The Velvet Underground l-r: Sterling Morrison, Mo Tucker, Lou Reed, John Cale.

How Welsh Were the Velvet Underground?

Gary Raymond ponders the Welsh credentials of the greatest rock n roll band of all time, asking how Welsh were The Velvet Underground?

[This article was originally published on Gary Raymond’s weekly substack newsletter, Meridian Strip].

When I was young, I was in a band whose ultimate ambition was to do an hour-long gig that comprised of one song, a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On”. We would play that song true to its five-minute duration, but then we would hammer the three chords of its closure over and over for the remaining fifty-five minutes. We wanted to bring the walls down of any pub or community hall or club who were unsuspecting enough to book us, rattle the foundations like those chords were the terrible reverberations of an industrial drill, a drill the size of the Empire State Building. We wanted to make the music sound like the base noise of the universe, the undersound, that leftover harumph of the Big Bang.

Two things aren’t quite true about that. Firstly, the band’s ultimate ambition was not to do this for an hour, but to do it for several hours, or indeed, for days, months, weeks, without stopping. Chug chug chuddugug, chug chug chuddugug, chug chug chuddugug, chug chug chuddugug. We wanted it to go on for centuries, “like Chinese music”, as John Cale says in the new Todd Haynes Velvet Underground documentary.

The second thing that is untrue of that opening memory is suggestion that this was a communal ambition. The other band members wanted nothing to do with it. It was just me. They thought I was a bit mad. But I stuck to my guns all through the brief existence of that combo and carried it forward into the maelstrom of several other bands I would join and found in the following years. Something about that primal chiming of those propulsive chords kept bringing me back to the idea. The Velvet Underground had gotten under my skin.

When I first heard The Velvet Underground – “Venus in Furs” on a compilation tape – it seemed to come from a different place to everything else I’d been listening to. It wasn’t The Beatles, and it wasn’t the Blues. It wasn’t classical and it wasn’t psychedelic. It was the music of the earth, of the soil, but of concrete too. It was the music of the dank drizzled Welsh streets, hit blind by the fizz of the neon lights. The music of collars pulled up tight and shoulders hunched and hands pushed down hard into pockets.

Lest we forget, The Velvet Underground was a quarter Welsh. Or so goes some interpretation of the maths. It depends if you are counting creative input, or whether you’re divvying up the band members into equal parts as sound contributors. And it depends on what you consider to be the definitive line up of the band. At the beginning, The Velvet Underground was a spark that flew because Lou Reed met John Cale. Their creative visions collided to create that unique sound. Sterling Morrison’s guitar style, immediately recognisable as that eerie, exotic, jagged shuffle, lays all across those first two albums like razor wire. Moe Tucker’s distinctive drum technique, heavy and grey, would have likely fitted with no other band of the era so well. After the second album, when Cale was sacked by Reed, the Velvets were just Lou Reed’s backing band. Other members, including Morrison and Tucker, peeled away, either by choice or by circumstance. And before Cale had gone, other iconic figures associated with the band had already departed. Andy Warhol had been sacked as manager and producer by Reed. Nico, the iceberg in the centre of all the muck and dust, had also floated away.

Reed used that early Velvet Underground set-up as a springboard to his own singular way of doing things that would become embodied in his long solo career. In Todd Haynes’ movie there are snippets of Reed being generous on this point about his other band members. Loaded (1970), the band’s last album proper, is stripped of many of the drones and right angles and slow turns of the earlier albums. It is a superior rock album filled wall to wall with great pop songs, but it boasts few of the component parts that made VU so special. It points toward the melodic ideas of his great solo hits just around the corner such as those found on Transformer (1972), glammed up by Bowie’s production just as once Reed’s songs had been glammed down by Cale’s grating viola.

I am – I think it’s becoming clear – setting up an argument that the real Velvet Underground is The Velvet Underground of that first album (and, by extension, the second), and that Velvet Underground was most definitely partly Welsh. Dismiss this as muso chin stroking if you like – what difference does it make if the Velvets were a bit Welsh? – but I think there is value in figuring out the nature of the stuff that went into the sound and vision of the greatest rock n roll band of all time. John Cale was no session player. He was not only a major creative force on those first two albums, but he gave focus and shape to Reed’s creative force. Once Reed could stand on his own two feet, he got rid of those people who helped get him upright.

