Born in South Wales, John Cale moved to New York as a young man and participated in an eighteen-hour performance organized by John Cage soon after arriving, then played with La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music ensemble and cofounded the Velvet Underground.
In 1966, Lou Reed and his band recorded The Velvet Underground & Nico at the studios of Scepter Records, which was largely associated with the Shirelles and other girl groups. Eight years later, engineer Tom Moulton created the first twelve-inch extended dance remix in Scepter’s studio, which became a crucial format for disco DJs. And when the disco movement was peaking in 1977, Studio 54 opened inside an old soundstage that originally broadcast hit television shows like The $64,000 Question and Captain Kangaroo. That former CBS television studio was located underneath Scepter Records at 254 West Fifty-Fourth Street—a building that produced an unlikely mix of girl group pop, left field rock, debauched disco, and children’s television programming.
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Andy Warhol’s early cinematic experiments in time, such as Sleep and Empire, were also explored in the music of minimalist composer La Monte Young, who moved to the city in 1960 and became involved in Yoko Ono’s Chambers Street Loft Series and the Fluxus art movement. Just as Warhol and other 1960s underground filmmakers expanded the temporal possibilities of film, Young and his collaborators did the same with music and sound—stretching out notes for hours at a time, creating elongated drones. Warhol, Young, and Jack Smith were at the center of a swirling vortex of collaborative activity that touched many areas of downtown life and art. The Flaming Creatures soundtrack, for instance, was assembled by Tony Conrad, who performed in Young’s group the Theatre of Eternal Music alongside Factory custodian Billy Name and future Velvet Underground member John Cale. Warhol also commissioned Young to produce droning sounds to accompany his silent films when they were screened at the 1967 New York Film Festival, and he worked with Jack Smith on several other projects.
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
In 1966, the Velvet Underground performed at Paraphernalia, a hip boutique that sold clothes designed by a young Betsey Johnson, and featured a chrome and glass design with go-go dancers in the windows who grooved to the rock ’n’ roll that blared over the shop’s loudspeakers. “I was the street kid at Paraphernalia,” Johnson recalled. “I liked making affordable clothes.” She designed simple miniskirts and T‑shirts, often in primary colors, and used vinyl whenever possible. “You’d spray with Windex rather than dry-clean,” Johnson said. “We were into plastic flash synthetics. It was ‘Hey, your dress looks like my shower curtain!’ The newer it was, the weirder—the better.” After Johnson met Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol, who needed silver outfits for a film they were shooting, she began designing clothes for the Velvet Underground. Johnson instantly fell in love with John Cale when he asked her to make a costume he could wear while playing viola with his hands on fire. They became the first Factory couple to tie the knot, and for their City Hall wedding Johnson made a burgundy velveteen pantsuit for herself and designed Cale’s black sailcloth canvas suit. Unfortunately, New York City officials informed her that a woman could not be legally married in pants, so she returned in the tiniest of red miniskirts and completed the ceremony.
From Chapter 11 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
In late 1965, the Velvet Underground began performing at Café Bizarre, which had fake cobwebs, candles, and waitresses in fishnet stockings who looked like Morticia from The Addams Family. “I walked by Café Bizarre a hundred times but I never went in,” said Peter Crowley, who managed another coffeehouse. “It was absolutely another tourist trap, so I never bothered going.” The Velvets’ dissonant droning and sordid tales clashed with the Greenwich Village folk crowd’s more conventional tastes. “One night at the Café Bizarre,” Sterling Morrison recalled, “we played ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ and the owner came up and said, ‘If you play that song one more time you’re fired!’ ” The Velvets began their next set with a ferocious version of “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and were promptly fired.
While Lou Reed dabbled in experimental music in college, John Cale had an extensive background in that world. Born in South Wales, he received an undergraduate degree in classical music and absorbed the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. In 1963, Cale was awarded a Leonard Bernstein scholarship to study modern composition at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, but he quickly fell out with composer Aaron Copland, who had helped Cale secure the scholarship. “Copland said I couldn’t play my work at Tanglewood,” he recalled. “It was too destructive, he said. He didn’t want his piano wrecked.” Cale then moved to New York and dove straight into the city’s avant-garde scene, participating in an eighteen-hour performance organized by John Cage soon after arriving. Once settled there, Cale began playing with La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music ensemble, which also included Factory custodian Billy Name and Tony Conrad (the friend of Jack Smith who compiled the soundtrack for Flaming Creatures).
