifies you — to amphetamine, which puts you on edge and makes you, as their original Warhol show had put it, “uptight”.
And nowhere could that be seen more than on the title track, which was also the opening track and first single. “White Light/White Heat” is an intense evocation of the amphetamine experience, jittery, hard, and twitchy:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “White Light/White Heat”]
The material on the album was the closest the group ever got to fully expressing the artistic vision that John Cale had for the band, but much like with Chelsea Girl the group, and Cale in particular, were unhappy with the production, again by Tom Wilson.
This time, though, it was not because Wilson took charge of the record and changed it, but because he *didn’t* take charge.
Wilson was, without a doubt, one of the great record producers of the 1960s. And he could at times be one of the most imaginative and innovative — it was him who had turned Dylan electric, and who had turned Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” from a folk flop to a folk-rock hit.
But he was only a creative producer when he needed to be — when he was working with musicians who didn’t know what they wanted, who needed their ideas shaped. Wilson had come up in jazz, producing records for Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane and others, and in those situations the job of the producer was much the same one that Andy Warhol had performed on the Velvets’ first sessions — to get out of the way, and to stop anyone else getting *in* the way, and let the artists take control. This was what Wilson did, for example, on the early Mothers of Invention albums. Frank Zappa knew what he was doing, and Wilson’s job was to let Zappa do it and shield him from record company nonsense.
For White Light/White Heat, Wilson was working with an accomplished engineer, Gary Kellgren, and with musicians he respected, who he’d worked with before, and who he knew had a very clear idea of what they wanted. Lou Reed had been a staffer at Pickwick — he knew his way around a studio. John Cale was one of the most highly trained and experienced musicians in the world, not just in rock music. Both those men knew what they were doing, so Wilson stayed out of their way. They didn’t have much of a budget, because their first album had been very expensive and sold poorly. They only had a few days’ time in the studio, not enough time to do anything fancy, so the best thing to do was let them get on with it.
The problem was that they were used to playing *loud* and wanted the record to sound like they did when they played live, and they insisted on playing at the same volume in the studio that they did on stage, to replicate that sound. Gary Kellgren tried to explain to them that the volumes they were playing at simply couldn’t be recorded accurately by the equipment in the studio — it was overloading and distorting. But they didn’t take that in properly — wasn’t distortion what they wanted, anyway?
But when they listened back to the finished record, they realised what Kellgren had been saying. The record sounded flat and overdistorted, and not like they wanted it to at all:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “Sister Ray”]
The group were all unhappy with the finished production, but three of the members were particularly unhappy with the mix on one song, “I Heard Her Call My Name”:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “I Heard Her Call My Name”]
The problem with that track, according to Cale, Tucker, and Morrison, was that Reed had gone behind their backs and remixed it, boosting his own vocal. Morrison went so far as to briefly quit the group when he discovered what had been done, which he thought ruined one of the group’s best songs.
It’s likely that Reed was encouraged in this by the group’s new manager, Steve Sesnick, who John Cale described as “a real snake”. Cale said of this period “Lou was calling us ‘his band’ while Sesnick was trying to get him to go solo. Maybe it was the drugs he was doing at the time. They certainly didn’t help. Basically, Sesnick just became an apologist for Lou. He was just a yes-man, and he came between us. It was maddening, just maddening. Before, it had always been easy to talk to Lou. Now you had to go through Sesnick, who seemed pretty practiced in the art of miscommunication. We should have been able to sort out our own problems. He should never have been brought in. Things had been bad between us for a while, but when Sesnick arrived, they got worse.”
Despite these problems though, the production on White Light/White Heat has since been praised as an early example of lo-fi recording, and the Velvet Underground’s mistake has since been intentionally embraced by generations of garage bands — something which, if nothing else, must have had some appeal for Cale, as a big part of the avant-garde tradition he came out of comes from John Cage’s understanding of Zen, which says there is no such thing as a mistake:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “White Light/White Heat”]
The album came out in early 1968, preceded by the title track, released as a single. Neither was a success, and 1968 was a tough year for the Velvet Underground in many ways. Shortly after the release of the album, Tom Wilson left MGM, meaning they no longer had an advocate with the label.
