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July 1st, 1965: The Velvet Underground’s first recordings

The Velvet Underground’s first recordings

The events we write about at Gaslight Records happened in some form or another 50 years ago to the day. Roll along with us and imagine you are back in 1969.

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Early July, 1965 - The Velvet Underground recorded their first demos in a loft apartment in Soho, New York.

The band initially formed in late '64 under the name The Primitives, but after being exposed to Michael Leigh’s pulp novel a story about the secret sexual subculture of the early 60s--they unanimously decided to rename the group after the book. The initial band lineup included Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Angus Maclise, though Maclise wasn’t present for the first recording session.

The Velvet Underground had a bald-faced power. That’s what made them so drastically unsuccessful during their active years. Sure, mid-60s music was getting more and more toward anti-gloss and a raw look at culture thanks to figures like Dylan; but it still wasn’t quite ready to face up to the beasts slinking around the lower Eastside tenement buildings in search of another hit. There was music out there about drug culture, but the really successful stuff thinly cloaked its true intentions in metaphor. Lou Reed never did that. He was a painfully literal songwriter who shone a relentlessly honest eye on the world around him. That’s what made him so fearless and good: you feel nothing but truth in listening to Reed’s depiction of Warhol’s Factory characters, or of the process of scoring smack up on Lexington, or of Sally’s apartment on St. Mark’s Place.

Once peace, love and happiness died a gory series of deaths in places like Altamont, Vietnam and Richard Nixon’s office, a sense of paranoid gloom, of pessimism, of emptiness in facing up to the reality of the hippy revolution’s failings set in.

But Reed’s songwriting, coupled with the lo-fi and no frills production approach of the Velvets, is also what killed the band in the crib. Their overall package was too visceral and pessimistic in a time that still craved optimistic pop melodies, or at the very least, a poetry (like Dylan’s) that you could still tap your feet to. In other words, the Velvets were too 1970s.

Once peace, love and happiness died a gory series of deaths in places like Altamont, Vietnam and Richard Nixon’s office, a sense of paranoid gloom, of pessimism, of emptiness in facing up to the reality of the hippy revolution’s failings set in. Cue a Velvet Underground revival as the forebears of punk rock. The punk rock movement arrived under the promise of getting back to basics, to raw power and truth. And although the Velvets were more musically languid, the biggest chunk of their legacy surely comes from their influence over the punk, and later, grunge ethos.

The Velvet Underground’s first recordings
Lou Reed & Nico - 1965

The Velvet Underground got to plain, awful, hurtful, hard, tragically hilarious truth before it was acceptable, or as it became in the 70s, trendy. That’s what makes them one of the most prophetic bands in the history of rock music.

The series of "All Tommorow’s Parties" takes from the 1965 demos are a real highlight. The song seems to take shape right before your eyes/ears over the course of 12 takes, throughout which Reed snaps and swears when he makes a mistake on the guitar or forgets the next vocal line. It’s a folkier rendition than later appeared on the Andy Warhol produced though the structure and lyrics are pretty much the same.

"Heroin" is another highlight that really goes to the core of what I’ve talked about above. That is, it’s a raw and murky look at the white lotus, the ‘ol end-of-the-line, before it was anywhere near acceptable to do so. Even nowadays "Heroin" is hard to swallow. Try imagining the general-public reception it would've received upon release; had anyone in the general public actually heard it, that is. The demo version is sloppier than the later studio version, but the essence was there, a long, long way ahead of its time.

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