In the early days of The Velvet Underground, the band were heavily entwined with Andy Warhol and his Factory movement. In fact, in 1965, the filmmaker Barbara Rubin had dragged her irascible pal Mr Warhol down to the bowels of a New York dive bar to take in a concert. Warhol was instantly captivated by the rhythmic iconoclasts casually referencing 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 couldn’t really say no. They accepted his offer and his first 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.
Sadly, for the Velvet Underground, this ended up making them seem more like an art installation than an independent band and they drifted into some weird arthouse territory where success has never trodden before or since. Thus, their second album White Light/White Heat represents a transition away from the clutches of the Factory, but nevertheless, not in the direction of commercial success.
The album bursts into brilliance with the dirge of the title track, an opener that the film High Fidelity asserts to be one of the greatest of all time. With a throbbing bass solo that reportedly was an attempt to mimic a methamphetamine “rush” the song certainly serves as a statement for the band in their second chapter.
The footage below was reportedly filmed by Andy Warhol and Danny Williams live at The Boston Tea Party on December 12th, 1968. It is the earliest known footage of the iconic track in existence. With snippets that seem to show Edie Sedgewick in attendance, the recording offers a glimpse of what their shows must have been like back in their decadent heyday.
Although the second album would also fail to gain popularity upon its release, it changed the world in its own unique way. As David Bowie once said: “Well, firstly I think ‘Waiting For The Man’ is probably the most important of the four in a way,” he told PBS. “My then manager brought back an album, it was just a plastic demo of Velvet’s very first album in 1965-ish, something like that.
Adding: “He was particularly pleased because Warhol had signed the sticker in the middle, I still have it by the way. He said, ‘I don’t know why he’s doing music, this music is as bad as his painting’ and I thought, ‘I’m gonna like this.’ I’d never heard anything quite like it, it was a revelation to me.”