Then in June, Andy Warhol was attacked by Valerie Solanas, a radical feminist writer and author of the SCUM Manifesto — SCUM standing for Society for Cutting Up Men. This manifesto argued for the replacement of the capitalist wage-work system with what the kids today would call Fully Automated Luxury Communism, but also argued that all men are inherently genetically inferior and need to be eliminated for the good of womankind.
Solanas was also convinced that Warhol — to whom she had given a copy of a script she had written, which he had misplaced — was in a conspiracy to steal her ideas, and shot him. He was actually pronounced dead, but was later revived, though he had severe organ damage, had to wear a surgical truss for the rest of his life, and some have argued that the health problems that eventually led to his death nineteen years later could be traced back to, or at least were exacerbated by, the shooting.
Reed was at first afraid to even phone Warhol in hospital, given how strained their relationship was, but the two soon found themselves gossiping as if nothing had happened. Reed later talked about wanting to execute Solanas for what she’d done, and it also affected his attitudes to his own work. He said “I had to learn certain things the hard way. But one of those things I learned was work is the whole story. Work is literally everything. Most very big people seem to have enemies, and seem to be getting shot, which is something a lot of people should keep in mind. There is a lot to be said for not being in the limelight.”
But the group struggled on, and went back into the studio, first recording a relatively light poppy song, “Temptation Inside Her Heart”, and then the more avant-garde “Hey Mr. Rain”, on which Reed’s lighthearted melody and Cale’s modal viola seem almost to be part of different records:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “Hey Mr. Rain”]
That was left unreleased, and would be the last song Cale would record as a member of the band.
Ever since Sesnick had become the group’s manager, he had been working at the existing tensions between Reed and Cale’s views of the band. Sesnick had been convinced that the Velvet Underground could be the next Beatles — and he had even worked on Brian Epstein to try to get Epstein involved with their career, before Epstein’s death. But he didn’t believe that anything like that could happen while John Cale was in the band.
While all the band members made invaluable creative contributions to the records, the core of what made the band so exciting for listeners at the time was the way that Reed would write commercial, hooky, melodies and riffs — albeit with transgressive lyrics — but then Cale would twist those melodies in the arrangement, adding incongruous elements that made them sound different from any other band. But in Sesnick’s view, it would be even better if they *just* had the commercial, hooky, melodies and riffs.
And he was starting to win Reed round. Reed, of course, had a longstanding relationship with Cale, and had always been eager to incorporate his ideas. But also, it’s very hard for even the least egotistical of people — something nobody has ever accused Reed of being — to resist being told that they’re a genius and that everyone else is hanging on to their coat tails. It’s even harder when you’re struggling financially and someone points out that your ideas are the kind that will make money, while your collaborator’s ideas are the kind that lose money. Why not… just be the boss? Why shouldn’t Reed just do things his way without Cale?
This was a persuasive argument, and Sesnick needled at Reed for months, exploiting every tiny interpersonal conflict. Eventually, Reed gave an ultimatum to Morrison and Tucker — either Cale went or he would. Morrison was given the task of delivering the news of his dismissal to Cale, and never truly forgave Reed, who had previously been his closest friend in the group.
Cale’s last show with the group was in September 1968, and that month he also started work on another project — Danny Fields was by now managing Nico, and she was about to record her second solo album, her first made up of her own songs which she’d started writing after Leonard Cohen had given her a harmonium. Fields asked Cale to act as arranger and de facto producer on the album (Frazer Mohawk, the credited producer, has said that he spent most of the sessions using heroin and not paying attention).
The album, The Marble Index, has been described as the first Goth record, and as the precursor to the experimental music Scott Walker would later do:
[Excerpt: Nico, “Facing the Wind”]
According to Cale, “When we finished it, I grabbed Lou and said, ‘Listen to this: this is what we could have done!’ He was speechless.”
Cale and Nico more or less leave the episode here, but they’ll be back in future episodes.
