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Music

When Lou Reed picked out "the single most untalented" person in rock ‘n’ roll

Lou Reed once delivered a requiem for his dearly beloved lost pet and ended up calling it a fish-stinking purring sycophant that by rights should’ve taken all of its nine lives anyway… probably. The Velvet Underground man was about as cuddly as a cactus and as complimentary as a compilation of X-Factor first-round exits. However, like the seeming undignified absurdity of a colonic, there was method to his verbal flow of scathing scatological slander. 

One of music’s true iconoclasts, he found himself an industry outsider from the get-go after the magnificent, rule-book rewriting, Velvet Underground only peaked at 171 in the charts. This outsider status seemed to suit him all the same, so he set up shop as a pariah of mainstream society and sat on the outskirts of culture hurling abuse at those he felt were wandering behind the advancing avant-garde. 

Thus, it was perhaps his most curious castigation when he took aim at a fellow freak from the demimonde and rendered him worse than shit in a storm of cutting abuse. When asked for his opinion on fellow artists in 1973, he hurled a hatchet at the head of Frank Zappa and opined: “He’s probably the single most untalented person I’ve heard in my life.”

Not content with simply slandering him with such an outlandish criticism, Reed went on to add substance to his scathing slant: “He’s two-bit, pretentious, academic, and he can’t play his way out of anything. He can’t play rock ‘n’ roll because he’s a loser. And that’s why he dresses up funny. He’s not happy with himself and I think he’s right.”

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Despite this, the pair were cut from a similar cloth. 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’. This is perhaps the reason he was once Reed’s latest target. 

In fact, both artists 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 and catapulting Zappa as a guitar God who represented the ironic face of liberation. 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 announced long before his magazine column quotes above: “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.” 

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?).”

Continuing: “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 the hatchet once hurled would well and truly rest underground as 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. And Reed responded in kind, as only he knew how. In short, it was simply in their nature to butt heads, it’s just that this battle was a bit like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Double when two opposing, yet identical forces went to war. 

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