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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.