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
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.
Seedy CD*: A psychologist’s look at the music of Soft Cell
In a previous blog on examining all Adam Ant’s songs about sexual paraphilias, I noted that Soft Cell are probably the only other recording artists who come close to talking about the seedier side of sex. They are also artists that (like one of my other favourite bands, Throbbing Gristle) have never been afraid to sing about taboo topics including prostitution (‘Secret Life’, A Divided Soul’), a housewife’s sexual fantasy about the paper boy (‘Kitchen Sink Drama’), pure hedonism (‘Sensation Nation’), alternative therapies such as colonic irrigation, meditation, and crystal therapy (‘Whatever It Takes’), murder (‘The Best Way To Kill’, ‘Meet Murder My Angel’), suicide (‘Darker Times’, ‘Frustration’ and ‘Down In The Subway’ – “Jump on that train track and die”), incest (‘I Am 16’), psychopathic killers (‘Martin’ based on the story of a serial killer in a film of the same name), shopaholism (‘Whatever It Takes’), anorexia nervosa (‘Excretory Eat Anorexia’), and obsessional cleansing (‘Cleansing Fanatic’), to name but a few.
Soft Cell arguably saw themselves as outside of the norm. Their first official release, an EP entitled ‘Mutant Moments’ EP set out their psychological store (and where ‘Metro Mr. X’ was their “favourite mutant”). They also had a track on the seminal 1980 (various artists) Some Bizarre Album about a disfigured woman (‘The Girl With The Patent Leather Face’). Very few artists would ever sing about such topics (although there are a few exceptions such as Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Hamburger Lady’ based on the medical case notes of a badly burned woman).
Soft Cell’s reputation as a band that focused on the sleazy side of everyday life was cemented after the release of their 1981 debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (NSEC). The cover featured a photo of the band’s two members (Marc Almond and Dave Ball) taken outside the Raymond Revue Bar, a notorious strip joint in the heart of London’s Soho district.
Just as the Velvet Underground’s debut album was viewed as a ‘sex and drugs’ LP because of a couple of songs about sadomasochistic sex (‘Venus In Furs’) and drug-taking (‘Heroin’), NSEC’s reputation as a ‘sleazy sex’ album also rested on just a few songs – most notably ‘Seedy Films’ (about telephone sex as well as pornographic films), ‘Secret Life’ (about using prostitutes behind a wife’s back), and the (now infamous) ‘Sex Dwarf’ (a song glorifying sadomasochistic sex). Later songs and albums also touched on various aspects of sexuality (their third album This Last Night In Sodom raising a few eyebrows on its’ release in 1984). They wanted to “try all of the vices” (in ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’) and also sang about having sex in cars (‘It’s A Mug’s Game’ and ‘Where Was Your Heart [When You Needed It Most’).
One of my personal favourite in the Soft Cell canon is the 2002 song ‘Perversity’ which was a bonus track on their comeback single ‘Monoculture’ after reforming in 2001. It talked about studying at the “university of perversity” and provided me with the title to my series of blogs on the A-Z of little known paraphilias and fetishes. As Marc Almond and Friends, there was also a great cover version of Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Discipline’ (a song about sadomasochism) and ‘Sleaze It, Take It, Shake It’ (by Almond’s side-project, Marc and the Mambas)
Soft cell’s second hit single ‘Bedsitter’ summed up my formative years as a teenage clubber and shares some of the same lyrical DNA as The Smiths classic ‘How Soon Is Now?’ (going to nightclubs in search of love and/or sex but going home alone). I’d also argue that Soft Cell sometimes give The Smiths a run for their money when it comes to songs about misery (e.g., ‘Chips On My Shoulder’, ‘Mr. Self-Destruct’, ‘Bleak Is My Favourite Cliché’, ‘Forever The Same’, ‘Down In The Subway’ and ‘Born To Lose’).
But Soft Cell aren’t just about sex, they also like songs about love more generally although their take on love is more about the unrequited love, the disintegration of love (‘Tainted Love’, ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’, ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’, ‘All Out Of Love’, ‘Together Alone’, ‘Desperate [For Love]’, ‘L.O.V.E. Feelings’, ‘Whatever It Takes’, ‘Last Chance’, ‘What’, ‘Barriers’, ‘Disease And Desire’, ‘Her Imagination’, ‘Desperate’, and ‘Torch’). In short they focus on (as they describe in their song ‘Loving You, Hating Me’) “the other side of love” and the “devil in my bed” (‘from ‘God-Shaped Hole’). The only other band that have explored the ‘darker’ side of love lyrically in so many different songs are Depeche Mode (which I discussed in a previous blog on obsessional lyrics in pop music). Their songs aren’t afraid to feature one-night stands and casual sex (‘Numbers’, ‘Surrender To A Stranger’, ‘Heat’, ‘Where Was Your Heart [When You Needed It Most’ and ‘Fun City’). It’s also worth noting that Soft Cell were never afraid to talk about drug use in their songs including cocaine (‘Frustration’), LSD (‘Frustration’), alcohol (‘It’s A Mug’s Game’), valium (‘Tupperware Party’, ‘My Secret Life’), heroin (‘L’Esqualita’) and their “dealer in the hall” (‘Divided Soul’).
They also made cover versions that were often better than the originals. They sexed the songs up or made them mean, moody and menacing. Soft Cell were huge fans of Northern soul and is evident in their covers of songs like ‘Tainted Love’, ‘The Night’ and ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ but their other cover versions came from a wide variety of artists including Jimi Hendrix (their 11-minute ‘Hendrix Medley’ comprising ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Voodoo Chile’), Johnny Thunders (‘Born To Lose’), Suicide (‘Ghostrider’), Lou Reed (‘Caroline Says’ as Marc and the Mambas), and John Barry (‘007 Theme’ and ‘You Only Live Twice’). From the very first note, this were instantly Soft Cell even though they didn’t write the songs.
Lyrically (and musically), some of their best songs were on their final 2000 studio album Cruelty Without Beauty. For instance, ‘Caligula Syndrome’ depicts sadomasochism (“crawling down on your hands and knees like slaves”), orgies, and “every kind of deviation on demand”. The song ‘Grand Guignol’ is about the Parisian theatre that operated from 1897 until it closed in 1962. The theatre specialised in naturalistic amoral horror entertainment shows horror shows or as Soft Cell put it: “It’s Grand Guignol/It’s rock ‘n’ roll/It’s vaudeville and burlesque/All of human life is here/In the theatre of the grotesque”. A sentiment that (I would argue) also sums up the many of the blogs I have published on this website.
*With thanks to The Passage (one of my favourite bands) who used the homonym ‘Seedy’ when naming their first CD [C-D, geddit?] compilation.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addictions, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Almond, M. (1999). Tainted Life. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.
Almond, M. (2004). In Search Of The Pleasure Palace. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.
Fanni Tutti, C. (2017). Art Sex Music. Faber & Faber: London.
Lindsay, M. (2013). Sex music for gargoyles: Soft Cell’s The Art Of Falling Apart. The Quietus, December 12. Located at: http://thequietus.com/articles/14100-soft-cell-interview-marc-almond
Reed, J. (1999). Marc Almond: The Last Star. London: Creation Books.
Reynolds, S. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk, 1978–1984. New York: Penguin.
Tebbutt, S. (1984). Soft Cell. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.
Wikipedia (2017). Marc Almond. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Almond
Wikipedia (2017). Soft Cell. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soft_Cell