Monday, October 20, 2008

What Went On...The Velvet Underground Story and Show # 219

The initial beginnings of The Velvet Underground are rooted in the meeting of two people Lou Reed and John Cale. In late 1964, Lour Reed then a song writer for Pickwick records met John Cale. Cale a Welshman who moved to New York to study classical music, developed an interest in rock music via Reed and the two formed a group called The Primitives. Cale and Reed had similar musical connections, both willing to experiment with music. Prior to meeting Reed, Cale worked with composers John Cage and LaMonte Young who were known for their experimental musical compositions. Two Lou Reed compositions were released via Pickwick Records as the band The Primitives. The band contained Lou Reed (guitar/vocals), John Cale (bass/viola/organ/vocals), Sterling Morrison (guitar), and Angus MacLise on drums. The two singles the band recorded were "The Ostrich", and "Sneaky Pete", both released in the fall of 1964; The group also went by the names The Warlocks and The Falling Spikes initially.

Before even playing their first gig drummer Angus MacLise left the group stating that accepting money for art was being a sellout, they quickly got a new drummer Maureen Tucker (who was a sister of a friend of Morrison). The group would settle on the name The Velvet Underground after John Cale found a book of the same name when moving into his New York City Apartment. The book itself was by Michael Leigh and about the sexual underground in the 1960s. In 1965, the group recorded a demo tape which Cale gave to Marianne Faithful so that she would give it to Mick Jagger. Nothing ever came of this exchange, but the demos did appear on the bands 1995 box set Peel Slowly and See.

The band were quite different for their times. First Reed's compositions lyrically and musically were like nothing anyone had ever heard before ranging from topics such as urban life, drug use, to sexual exploits. Musically the music reflected Reeds and Cale's love of experimentation drawing on influences of pop and garage rock; Reed also was a fan of Jazz. The bands early sound would later be known as an early incarnation of what to was become punk rock. While Cale and Reed would experiment with different tuning to develop droning sounds, drummer Maureen Tucker also had a style of her own, which is an important factor of the bands sound. Her drum kit was not the usual kit you would find a drummer playing. Her bass drum was upturned, she mostly played the toms, and hardly used cymbals. Tucker played drums not only with drums sticks, but also with mallets. Her style was influenced by early Bo Diddley and Babatunde Olatunji. It can be described as simple and enticing.

After witnessing Velvet Underground perform live, artist Andy Warhol became the groups manager. Warhol assisted the group in getting a recording contract with MGM and also used them in his travelling arts and music ensemble known as the Exploding Plastic inevitable. Andy also encouraged the group to let Nico (female model/singer/actress) join. She appeared on the group first album singing on three tracks ("All Tomorrow's Parties, I'll Be Your Mirror", and "Femme Fatal"). The album, which would be titled Velvet Underground & Nico was recorded in April of 1966. Three songs were later re-recorded when the band signed to a subsidiary of MGM Records, Verve Records ("I'm Waiting For the Man, "Venus in Furs", and "Heroin"). The album was officially released n March of 1967. The album contained eleven tracks such as "I'm Waiting for the Man", "Sunday Morning", "Venus in Furs", "Run, Run, Run", and "There She Goes Again", all showcasing the bands new and experimental rock form. The albums artwork was done by Warhol, it was a yellow banana with a peel slowly and see tab on it. When peeled a pink banana lay underneath. The album did not do well commercially due to its unconventional sound and a legal dispute with artwork on the back cover of the album. A lawsuit was filed when a picture from film maker/Cinematographer Eric Emerson sued the band stating that he did not give permission for them to use a still from his film Chelsea Girls. Eventually the case was settled, but the result was the album being pulled off of the shelves ruining any chance at commercial success for the group. The Velvet Underground & Nico is often known as "the banana album".

After the bands first album, Velvet Underground's relationship with Andy Warhol and Nico worsened. As a result after their 1967 tour the group fired both Warhol and Nico. During live performances the band experimented with jams which would have a large influence on their next album. White Light/White Heat was recorded in two days in 1968 and was noticeably different compared to the bands debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. The album sold poorly, but did manage to make it into the Billboard 200, at #199. The album musically was a distorted, rough, and dirty sounding album. The album featured songs such as "White Light/White Heat", a song about amphetamines, "The Gift" an eight minute distorted jam, with a short story recited over top by Cale in a Welsh accent, "Here She Comes Now" was an avant-garde pop song, "I Heard Her Call My Name" is a distorted song that sounds not unlike the Stooges, and the sixth and final track on the album was "Sister Ray", a 17 minute jam.

Both Covers for White Light/White Heat released in 1968

The albums cover featured a faintly visible skull in the background, the rest of the album was covered in black. The background was actually a picture of a tattoo of a skull on someones arm. The photo was taken and distorted by Billy Name, a friend of Warhol's. An alternate cover was made for the UK featuring abstract toy soldiers on a white background. Around this time tensions were growing amongst the bands two key song writers Lou Reed and John Cale. It was not just their lack of commercial success, but also the different directions that both Cale and Reed wanted to go in. After one more recording session in 1968, Cale was fired and the group continued without him. The bands third album would be titled The Velvet Underground and was released in 1969. It would feature Doug Yule as replacement for John Cale. The albums sound differed. Without Cale the experimental element of the band was not as dominant and it came off with more of a pop sound. Another reason for the albums change in sound could be related to the fact that all of the bands Vox amplifiers and guitar fuzz box pedals were stolen while they were on tour, resulting in them having to buy new equipment. The album is viewed by some to contain Lou Reed's best compositions. Songs such as "Candy Says", "Pale Blue Eyes", and the rocking "What Goes On". Other interesting tracks include "Murder Mystery" an almost nine minute song with a story read over top, similar to "The Gift".

