The Velvet Underground — Or, Perils of Selling Avant Garde As Pop

Published July 12, 2017 in Warp & Woof

The Velvet Underground – Or, Perils of Selling Avant Garde as Pop
William Sundwick
Lou Reed was a middle-class Jewish kid growing up on 1950s Long Island. He was always interested in pop music – especially doo wop — and taught himself to play guitar from the radio. In high school he apparently experimented with illegal drugs; and, he became sullen, depressed, and anti-social, perhaps due to the notorious gangs of his school. Nevertheless, according to his sister, he was a “genius,” and was sent off to Syracuse University in 1960, where he was mentored by poet Delmore Schwartz, who taught creative writing there.


At Syracuse, he also became acquainted with a classically-trained Welsh experimental musician, John Cale, and another guitar player, Sterling Morrison. They jammed together, forming a band which they informally named “The Primitives.” By graduation in 1964, they were playing gigs in New York City (East Village), and had changed their name to “The Velvet Underground” (after a popular college novel about a secret sexual society). 
Another acquaintance had a younger sister who really loved drums! Maureen Tucker, known as “Mo,” was invited to join the band –over Cale’s objections to having a female drummer.
This was the origin of the “Velvets.” They lasted until 1973, but in their relatively brief lifespan they became one of the most influential rock bands in the history of the art form, says Rolling Stone and other critics. Yet, they were never commercially successful, measured by the sales numbers or charts of the day.
Why? Because you can’t sell experimental, avant garde art to the masses. And, from the outset, this was clearly the preferred path for Reed and Cale.
Yet, their raw and experimental repertoire of social realism was what gave them their first break – Andy Warhol heard them perform in the East Village, and recruited them as the house band for his studio, called the “Factory,” and his upcoming planned tour, “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.” (For an immersive experience, visit the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. It dedicates an entire soundproof room on the third floor to EPI!)
Warhol also brought a German chanteuse, Nico, into the mix. She added her name to their debut album — “The Velvet Underground and Nico” – since she contributed lead vocals on three tracks (and backup vocals on a fourth). Nico severed her connections with the band after the release of that one album, to pursue her own career.
The artistic thrust of that first album was dominated by Cale’s fascination with avant garde music. He played an electrically amplified viola on many tracks, and is credited with its creative direction, generally called “producing” in the record business, despite Warhol’s official title as “producer.” The songs, however, were written by Reed, showing his fascination with morbid sexuality and the underworld of drugs and transsexual behavior (“drag queens” in those days). Sterling Morrison was the main force keeping the tracks sounding like rock ‘n roll, aided by Mo Tucker and her simple, yet exotic, drum riffs.
Highlights from that first album are:
  •        The opening track, “Sunday Morning,” about paranoia (common in illicit drug users) –Reed was vocal front man, with Nico doing backup.  
  •        Venus in Furs,” based on the novel of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, about what we now know as BDSM (he lent his name to the sexual deviation “masochism”), lots of John Cale and Mo Tucker exotica in this one.
  •        All Tomorrow’s Parties,” a Nico masterpiece and Andy Warhol’s favorite track on the entire album.
  •        And the final track, “European Son,” dedicated to Reed’s mentor Delmore Schwartz, who died before the album was released. 
Also on this album was the very Lou Reedian “Heroin” – anticipating one of Reed’s recurring themes, even in his later solo career, nihilism! I’ve always felt that Heroin is the best track on the album to show the synergy between Reed’s nihilistic lyrics, Cale’s screeching viola, and Tucker’s primitive, pulsating drum kit. It also features a Lou Reed invention – “ostrich” guitar tuning, where all strings are tuned to the same note. This early Lou Reed song, with the ostrich tuning, had impressed Cale as unique enough to spur their collaboration. Reed had written the song before the idea of the band emerged.
If you listen to more than one or two of the songs linked above, you’ll understand why the album was never commercially successful. It was much too dark, much too avant garde, too naughty for the teenagers and young adults who were buying records in the sixties. But, as experimental musician Brian Eno famously remarked, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” It was later lauded as one of the most influential rock albums ever. It was bought by artists … not by kids who wanted dance music!
