Paul interviews The Velvet Underground (1985)

The Velvet UndergroundIn 1985, just prior to the release of the ‘VU’ album (a collection of previously unreleased tracks recorded in 1969 and intended for their fourth album), I had the privilege of interviewing Nico, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker for a national Sunday newspaper. At the end of each interview I mentioned that I was preparing a new album (to follow ‘Burnt Orchids’) and asked if they would consider playing on it, if I could get the multi-track tapes shipped to the States. They agreed and Sterling seemed particularly keen as he was eager to get back into music after taking time out to study for a university degree. I remember that he was very complimentary about my songwriting after he heard the tapes (backing tracks with guide vocals, not demos) and in a couple of telephone conversations he mentioned that he found the structure of the songs unusual and that interested him. But the tape formats were not compatible with the equipment in the studio he was using at the time and I let the project lapse, assuming that we would sort it out at a later date. I even had a letter from his attorney asking me to give him extra time, but I had an offer from UK psych label Bam Caruso and needed to deliver an album by a certain date, so I shelved the songs I had written for the VU and moved on. Then, sometime later, Sterling died and so did Nico.

It was not until last year, 27 years(!) after writing those songs that I thought of digging them out, dusting them off and recording them as I had been itching to get back to playing with a rock band after a year spent creating a solo acoustic project (‘Grimm’). The resulting album, ‘Bates Motel’ (which also includes songs written for a John’s Children reunion album at the invitation of frontman Andy Ellison), is released next month on the German label Sireena Records.

Here is the brief interview with Nico, Sterling and Mo which, if I remember rightly, was considerably longer in its original form and included their memories of recording the unreleased tracks (which was something that interested me, but evidently not the Editor of the paper, who cut it out!).

The Velvet Underground with Nico

The Velvet Underground with Nico

‘Cult’ is a term much misused in the music business, but few would argue that it is a most appropriate term when applied to The Velvet Underground, the New York group whose dark and hypnotic examinations of urban low-life appeared like Belladonna amidst the flower power of the late Sixties. Although the band were together for just five turbulent years and four albums, their influence on music styles and attitudes has been deep and long lasting.

Artists as diverse as David Bowie, Roxy Music, The Cars and The Jesus And Mary Chain have acknowledged the debt, while rock historians concur that without the VU there would have been no punk explosion. Add to this the fact that for a while they became the plaything of pop art guru Andy Warhol and that on his insistence they recruited the stunning German model Nico to sing on their first album and you have the stuff that myths are made of.

Polydor have re-released the three VU albums in their catalogue, together with two more comprised of previously unreleased material, and LWT’s arts programme ‘The South Bank Show’ devoted an entire edition to a potted history of the band. Interest in the VU has never been higher and their records sell in quantities undreamed of when they were at their peak. It’s an irony which is not lost on drummer Maureen Tucker, now a resident of Georgia and a mother of five.

“We hardly sold any records when we were together,” she recalls wryly. “Even at the beginning when we had the patronage of Andy Warhol we couldn’t afford more than eight hours in the studio to record the whole of our first album! In some ways, it was helpful because we sounded more desperate and the music had a raw edge to it.”

What did she feel was the band’s unique appeal?

“It was Lou’s fantastic songs and the way the rest of us interpreted them. Each of us approached the songs from a different angle, putting our individual stamp on them. I played standing up so that I wouldn’t fall into the standard way of drumming and I hadn’t learned to play ‘properly’. I couldn’t do a roll to save my life! John [Cale] came from an avant-garde background and would play viola in a manic style unique to himself, while Sterling was a ‘traditional’ pop guitarist which left Lou free to experiment on lead guitar. You’ve only to listen to the solo albums Lou made with ‘normal’ rock musicians after disbanding the Velvets to see what a dramatic difference we made.”

The Velvet Underground with Andy Warhol

The Velvet Underground with Andy Warhol

Nico readily agrees with Maureen’s evaluation, “They were such a hotpotch that they could help but come up with something new.” Nico, now a resident of London and still active as a solo performer recalls how her brief association with the Velvets began, an association which forms the basis of her own mystique. “I had been introduced to Andy Warhol by Bob Dylan, my boyfriend at the time, and was appearing in Andy’s films. It was I who discovered them playing at Max’s Kansas City, a club in New York, and I brought Andy down to meet them. But it was Andy’s idea that I join them. He said they needed someone pretty, because with the exception of Lou they were all so ugly! I was only with them for one year, but it was a wonderful and exciting time. Lou was such a talented young man. He wrote the vocabulary for the streets and that is why those songs still stand up today. He was a great innovator, but sadly he and John fell out over me and that’s what split the group.”

Another contributing factor was that with the departure of Nico—she left to secure the custody of her son from father Alain Delon—Warhol’s interest in the group waned and with it went the interest of his followers.

But Sterling Morrison, who retired from music to study Medieval English Literature and who now lives a quiet life in Austin, Texas, believes that Warhol’s contribution has been over-estimated:

“You must remember that he was never a direct source of musical ideas. He doesn’t know anything about music and didn’t offer ideas or advice. What he did, though, was to introduce us to a lot of influential people and his support gave us a tremendous amount of confidence. We rarely had enough money because the records didn’t sell and Andy took all the gig fees, but we didn’t need money then. Andy fed us and kept a roof over our heads. Under those circumstances we were able to play what we wanted to without considering whether it would sell or not.”

“But even after we left him we continued to do what we wanted. We were never musically pretentious. We had no manufactured image to maintain. Lou’s songs were about real people and not ‘plastic fantasies’. Between the subject matter of his songs and the lack of promotion we were rarely played on the radio, if not banned altogether, and so people didn’t tire of hearing us.”

* * * * *

A brief interview with Paul on the subject of the VU collaboration will be published in the Feb/March issue of ‘Shindig’ magazine.

You can enjoy Paul’s 1992 cover of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus In Furs’ here:

Paul’s album Bates Motel is available for download from cdbaby and Amazon.

For a hard copy, please contact Sireena Records (Germany) or Rhythm Online (UK).

About RealPaulRoland

PAUL ROLAND is a prolific recording artist, producer and author of more than 30 books. He has been spinning his musical tales against a backdrop of gothic rock, psych pop and, occasionally, baroque strings. He has been called 'Edgar Allen Poe of psych pop' and the 'Godfather of Steampunk'.

Posted on February 23, 2013, in Album Releases, Bates Motel, music, The Velvet Underground and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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