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Art in the right place: Cosey Fanni Tutti’s ‘Art Sex Music’

Five years ago I wrote a blog about one of my favourite bands, Throbbing Gristle (TG; Yorkshire slang for a penile erection). In that article, I noted that TG were arguably one of “the most extreme bands of all time” and “highly confrontational”. They were also the pioneers of ‘industrial music’ and in terms of their ‘songs’, no topic was seen as taboo or off-limits. In short, they explored the dark and obsessive side of the human condition. Their ‘music’ featured highly provocative and disturbing imagery including hard-core pornography, sexual manipulation, school bullying, ultra-violence, sado-masochism, masturbation, ejaculation, castration, cannibalism, Nazism, burns victims, suicide, and serial killers (Myra Hindley and Ian Brady).

I mention all this because I have just spent the last few days reading the autobiography (‘Art Sex Music‘) of Cosey Fanni Tutti (born Christine Newbie), one of the four founding members of TG. It was a fascinating (and in places a harrowing) read. As someone who is a record-collecting completist and having amassed almost everything that TG ever recorded, I found Cosey’s book gripping and read the last 350 pages (out of 500) in a single eight-hour sitting into the small hours of Sunday morning earlier today.

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TG grew out of the ‘performance art’ group COUM Transmissions in the mid-1970s comprising Genesis P-Orridge (‘Gen’, born Neil Megson in 1950) and Cosey. At the time, Cosey and Gen were a ‘couple’ (although after reading Cosey’s book, it was an unconventional relationship to say the least). TG officially formed in 1975 when Chris Carter (born 1953) and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson (1955-2010). Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Fairburn famously called the group “wreckers of civilisation” (which eventually became the title of their 1999 biography by Simon Ford).

As I noted in my previous article, TG are – psychologically – one of the most interesting groups I have ever come across and Cosey’s book pulled no punches. To some extent, Cosey’s book attempted to put the record straight in response to Simon Ford’s book which was arguably a more Gen-oriented account of TG. Anyone reading Cosey’s book will know within a few pages who she sees as the villain of the TG story. Gen is portrayed as an egomaniacal tyrant who manipulated her. Furthermore, she was psychologically and physically abused by Gen throughout their long relationship in the 1970s. Thankfully, Cosey fell in love with fellow band member Chris Carter and he is still the “heartbeat” of the relationship and to who her book is dedicated.

Like many of my favourite groups (The Beatles, The Smiths, The Velvet Underground, Depeche Mode), TG were (in Gestaltian terms) more than the sum of their parts and all four members were critical in them becoming a cult phenomenon. The story of their break up in the early 1980s and their reformation years later had many parallels with that of the Velvet Underground’s split and reformation – particularly the similarities between Gen and Lou Reed who both believed they were leaders of “their” band and who both walked out during their second incarnations.

Cosey is clearly a woman of many talents and after reading her book I would describe her as an artist (and not just a ‘performance artist’), musician (or maybe ‘anti-musician in the Brian Eno sense of the word), writer, and lecturer, as well as former pornographic actress, model, and stripper. It is perhaps her vivid descriptions of her life in the porn industry and as a stripper that (in addition to her accounts of physical and psychological abuse by Gen) were the most difficult to read. For someone as intelligent as Cosey (after leaving school with few academic qualifications but eventually gaining a first-class degree via the Open University), I wasn’t overly convinced by her arguments that her time working in the porn industry both as a model and actress was little more than an art project that she engaged in on her own terms. But that was Cosey’s justification and I have no right to challenge her on it.

What I found even more interesting was how she little connection between her ‘pornographic’ acting and modelling work and her time as a stripper (the latter she did purely for money and to help make ends meet during the 1980s). Her work as a porn model and actress was covert, private, seemingly enjoyable, and done behind closed doors without knowing who the paying end-users were seeing her naked. Her work as a stripper was overt, public, not so enjoyable, and played out on stage directly in front of those paying to see her naked. Two very different types of work and two very different psychologies (at least in the way that Cosey described it).

