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Group therapy: The psychology of the Beatles

Although I love many musical groups and singers, the Beatles have always been (and always will be) my all-time favourite band. Being an obsessive fan of the group is not cheap because there is almost a never-ending supply of products that can be bought including records, CDs, DVDs, books, and other merchandise such as mugs, t-shirts, coasters, and games. I’m a sucker for it all and as a record collecting completist, I have to have every single track they have ever recorded on both official releases and bootlegs (my latest acquisition being the 6-disc collector’s edition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). It’s both fun and expensive (but thankfully I have few vices) and the Beatles are one of the few artists that I have spent thousands and thousands of pounds indulging my passion for their music (others include David Bowie, Adam Ant, The Smiths [and Morrissey], Gary Numan, Velvet Underground [and Lou Reed and John Cale], John Foxx [and Ultravox], Art of Noise [and other ZTT bands], and Iggy Pop [and The Stooges]).

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One of the reasons I chose to study psychology at university was because John Lennon underwent primal therapy (a trauma-based psychotherapy) in 1970 with its’ developer (US psychotherapist Dr. Arthur Janov). I read Janov’s first book (The Primal Scream) in 1983 just because of my love of Lennon’s work, and psychology sounded far more interesting than the ‘A’ levels I was doing at the time (maths, physics, chemistry and biology). As the Wikipedia entry on primal therapy notes:

The musician John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, went through primal therapy in 1970. A copy of the just-released The Primal Scream arrived in the mail at Lennon’s home, Tittenhurst Park (sources differ about who sent the book). Lennon was impressed, and he requested primal therapy to be started at Tittenhurst. Arthur Janov and his first wife, Vivian Janov, went to Tittenhurst in March 1970 to start the therapy, which continued in April in Los Angeles. Arthur Janov went to Tittenhurst after giving instructions in advance about the isolation period and giving instructions to Lennon to be separated from Ono. Lennon and Ono had three weeks of intensive treatment in England before Janov returned to Los Angeles, where they had four months of therapy. According to some sources, Lennon ended primal therapy after four months…Lennon commented after therapy, ‘I still think that Janov’s therapy is great, you know, but I do not want to make it a big Maharishi thing’ and ‘I just know myself better, that’s all. I can handle myself better. That Janov thing, the primal scream and so on, it does affect you, because you recognize yourself in there…It was very good for me. I am still ‘primal’ and it still works.’ and ‘I no longer have any need for drugs, the Maharishi or the Beatles. I am myself and I know why’”.

Lennon didn’t undergo primal therapy until just after the Beatles had split up and it was his 1970 solo LP (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) that included many songs that were rotted in his primal therapy experiences including ‘Mother’, ‘My Mummy’s Dead’, ‘God’, ‘Working Class Hero’, ‘Remember’, and ‘Well Well Well’. Many describe this LP as Lennon at his most raw and the album is all the better for it.

At university, one of my favourite topics was Gestalt psychology and its basic tenet that ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts’ to me encapsulates The Beatles as a whole. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were all brilliant in their own musical sphere but little of their best solo work – with the odd exception – was ever as good as the best of their work with the Beatles. For whatever reason, the Beatles working as a foursome – even when the songs had been written individually – produced music as a group that was better than music on their solo LPs. The Beatles early solo recordings (1970-71) included songs that had typically been written while they were still in The Beatles. For instance, many of the songs on George Harrison’s brilliant (and best) album, All Things Must Pass, had been practiced and rehearsed during the making of the Beatles’ final LP Let It Be.

In previous blogs I have looked at celebrities’ use of illicit drugs (one on celebrities in general and whether they are more prone to addiction, one on David Bowie, The Beatles and addiction, and a third one looking at the use of psychoactive substance use on the process of creativity). My first awareness of illicit drugs was reading about the Beatles’ use of various substances in many biographies I read during my early adolescence. When it came to drugs, the Beatles appeared to have seen and done it all. In their pre-fame days in early 1960s Hamburg they all lived on a diet of pills, poppers, and stimulants just to get through their hours of playing every single day. Like many hard working musicians they used a combination of ‘uppers’ and ‘downers’ to regulate their day-to-day living. By the mid-1960s they were all smoking marijuana and taking LSD which may or may not have helped the creative juices to flow. By the end of the 1960s, Lennon was hooked on heroin and recorded one of his most infamous hits about its withdrawal symptoms (‘Cold Turkey’).

