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Velvet Underground - Velvet Underground Part 4

  by Jon Rogers

published: 7 / 10 / 2012

Velvet Underground - Velvet Underground Part 4


In the fourth part of his history on the Velvet Underground leading up to the release of their debut album 'The Velvet Underground and Nico', Jon Rogers describes a disastrous trip to California, which nevertheless allows the group to do some more recording and to finish off the classic album

After the band sign a contract with MGM on 2 May 1966. they head out to California to start a residency at The Trip in Hollywood, based on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. The entire venture was a virtual disaster from the start but it did allow the band to make some further recordings. Things don't start well when the leader of the Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa, supposedly takes a swipe at the headliners on stage, and ignites a long-running feud between the two bands, and then things get worse from there. The first night of the residency on 3 May, as part of the EPI, is well received with a number of celebrities turning up, including Sonny and Cher, John Phillips and Cass Elliot, Ryan O'Neal and a couple of members of the Byrds as well as one then unknown singer, Jim Morrison, from the fledgling the Doors. Due to the animosity between the Mothers and the Velvets, there have been reports that the Doors were being considered as a replacement for the Mothers. Unfortunately the prospect of the Doors opening for the Velvet Underground never happened as after just three nights the venue was closed down by the police. According to Cale's memoirs, this was because "we were putting on a pornographic exhibition." But by then, after the initial excitement, the audiences at The Trip coming to see the Velvet Underground had all but vanished. With The Trip closed and the band signed to play up to 18 May, the band have little choice but to hang out in LA. According to Musician Union rules the band can't be paid their entire fee unless they stay in LA for the duration of their contract. So the band locate to a private house called the Rock Castle which accepted artists and musicians to stay there on a long-term basis. To pass the time Morrison hangs out with Buffalo Springfield and Cale indulges in a five-night affair with a groupie. Of more significance though is that this free time allows the band to work more on their album and book some time at TTG Studios at 1441 N McCadden Place in Hollywood. There is some debate over exactly when these recordings are made, but what is certain is that Tom Wilson is the producer with Omi Haden as the engineer. The band record three songs that they have already done at Scepter - 'I'm Waiting for the Man,' 'Heroin' and 'Venus in Furs'. The versions recorded here aren't that different from the previously recorded versions, but certainly are more focused, dynamic versions. The one big difference is in the opening line of 'Heroin' with Reed changing it from "I know just where I'm going" to "I don't know where I'm going". Cale wasn't happy about this who calls this a "complete surrender" in his autobiography. "You fucked up the whole song by changing the premise." Tucker isn't happy with this version either, telling the fanzine 'What Goes On' at a later date: "'Heroin' drives me nuts. It's a pile of garbage on the record. The guys plugged straight into the board. They didn't have their amps up loud in the studio, so of course I couldn't hear anything. Anything. And when we got to the part where you speed up, you gotta speed up together, or it's not really right. And it just became this mountain of drum noise in front of me. I couldn't hear shit. I couldn't see Lou, to watch his mouth to see where he was in the song. And I just stopped. I was saying, 'This is no good, this isn't going to work, we need phones or something.' So I stopped, and being a little wacky, they just kept going, and that's the one we took." As well as these three songs. it would appear that Wilson does some touching up work on some other songs from Scepter, such as giving a double-tracked vocal part to 'All Tomorrow's Parties'. It is also possible that 'There She Goes Again', previously unrecorded at Scepter, is also recorded now with its opening riff pretty much taken wholesale from Marvin Gaye's 'Hitch Hike' although its lyrical concerns about drug use, prostitution and sadomasochism weren't the usual Gaye subject matter. The band also play three evening shows at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. and these shows don't spark much enthusiasm either. In part, the promoter Bill Graham can't provide the sort of light show the EPI are used to and there was a large degree of antagonism between Graham and Warhol's entourage, with Morrissey calling Graham "a horrible, awful person." According to Warhol's later published diaries, what riled Graham was seeing Morrissey eat a tangerine and throw the peel on the floor. But what really seems to make the whole trip west largely a failure is the difference in east and west attitudes. At the time the west coast was undergoing its hippie vibe which would turn into the 'Summer of Love' and an ideology of peace and love and flowers in your hair, all bathed in bright, psychedelic colours and powered by LSD. An ethos epitomised by the likes of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, the latter a band Reed particularly detested. In stark contrast, The Velvet Underground all wore black, took hard drugs and sang about scoring with their connection, prostitution and risqué sexual practises. The two were worlds apart with