Idol thoughts: What links the Velvet Underground and the Beatles?
Regular readers will know that I love music and that two of my favourite bands include the Beatles and the Velvet Underground (both of who I have written blogs about including the VU’s lead singer Lou Reed, as well as blogs here, here, and here). Many would argue that the two bands couldn’t have been further apart musically especially given the Velvet Underground’s reputation as an ‘extreme’ band. However, I thought I would try and gather stories, anecdotes, and make my own observations on where the music and lives of members of the two bands connected in some way. Most of you reading this will know the four members of the Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr) but some of you may not know the original Velvet Underground members (Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker, plus Nico as vocalist on three songs on their first LP). These are presented in no particular order although towards the end of the list, the associations become more tenuous.
- Both bands released their seminal LPs in 1967 (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles and Velvet Underground and Nico by the Velvet Underground). Both of the covers were designed by ‘pop artists’ (Peter Blake and Andy Warhol, the latter being VU’s manager at the time) and both are regarded as iconic LP cover art. The Velvet Underground were in the minority who didn’t like Sgt. Pepper and John Cale dismissed the LP as a “theatrical statement”. Lou Reed went even further and was quoted as saying “I never liked The Beatles. I thought they were garbage”.
- In 1993, Richard Witts (who before being an academic was the lead singer in one of my favourite 1980s band The Passage, and who I wrote about in a previous blog), published a biography about Velvet Underground vocalist Nico (Nico: The Life & Lies of an Icon). Witts claimed that in 1967 (May 19), Nico attended one of Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein’s private parties where he previewed the Pepper for the British media. Nico said in Witts’ book that: “There is a song I liked on Sgt. Pepper, called ‘A Day in the Life. It has a beautiful song and then this strange sound like John Cale would make (he told me it was an orchestra, actually) and then this stupid little pop song that spoils everything so far. I told this to Paul [McCartney], and I made a mistake, because the beautiful song was written by John Lennon and the stupid song was written by Paul. It can be embarrassing when you speak the truth.” Witts book also claimed that Nico briefly stayed with Paul McCartney at his London home during this particular May visit.
- In 1968, both the Beatles and the Velvet Underground released eponymous LPs (i.e., The Beatles by the Beatles and The Velvet Underground by the Velvet Underground). The eponymous Beatles LP is usually referred to as the ‘White Album’ and the eponymous Velvet Underground LP is sometimes referred to as the ‘Grey Album’. The other LP that the Velvet Underground released in 1968 (i.e., White Light/White Heat) was an all-black cover apart from the name of the group and the album title in white whereas the Beatles eponymous album was completely white apart from the name of the album in black). This is sometimes refereed to ‘The Black Album’.
- According to a number of Lou Reed’s biographers, the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein really liked the Velvet Underground’s debut LP and (like David Bowie) was given a promo copy before it had actually been released. Epstein was approached by Steve Sesnick (the Velvet Underground’s manager after Andy Warhol) who contacted him hoping to get a deal for Velvet Underground songs with Epstein’s publishing company. It has also been claimed that Epstein was setting up a European tour for the Velvet Underground but Epstein died just before the contracts were signed (in fact Epstein died on my first birthday, August 27, 1967). According to Richie Unterberger (author of the excellent book White Light, White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day), Reed actually met Epstein: “In a semicomic incident, Lou Reed himself met Brian Epstein around spring 1967 when, at publicist Danny Fields’s instigation, Reed finagled a cab ride with the Beatles manager in New York in the hopes that some interest in the VU’s affairs might be ignited. Evidently nothing came of it, however, other than Epstein sharing a joint with Reed and telling Lou how much he liked the banana album”.
- Lou Reed was a long-term client/patient of German (but New York-based) Dr. Robert Freymann. Freymann (also known as ‘Dr. Feelgood’) was the subject of the 1966 Beatles song ‘Dr. Robert’ on their Revolver.
- Both bands have individuals that are often claimed to be the ‘fifth member’. There are the ‘fifth Beatles’ (George Martin, Brian Epstein, Mal Evans, Billy Preston) and the ‘fifth VU member’ (Nico, Billy Yule, Andy Warhol).
- Anthony DeCurtis (author of the 2017 biography Lou Reed: A Life) speculates that Lou Reed’s song ‘The Day John Kennedy Died’ includes lyrics that are conflated with Reed’s memories of the day John Lennon died. More specifically, Reed wrote that he heard about Kennedy’s death while watching an American football match but there was no game on that day (12.30pm on November 22, 1963). However, on the day John Lennon died, sports broadcaster Howard Cosell announced that Lennon had been shot dead during his evening TV programme Monday Night Football.