By the late 1960s, the Beatles (along with many of the big pop stars of the day) were also searching for other mind altering experiences and the ‘meaning of life’ which led them to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (‘Maharishi’ meaning ‘great seer’) and his teachings on transcendental meditation (TM). I myself dabbled in TM during the early 1990s, and over the last few years I have developed a new line of research on mindfulness meditation with my colleagues Edo Shonin and William Van Gordon (see ‘Further reading’). The Beatles (and George Harrison particularly) stimulated me to learn more about Buddhist philosophy. One of the Beatles most innovative songs ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – the final track on the 1966 Revolver album – was written by Lennon after reading The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead written by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert. However, it was Harrison who was most swayed and his spiritual beliefs rooted in Buddhism stayed with him until his dying day. Although I am not religious in the slightest, the lyrics to some of Harrison’s best songs while he was in The Beatles dealing with Buddhist philosophy are simply beautiful (‘Within You, Without You’ and ‘The Inner Light’ being the best examples; arguably you could add Lennon’s ‘Across The Universe’ to this list).

When I first started listening to The Beatles at the age of around 5 or 6 years of age, it was the music and the melodies that I loved (particularly the 1962-1965 period). By my late teens it was the later songs (1966-1969) and the more sophisticated musical layers that I loved (and still do). Now when I listen to their songs I am most interested in what the songs are trying to say and their philosophical or psychological underpinnings. Any analysis of their songs over time demonstrates that they went from a repertoire dominated by songs about love and relationships (‘Love Me Do’, ‘Please Please Me’, ‘From Me To You’, ‘She Loves You’, and ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’, ‘Eight Days A Week’) to a much wider range of topics many of which covered psychological topics such as childhood nostalgia (‘In My Life’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, and ‘Penny Lane’), mind-wandering (‘Fixing A Hole’), domestic violence (‘Getting Better’), jealousy (‘Run For Your Life’, ‘You Can’t Do That’, ‘What Goes On’), casual sex/one-night stands (‘The Night Before’, ‘Day Tripper’), prostitution (‘Polythene Pam’, ‘Maggie Mae’), [alleged] drug use (‘Dr. Robert’, ‘A Day In The Life’, ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, ‘What’s The New Mary Jane‘), running away from home (‘She’s Leaving Home’), homelessness (‘Mean Mr. Mustard’), insomnia (‘I’m So Tired’), depression due to relationship troubles (‘I’m Down’, ‘I’m A Loser’, ‘Help’, ‘Baby’s In Black’, ‘Yesterday’, ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’, ‘Ticket To Ride’, ‘For No-One’), suicide (‘Yer Blues’), murder (‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’), and death (‘She Said She Said’, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’).

There were also those songs that were overtly political (‘Taxman’, ‘Revolution’), self-referential (‘Glass Onion’), and autobiographical (‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, ‘Julia’, ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘Norwegian Wood [This Bird Has Flown]) to songs that were rooted in surrealism (most notably ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, ‘What’s The New Mary Jane‘) and the experimental avant garde (‘Revolution 9’, ‘You Know My Name [Look Up The Number]‘, and – the yet to be released and holy grail for Beatles collectors – ‘Carnival of Light’).

In short, repeated listening to The Beatles’ output brings me continued pleasure. I feel good when I listen to the Beatles. I can listen to The Beatles and create playlists to reflect the mood I’m in. I can simply read the lyrics to their songs and look for meanings that probably weren’t intended by the songwriter. In short, I am constantly rewarded by listening to (and analysing the lyrics of) The Beatles. For me, listening to The Beatles is quite simply “group therapy”!

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

Further reading

The Beatles (1988). The Beatles Lyrics: The Songs of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr. London: Omnibus Press.

Davies, H. (2009). The Beatles: The Authorised Biography. London: Ebury.

Goldman, A. (1988). The Lives of John Lennon. W. Morrow.

Lewisohn, M. (1990). The Complete Beatles Chronicle. London: Harmony Books.

Janov, A. (1970). The Primal Scream. New York: Dell Books.

Janov A (1977). Towards a new consciousness. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 21, 333–339.

Janov, A. (1980). Prisoners of Pain: Unlocking The Power Of The Mind To End Suffering. New York: Anchor Books.

Norman, P. (2011). Shout! the Beatles in their generation. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Sheff, D., & Golson, G. B. (1982). The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. New York: Penguin Group.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M. & Griffiths M.D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161–1180.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Current trends in mindfulness and mental health. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 113-115.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths M.D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Does mindfulness work? Reasonably convincing evidence in depression and anxiety. British Medical Journal, 351, h6919 doi: 10.1136/bmj.h6919.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Mindfulness and Buddhist-derived Approaches in Mental Health and Addiction. New York: Springer.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Buddhist emptiness theory: Implications for the self and psychology. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, in press.

