Remembering The Velvet Underground’s first ‘proper’ gig at Summit High in 1965
The Velvet Underground remain the bonafide royalty of alt-pop-rock and with their changing line-up and unstoppable artistic output they started their journey a long time ago. Back in 1965, the band were beginning to gain some traction and were on the cusp of becoming professional. Their first paid gig didn’t go so well though.
As Bart Bealmear of Dangerous Mindspoints out, it was December of that year when The Velvet Underground were to play one of their first paid gigs and mark the start of their ‘career’ properly. The opportunity came when the band’s manager Al Aronowitz asked the VU to take the support slot of an upcoming tour of one of his other projects The Myddle Class. The gig was to take place at Summit High School just 25 miles out from the band’s hometown of New York City.
But while some members of the band wanted to jump at the chance of actually earning a few bucks playing their songs, drummer Angus MacLise wanted no part of it. MacLise was uninterested in being told when to turn up and when to perform and his ideals, he felt, were being compromised with the opportunity of making some money. MacLise promptly quit the band and left the Velvet Underground without a drummer.
The sister of a college friend of Lou Reed was put forward for the role. Her first rehearsal with the Velvet Underground was on the afternoon of December 11th, just hours before their first paid gig. It meant the band’s classic line-up was in place with Tucker, Reed, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison completing the list.
The newly completed line-up took to the stage to deliver what would be, in this day at least, a stellar line up of tracks including a VU hat-trick of ‘There She Goes Again’, ‘Venus In Furs’, and ‘Heroin’ to a stunned crowd. Let’s not forget, this was in 1965 and outside of the city – although the crowd was made up of mostly teens it was largely a sheltered crowd who would not have ever heard anything as scandalous as the subversive lyrics from the Velvet Underground.
Much of the crowd headed for the exits before the headline act The Myddle Class could make their way to the stage. However, for the people who stayed behind to catch one of the garage rock bands of all time, they found a new sound and a new way to ‘be’. It would’ve had a profound effect, one would imagine, on the small-town teen. One such teen was Rob Norris who wrote in 1979.
“When the curtain went up, nobody could believe their eyes! There stood the Velvet Underground—all tall and dressed mostly in black; two of them were wearing sunglasses. One of the guys with the shades had VERY long hair and was wearing silver jewellery. He was holding a large violin. The drummer had a Beatle haircut and was standing at a small, oddly arranged drum kit. Was it a boy or a girl?
“Before we could take it all in, everyone was hit by a screeching surge of sound, with a pounding beat louder than anything we had ever heard. About a minute into the second song [sic], which the singer had introduced as “Heroin,” the music began to get more intense. It swelled and accelerated like a giant tidal wave, which was threatening to engulf us all. At this point, most of the audience retreated in horror for the safety of their homes, thoroughly convinced of the dangers of rock & roll music. My friends and I moved a little closer to the stage, knowing that something special was happening. [from ‘Kicks’ magazine.]”
However, it wasn’t a common standard that everyone held when reviewing the seminal show. In fact, the gig was widely touted as artsy-fartsy tosh and not something locals should bother themselves with. This view was stringently upheld by the Sentinel’s December 16th edition of teen column “Suzie Surfer”.
The column quickly puts down the band and mockingly refers to them inside metaphorical air quotes, something which a group of young Velvet Underground fans did not take kindly to. They responded in kind to “Suzie” and you can see the letters below.
They do not hold back, and it makes for some brilliant reading. It also highlights the pleasant and civil manner with which they disagree, which amid the disgusting things one reads on Twitter, feels like a welcome reprieve. One would guess as to who the writers of the letter are is that the Velvet Underground had a larger impact on the crowd than “Suzie” had maybe imagined.
The band would go on to change rock and roll beyond measure. As part of their residency at Café Bizarre in Greenwich Village (great advice “Suzie”) they would work with Andy Warhol and others to great a brand new style and sound. Their influence would know no bounds.
It’s an influence that undoubtedly rocked Summit High in 1965 and this trailer for The Velvet Underground Played At My High School probably proves it.