Obviously both jobs involved getting naked but for Cosey, that appeared to be the only similarity. She never ever had sex for money with any of the clientele that paid to see her strip yet she willingly made money for sex within the porn industry. For Cosey, there was a moral sexual code that she worked within, and that sex as a stripper was a complete no-no. The relationship with Gen was (as I said above) ‘unconventional’ and Gen often urged her and wanted her to have sex with other men (and although she never mentioned it in her book, I could speculate that Gen had some kind of ‘cuckold fetish’ that I examined in a previous blog as well as some kind of voyeur). There were a number of times in the book when Cosey appeared to see herself as some kind of magnet for unwanted attention (particularly exhibitionists – so-called ‘flashers’ – who would non-consensually expose their genitalia in front of Cosey from a young age through to adulthood). Other parts of the book describe emotionally painful experiences (and not just those caused by Gen) including both her parents disowning her and a heartfelt account of a miscarriage (and the hospital that kept her foetus without her knowledge or consent). There are other sections in the book that some readers may find troubling including her menstruation art projects (something that I perhaps should have mentioned in my blog  on artists who use their bodily fluids for artistic purposes).

Cosey’s book is a real ‘warts and all’ account of her life including her many health problems, many of which surprisingly matched my own (arrhythmic heart condition, herniated spinal discs, repeated breaking of feet across the lifespan). Another unexpected connection was that her son with Chris Carter (Nick) studied (and almost died of peritonitis) as an undergraduate studying at art at Nottingham University or Nottingham Trent University. I say ‘or’ because at one stage in the book it says that Nick studied at Nottingham University and in another extract it says they were proud parents attending his final degree art show at Nottingham Trent University. I hope it was the latter.

Anyone reading the book would be interested in many of the psychological topics that make an appearance in the book including alcoholism, depression, claustrophobia, egomania, and suicide to name just a few. In previous blogs I’ve looked at whether celebrities are more prone to some psychological conditions including addictions and egomania and the book provides some interesting case study evidence. As a psychologist and a TG fan I loved reading the book.

 Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addictions, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cooper, D. (2012). Sypha presents … Music from the Death Factory: A Throbbing Gristle primer. Located at: http://denniscooper-theweaklings.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/sypha-presents-music-from-death-factory.html?zx=c19a3a826c3170a7

Fanni Tutti, C. (2017). Art Sex Music. Faber & Faber: London.

Ford, S. (1999). Wreckers of Civilization: The Story of Coum Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle. London: Black Dog Publishing.

Kirby, D. (2011). Transgressive representations: Satanic ritual abuse, Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, and First Transmission. Literature and Aesthetics, 21, 134-149.

Kromhout, M. (2007). ‘The Impossible Real Transpires’ – The Concept of Noise in the Twentieth Century: a Kittlerian Analysis. Located at: http://www.mellekromhout.nl/wp-content/uploads/The-Impossible-Real-Transpires.pdf

Reynolds, S. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk, 1978–1984. New York: Penguin.

Sarig, R. (1998). The Secret History of Rock: The Most Influential Bands You’ve Never Heard Of. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications.

Walker, J.A. (2009). Cosey Fanni Tutti & Genesis P-Orridge in 1976: Media frenzy, Prostitution-style, Art Design Café, August 10. Located at: http://www.artdesigncafe.com/cosey-fanni-tutti-genesis-p-orridge-1-2009

Wells, S. (2007). A Throbbing Gristle primer. The Guardian, May 27. Located at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2007/may/29/athrobbinggristleprimer

Under the influence: Ten things I’ve learned from David Bowie

It’s now been a year since the tragic death of David Bowie and this is my fourth blog on him in that period (my others being my personal reflections on the psychology of Bowie, Bowie and the Beatles, and Bowie and the occult). Outside of my own friends and family, it’s still Bowie’s death that has affected me the most psychologically but at least I still have his music to listen to. Bowie inspired millions of people in many different ways. This blog looks at the things that I have learned from Bowie and how he influenced my career.