very little common ground, if any at all. Very quickly the band were so annoyed with their treatment by Graham and the general lack of enthusiasm from the audience that did bother to turn up, that the band, according to a 'Rolling Stone' interview in 1971 with Cale decided on taking revenge: "We put the guitars against the amps, turned up, played percussion, and then split." The general attitude of San Francisco to the EPI and the Velvet Underground is duly summed up by the acclaimed writer Ralph J Gleason in the 'San Francisco Chronicle' who wrote: "Andy Warhol's Plastic Inevitable, upon examination, turns out to be nothing more than a bad condensation of all the bum trips of the Trips Festival." Gleason then just becomes nasty about Nico saying she looks like "Mick Jagger in drag", and calling The Velvet Underground a "dull group" and renames them the Velvet Underpants. The band's jaunt out west may have been something of a dismal failure but it does generate a large amount of media attention, if only because of Warhol's involvement with reviews largely focusing on the whole EPI experience rather than the band per se. Off the back of this attention MGM release the band's very first release, a single version of 'All Tomorrow's Parties', backed with 'I'll Be Your Mirror'. In fact, the actual single seems to be mired in fog and mystery. It's certainly low-profile. So low in fact, some commentators have speculated that it was only intended to be sent out as a promotion rather than a proper commercial release. MGM Verve don't really give it any promotional backing at all, plus the press don't appear to pick up on it until months later. The existence of a picture sleeve - not always the norm for singles back in 1966 - perhaps indicates though that the label was at least going to give the single some promotional backing. 'Record Collector' has, however, speculated that the picture sleeve was never meant to be released commercially and only for promotional purposes. It is possible MGM don't know what to do either and this indecision helps send the single into obscurity straight away. Not helping matters is that the song, some six minutes in its entirety on the album, is chopped in half to just under three minutes for the single. One idea Warhol had that Reed relates in a 1966 interview with Nat Finkelstein is that Warhol wanted to put a "crack" at the end of 'I'll Be Your Mirror' so that the song will play the refrain over and over until the needle is manually lifted from the record. Unfortunately the idea wasn't used and the record is just about instantly forgotten about. And any reviews it does generate aren't that positive. The San Francisco fanzine 'Mojo Navigator' calls it "lousy" and says: "Nico sings (hahhah) on it. It's the musical equivalent of a painted Brillo box which sells for $400." Fans of the band though will be able to get to hear the band on vinyl in August if the single passed them by with the release of 'East Village Other: Electric Newspaper - Hiroshima Day - USA vs Underground' and the Velvet Underground track 'Noise'. The album is put out by the underground newspaper the 'East Village Other' which champions the counterculture. One idea is to put out an "audio newspaper" which evolves into the album idea. The album is a sort of avant-garde release combining rock, folk and improvised jazz as well as spoken word and audio-verité recordings. The album will eventually see the light of day on the ESP label, home to avant-garde musicians like Albert Ayler as well as the Fugs, the Holy Modal Rounders and Pearls Before Swine. Also on the album are Gerard Malanga and Ingrid Superstar, who offer up some barely intelligible 'Gossip' and Warhol donates the conceptual piece 'Silence', which is just that. Also appearing on the record are various members of the Fugs, poets Allen Ginsberg and his partner Peter Orlovsky and Marion Brown, an avant-garde jazzman The Velvet Underground track is 90 seconds of improvised cacophonic noise that rumbles beneath a radio recording of President Lyndon B Johnson's daughter, Luci, which takes place on 6 August 1966. Richard Alderson, who was one of four people credited with having edited the recordings on the album, said: "I also 'recorded' the whole thing too, but they didn't want more than a few microphones set up and tape rolling for the whole thing. Only some of the Velvets were present, and Andy just stood silently watching everyone milling about." The music is one of the more obscure, legally released, recordings with even Tucker confessing to 'What Goes On' that she wasn't familiar with the recording: "I don't think I've heard that." After a rather dismal stint playing live at The Ballroom Farm in New York and a gig in the rather surreal surrounds of a converted airplane hangar off Route 56 at Leicester Airport in Massachusetts, the band return to the studio to complete their debut album in early November 1966. For producer Tom Wilson the one thing the record lacks is a more prominent role for Nico, whom he thinks has star potential. He is quoted by Morrissey in 'Nico: The Life and Lies of an Icon' as saying: "The only thing I don't like about the record is, there's not enough Nico. You've got to get another song from Nico. And there's nothing here we can use on the radio, so why don't we get Nico to sing another song that would be right for radio play?" So the band are booked into Mayfair Sound Studios at 701 Seventh Avenue in New York to record what will become 'Sunday Morning'. The song, as with 'I'll Be Your Mirror', counteracts the avant-garde aggressiveness of the likes of 'European Son' but has a double-edged bite to it. Reed told 'Rolling