Van Gordon W., Shonin, E., Griffiths M.D. & Singh, N. (2015). There is only one mindfulness: Why science and Buddhism need to work together. Mindfulness, 6, 49-56.

Wenner, J. (2001). Lennon Remembers. Verso.

Wikipedia (2017). Arthur Janov. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Janov

Wikipedia (2017). Primal therapy. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primal_therapy

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.

Velvet gold mind: Psychopathy, addiction, ECT, and the psychology of Lou Reed

Regular readers of my blog will have no doubt picked up that one of my all time favourite bands is the Velvet Underground (VU) – often referred to as “The Psychopath’s Rolling Stones“. I bought my first VU album on vinyl back in 1980 as a 14-year old adolescent (a 12-track compilation that I still have simply called ‘The Velvet Underground’). When I bought it I had heard very few VU songs on the radio and one of the main reasons I bought it was because a number of my musical heroes at the time (Ian McCulloch the lead singer of the Echo and the Bunnymen being the one I seem to remember) kept listing VU songs in their ‘Top 10 Tracks’ in Smash Hits magazine.

Over time I have steadily accumulated a massive collection of VU and VU-related albums (mainly solo LPs of VU band members, most notably Lou Reed, John Cale, and Nico, as well as dozens and dozens of bootleg LPs). As much as I love the recorded solo outputs of Cale and Nico, it is Lou Reed that I have always found the most psychologically fascinating on both a musical and personal level (even though Cale was admittedly the better musician) – and because of his autobiographical lyrics (many of which were collated in his 1992 book Between Thought and Expression). Reed (along with a few other musicians such as John Lennon, Morrissey, David Bowie, Adam Ant, and Gary Numan) is someone I would love to have interviewed, as he was a psychological paradox and appeared to have so many different facets to his personality. During is early career, Reed was a self-confessed drug addict and wrote songs about both heroin (‘I’m Waiting For The Man‘ and admitting in his song ‘Heroin‘ that it was “my wife and it’s my life”) and amphetamines (‘White Light, White Heat‘). I would also argue that in later life he replaced these negative addictions with what Bill Glasser defined as a ‘positive addiction‘ in the form of t’ai chi ch’uan (i.e., tai chi).

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Reed’s lyrics covered topics that shocked many people. His song lyrics recounted life’s misfits and those that lived on the fringes (particularly of the life he had himself experienced in New York and as part of pop artist Andy Warhol’s entourage). His world was one of drug addiction, transvestite drag queens, bisexuality, and sado-masochism. Like many of the best and most literary writers, he wrote about what he knew and had experienced. As Reed himself pointed out many times, the subject matter of his songs were no different from his literary heroes such as Edgar Allen Poe, Hubert Selby Jr., William Burroughs, and Delmore Schwartz. Sex and drugs were common themes in novels and poetry. Reed wondered why listeners and rock critics alike were so horrified by the content of his songs when the same content could be found in books from the 1950s and early 1960s.

Reed was a much feared interviewee by music journalists and often poured vitriol on many rock critics (Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau being the most high profile). Just listen to his 1978 live LP Take No Prisoners that is remembered more for the acerbic monologues in between the songs than for the music. Although I would have loved to interview him, his experiences with psychologists and psychiatrists arguably left him emotionally scarred for life (or at the very least a deep mistrust of therapists). His affluent parents sent him for weekly sessions of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as a young teenager to “cure” him of his homosexual desires and urges. It had such a negative impression on him that he documented the experiences on his song ‘Kill Your Sons’ (from his 1974 LP Sally Can’t Dance). As he was quoted as saying in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s 1996 book Please Kill Me:

“They put the thing down your throat so you don’t swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. That’s what was recommended in Rockland State Hospital to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable”

Up until the ECT session, Reed appeared to have lead a relatively trouble-free childhood (although there were admittedly some juvenile delinquent activities). The ECT sessions may have been the catalyst that far from ‘curing’ him of his sexual urges confused the issue even more. Reed was more explicit in the lyrics to ‘Kill Your Sons’ about the whole experience of ECT and what he thought about it:

“All your two-bit psychiatrists are giving you electro shock/They say, they let you live at home, with mom and dad/Instead of mental hospital/But every time you tried to read a book/You couldn’t get to page 17/’Cause you forgot, where you were/So you couldn’t even read/Don’t you know, they’re gonna kill your sons”.

