The Velvet Underground

There was a certain futility in avant-garde music that was really mystifying, people were really interested in extreme statements…performance pieces like Climb into the Vagina of a Live Female Whale. But there’s no futility in rock & roll, it’s too urgent, that’s what’s great about it.

-John Cale

Frustrated with the fact that New York’s avant-garde movement was just another esoteric clique that influenced no one other than those already inside the group. When John eventually met Lou Reed, he was able to confirm in his mind the need for a new more populist direction to his music. Together they formed the Velvet Underground and in July 1965 released a demo tape including “Heroin” (a harrowingly real account of drug use), “Venus in Furs” (an sadomasochistic fantasy based on a book Reed had read), and “Black Angel’s Death Song,” their one truly freeform jazz Cale/Reed composition of improvised lyrics over “orchestral chaos” of open, droning, hypnotic scales.

On December 15, 1965, The Velvet Underground began a run at Café Bizarre where Andy Warhol would see them perform. It was a Thursday night and because the art and rock worlds were still quite separated, nobody paid attention to the Warhol party’s entrance to the club. As soon as the Velvets started to play, Warhold became quite animated, realizing immediately that he could work with this band. The music was blasting so loudly that it was impossible to talk during the set, but during a break, he asked Eddie Sedgewick what she thought about the band playing in front of the movies at her upcoming retrospective. She did not seem such a fan of the idea as it would take away from her starring role in the evening.

“But when Gerard [Malanga] got up and danced in black leather pants with his whip, eerily mirroring The Velvets' style with his sinuous, mesmeric movements, which resembled a cross between the Frug and an Egyptian belly dance, Andy saw Gerard become a part of The Velvets and even more reason to feel that here was a rock band with whom he could really connect.” All Warhol felt he needed to add to them was a sexy female vocalist. That problem was solved with the unwanted Nico.

In February 1966, this vision was already a reality. What was called Andy Warhol Up Tight featured The Velvet Underground and Nico playing with the films VINYL, EMPIRE, and EAT being screened in the background while Gerard also stood up on stage, dancing around with Edie Sedgwick and whipping a long strip of phosphorescent tape in the air.

Warhol continued to tour the Velvets in this Art Rock context, juxtaposed against not only his abstract video and light shows but dancers even in front of them. Ultimately he was able to use money from this venture to produce the band’s first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico.

Lou Reed never wanted Nico on the album but Warhol fought to get this “incredible German beauty who’d just arrived in New York from London” onto the album and, since Warhol was backing them, the band could not say no to Nico’s presence, but Reed tried to keep as many of their songs for himself as possible, writing a couple of new tunes for Nico to sing.

Even on vinyl, the band maintained their harsh edge and hypnotic drone in old standbys like “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs” and on this album even took the cacophony they created in “Black Angel’s Death Song” to a whole new level in the song “European Son,” which Lou dedicated to Delmore Schwartz. They did not limit themselves to musical instruments alone; the song even included the sounds of a chair being dragged across the floor and a glass shattering as it crashes down from mid-air, both timed perfectly into the mix.

Trying to market the album, the band went to the west coast (it was first turned down by every record company in New York) and immediately found themselves at odds with the mellower music sensibility there (Sterling Morrison recounts that the first song they heard on the radio after arriving in LA was “Monday, Monday” and they knew that it would be hard to please the California music industry on its own turf). The New York sensibility was at odds with California. As people saw it, the Velvets were there to destroy the innocence and purity of the music, they were “the urban evil of New York, and they were there to corrupt the simple beauty of the California music.”

After various record companies turned them down for every reason from Ahmet Ertegun’s complaint with the drug songs to Elektra complaining about the use of a viola, the Velvets were finally picked up by MGM’s Verve label which had recently signed Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention.

The Velvets ditched the art-rock of Andy Warhol and tried to make it on their own but after they produced their second album White Light / White Heat (the title of which quite accurately expresses the sound quality they strove to create) and then kicked John Cale out of the band, they were already dissolving. The band would continue to play for several years after that, their sound becoming harsher and more aggressive in some ways, but also mellowing out. Nevertheless, the seeds had been sewn, not only in New York City where a duo of young musicians calling themselves Suicide was already on the rise, but in Cleveland where the Velvets played often and from where Iggy Pop and the Stooges would rise before their intense following in the New York scene would find them.

LISTEN to The Velvet Underground - The Black Angel's Death Song / (music off).