Stone' in 1972 about how the song came about. "Andy said to me, 'Why don't you write a song about paranoia?'" Reed told Mick Rock. "John and I didn't have any words for it yet, just the melody. I said, what a great thing to write about. All of us are so paranoid anyway. It's like the Great Subject. So I came up with the line, 'Watch out, the world's behind you.' I figure that's the ultimate paranoid statement, that you're being watched all the time. When actually no one gives a damn." The big irony is that while the song might have been written with Nico singing it in mind, she won't actually appear on the song apart from a few backing vocals at the end and it will be Reed who will sing the lead. The reason it is Reed who is the lead singer, according to Morrissey, is because he knew the song was going to be a single and he wanted to stamp his authority and leadership on the band. The purpose of the entire session had been to record a song with Nico singing but when it came down to it, Reed put his foot down and flatly refused, with Nico being reduced to a backing singer at the very end. The relaxed, hazy feel to the song belies a much darker lyrical content. Interestingly enough in a June 1993 interview with 'Q' magazine Morrison states the start of the track is lifted from the Mamas and the Papas' 'Monday Monday' - "like an elbow in the ribs, here comes a song about paranoia." It will be another four months until the album finally sees the light of day with the vast bulk of the album having been recorded since May 1966. This delay between recording and the actual release of the record causes a rift between the label and the band. Some members of the band see this as a deliberate policy by MGM/Verve who they accuse of deliberately pushing the album back so it doesn't interfere with another of the label's signings, their nemesis the Mothers of Invention who have recorded their double album 'Freak Out!' Morrison will suggest to the 'NME' in 1981 that their release got sidelined over Zappa's because they had a better, more aggressive manager that would fight their cause and they wanted to be the first with a "freak release". Both Warhol and the band were relatively naive about the workings of a record company. Doug Yule, who will later join the band after Cale is pushed out, says the release was still an issue for the band when he joined in late 1968. "The way I heard it, it was not the Mothers, it was the record company that made a decision to suppress ['The Velvet Underground & Nico'] for a while. They didn't feel that two groups that far on the fringe could be released even close to each other and not interfere with each other's sales." Much of the blame put on the Mothers may very well be sour grapes on the behalf of the band. After all 'Freak Out!" was the first to be recorded - by Wilson - and done by 12 March 1966 and is released on 27 June, some time before The Velvet Underground get round to recording 'Sunday Morning' sometime in late October or early November. Part of the problem was the band's managers Warhol and Morrissey. One was really only a manager in name and acted more of a figurehead and certainly more of an artist, and the other was no professional businessman/manager and not skilled in nor had experience in dealing with record labels and getting them to do what he wanted. On the other hand Cohen, who looked after the interests of the Mothers, was exactly that, a professional skilled in the art of negotiating with record labels to do what he wanted. And no doubt after the single 'All Tomorrow's Parties' had been lost to instant obscurity, no doubt the label and Wilson wanted to test the waters first of all with a single before unleashing a full-formed album. ‘Sunday Morning’, which becomes the group’s second single, gets to see the light of day in December 1966 and dies a death almost as quickly as 'All Tomorrow's Parties'. With that single and 'Sunday Morning' - initially designed with Nico in mind - it does seem that the record company/Wilson plan was to promote Nico over and above the rest of the band. The first two singles by the band feature all three songs Nico appears on and 'Sunday Morning' where she can be heard, briefly, singing backing vocals. This time MGM/Verve take a little more trouble in promoting the single even if they seem not to actually print up that many copies but the single is released not just in the USA but also in Canada and Australia too. The single also gets a review in 'Cashbox' which describes the lead song as a "haunting, lyrical emotion-stirring chant." According to Morrissey, the label just didn't know what to do with the band and felt there wasn't a market for the album. and there was nothing on there that would get them air time on the radio. It was as if the record label just didn't know what to do with them. Perhaps a fair point, on the one side they had the pop aesthetic with songs like 'Femme Fatale' and 'Sunday Morning', albeit with a bitter twist and staunch avant-garde stance as witnessed by their next track 'Loop' which would see the light of day on an independent imprint. The track, clear evidence of the band's avant-garde, minimalist credentials appeared on the flexi disc included on the third issue of the arts magazine 'Aspen' with 'White Wind' by folk guitarist Peter Walker on the reverse side. While the music is credited to The Velvet Underground the track is wholly written and performed by Cale and is seven minutes of unforgiving, relentless, discordant riffs and distortion. The label simply describes the music as "guitar and feedback." Interestingly the label also describes it as the "first half of a 15-minute recording made with