Meanwhile, the Velvet Underground had a new bass player, Doug Yule. Yule was a very good musician, but a far more conventional one than Cale — he played melodically, and he also sang melodically, having a sweet voice. He was somewhat younger than the rest of the band, and looked up to Reed, and started copying his mannerisms — though Tucker always thought that Reed had little time for Yule as a person outside of work.
The next album, just titled The Velvet Underground, isn’t completely free of the band’s more challenging side — very few people will have thought of the nine-minute-long track “The Murder Mystery” as a hummable piece of bubblegum pop, for example:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “The Murder Mystery”]
But on the whole it was much… *prettier* than the previous album. The album opens with “Candy Says”, a song about Candy Darling, a trans woman who was one of Warhol’s superstars. Yule sings it gently, and Reed called it “probably the best song I’ve written”:
[Excerpt, The Velvet Underground, “Candy Says”]
That would actually be the last song Reed would sing in public, in a performance in 2013, when he knew he was dying, performing with the Johnsons, whose singer, Anohni, came out publicly as trans herself shortly afterwards.
The album is, for the most part, gently melodic, and contains some of the band’s most-loved songs. “Jesus” shows that Cale wasn’t the only one in the band to be influenced by the Everly Brothers’ harmonies:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “Jesus”]
“Pale Blue Eyes” is actually a song that Reed had demoed in 1965, and it’s quite astonishing that what became one of the group’s most loved and most covered songs had been left off their first two albums:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “Pale Blue Eyes”]
And “After Hours” features a rare lead vocal by Tucker, as Reed thought the song was too innocent and pure for his voice:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “After Hours”]
Sadly, no matter how commercial they had tried to make the record, it did even worse than its predecessor on the charts, even though it was released on the main MGM label rather than the Verve subsidiary. And once again there was a mixing issue.
The band were all credited as co-producers on the album, but Reed supervised the final mix himself, and did the same thing that he’d done on “I Heard Her Call My Name”, pushing his own vocals up in the mix and moving the other musicians back. Sterling Morrison said the result sounded like it was mixed in a closet. The album was pulled and replaced with another mix, approved of by the other members, which has become the standard version of the album — though Reed’s version, labelled the “closet mix”, has been included as a bonus on some expanded reissues of it.
Morrison was by this point utterly sick of Lou Reed — between his shenanigans with the mixes and him getting Morrison to do his dirty work, Morrison had no time for him at all any more, and would barely speak to him for the rest of the group’s career.
With the failure of The Velvet Underground, the group decided they needed a new record label. This was especially true since MGM had just taken on a new CEO, Mike Curb, who was obsessed with the bottom line, and who was also shortly to be given an award by President Nixon for his work in cleaning up music and getting rid of drug-influenced lyrics. They started looking for another label, but they still owed MGM fourteen tracks, so shortly after the release of The Velvet Underground, they went back into the studio, with a returning Gary Kellgren, and cut an album that they already knew was likely not to be released.
It says something about the group that this album, the tracks from which didn’t come out until the 1980s, is still a solid record with several tracks that are now regarded as classics.
“Lisa Says” was one of several songs from the album that Reed would later reuse for his first solo album:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “Lisa Says”]
While “I’m Sticking With You”, another song with a Moe Tucker lead vocal, would be used as a basis for an entire career by about a million twee indie-pop bands in the nineties and early 2000s:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “I’m Sticking With You”]
The album wasn’t released, as they knew it wouldn’t be, and the group moved on to Atlantic Records. But by this point, Sesnick had been up to his tricks again. Doug Yule had quickly become a hugely popular member of the band — he had a pleasant voice, he was good-looking, and unlike the other members he would do the traditional rock musician act on stage. And he’d also idolised Reed so much that he’d picked up a lot of Reed’s mannerisms and attitudes, including his desire to be in charge.
Sesnick started to wonder if the Velvet Underground really *needed* Lou Reed. Reed was a difficult man to work with, and Yule was far more pliable. Sesnick started to manipulate Yule in exactly the same way he’d previously manipulated Reed, talking about how he was the star and should be the leader.