- Lou Reed’s 1980 LP Growing Up In Public was recorded in Monserrat at Beatles’ producer George Martin’s studio.
- The Velvet Underground’s first manager, the rock journalist Al Aronowitz, was the man who first introduced the Beatles to Bob Dylan on August 28, 1964 (and George Harrison became Dylan’s life-long friend and were both in the Traveling Wilburys).
- Both ‘leaders’ of the Beatles and Velvet Underground wrote songs about heroin use from a personal perspective (‘Cold Turkey’ by Lennon and ‘Heroin’ by Reed). Other members of both bands experienced alcoholism (Ringo Starr and John Cale), and almost all members of both bands dabbled in various drug use (some very heavily) in the 1960s and 1970s.
- Lou Reed and John Lennon have both collaborated with David Bowie. Bowie produced Reed’s album ‘Transformer‘, sang on the track ‘Hop Frog’ (on The Raven LP), and and sang live on stage together in 1972 and 1997 (at Bowie’s 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden). Bowie co-wrote his No.1 US hit ‘Fame‘ with Lennon at the end of the Young Americans LP sessions (and in a previous blog, I looked at other associations between Bowie and the Beatles). John Cale also collaborated on two songs with Bowie (‘Velvet Couch’ and ‘Piano-la’) but these were never officially released and are only found on bootlegs).
- In the song ‘Rooftop Garden’ (the song that closes Reed’s Legendary Hearts LP), Reed used the line ‘Sitting in my rooftop garden, waiting for the sun’ in which he swapped the word ‘English’ for ‘rooftop’ from the line in ‘I Am The Walrus’.
- Both Lou Reed and Ringo Starr appeared as guests on the 1985 anti-apartheid protest song ‘Sun City’ single and accompanying video put together by Steven Van Zandt. Reed and Starr were also both inducted into the US ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame’ in 2015.
- In 2011, Lou Reed and Paul McCartney both appeared on the same tribute album (Rave On) to Buddy Holly. Reed sang ‘Peggy Sue‘ and McCartney sang ‘It’s So Easy‘ (and McCartney earned money from both as he owns Holly’s back catalogue).
- Both Lou Reed and George Harrison have been heavily influenced in their lives by various aspects of Buddhism.
- Both John Lennon and Lou Reed spent the last decade of their lives living in New York (although Reed never lived in anywhere but New York) and both released albums with New York in the title (Some Time in New York City by Lennon and New York by Reed).
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addictions, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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DeCurtis, A. (2017). Lou Reed: A Life. London: John Murray.
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Hare, R. D., & Vertommen, H. (2003). The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised. Multi-Health Systems, Incorporated.
Heylin, C. (2005). All Yesterday’s Parties – The Velvet Underground In Print 1966-1971. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
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Kostek, M.C. (1992). The Velvet Underground Handbook . London: Black Spring Press.
Lewisohn, M. (1990). The Complete Beatles Chronicle. London: Harmony Books.
McNeil, Legs; McCain, G. (1996). Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. London: Grove Press.
Muggleton, D. & Weinzierl, R. (2003). The Post-Subcultures Reader. Oxford: Berg.
Norman, P. (2011). Shout! the Beatles in their generation. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Reed, L. (1992). Between Thought and Expression. London: Penguin Books.
Unterberger, R. (2011). White Light, White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day. London: Edition Olms.
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Witts, R. (1993). Nico: The Life & Lies of an Icon. London: Virgin Books.
Musical flares: Bowie, The Beatles, psychology, songs, and addiction
It’s been only two weeks since David Bowie’s untimely death and the Bowie obsessive in me is still finding it difficult to accept. I have never been more upset by the death of someone that I didn’t know personally. The only other celebrity death that left me with such an empty feeling was that of John Lennon back in December 1980. I was only 14 years old but I remember waking up to the news on that Tuesday morning (December 9, the morning after he had been shot in New York by Mark David Chapman). I went to school that day with a feeling I had never experienced before and I got it again two weeks ago when Bowie (co-incidentally) died in New York.
Bowie and The Beatles (and Lennon in particular) are arguably the two biggest musical influences on my life. With my interest in addictive behaviours, Bowie and Lennon are just two of the many celebrities that have succumbed to substance abuse and addiction over the years (and was a topic I covered in a previous blog – ‘Excess in success: Are celebrities more prone to addiction?’). Thankfully, neither of their addictions was that long-lasting, and neither of them wrote that many songs about their drug-fuelled experiences (although Lennon’s ‘Cold Turkey’ about his heroin addiction is a notable exception).
