Andy Warhol once said, “Living in New York City gives people real incentives to want things that nobody else wants.” It adds a fair bit of heft to that quote considering that for a long time nobody outside of the subterranean circles of the Big Apple wanted The Velvet Underground either. And yet, in a weird way, the bohemian combination of Andy Warhol and the proto-indie outfit fronted by Lou Reed just about defined the latter part of the sixties.
The New York Society of Clinical Psychiatry obviously had a few hip cats in their ranks because on January 13th, 1966, they invited the blonde-haired bespectacled pop artist to give the opening address at the Delmonico Hotel in New York City. He was not a great public speaker. In lieu of a captivating speech he presented a coterie of cronies from the Factory and a band who certainly weren’t befitting of a dinner party, the little-known Velvet Underground. This was perhaps the first notable time that the duo came together since Warhol decided to manage them.
A year earlier in 1965, the filmmaker Barbara Rubin had dragged her pal Andy Warhol down to the bowels of a New York dive bar to take in a gig. Warhol was instantly captivated by the rhythmic iconoclasts casually making open references to hard drugs and sadomasochism. By all accounts, he also seemed to feel a kinship with Reed’s nonchalant Downtown fucklessness.
Shortly after he approached the band and asked if he could manage them. As a hot New York artist seemingly seizing the zeitgeist Reed and the band had little say in the matter. They accepted his offer and his move in management was to instate Nico as the lead singer. In an interview a few days later, he announced: “We’re sponsoring a new band. It’s called the Velvet Underground.” His intent with them was “to create the biggest discotheque in the world”.
They got to work and were quickly assimilated into Warhol’s grand vision of a touring art collective known as The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. These shows featured an art exhibition, screenings of experimental movies, a parade of Factory girls dancing, poetry and pioneering strobe shows. They were, in short, mayhem.
In the background rumbled the production of what is now considered of the most seminal records ever made, the bands self-titled debut. It would be released in March 1967 and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable tour would conclude a few months later in May. The band had been both helped and hindered by the EPI experience.
On the one hand, they garnered acclaim and had firmly placed themselves on the cutting edge of culture, but the huge drawback for them was that punters were unable to see them as a separate entity, they were simply deemed by many to be a part of a multimedia experience. People liked them as much as they like the potatoes on a roast dinner, but you wouldn’t have them on their own.
Thus, they fell victim to the ubiquitous Brian Eno quote: “My reputation is far bigger than my sales,” he said with a laugh on the phone from his home in Manhattan. “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band! So I console myself in thinking that some things generate their rewards in second-hand ways.”
Those secondhand rewards, however, are the obverse benefit to the Warhol coin. Having a big name associated got the label off their back and gave them creative freedom. As Reed later said, the label didn’t even know why Warhol was a big deal but they’d heard his name. Thus, he was allowed to ‘produce’ their debut, and as Reed added: “At one point the engineer would say, apropos of something we’d done, ‘Mr. Warhol, is that OK?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, that’s great.’And as a consequence of that, we experienced total freedom, because no one would change anything because Andy said it was great.”
From a punter’s perspective, if the drawback was that fame would not befall them in the sixties due to obscuring murk of Factory ties, then you’d take that every day for the music that it allowed them to craft under the benevolent shadow under the shadow of a luminary who couldn’t a game of foosball let alone a record.