Yule was in an even better position when it came to recording the next album, Loaded. Tucker had got pregnant, and couldn’t physically reach the drums in her normal position because her belly was in the way. She had to take maternity leave, and in her place came Doug’s brother Billy, who drummed with the band for six dollars a day — though several other people also provided drum tracks for the album, none of whom could replicate Moe Tucker’s sound.
Sterling Morrison *was* on the album, but by this point he was also a part-time student, and for large parts of the album left Reed and Yule to get on with it.
The result is arguably the closest thing the group ever did to a commercial record.
“Rock and Roll” shows that there’s less distinction between the Velvets and Bruce Springsteen than fans of either might want to admit:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “Rock and Roll”]
“Who Loves the Sun”, with Doug Yule on lead, showed that Reed hadn’t forgotten the songwriting lessons he’d internalised when he was making Beach Boys knockoffs years earlier:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “Who Loves the Sun”]
And “Sweet Jane” became one of the group’s most covered songs:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “Sweet jane”]
The album was meant to be a fresh start for the group, but by the time they finished recording it, Reed was out of the band. Reed said later “There were a lot of things going on that summer. Internally, within the band, the situation, the milieu, and especially the management. Situations that could only be solved by as abrupt a departure as possible once I had made the decision. I just walked out because we didn’t have any money, I didn’t want to tour again—I can’t get any writing done on tour, and the grind is terrible—and I’d wondered for a long time if we were ever going to be accepted on a large scale. Words can’t do justice to the way I got worked over with the money.”
The group were playing again in New York. They had a residency at Max’s Kansas City, Andy Warhol’s favourite nightclub, during the recording of Loaded. Brigid Polk, one of Warhol’s “superstars”, happened by pure coincidence to record the night of Reed’s last gig:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “White Light/White Heat (live)”]
Even more coincidentally, Moe Tucker had decided to turn up to watch her bandmates perform. Reed hadn’t told any of the band members that he was quitting, and she was the first he told. The others only found out when Reed’s parents came to pick him up — they were taking him back home to Long Island.
When Loaded came out, Reed found that Yule had done what the other band members had always been upset at Reed for doing — he’d radically remixed and edited several of Reed’s songs, without telling him.
The group struggled on without Reed for a while — Moe did rejoin the group after her maternity leave. But first Morrison left the group, and then Sesnick fired everyone except Doug Yule. The final Velvet Underground album, Squeeze, which came out in 1973 is a Doug Yule solo album, with Yule playing everything except the drums, which are played by Ian Paice of Deep Purple, and a little bit of saxophone:
[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, “She’ll Make You Cry”]
Doug Yule hated the final mix of the album, which was done by Steve Sesnick, who ignored his input.
There’s one final anecdote about the group that’s worth telling though. I’m going to quote an English fan here, talking about a gig he attended:
“I was singing along with the band, stuck right there at the apron of the stage. ‘Waiting For The Man’, ‘White Light/ White Heat’, ‘Heroin’…All that kind of stuff. And then after the show, I went back stage and I knocked on the door, and I said “Is Lou Reed in? I’d love to talk to him, I’m from England, cos I’m in music too, and he’s a bit of a hero to me.” This guy said “Wait here”. And Lou comes out and we sat talking on the bench for about quarter of an hour about writing songs, and what it?s like to be Lou Reed, and all that…and afterwards I was floating on a cloud, and went back to my hotel room.
“I said to this guy that I knew in New York: “I’ve just seen the Velvet Underground and I got to talk with Lou Reed for fifteen minutes”, and he said, “Yeah? Lou Reed left the band last year, I think you’ve been done.” I said, “It looked like Lou Reed” and he said “That’s Doug Yule, he’s the guy that took over from Lou Reed.” I thought what an impostor, wow, that’s incredible. It doesn’t matter really, cos I still talked to Lou Reed as far as I was concerned. ”
David Bowie, who told that anecdote, was inspired by the idea that a fake rocker could be a real one. That was the missing piece he needed to go with his thoughts about Vince Taylor and a rock and roll messiah. Soon after that meeting, he created Ziggy Stardust.