Persevere with your life goals – Most people are aware that it took years for Bowie to have has first hit single (‘Space Oddity’, 1969), five years after his first single (‘Liza Jane’, 1964). Even after the success of ‘Space Oddity’, it took another three years before he had his second hit single (‘Starman’, 1972) and in the early 1970s there were many who thought he would be a ‘one-hit wonder’ and a small footnote in music history. Bowie never gave up his quest for musical stardom and is arguably one of the best examples of the proverb If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. I’ve often told others that they key to success is being able to learn from your mistakes and being able to handle rejection (which for academics is having papers rejected, grant bids rejected, and attempts at promotion rejected, etc.). Bowie personified perseverance and for this quality alone I am very grateful as it has been the bedrock of my career to date.

Encourage teamwork and collaboration – Despite being a solo artist for the vast majority of his post-1969 career (Tin Machine being the most high-profile notable exception), Bowie was (like me) a ‘promiscuous collaborator’ and much of his success would not have been possible without a gifted team around him whether it be his inner circle of musicians (Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar, Robert Fripp, Mike Garson, etc.), his producers (Tony Visconti, Nile Rogers, Ken Scott, etc.), co-writers and inspirators (Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, John Lennon, etc.), or those he jointly released music with (Mott The Hoople, Queen, Arcade Fire, Pet Shop Boys, Placebo, to name just a few). I have carried out and published research with hundreds of people during my 30-year academic career, and like Bowie, some are one-off collaborations and others are lifelong collaborations. Bowie taught me that although I can do some things by myself, it is the working with others that brings out the best in me.

Experiment to the end – Bowie was never afraid to experiment and try new things whether it was musical, pharmacological, spiritual, or sexual. Mistakes were part of the learning process and he pursued this – especially musically – until the very end of his life (for instance, on his ★ [Blackstar] album where he employed a local New York jazz combo led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin). Failure is success if we learn from it and this is one of the maxims that I live my life by. Bowie taught me that you can have lots of other interests that can be rewarding even if you are not as successful as your day job. Bowie liked to act (and obviously had some success in this area) and also liked to paint (but had much less success here than his other artistic endeavours). By any set of criteria, I am a successful academic but I also like to write journalistically and engage in a wide variety of consultancy (areas that I have had some success) and I like writing poetry (something that I have not been successful financially – although I did win a national Poetry Today competition back in 1997 and have published a number of my poems). Bowie taught me that success in one area of your life can lead to doing other more experimental and rewarding activities even if they are not as financially lucrative.

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Push yourself (even in the bad times) – One of the things I love about Bowie was his ability to carry on working and being productive even when he was not at his physical best. Nowhere is this more exemplified than working on the ★ LP while undergoing chemotherapy for his liver cancer. There are also other times in his life such as when he was at the height of his cocaine addiction in 1975 where he produced some of the best music of his career (most notably the Young Americans and Station to Station LPs, the latter of which is one of my all-time favourite records). I have had a few low periods in my life due to various health, relationship and/or personal issues but I have learned through experience that work is a great analgesic and that even when you are at your lowest ebb you can still be highly productive.

Have a Protestant work ethic – Bowie was arguably one of the most hard-working musicians of all time and had what can only be described as a Protestant work ethic from the early 1960s right up until his heart attack in 2004. I am a great believer in the philosophy that “you get out what you put in” and Bowie exemplified this. Andy Warhol told Lou Reed while he was in the Velvet Underground that he should work hard, because work is all that really matters (and was the subject of the song ‘Work’ on the seminal Songs For Drella LP by Reed and John Cale). Bowie also appeared to live by this mantra and is something that I adhere to myself (and is why I am often described as being a workaholic). While Bowie isn’t my only role model in this regard, he’s certainly the most high-profile.

Lead by example but acknowledge your influences – Bowie had a unique gift in being able to borrow from his own heroes but turn it into something of his own (without ever forgetting his own heroes and influences – his Pin Ups LP probably being the best example of this). One of my favourite phrases is Don’t jump on the bandwagon, create it”, and this has as underpinned a lot of the research areas that I have initiated and is something that I learned from Bowie. Maybe Bowie is a case of the quote often attributed to Oscar Wilde that “talent borrows, genius steals”.