Lennon was arguably one of Bowie’s musical heroes although Bowie’s 1973 covers LP Pin-Ups was notable for the absence of Beatle covers. By 1973, Bowie had covered songs by The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, The Pretty Things, and The Who on vinyl but never The Beatles. Having said that, two Beatle songs did play a small part in his concerts between 1972 and 1974. Most notably, The Beatles very first British single ‘Love Me Do’ was often played as a medley with ‘The Jean Genie’. (On the 1990 Sound and Vision Tour, a snippet of ‘A Hard Day’s Night‘ was also sometimes incorporated into ‘The Jean Genie’. He also sang a snippet of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends‘ in the encore of his final concert in 1978). Bowie also occasionally covered ‘This Boy’ (the b-side of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, their fifth British hit single in his concerts) as part of the early ‘Ziggy Stardust’ shows. (I’m probably one of the few people in the world that has this song on bootleg). Speaking of bootlegs, the Chameleon Chronicles CD featured a cover of the 1967 single ‘Penny Lane‘ allegedly by Bowie along with The Monkees song ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’ (written by Neil Diamond). Although these songs sound like 1960s Bowie, they were actually from a 1967 LP (Hits ’67) and sung by session singer (Tony Steven). Nicholas Pegg (in his great book The Complete David Bowie) also noted that Bowie’s late 1960s group Feathers included ‘Strawberry Fields Forever‘ in their live set and that Bowie performed ‘When I’m Sixty-Four‘ in his 1968 live cabaret show after his own song ‘When I’m Five‘).
It was in 1975 that Bowie worked with Lennon musically, and Lennon appeared on two songs of Bowie’s 1975 LP Young Americans (although Bowie gave Lennon a name check in his 1971 song ‘Life On Mars‘ – “Now the workers have struck for fame/’Cause Lennon’s on sale again”). The most well-known was ‘Fame’ (one of my own personal favoutrites) which went to No.1 in the US chart (but only No.17 here in the UK) and had a Bowie co-writing credit with Lennon (along with Bowie’s guitarist Carlos Alomar). Lennon was apparently reluctant to be acknowledged as co-writer but Bowie insisted (probably just to say he had a ‘Bowie/Lennon’ song in his canon and maybe because he was a little starstruck). The song should arguably include other co-writers as the riff was based on the song ‘Foot Stompin’’ (also covered by Bowie) by the doo-wop band The Flares (sometime referred to as The Flairs). Lennon also played on a version of The Beatles’ song ‘Across The Universe’ but was arguably the weakest song on the LP. It’s also worth mentioning that the title track also included a line – and tune – from The Beatles ‘A Day In The Life‘ (“I heard the news today, oh boy”). Bowie and Lennon were also photographed together at the 1975 US Grammy Awards (where Bowie presented the award for the best ‘rhythm and blues’ performance by a female vocalist Aretha Franklin). This was around the height of Bowie’s cocaine addiction and he subsequently went in to say that he has no recollection of being there at all. In the same year, Bowie also appeared on singer Cher‘s US television show and sang a medley of songs that included ‘Young Americans‘ and The Beatles ‘Day Tripper‘.
Like millions of people around the world (including myself), Lennon’s death in 1980 hit Bowie hard. Not only had he lost a good friend, but he began to think of his own mortality and how easy it would be for a crazed fan to kill him in some kind of copycat assassination. At the time, Bowie was receiving rave reviews for his portrayal of Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway. (I’ve always been interested in The Elephant Man as I may even be a distant relation as my grandmother was a Merrick). He soon stepped down from the role and went into ‘semi-retirement’ before re-emerging in 1983 with his biggest selling single and album Let’s Dance.
Since Lennon’s death, Bowie has covered three Lennon solo tracks (‘Imagine’, ‘Mother’, and ‘Working Class Hero’). He sang ‘Imagine’ at a concert in Hong Kong (December 8, 1983) three years to the day since Lennon had been shot (a soundboard recording of which appears on a number of different Bowie bootlegs). In 1989, Bowie recorded the first of two Lennon songs taken from Lennon’s most psychologically inspired album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) written while undergoing primal therapy (see my previous blog for an overview on primal therapy in music). The first was ‘Working Class Hero’ for the 1989 ill-fated album Tin Machine (often voted one of Bowie’s worst cover versions by fans). The second track he recorded was ‘Mother’ (in 1998) for a John Lennon tribute album that Lennon’s widow (Yoko Ono) was putting together. Unfortunately, the album was never released but in 2006 it was leaked on the internet and has now appeared on many Bowie bootlegs. Although Bowie and Lennon never collaborated musically again, they remained close friends until Lennon’s death.
