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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”.
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  • 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’.
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  • 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

Further reading

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

DeCurtis, A. (2017). Lou Reed: A Life. London: John Murray.

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

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

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.

Hogan, P. (2007). The Dead Straight Guide To The Velvet Underground. London: Red Planet.

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

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.

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

Witts, R. (1993). Nico: The Life & Lies of an Icon. London: Virgin 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.