Promote yourself – If there is one thing that Bowie was gifted in as much as his songwriting, it was his own art of self-promotion. Bowie always had the knack to generate news stories about himself and his work without seemingly trying. By the end of his career, it was the act of not saying anything or doing any personal publicity that was just as newsworthy. Bowie intuitively knew how to garner media publicity on his own terms in a way that very few others can. (I also argued that another one of my heroes – Salvador Dali – did the same thing in one of my articles on him in The Psychologist back in 1994). I’d like to think I am good at promoting my work and Bowie is one of my role models in this regard.

Be opportunistic and flexible – If there is one thing besides working hard that sums up my career to date, it is being opportunistic and flexible. As a voracious reader of all things Bowie since my early teens, I always loved Bowie’s sense of adventure and just following paths because they might lead you to something unexpected. Whether it was his use of the ‘cut up’ technique for writing lyrics (developed by Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs), his use of Brian Eno’s ‘oblique strategy’ cards, or his love of studio improvisation (such as on the Berlin trilogy albums and the Outside LP), Bowie showed that inspiration for his musical and lyrical ideas could come from anywhere – from a person, from a fleeting observation, from something he read, from something he heard or saw in film or TV programme, and from his own life experiences. I too have taken this approach to my work and believe I am a much better person for it.

Be a mentor to others – Whatever career path you follow, mentors are key in developing talent and Bowie was a mentor to many people that he personally worked with (including many of the artists I named in the section on encouraging teamwork and collaboration above) as well as being an inspirational influence to those he never met (including myself).

Learn from those younger and less experienced than yourself – Paradoxically, despite being an influence on millions of people across many walks of life, Bowie was never afraid to learn from those much younger than himself and exemplified the maxim that you’re never too old to learn new things. He loved innovation and ideas and would soak it up from whoever was around him. As I have got older, this is something that I value more and am never afraid to learn from those much younger or seemingly less experienced than myself – particularly my PhD students.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Buckley, D. (2005). Strange Fascination: David Bowie – The Definitive Story. London: Virgin Books.

Cann, K. (2010). Any Day Now: David Bowie The London Years (1947-1974). Adelita.

Goddard, S. (2015). Ziggyology. London: Ebury Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). Heroes: Salvador Dali. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 7, 240.

Hewitt, P. (2013). David Bowie Album By Album. London: Carlton Books Ltd.

Leigh, W. (2014). Bowie: The Biography. London: Gallery.

Pegg, N. (2011). The Complete David Bowie. London: Titan Books.

Seabrook, T.J. (2008). Bowie In Berlin: A New Career In A New Town. London: Jawbone.

Spitz, M. (2009). Bowie: A Biography. Crown Archetype.

Trynka, P. (2011). Starman: David Bowie – The Definitive Biography. London: Little Brown & Company.

Sound conclusions: The psychology of musical preferences

Last week I was invited to give a keynote talk at an Italian conference on community psychology in Padova. The reason I mention this is because it was at this conference I met another academic – Dr. Tom Ter Bogt – that has a job that I would love to have. Dr. Ter Bogt is a Professor in Popular Music and Youth Culture at the Department of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences of Utrecht University. Regular readers of my blog will know that I have an obsessive love of music and have written about the psychology many of my musical heroes in previous blogs.

It all started when Dr. Ter Bogt innocently asked me what I thought of Noel Gallagher’s latest album (Chasing Yesterday). When I told him that I thought it was great, it sparked a long conversation where we discussed our eclectic love of music taking in a shared appreciation of Oasis, The Beatles, Throbbing Gristle, The Velvet UndergroundLou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Grace Jones, Johnny Cash, and Chic (to name but a few). I also learned that he used to be a club DJ and that he had authored a best selling book on the history of pop music in his home country. In further email conversations, he also shared with me that his most played artists were Television and the Comsat Angels (something I would never have predicted based on out initial conversation but something that I found endearing).