The album also had two mixes since the album was produced by the band themselves and an engineer, Val Valentin. The first mix was done by Reed and called "The Closet Mix" by guitarist Sterling Morrison, the other mix was done by engineer Val Valentin. Reed's mix of the album was used for initial US releases of the album and Valentin's mix was used for the UK releases. After the albums initial pressings all other issues of White Light/White Heat used Valentin's mix. The complete "Closet Mix" can be found on the Peel Slowly and See box set. The albums artwork was a picture of the group, taken once again by Billy Name. The album failed to chart, it would also be The Velvet's last album for MGM.

The band spent a large amount of 1969 touring, and going in and out of the studio. These recordings would later be issued on outtake compilations (VU (1985) and Another View (1986)), and on the Peel Slowly and See box set. It should also be noted that the majority of the recordings on the outtake compilations VU and Another View, were recorded while the band were still on MGM Records and were originally intended for a fourth Velvet Underground album that was to be released in 1969. When the band switched record labels, the tracks were forgotten about. These recordings feature John Cale on some tracks and Dog Yule on some tracks. Also some of these songs were later re-recorded by Lou Reed for some solo albums. The band also recorded a live album titled 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, but it wasn't released until 1974. The bands next album would be titled Loaded.

MGM Records president Mike Curb wanted the label to be rid of any bands that had references to drugs so he dropped Velvet Underground and some other groups too. As a result the band signed to Atlantic Records. The album was titled Loaded because the label said that they wanted an album loaded with hits. So the band attempted to do so. The album was not a commercial success, but like the other three Velvet Underground albums, it was unique and original. The album contained songs such as "Rock & Roll", "Sweet Jane", "Head Held High", and "Oh, Sweet Nuthin". The album would not feature Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker because she was pregnant. Instead the group used Doug Yule, Billy Yule (his brother) and a variety of session musicians for the albums drum tracks; Tucker is credited on the album despite her absence. Like all of The Velvet's albums, the artwork for Loaded was another interesting aspect of their album. The artwork was done by Stainslaw Zagorski. The cover was a picture of pink and green smoke rising from a subway entrance. Some have said that the change in artwork featuring pink smoke instead of a banana or a faint skull in the background, also represented the bands change in musical direction. Whatever was said about the album it is still a unique Velvet Underground album that shows the world that they had commercial capabilities without straying far from their original vision.

Reed quit the band just before the albums release. This was due to a number of factors, one being the lack of development within the band, the other being pressure put on by the bands manager Steve Sesnick. Reed has also stated that he was unhappy with the way the album was edited. The album was reissued in 1997 with several bonus tracks and outtakes. In 1995 the band released a comprehensive box set titled Peel Slowly and See. Reed would pursue a more successful solo career and The Velvet Underground would continue shortly with Doug Yule fronting the group, they would last until 1973.

In 1993 the original line-up reformed (including Cale) for a European tour and live album. The band would quickly disband due to Reed and Cale disagreements/arguments. In 1995 guitarist Sterling Morrison passed away and the band reformed once more for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. At their induction the group performed a song written for Morrison titled "Last Night I Said Goodbye to my Friend".

While The Velvet Underground did not achieve commercial success during their time as a band, the effect that they have left on the world cannot go unnoticed. They have been said to have influenced more people to start up bands of their own than sell their albums. Since they have disbanded they have gone on to influence rock music greatly, not only with their music, but lyrics too. The band have been cited as a major influence on the 70's punk and new wave movement and were a band that were definitely ahead of their time.

To view a post that I did on Lou Reed, you can visit my Rock n' Roll Animal post.

Songs played this week:

1. Iggy & The Stooges - Search and Destroy
2. Neon Boys - That's All I Know
3. The Sonics - Boss Hoss
4. Ugly Ducklings - Nothin'
5. The Jury - Who Dat?
6. Those Rogues - Girl
7. Underworld - Go Away
8. Gruesomes - Dementia 13
9. Minisnap - Crooked Mile
10. The Velvet Underground - I"m Waiting For the Man
11. The Velvet Underground - One of These Days
12. The Velvet Underground - Head Held High (Early Version)
13. The Who - Circles
14. Billy Bragg - A New England
15. 101ers - Keys to Your Heart (Version 2)
16. The MC5 - Looking At You
17. Compulsive Gamblers - Don't Haunt Me
18. The Mark Inside - You Can't Take Her With You
19. The Hoa Hoa's - Mixed
20. The Organs - Let the Bell's Ring
21. The Pretenders - Boots of Chinese Plastic
22. The Clash - Police on my Back (Live at Shea)
23. Pointed Sticks - The Witch
24. The Pixies - Here Comes Your Man
25. Nirvana - Son of a Gun

To download this week's show visit the CJAM archives and select the files 10:00 AM and 11:00 AM on October 21, 2008.

Velvet Videos:

I'm Waiting For The Man
Sunday Morning
Venus In Furs
White Light/White Heat
Sweet Jane (Live 1993)
Last Night, I Said Goodbye to my Friend

Also Next week CJAM will be having it's annual pledge drive. CJAM is a non-profit campus and community based radio station, if you would like to show your support for CJAM you can make a pledge by visiting CJAM's home page.

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