As far as I am aware, the only other Beatle-related song that Bowie has ever recorded was ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ that appeared on George Harrison’s 1973 LP Living In The Material World. Bowie covered the song for his 2003 album Reality, and although this was recorded not long after Harrison’s death from throat cancer, Bowie claimed that he thought it was Ronnie Spector’s song (ex-lead singer of The Ronettes), as she was the first artist to record in 1971. It was also claimed by German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (26 January 2013) that Bowie’s 2001 song from Heathen, ‘Everyone Says ‘Hi’’ was a tribute to Harrison but I have yet to see this conformed by anyone within the Bowie camp. Harrison met Bowie in Memphis during his 1974 Dark Horse tour. In a 1974 interview to a New York radio station, Harrison said:
“I just met David Bowie [during the Dark Horse Tour]…David Bowie, these were my very words, and I hope he wasn’t offended by it because all I really meant was what I said. I pulled his hat up from over his eyes and said: ‘Hi, man, how are you, nice to meet you,’ pulled his hat up and said, you know, ‘Do you mind if I have a look at you, to see what you are because I’ve only ever seen those dopey pictures of you.’ I mean, every picture I’ve ever seen of David Bowie, or Elton John, they just look stupid to me…I want to see, you know, who the person is”.
It wasn’t until 1974 that Bowie and Lennon first met each other at a Hollywood party hosted by actress Elizabeth Taylor. Lennon was with his girlfriend May Pang at the time (during his 18-month separation from Yoko). According to Pang, Bowie and Lennon “hit it off instantly” and kept in touch. When John went back to Yoko, Pang remained friends with Bowie and eventually married Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long-time record producer.
One of the more interesting articles on the relationship between Bowie and The Beatles was by Peter Doggett – author of books on both artists. In a 2011 blog he noted:
“I was struck during the research of [my book ‘The Man Who Sold The World’] by the influence that the Beatles had on Bowie’s work in the 70s. Some of that influence is obvious – the McCartney-inspired piano styling of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things‘, for example. As early as 1965, in an obscure song entitled ‘That’s Where My Heart Is’, Bowie sounded as if he was learning how to write songs by listening to [The Beatles second 1963 album] ‘With The Beatles’…in the book I talk about the apparent Fab Four influence on ‘Blackout‘ from the ‘Heroes‘ LP. But the single most dramatic role played by the Beatles in Bowie’s 70s work was exerted by John Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’ album. You can hear a touch of Lennon in the way Bowie sings ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969; some Beatles-inspired backing vocals on ‘Star’ from the Ziggy Stardust album; and, of course, yer actual Lennon voice and guitar on Bowie’s cover of ‘Across The Universe’ and his hit single ‘Fame’. All of which made me wish that Bowie had made a whole album (1980’s Scary Monsters, perhaps) in similar vein. So I was intrigued to learn from Bowie fan Martyn Mitchell that guitarist Adrian Belew recalled working on a whole set of Plastic Ono Band-inspired tracks with Bowie around this period, but that Bowie never completed or issued them. Perhaps he was hoping that he might persuade Lennon himself to join him in the studio – until fate, and a madman, intervened”.
Following Bowie’s death, the remaining Beatles (Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr) both played tribute to Bowie’s genius. Ringo (who appeared in the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars movie filmed in 1973 and released 1983) tweeted a short message, while McCartney’s message was a little more heartfelt:
“Very sad news to wake up to on this raining morning. David was a great star and I treasure the moments we had together. His music played a very strong part in British musical history and I’m proud to think of the huge influence he has had on people all around the world. I send my deepest sympathies to his family and will always remember the great laughs we had through the years. His star will shine in the sky forever”.
As far as I am aware, Bowie only met McCartney a few times in his life most notably at the July 1973 premiere of the James Bond film Live and Let Die (with McCartney writing the theme song), and at the Live Aid concert in 1985 (where Bowie was on of the backing singers as McCartney performed ‘Let It Be’). Yoko movingly described Bowie as a “father figure” to their son Sean Lennon following Lennon’s death:
“John and David respected each other. They were well matched in intellect and talent. As John and I had very few friends, we felt David was as close as family. After John died, David was always there for Sean and me. When Sean was at boarding school in Switzerland, David would pick him up and take him on trips to museums and let Sean hang out at his recording studio in Geneva. For Sean, this is losing another father figure. It will be hard for him, I know. But we have some sweet memories which will stay with us forever”.
It could perhaps be argued that Bowie and Lennon were cut from the same psychosocial cloth. They both had middle class backgrounds and had many of the same musical heroes (Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley being the most salient – Bowie sharing Presley’s birthday on January 8). They were both interested in the arts more generally and they were both singers, songwriters, artists, and writers (to a greater or lesser extent). Although Lennon rarely engaged in acting, he always appeared at ease in front of the camera. They both knew how to use the media for their own artistic advantage. In short, there’s a lot that psychologists can learn from both of them.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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