In the nicest way possible, I am envious of Dr. Ter Bogt’s job. He has managed to become a professor through his love of music, and now carries out scientific research on the topic. Our respective research backgrounds – while very different – occasionally intersect. For instance, Dr. Ter Bogt and his colleagues published a paper in a 2002 issue of Contemporary Drug Problems on ‘Dancestasy’ (dance and MDMA use) in Dutch youth culture and I have published papers on both dance as an addiction, and young people’s use of ecstasy as a ‘risky but rewarding behaviour’ (see ‘Further reading below).

As an avid music fan I was interested to read Dr. Ter Bogt’s typology of music listeners in a 2010 paper in the journal Psychology of Music. In this study, Dr. Ter Bogt and his colleagues constructed a typology of music listeners based on the of importance attributed to music and four types of music use (among a sample of nearly a thousand Dutch participants): (i) mood enhancement (e.g., “Music helps me to relax and stop thinking about things”), (ii) coping with problems (e.g., “I always play music when I feel sad”), (iii) defining personal identity (e.g., “Lyrics of my music often express how I feel”), and (iv) social identity (e.g., “I can’t be friends with someone who dislikes my music”).

Using latent class analysis, the study’s participants were classed into three listener groups – High-Involved Listeners (HILs; 19.7% of the sample), Medium-Involved Listeners (MILs; 74.2%), and Low-Involved Listeners (LILs; 6.1%). HILs listened to music most often for mood enhancement, coping with distress, identity construction and social identity formation. MILs and LILs formed predictably attached less importance to music in their lives. HILs liked a wide range of musical genres (e.g., pop, rock, urban, dance, etc.) and experienced the most positive affects when listening to music. Interestingly, both HILs and MILs (when compared to LILs) reported more negative affects (such as anger and sadness) when listening to music. The study also reported that even LILs listened to music frequently and used it as a mood enhancer.

In a 2010 study in the Journal of Adolescence, Dr. Ter Bogt and his colleagues examined the association between music preferences and adolescent substance use. In a nationally representative sample of 7324 Dutch adolescents (aged 12–16 years), the study collected data concerning music preferences, substance use behaviors, and the perceived number of peers using substances. Adolescent music preferences for eight different music genres clustered into four distinct styles labeled as pop (chart music, Dutch pop), adult (classical music, jazz), urban (rap/hip-hop, soul/R&B) and hard (punk/hardcore, techno/hard-house). Adolescent substance use among the participants comprised smoking, drinking, and cannabis use. The results showed that music preference and substance use was either wholly or partially mediated by perceived peer use.

Using the same dataset, a study published in a 2009 issue of Substance Use and Misuse reported that when all other factors were controlled for, higher levels of substance use was more likely among those who liked punk/hardcore, techno/hard-house, and reggae while lower levels of substance use was more likely among those who preferred pop and classical music. According to Ter Bogt and his colleagues, prior empirical research had demonstrated that liking heavy metal and rap predicted substance use. The Dutch data in this study found that “a preference for rap/hip-hop only indicated elevated smoking among girls, whereas heavy metal was associated with less smoking among boys and less drinking among girls”. Consequently, it was concluded that the music genres associated with increased substance use “may vary historically and cross-culturally, but, in general, preferences for nonmainstream music are associated positively with substance use, and preferences for mainstream pop and types of music preferred by adults (classical music) mark less substance use among adolescents”. The authors also noted that the data were correlational therefore the direction of causation of the music–substance use link cannot be drawn.

In a more recent (2013) study published in the journal Pediatrics, Dr. Ter Bogt and colleagues examined the relationship between early adolescents’ musical preferences and minor delinquency. Following 309 adolescents (149 boys, 160 girls) from the age of 12 years over a four-year period, the study found that that early fans of different types of rock (e.g., rock, heavy metal, gothic, punk), African American music (rhythm and blues, hip-hop), and electronic dance music (trance, techno/hard-house) showed elevated minor delinquency both concurrently and longitudinally. Conversely, preferring conventional pop (chart pop) or highbrow music (classic music, jazz) was negatively related to minor delinquency. The study concluded that “early music preferences emerged as more powerful indicators of later delinquency rather than early delinquency, indicating that music choice is a strong marker of later problem behavior”.