Lou Reed, that glorious poet of the streets, was a student of Delmore Schwartz who himself was from that school of American post-beats mesmerised by the smithery of Dylan Thomas. Schwartz, a Creative Writing professor at Syracuse during this time, was everything to the young Lou Reed. He showed Reed a way to fit his vision of the world into the art he wanted to make. Reed was turned on by the use of language in Schwartz’s poetry, but even more so in his essays and short stories. Reed understood them as “everyday”. But Schwartz’s writing was far from “everyday”. Schwartz was a mystic in the same way Dylan Thomas was. Craig Morgan Teicher sees in Schwartz’s darkest work the “verbal lavishness” of Thomas. “Schwartz aspired to that kind of music,” Teicher wrote in the Paris Review.

Music. That’s a much more complicated notion than anybody with a passing idea of what the Velvet Underground were may suspect. The rock n roll mind, not to mention the ear, might think the genius of the band was its sonic simplicity, its primal state. But that sound is the result of a wild experimental journey. Reed started out writing cheap rock n roll songs for a “sound-a-like” record label Pickwick Records (some might argue Cale rescued Reed from this gig). If Schwartz opened Reed up lyrically, tapped into what would be Reed’s fount of genius, musically he was nothing special. He played guitar in a band and when he wrecked his hand his bandmates told him he could just sing because he “was a terrible guitar player anyway”. Lou Reed was a writer who wanted to be a rock n roll star, an artist for whom the slow solitary churning of the literary calling would fall far short in his quest to satiate the anger and rage he felt within, the anger and rage that had seen him go through several rounds of electroshock therapy in a range of East Coast sanitoria in his teens. John Cale’s introduction to rock n roll came about because his housemate and co-Dream Syndicate member Tony Conrad had been buying rock no roll records “as a sort of fetish”. Cale heard in the harmonies of The Beatles and the Everly Brothers something closer to the atonal and drone music he had been exploring with the Dream Syndicate. When Cale and Reed were introduced to one another, it was improvisation that proved the fuse. Cale recounts in Haynes’ film that all of a sudden, he was in an experience that was raw and energetic, a release from the daily ninety-minute drone meditation he had been practicing with La Monte Young and Conrad at the house they shared in New York for a year and half. “It was great,” Cale said of the connection improvisation gave him with Reed. “I missed that in my childhood.”

At the beginning of Haynes’ film, we see Cale taking the position of human puzzle on one of those Guess Who/What/Why American quiz shows that peppered the frontiers of early TV land back then. The panel must figure out why he’s there. He is introduced as “from Wales… a Welshman”, the quiz master half-embarrassed and half-excited by the sheer exoticism of that sentence. Cale is smart-looking, short hair, snappy suit. Years later when he has moved over to full on beatnik, and his hair curtains down to his collar, Lou Reed will often be heard trying to figure something out himself. “How the hell did we get here, with you from Wales?”

The Primitives, Cale and Reed’s first band, who had a minor dancehall hit with the loop riff stomp of “The Ostrich”, was, on the outside, a teen bop garage band; but flip them over and they were the first merging of the John Cage-influenced minimalist experiments of Cale and Conrad and Reed’s intense dark street poetics of the Delmore Schwartz variety.

By the time they are in the Factory, and under the spell of Warhol, and are reconfigured and repeopled as the Velvet Underground, they have distilled that grunge potency and added it to a series of stockpiled songs, some of which Reed has brought to the table, some of which have emerged from their hundreds of hours of improvised jams. But they all end up with the stamp of Reed because they all end up with his lyrics. And even when Nico is vocalist, she is a spectral puppet for Reed’s aesthetic. But behind that, under that, always, is the genius of John Cale.

 

Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, and broadcaster, and is editor of Wales Arts Review. To sign up to his newsletter click here.