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Music

Pre-Velvet Underground Lou Reed tried to create a new dance with a novelty tune

@TylerGolsen

Day jobs: we’ve all had them, we’ve all got them, we all have stories about them. The connotation to a day job is that it is explicitly not a passion project or a side hustle – it’s something you do to make money, establish yourself within an industry, or use as a stepping stone to something greater. Day jobs come in all shapes and sizes, but Lou Reed‘s day job out of college is one for the history books.

After Reed graduated from Syracuse University, his time at which involved drugs, guns, and electroshock therapy (but that’s a story for another day), the nascent musician was hired as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records. For any aspiring songwriter, this might sound like a dream. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as glamorous or even pleasant as it may sound.

Pickwick Records found a niche in creating sound-alike records. Basically, they were a second rate knock-off record production company. They were a content farm, and Reed was expected to crank out a high number of cookie-cutter tunes for low pay and even fewer expected royalties. There was very little creativity involved, and to prove it, Reed was tasked with coming up with a new dance record.

Dance records, as it happened, were still a viable vehicle for success in the mid-1960s. While revolutionary rock and pop works were being created in England and Detroit and Los Angeles, songs like ‘The Loco Motion’ and ‘Wah-Watusi’ continued to proliferate in popular culture, with artists like Chubby Checker making entire careers out of the novelty of dance fads. You could see songs like ‘Do The Freddie’ somewhat inexplicably rub elbows with hits from The Beatles or The Supremes.

Reed, always a keen observer of culture around him, figured that a novelty dance track would be the quickest and easiest way to a sure-fire hit. An ad-hoc band was assembled to record the song, one of which was John Cale, a Welsh experimental musician who had a fondness for rock and roll.

“Tony Conrad, Walter de Maria and I were picked up one night at a party because we had long hair,” Cale recalled to Gadfly in 1999. “They told us, ‘You look commercial. We think you’d make a great band, why don’t you come out and visit us.’ Okay, so we go out to Pickwick Records on Long Island City, go into the back room of this plant that manufactures LPs of second-rate orchestras playing concertos. The back room had one Ampex two-track tape recorder. There were three guys milling around. One of these guys was Lou, who looked suitably funky, and two other guys, they were into trying anything. They played me this thing that they recorded on their two-track.”

That “thing” featured a bizarre guitar sound produced by Reed. Reed had tuned all of his guitar strings to a single note, and the result was drone-like in its quality. Named after the song it was first used on, the ‘Ostrich Guitar’ would later be a prominent feature in Reed and Cale’s future band, The Velvet Underground.

Enjoy ‘The Ostrich’, in all its inane glory, down below.