On a personal level, I know how important music is in my on life and as a source of my own identity. The many studies carried out by Dr. Ter Bogt and his research colleagues further our understanding of music across the lifespan (particularly its role in adolescence) and I look forward to reading their future work.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Delsing, M. J., Ter Bogt, T. F., Engels, R. C., & Meeus, W. H. (2008). Adolescents’ music preferences and personality characteristics. European Journal of Personality, 22(2), 109-130.

Larkin, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Dangerous sports and recreational drug-use: Rationalising and contextualising risk. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 14, 215-232.

Maraz, A., Király, O., Urbán, R., Griffiths, M.D., Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Why do you dance? Development of the Dance Motivation Inventory (DMI). PLoS ONE, 10(3): e0122866. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0122866

Maraz, A., Urbán, R., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics Z. (2015). An empirical investigation of dance addiction. PloS ONE, 10(5): e0125988. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0125988.

Mulder, J., Ter Bogt, T. F., Raaijmakers, Q. A., Gabhainn, S. N., Monshouwer, K., & Vollebergh, W. A. (2009). The soundtrack of substance use: music preference and adolescent smoking and drinking. Substance Use and Misuse, 44(4), 514-531.

Mulder, J., Ter Bogt, T. F., Raaijmakers, Q. A., Gabhainn, S. N., Monshouwer, K., & Vollebergh, W. A. (2010). Is it the music? Peer substance use as a mediator of the link between music preferences and adolescent substance use. Journal of Adolescence, 33, 387-394.

Mulder, J., Ter Bogt, T., Raaijmakers, Q., & Vollebergh, W. (2007). Music taste groups and problem behavior. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36(3), 313-324.

Selfhout, M. H., Branje, S. J., ter Bogt, T. F., & Meeus, W. H. (2009). The role of music preferences in early adolescents’ friendship formation and stability. Journal of Adolescence, 32(1), 95-107.

Ter Bogt, T., Engels, R., Hibbel, B., Van Wel, F., & Verhagen, S. (2002). ‘Dancestasy’: Dance and MDMA use in Dutch youth culture. Contemporary Drug Problems, 29, 157–181.

Ter Bogt, T. F., Keijsers, L., & Meeus, W. H. (2013). Early adolescent music preferences and minor delinquency. Pediatrics, 131(2), e380-e389.

Ter Bogt, T.F., Mulder, J., Raaijmakers, Q.A., & Gabhainn, S.N. (2010). Moved by music: A typology of music listeners. Psychology of Music, 39, 147-163.

The Velvet Revolution: Is ‘Venus in Furs’ the most radical song in popular music?

As regular readers of my blog will know, my overriding passion in life is music, and as a music lover my record and CD collecting (at times) borders on obsession. In a previous blog I looked at the extreme music of Throbbing Gristle. In today’s blog I want to make the case that the song Venus in Furs by the Velvet Underground is perhaps the most radical song in the history of popular music. It also happens to be one of my all-time favourite songs and is arguably the song that (along with most of Adam and the Ants’ early recorded output) got me academically interested in sexual paraphilias.