I have read almost every biography that has ever been published on Reed and there appears to be an almost unconscious pathological need to subvert the traditional rock cycle treadmill of fame and success. There is no doubt that Reed wanted to be respected and remembered for his literary writing – but many of his decisions and actions were self-defeating. In my own field of gambling, the psychologist Edmund Bergler speculated that addicted gamblers have an ‘unconscious desire to lose’ – a form of psychic masochism. If Reed was on Bergler’s couch, he may have come to the same conclusion about Reed.

There are so many points in Reed’s life where he appeared to deliberately sabotage his own career and commit what others have described ‘artistic suicide’. For instance, after David Bowie had befriended him in the early 1970s and produced his first hit LP (Transformer) and biggest hit (‘Walk On The Wild Side’), he fell out with Bowie and recorded what a number of rock critics have described as “the most depressing album of all time” (the 1973 LP Berlin). He then seemed to get his career back on course with his one and only top 10 US album (1974 LP Sally Can’t Dance) only to follow it up with the album consisting of four tracks of guitar feedback each 16 minutes in length (1975 album Metal Machine Music). James Wolcott writing for the Village Voice went as far as to say that  Metal Machine Music “crowned Reed’s reputation as a master of psychopathic insolence”. Although both “career killing” LPs have since been hailed as masterpieces in their own way, both releases provide an argument that Reed was a masochist on some level even if the original pain didn’t become pleasure until 30 years later.

The arguably self-inflicted pain didn’t end with his musical output. Almost every important person he looked up to in his life between 1964 and the early 1990s were cast aside and verbally and/or physically abused by Reed at some point. This included his managers (e.g., Andy Warhol, Steve Sesnick, Dennis Katz), his admirers and benefactors (e.g., David Bowie), his record company senior executives (e.g., Clive Davis), his lovers (e.g., Shelly Albin, Nico, Bettye Kronstad, Sylvia Morales, “Rachel” [Tommy] Humphries), and his musical collaborators (e.g., John Cale, Doug Yule, Robert Quine).

Some people have claimed Reed was almost psychopathic in some of his actions. The criminal psychologist Professor Robert Hare developed the Revised Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), a psychological assessment that determines whether someone is a psychopath.

At heart, Hare’s test is simple: a list of 20 criteria, each given a score of 0 (if it doesn’t apply to the person), 1 (if it partially applies) or 2 (if it fully applies). The list in full is: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of ‘revocation of conditional release’ (i.e., broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour. A pure, prototypical psychopath would score 40. A score of 30 or more qualifies for a diagnosis of psychopathy”

Personally, I think there are psychopathic traits in almost any person with a successful career, and Reed (from the many biographies I have read) would certainly endorse some of the indicators in the list above. However, as he (i) became older, (ii) became teetotal and drug-free, (iii) studied Buddhist philosophy (including meditation and tai chi), and (iv) settled down and married performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson, he arguably became happier and produced some of the best music of his career.

The trio of ‘concept’ albums including his ‘warts ‘n’ all’ tribute to his home city (New York, 1989), his moving tribute to Andy Warhol (Songs for Drella, 1990, with John Cale), and his lyrical musings on illness, death and dying (1992, Magic and Loss) were all critically lauded (and among my own personal favourites). Songs for Drella (the VU’s nickname for Andy Warhol – a contraction of the names Cinderella and Dracula) is not just one of Reed’s best albums but it’s one of the best LP’s ever. The fact that the songs were heartfelt and full of remorse for the way Reed had treated Warhol in the latter years of his life, suggest that the characterization of Reed as a psychopath is unfair.

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

Further reading

Bockris, V. (1994). Lou Reed: The Biography. London: Hutchinson.

Bockris, V. & Malanga, G. (1995). Up-tight – The Velvet Underground Story.London:Omnibus Press.

Doggett, P. (1991). Lou reed – Growing Up in Public. London: 
Omnibus Press.

Glasser, W. (1976), Positive Addictions. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

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

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.

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

Jovanovich, R. (2010). The Velvet Underground – Peeled. Aurum Press.

Kostek, M.C. (1992). The Velvet Underground Handbook
. London: 
Black Spring Press.

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.

Reed, L. (1992). Between Thought and Expression. 
London: Penguin Books.

Wall, M. (2013). Lou Reed: The Life. Croydon: Orion Books.

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.