Monday, March 12, 2012

The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, and the Rock & Roll Renaissance

Rock & Roll was barely over a decade old in 1967, the year of its renaissance. The seismic event, which unquestionably changed Rock & Roll in ways Chuck Berry never envisioned occurred almost precisely half-way through ’67 when The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on June 1. Instantly, Rock & Roll lost the “Roll”; it became art with a large “A”. Any artist who just months before believed Surrealistic Pillow, Between the Buttons, or Buffalo Springfield was sufficiently progressive was forced to completely rethink their work and create competitively forward-thinking, “conceptual” works. A mere lineup of guitars, bass, and drums unadorned by sitars, harpsichords, or backwards tape loops dipped in Coke was unacceptable. Tracks must now segue to emphasize the continuity of the overarching theme. Freaky collages replaced unimaginative band portraits on album covers that must now fold out both to provide additional mind-expanding images and to facilitate the rolling of substances that might further enhance the musical/visual experience.

Heard today, Sgt. Pepper’s doesn’t necessarily sound like the flashpoint it certainly was in its day because little of it was without precedent. Psychedelia had been in the air in a significant way since The Byrds managed to fly the clattering, Coltrane tribute “Eight Miles High” into the Top Twenty early in 1966. The Beatles, themselves, had already taken psychedelia as far as they ever would with “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”, both recorded in ’66. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds more orchestral pop in the Phil Spector vein than acid-drenched psych was a prime influence on Pepper’s, and had that band managed to complete SMiLE, an L.P. began in mid-’66, it would have made The Beatles’ record of 1967 sound positively quaint in comparison. Not its sitars, nor Mellotrons, nor tape loops, nor use of sound effects distinguished Sgt. Pepper’s as an album of any greater innovation than The Beatles’ 1966 masterwork, Revolver, which featured most of these elements often to better effect. Today, only the disorienting patchwork opus “A Day in the Life”, with its terrifying orchestral tidal waves, feels like a genuine jerk forward for pop music.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band still managed to become the key album of 1967 because the packaging was so interesting (both the literal packaging designed by Peter Blake and photographed by Michael Cooper and the red-herringish “concept album” categorization) and because, well, The Beatles were The Beatles. No one could command the world’s attention or set new standards like those four guys could in the sixties… or any other decade since for that matter. And let’s make no mistake: it’s a very, very good record.

However, several months before The Beatles reasserted their command over pop culture, a band from the other side of the Atlantic had stirred up changes in Rock & Roll so without precedent that it would be years before the effects manifested in any significant way.

Question: Where did The Velvet Underground come from? Answer: New York City. Of course, that response doesn’t suffice. The New York sound of the mid-sixties was the folky lilt of Simon and Garfunkel, the garage thump of Blues Magoos, or at its most outrĂ©, the piss-taking of The Fugs. There are wispy traces of Simon folkiness in The Velvet’s lighter moments—“I’ll Be Your Mirror”, “Sunday Morning”, “Femme Fatale”—garage energy in their noisy attack, and Fugs-style sex and drugs (sans much of the jokiness) in Lou Reed’s story songs. There are also indications of the deafening feedback employed on singles by The Who, Small Faces, and The Kinks the New Yorkers had imported from England. Yet The Velvet Underground sounded nothing like any of these bands, nothing like anyone but The Velvet Underground. Their nightmare obsessions with death, S&M decadence, hard drugs, and grungy street life cast the darkest Stones records as wholly inauthentic. Their noise was more out of control than, say, the shrieks of sound that permeate “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” or “My Generation”. Their songs are long and minimalistic, like Dylan’s, but Bob balanced simple chord structures with dense, complex lyricism. Reed could do this as well, but initially favored repeated verses that gave The Velvet Underground world the sensation of a trap rather than Dylan’s expansive intellectual playground. Nothing any of The Velvet’s peers created could contend with the aural horrors of “European Son”. The Beatles celebrated the psychedelic experience in the noncommittal double entendres of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “With a Little Help from My Friends” just as The Byrds may have in their “tribute to space travel,” “Eight Miles High”. Lennon and McCartney shared a tickled glance when they resolved to include the relatively explicit “I’d Love to Turn You On” in “A Day in the Life”. The phrase is decidedly G-rated when set against:

“Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it's my wife and it's my life
Because a mainer to my vein
Leads to a center in my head
And then I'm better off and dead
Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don't care anymore”

There are no coy outlets for “Heroin”, no room to contend that its depiction of junk shooting was actually inspired by a child’s drawing or the wholesome bond between friends.

Pete Townshend pledged allegiance to the auto-destructive theories of Gustav Metzger, but he was not immersed in the avant-garde world to the degree of John Cale, who was conducting John Cage pieces back in 1963, the same year he collaborated with the avant-garde collective Fluxus that would spawn Yoko Ono. Cale’s screeching viola sounded unlike anything conceived in Townshend’s realm of amp and Rickenbacker smashing. The Velvet Underground & Nico was completely alien when released on March 12, 1967. It must have sounded even more so when it was recorded the previous spring, just weeks after “Eight Miles High” appeared.

The effects of Sgt. Pepper’s were immediate. Just three days after its release, Jimi Hendrix was already covering its title track on stage (much to the amazement of attendees Paul McCartney and George Harrison). Within the next six months, the scene was saturated with such Peppery creations as The Who Sell Out, Their Satanic Majesties, After Bathing at Baxter’s, Buffalo Springfield Again, and Butterfly. The after effects of The Velvet Underground & Nico took considerably longer to manifest, but the manifestations were no less profound.

Mick Jagger insisted his 1968 song “Stray Cat Blues” was influenced by The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”, but waited a decade to make this claim, which he appended with an unconvincing, “Honest to God!” In the early seventies, David Bowie made a more convincing case, describing The Velvets as his greatest influence. Yet aside from his penchant for covering “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “White Light/White Heat”, there was never much striking evidence of the band’s searing squall or street-level narratives in Bowie’s work. On a less high-profile scale, new artists such as The Modern Lovers and Iggy and the Stooges were clearly caught in The Velvet Underground’s thrall. But the full scope of how they changed the way artists performed and composed was not fully felt until the first major stains of punk seeped through the late seventies. Patti Smith, Pere Ubu, Joy Division, Mink DeVille, Television, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Voidoids: none of them could have existed without The Velvet Underground. In the eighties and nineties, that influence would spread further through the work of Yo La Tengo, Nirvana, My Bloody Valentine, The Vaselines, The Jesus and Mary Chain, R.E.M., The Pixies, Sonic Youth, countless others.

Today, there is little question that The Velvet Underground & Nico has had as significant an impact on Rock & Roll as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And while the reputation of The Beatles’ album has slipped slightly (most fans now recognize Revolver as the band’s greatest work), The Velvet Underground’s is unassailable. Sgt. Pepper’s was not the invention of psychedelia, but The Velvet Underground & Nico was without question the birth of modern indie rock twenty years ahead of schedule. It may not define Rock’s Renaissance the way The Beatles’ “Summer of Love” exemplar did, but in the long run, it may be the most important release of 1967.

The Velvet Underground & Nico was released 45 years ago today.
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