Behavioural and psychological extremes run through the core of the Velvet Underground’s musical philosophy. For those who know nothing about them, the first thing to know is that they named themselves after a 1963 book by the journalist Michael Leigh about the secret sexual subculture in America (there was also a 1968 follow-up book called The Velvet Underground Revisited). In 1967, the book was republished in the UK (although the name of the book had changed to Bizarre Sex Underground). As the Wikipedia entry on the book notes:

“Leigh investigates aberrant sexual behavior between consenting adults, that is, everything other than simple intercourse conducted in privacy by a heterosexual couple, e.g., husband and wife swapping, group sex, sex orgy parties, homosexual activities, sado-masochism. The author reports on the various ways in which such practices are solicited (newspaper advertisements, clubs, etcetera), and by following these leads, manages to get into touch with many of its participants, usually through written correspondence. The book liberally treats us with quotations from this material. This is complemented with quotes from various magazines. The author’s general aim is to establish that a shift in attitude toward sexuality is taking place in society that not only allows a large cross-section of the American population to partake in such non-standard sexual practices, but also allows them to believe that what they are doing is perfectly healthy and normal”

The band was formed in New York in 1965 and grew out of the ‘fictional’ band The Primitives (comprising Lou Reed, John Cale, Walter De Maria, and Angus MacLise) who had a local hit with ‘The Ostrich’ (penned by Reed). They had various names including The Warlocks and The Falling Spikes before settling on The Velvet Underground (suggested by MacLise after finding a copy of Leigh’s book in the street). Following the departures of De Maria and MacLise, Reed and Cale recruited Sterling Morrison and Maureen (‘Mo’) Tucker and it is this incarnation of the band that features what most people consider the ‘classic’ line-up (although even after Cale left and was replaced by Doug Yule, I liked that line-up’s LPs too). Their first manager was the pop-artist Andy Warhol who parted ways with the group after the recording of their first (1967) album The Velvet Underground and Nico (that featured the German chanteuse Nico singing on three of the songs). As ‘non-musician’ Brian Eno once said of the Velvet Underground – they didn’t sell many records [in their lifetime], but everybody who bought their first album went out and formed a band.

During their short career, Reed and Cale penned some of the best and most extreme rock songs of all time. The topics of their songs included sado-masochism, bondage and submission (Venus in Furs), scoring drugs (I’m Waiting For The Man), heroin use (Heroin), amphetamine use (White Light, White Heat), transexualism (Candy Says), death (The Black Angel’s Death Song), accidental death (The Gift), murder (The Murder Mystery), sex-change operations (Lady Godiva’s Operation), female sexual problems (Here She Comes Now), and even one song that features drug use, violence, sexual orgies, homosexuality, transvestism, and fellatio (Sister Ray). Most music commentators often point out that the group’s provocative lyrics presented a nihilistic outlook on life.

Brian Duguid, in his 1995 A Prehistory of Industrial Music, said that the release of the Velvet Underground’s first album was a turning point for rock music as they were the first band to incorporate the avant-garde into their music (thanks to John Cale’s scholarship with La Monte Young and the influence of his ‘drone’ music). Duguid claims that the Velvet Underground combined avant-garde with one of the most alienated, hostile attitudes rock had so far developed”.

Venus in Furs (written by Reed) appeared on the Velvet’s first album and is arguably the group’s greatest and most sexually provocative song, and was based on the 1870 novella of the same name written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose name is the basis for the word ‘masochism’ as the book was semi-autobiographical; Sacher-Masoch considered himself the ‘slave’ of Baroness Bogdanoff, his mistress). Most of Sacher-Masoch’s stories featured a woman in furs. As Dr. Anil Aggrawal notes in his 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices:

“The term masochism was coined in 1886 by the Austro-German psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902), after a contemporary writer, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836–1895), whose partially autobiographical novel Venus in Furs (1870) tells of the protagonist Severin von Kusiemski’s desire to be whipped and enslaved by a beautiful woman. Wanda von Dunajew. Severin describes his feelings during these experiences as suprasensuality”.