For their second album, White Light/White Heat, it was time to try something different. Cale continued to exert creative direction. Reed had fired Warhol, despite his having an extremely laissez-faire attitude, which Reed appreciated. His style left the musicians to experiment as they wished, but Reed may have felt Warhol hampered the band’s potential commercial success. 
The sound changed in White Light. Instead of Cale’s electric viola, more tracks featured Mo Tucker and her primal beat, and much more guitar droning. Tracks tended to be very long, and very loud. Blowing out the amps substituted for Cale’s more exotic forays. The recording quality was intentionally distorted, unpolished and raw, compared to the first album. It was “anti-beauty,” according to one reviewer – paving the way for later proto-punk, and punk, bands.
Cale continued with the band, but became more cynical. When the recording sessions, and a round of live performances, were finished, he left – to produce Iggy Pop’s band, The Stooges. He and Reed were often at loggerheads, creatively. But, while the sound may have been more conventional, Reed’s songs were still way out there – like the homosexual orgy in “Sister Ray,” which relates a story of mass drug use, and a sailor being shot and killed, left to bleed on the carpet. Or, the frenetic world of meth addicts described in the title track
The amazing spoken word recording, “The Gift”, features Cale’s Welsh brogue sounding rather charming as he reads a short story, to heavy rock background.
Also included in the deluxe boxed set is a vintage recording jam which is ALL Reed, “Temptation Inside Your Heart” – a sign of things to come in his solo career.
White Light/White Heat, alas, was no more successful than The Velvet Underground & Nico. Verve Records dropped the band, along with many others thought to “glorify” use of illegal drugs. Reed believed that the real reason was: they just didn’t sell. Even nearly fifty years later, when HBO produced its series “Vinyl” in 2015, with music producer Mick Jagger, a “White Light/White Heat” cover was played, by a band portraying a fictitious Velvet Underground gig, shown in flashback. It was the high point of episode 5 … but, HBO would not renew for a second season!
New record labels were found, and The Velvet Underground soldiered on for two more studio albums and a live album, then the posthumously released VU Another View. Now Lou Reed was in total control, with his backup stalwarts Morrison and Tucker. Doug Yule was added. Reed was convinced he needed to move more into the pop mainstream, his song lyrics would now be only slightly unbalanced, and the sound mostly inoffensive. An example from 1970’s Loaded album is “Rock and Roll”. The difference from the first two albums is stark. Reed managed to return to his rock ‘n roll roots, and the lyrics are generally happy, upbeat. The darker side would return later, in his solo career.
That solo career lasted nearly 40 years, until his death. And, it finally propelled him to the commercial success he had always sought, but never achieved, with the Velvets. It began in 1972, with his album Transformer, produced by disciple David Bowie. “Walk on the Wild Side” did the trick, and without toning down the content of his lyrics an iota! Perhaps the times had finally caught up with Lou Reed.
He died in 2013, after a liver transplant, but managed to outlive Andy Warhol, Nico, and Sterling Morrison. Cale and Mo Tucker are still alive (but retired from music?). Rolling Stone’s obitfor Lou Reed ranks The Velvet Underground & Nico on an artistic par with two other contemporary classics: the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers … and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. And, summarizing the oevre of the Velvets, calls them “the most influential American rock band of all time.” 
It’s been fifty years since the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico LP. I purchased my copy in Paris, during my college study abroad. It was my favorite on my little portable turntable in the dorm room at L’Universite de Strasbourg. Although, the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesty’s Request was a close second. Fifty years … that’s a long time, even in a 70-year-old’s life. I’ve always been drawn to the avant garde. Despite my rather conventional life, it symbolizes an excitement never quite attainable, for fear of reaching too far outside my comfort zone. Artists CAN get there, however!
That twenty-year-old’s spirit of adventure is still approachable, if only by listening to Velvet Underground songs on my iPod … while working out at the gym!

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