‘One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.’
When my older brother Martin was at university, he would return in the holidays with exotic records that hadn’t made much of an impact in Essex. Through Martin I encountered the early Magazine, Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes albums. He brought back roots and dub reggae, for which I was eternally grateful; and obscure Australian indie music, which I was happy to leave to him.
I particularly recall Martin introducing me to the 1967 debut by the Velvet Underground and Nico. I’d seen its distinctive banana cover in the racks at Downtown Records, but had been too mystified, and perhaps intimidated, to pick it up.
This was an album of anxious paranoia and melancholy sadness; of curious rhythms, deadpan vocals, relentless feedback and a sinister guitar drone. ‘Heroin’ examined the motivations behind addiction; ‘Venus in Furs’ addressed S&M; ‘Femme Fatale’ and ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ painted the darker side of New York nightlife. It sounded so far from the hippy vibe of peace and love that was emanating from the West Coast in the late ‘60s. It was like nothing I‘d heard before, and yet explained so much of what came after. It was exhilarating.
‘I use the cracks on the sidewalk to walk down the street. I’d always walk on the lines. I never take anything but a calculated risk, and do it because it gives me a sense of identity. Fear is a man’s best friend.’
The Velvet Underground was for a time managed by Andy Warhol, and it was he that had designed the banana cover. They performed in sunglasses to protect their eyes from the stroboscopic light effects of their avant-garde stage show. Lou Reed had a rock’n’roll swagger; Sterling Morrison strummed his guitar with a blues inflection; ‘Moe’ Tucker hammered the drums standing up and avoided using cymbals; John Cale played the viola. Blimey! This was the archetype of intelligent, art house, experimental, nihilistic rock music.
‘Things always seem to end before they start.’
Sadly the classic Velvets line-up only made two albums together. Their second outing, ‘White Light/White Heat’, was even more intimidating than their first, and commercial success eluded them.
Tensions grew between Reed and Cale. It’s said that Cale, the classically trained multi-instrumentalist Welshman, was more experimental, and wanted to record the next album underwater. Some suggested that Reed just didn’t like having a rival. In 1968 Reed fired Cale. With Cale gone, Reed was the unassailable leader of the band.
The Velvets went on to release a couple of albums that were somewhat mellower and a little less radical. These records certainly had their merits, but something had been lost. And in 1970 Reed too went his own way.
It has been observed that, in forcing out Cale, Reed was committing a cardinal sin for a creative enterprise: he was sacrificing chemistry for control.
We all understand the desire to be in total control. Compromise, concession and conciliation can be tedious and exhausting. We yearn for freedom and independence, to have our hands on the corporate tiller. We pine to sail into the sunset alone, masters of our own destiny. We want to take back control.
But of course we live in an interconnected world, where progress is built on partnership; where creation is achieved through collaboration. There’s really no such thing as a free market in a modern economy. There’s no such thing as a free agent in a business driven by relationships.
In the creative industry particularly, we should understand that success is based on the confluence of different skill-sets; the chemistry between different disciplines. We need alchemists, not tyrants at the head of our companies.
‘I am tired, I am weary.
I could sleep for a thousand years.
A thousand dreams that would awake me,
Different colors made of tears.’
The Velvet Underground and Nico, Venus in Furs (Lou Reed)
Many years after the Velvet Underground had dissolved, when a good deal of water had flowed under the bridge, Reed and Cale patched up their differences. In 1990 they recorded a tribute to Andy Warhol, and in 1993 they toured with the original band line-up.
There’s a sense that at the end they both appreciated the value of their unique, combustible chemistry. They understood that this tense, fractious relationship was at the heart of a very special creativity. When Reed passed away in 2013, Cale posted this message:
‘The news I feared the most, pales in comparison to the lump in my throat and the hollow in my stomach. Two kids have a chance meeting and 47 years later we fight and love the same way – losing either one is incomprehensible. No replacement value, no digital or virtual fill…broken now, for all time. Unlike so many with similar stories – we have the best of our fury laid out on vinyl, for the world to catch a glimpse. The laughs we shared just a few weeks ago, will forever remind me of all that was good between us.’