The song basically tells Sacher-Masoch’s story in music form. As the Wikipedia entry on the Venus in Furs novella notes:

“Wanda von Dunajew, the novel’s central female character, was modelled after Fanny Pistor, who was an emerging literary writer. The two met when Pistor contacted Sacher-Masoch, under assumed name and fictitious title of Baroness Bogdanoff, for suggestions on improving her writing to make it suitable for publication. [The story] concerns a man who dreams of speaking to Venus about love while she wears furs. The unnamed narrator tells his dreams to a friend, Severin, who tells him how to break him of his fascination with cruel women by reading a manuscript, Memoirs of a Suprasensual Man. This manuscript tells of a man, Severin von Kusiemski, who is so infatuated with a woman, Wanda von Dunajew, that he asks to be her slave, and encourages her to treat him in progressively more degrading ways. At first Wanda does not understand or accede to the request, but after humouring Severin a bit she finds the advantages of the method to be interesting and enthusiastically embraces the idea, although at the same time she disdains Severin for allowing her to do so. Severin describes his feelings during these experiences as suprasensuality. Severin and Wanda travel to Florence. Along the way, Severin takes the generic Russian servant’s name of ‘Gregor’ and the role of Wanda’s servant. In Florence, Wanda treats him brutally as a servant, and recruits a trio of African women to dominate him”

Around the time of the song being written, Andy Warhol’s ‘Factory’ crowd were making movies with sadomasochistic themes such as 1965’s Vinyl (in which Edie Sedgwick played a dominatrix and Gerard Malanga played a masochist. Sterling Morrison claimed the song was “the closest [the Velvet Underground] ever came in my mind to being exactly what I thought [they] could be”. A contemporary review of the song in a 1967 issue of Vibrations magazine by Timothy Jacobs noted:

“’Venus in Furs’ is perhaps the best example of the severity of the music. The texture of the song is pure sado-masochism. The music is remarkable in its expression of this message; the words speak of a life of sheer pain and misery, with frequent mention of Severin, a sadistic monk from Justine [sic], by the Marquis de Sade”.

In his 1967 book Coldness and Cruelty, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze described both sadism and masochism as entire philosophical systems. To Deleuze, Sacher-Masoch and the Marquis de Sade are “great artists in that they discover new forms of expression, new ways of thinking and feeling and an entirely new language”. The same could perhaps be said of the Velvet Underground’s music. In The Post-subcultures Reader, David Muggleton and Rupert Weinzierl (like me) noted the sexually paraphilic overlap in the music of the Velvet Underground and Adam and the Ants:

Musical genealogies of American punk performance often begin with the Velvet Underground (Henry 1989), a band whose name is taken from a masochistic text, and whose song ‘Venus in Furs’ invokes Sacher-Masoch’s (1991) novel of the same title. In London, a decade later, it is Adam and the Ants who bring punk’s masochistic imagery to the fore. Having abandoned his art-college thesis in rubber and leather fetishism, Adam introduced S/M into his stage performances with songs such as ‘Whip my Valise’ and ‘Rubber People’ (Home 1988; Sabin 1999)”.

As far as I am concerned, Venus in Furs is the song that changed rock music forever. It featured subject matter that was so extreme in the 1960s that it sent out a message to any band that rock lyrics don’t have to follow a formula and that no topic is taboo. It let every band know that artistic merit had no boundaries and that record sales are not the be all and end all of musical success (something that John Cale echoed in his speech when the Velvet Underground were inducted into the US Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1996). If you’ve not yet discovered the delights of the Velvet Underground, then hopefully this blog will tempt you into sampling some of their musical wares.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Deleuze, G. (1991). Coldness and Cruelty. In Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty & Venus in Furs (translated by J. McNeil). New York: Zone Books.

Duguid, B. (1995). A Prehistory of Industrial Music. London: ESTWeb.

Henry, T. (1989), Break All Rules! Punk Rock and the Making of a Style, Ann Arbour MI: UMI Research Press.

Heylin, C. (2005). All Yesterday’s Parties – The Velvet Underground In Print 1966-1971. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Hogan, P. (2007). The Rough Guide To The Velvet Underground. London: Penguin.

Home, S. (1988), Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War, London: Aporia Press and Unpopular Books.

Muggleton, D. & Weinzierl, R. (2003). The Post-subcultures Reader. Oxford: Berg

Sabin, R. (1999), ‘Introduction’, in R. Sabin (ed.), Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk, London and New York: Routledge.

Sacher-Masoch, L. von. (1989). Venus in Furs. New York: Zone Books.