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Inside the bitter feud between Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground

When the world zigged, Frank Zappa zagged. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to call his brand of contrarianism the same type of iconoclastic behaviour we have come to expect from many rock stars, simply because it always seemed more off the wall and leftfield than merely saying ‘I don’t like The Beatles’. Instead, he aimed for Velvet Underground.

For starters, his appearance is akin to a police sketch of a quintessential dropout in search of narcotic exploration, but, in actual fact, he battled ardently against those preconceptions — and he didn’t even drink! This wild kaleidoscope of far-flung opinions led to more than a few feuds, including a very notable one with the Velvet Underground. 

At this stage, having given Frank Zappa the firebrand build-up, it is worth noting that Lou Reed and the rest of the Velvet Underground were no shrinking violets. As a matter of fact, they were so far ahead of their time in bracing subjects seemingly beyond the pale that they flopped until sensibilities caught up with them, resurrecting the New York band from the ash heap of history. Thus, Zappa and Velvet Underground represented the proverbial immovable object and unstoppable force when it came to bitter bickering.

The acrimonious spat apparently began when The Velvet Underground were playing on Zappa’s west coast patch in Los Angeles in 1966 as part of Andy Warhol’s art collective, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The story goes that Zappa made a sarcastic comment about the artistic band and their creative coterie of Factory stars that filtered through in the underground music scene. This jibe was only exacerbated further because both acts were signed to MGM, and Zappa, as the main rival alternative act, was receiving way more promotion. 

In response, Lou Reed apparently announced: “Frank Zappa is the most untalented musician I’ve ever heard.” Later adding, “He can’t play rock ‘n’ roll because he’s a loser.” To which VU guitarist Sterling Morrison added: “If you told Frank Zappa to eat shit in public, he’d do it if it sold records. I would do it if I liked to.” 

The comical undertone to this whole debacle in retrospect is that both artists were pretty much the antithesis of the commercially inclined. With casual references to heroin, sadomasochism and transvestites, the Velvet Underground pretty much secured that their album would be a flop from the get-go in what was, on the whole, still a relatively conservative time. Likewise, Zappa, with absurdist stories and wildly eclectic musical choices, ensured he would remain in the fringes of rock at best. Perhaps, this notion of finding themselves on the opposite sides of the same coin is why they butted heads all along.

As Zappa’s Mothers of Invention bandmate Jimmy Carl Black once said, “I don’t remember Zappa actually putting them down on stage, but he might have. He really disliked the band. For what reasons I really don’t know, except that they were junkies and Frank just couldn’t tolerate any kind of drugs. I know that I didn’t feel that way and neither did the rest of the Mothers. I thought that they were very good, especially Nico (whom I secretly fell in love with or was it lust?).”

Adding: “I especially thought that Moe was a very good drummer because in those days I don’t recall there being any other female drummers on the scene. The thinking of the audiences was completely different than those from New York City. They were lukewarmly received.”

Eventually, Lou Reed would go on to posthumously induct Frank Zappa into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so it would seem that attitudes changed in the years that followed the bitter feud, but ex-Velvet Underground multi-instrumentalist, John Cale, was still a little less willing to give up the ghost. In 1994 Cale stated, “[Zappa] isn’t really interested in music… he’s using music for animation.” 

As for Zappa, he also seemed to warm to Lou Reed and Co., playing tracks by the group in guest radio DJ sets and dubbing them as a truly “authentic” band. In the end, it would seem that his gripe was more related to the heroin chic scene that surrounded Andy Warhol than the band themselves. 

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