two monaural tape recorders." with its "final groove purposely left open" so that it endlessly repeats unless the listener lifts the needle from the record - effectively creating one continuous loop. The track while not really a 'proper' Velvet Underground release certainly had more in common with the music Cale was making on his own around this time, music that would only get released much later on with his 'New York in the 1960s' series and the various 'Inside the Dream Syndicate' volumes. Clearly Reed wasn't impressed at all, telling 'Open City in November 1968: "I have to make myself perfectly clear on this, that was something John did, and I'm not interested in that kind of thing, per se, very much." As with 'Noise', Tucker claimed not to be familiar with the track. Along with the flexi Reed also penned a sort of stream-of-consciousness piece on the importance of rock 'n' roll for the magazine entitled 'The View from the Bandstand' and shows his love of doo-wop groups. "How can they give Robert Lowell a poetry prize. It's a joke. What about the EXCELLENTS, Martha & the Vandellas," he raves before listing some of his favourite songwriters like Holland/Dozier/Holland, Bacharach & David, Goffin & King and Jeff Barry. "Will none of the powers that be," he continued. "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. Have you ever listened to 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin',' where the girls are saying 'oohhhh' and suddenly, naturally, just right, come in with 'baby', against Bill Medley's building vocal line. Repetition. Every head in America must know the last three drum choruses of 'Dawn' by the Four Seasons... There is no god and Brian Wilson is his son. Brian Wilson stirred up the chords..." And he finds the space to namecheck some of his favourite doo-wop acts, such as the Jesters, the Diablos, the Elchords, the Harptones and Alicia & The Rockaways. He also gives a tip of the hat to the likes of Ritchie Valens, Little Richard and Bo Diddley and more contemporary bands like the Who. For Reed, this was the music that "kept us from going crazy". 1967... The Velvet Underground start the year with something of a residency at Steve Paul's Scene in New York on 46th Street just west of Broadway, although contemporary posters for the event, which ran 2-14 January, bill it as a "happening" but not as an EPI event yet still mention Warhol's name and refer to the band as "Verve Recording Artists". For at least some of the gigs the Velvets were backed by the jazz-rock group the Free Spirits. Rhythm guitarist Chip Baker is quoted in Unterberger's book 'White Light/White Heat' recollecting those gigs: "They [The Velvet Underground] played very long songs, and their harmonic courses were kind of unclear to me at the time. Maybe they weren't clear to them. But these folks were definitely a part of something special around Warhol and the Factory." The Free Spirit's drummer Bob Moses also gives an insight into Tucker's drumming style: "Where the snare drum was supposed to be, she had an anvil. She had a mic right on the anvil, and she used to play these quarter notes, just BANG! BANG! BANG!" Moses clearly wasn't a fan, going on to state: "I've heard lots of loud music but that was like an instant migraine - 30 seconds of that and your head just was killing in pain." The Free Spirit's manager Ted Gehrke wasn't an admirer either, but more charitable than Moses: "The Velvets in those days were almost unlistenable sonically. The songs were, or seemed to be, truly cool, and well done. But they didn't have much of an idea about how to sound good. At The Scene, the first couple of nights, they put the amps in each corner of The Scene. Primitive sound-surround! Of course all the amps were at 11, all pointed at each other, and all pointed at the mics." Also in early 1967, although the exact date is uncertain, the band make some rough demos at John Cale's loft apartment on Ludlow St, with some of the recordings made here eventually seeing the light of day on the 'Peel Slowly and See' box set. The five songs recorded now won't appear on the upcoming album but are interesting nonetheless. Most obviously although Nico is still a member of the group she isn't present on any of these songs, and while Tucker is present most of the arrangements are drum free. Only 'Here She Comes Now' will be officially released in the band's lifetime, getting an airing on 'White Light/White Heat' but in a re-recorded form. Here, it is a far less lively version than on the album and ends with a whirlwind of Cale's viola. It seems two takes of the song are recorded. The version that appeared on the box set features what appears to be stream-of-unconscious lyrics, making very little sense but a second take, that has appeared on bootlegs. has a far more structured set of lyrics which balances the ballad between romantic yearning and sexual innuendo. Also recorded now are tentative versions of 'I'm Not Too Sorry (Now That You've Gone)', 'It's All Right (The Way That You Live)', 'Sheltered Life' and 'There is No Reason'. The liner notes for 'Peel Slowly and See' place these recordings as taking place in Ludlow Street in "early 1967" but this is thrown into some doubt as Cale hasn't lived there since around 1965. These recordings are also interesting, no matter when they were recorded, as they show the band was already moving into a sweeter, gentler direction early on, an aspect they would reject in favour of the brutal, aggressive assault on their second album.

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Velvet Underground - Velvet Underground Part 4

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