The Velvet Underground continued playing for these Factory-produced events, renamed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a continuation of multimedia experiments that were taking place downtown. Elaine Summers had already staged her Fantastic Gardens mixed-media event in February 1964 at Judson Church, where film projections were splashed on the ceiling, walls, and floor, and the audience participated with small handheld mirrors. The results were stunning, and unprecedented. As the space was enveloped by a cacophony of lighting effects, music, movement, spoken word, and cinema, dance pioneer Sally Stackhouse performed on the balcony in front of a film of herself dancing. In his Village Voice column, Jonas Mekas argued that Fantastic Gardens was “by far the most successful and most ambitious attempt to use the many possible combinations of film and live action to create an aesthetic experience.” Two years later, Warhol did much the same when he projected performance footage of the Velvet Underground while they played in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Dom.
When John Cale moved to New York City, Lou Reed was working his nine-to-five job at Pickwick Records writing knockoff pop songs to be sold at department stores. When asked if he felt any cognitive dissonance writing the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” by night while holding down a day job crafting commercial fare, Reed pointed out that Warhol also supported his unorthodox art with paid commercial work. “So I didn’t see that as schizophrenic at all,” he said. “I just had a job as a songwriter. I mean, a real hack job. They’d come in with a subject, and we’d write. Which I still kind of like to this day.” Not long after Cale moved into Tony Conrad’s Lower East Side apartment at 56 Ludlow Street, the two artists met Reed after he recorded a garage-rock novelty single, “The Ostrich,” under the name the Primitives. This dance song contained a one-note burst of guitar noise that anticipated the Velvet Underground’s minimalist approach (“That’s rock ’n’ roll,” Reed said of that musical moment, “keep it simple”). Pickwick quickly moved to assemble a live band that could promote this potential hit in early 1965 and, because Cale and Conrad had long hair, they were buttonholed at a party by two sleazy company men from the record label. Cale, Conrad, and their Theatre of Eternal Music collaborator Angus MacLise took a leap of faith and formed a pickup band with Reed for a short promotional tour, which included appearances at a supermarket, high school, and local television dance show. The Primitives padded their short sets with inflammatory soon-to-be-Velvet Underground classics like “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin,” which went over poorly.
After “The Ostrich” fizzled on the charts, the four musicians in the Primitives formed the Warlocks. (This name was also being used by a San Francisco band who, upon hearing about the existence of this New York group, renamed themselves the Grateful Dead.) Lou Reed’s group, which now included his college friend Sterling Morrison on guitar, changed their name after Tony Conrad stumbled across a sensationalistic paperback book about S&M titled The Velvet Underground. “We thought it was a good name,” said Morrison, “because it had underground in it and [because we] were playing for underground films, we considered ourselves part of the underground film community. We had no real connection to rock and roll as far as we were concerned.” After Conrad left the group, the classic Velvet Underground lineup was rounded out by drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker, who replaced MacLise after he quit. Reed was a friend of Maureen’s brother, Jim Tucker, and they cofounded a mimeo poetry zine, Lonely Woman Quarterly, while the two attended Syracuse University.
Andy Warhol’s association with the Velvet Underground deepened his reach into the world of popular music, expanding his multimedia empire. “The Pop idea, after all, was that anybody could do anything,” Warhol wrote in POPism, his memoir of the 1960s, “so naturally we were all trying to do it all. Nobody wanted to stay in one category, we all wanted to branch out into every creative thing we could. That’s why when we met the Velvet Underground at the end of ’65, we were all for getting into the music scene, too.” In November 1965, before the Velvet Underground’s Café Bizarre residency abruptly ended, a theater producer named Michael Myerberg came up with the idea of opening a Warhol-branded discotheque. He approached Paul Morrissey—Warhol’s sort-of manager and assistant filmmaker—who put the word out that the Factory wanted to find a house band for the space. Malanga, Sanders, and underground filmmaker Barbara Rubin had already seen the Velvet Underground, which led to Warhol signing the group to a management deal. (Myerberg eventually chose the Young Rascals, a better business move for someone looking to draw in a large teen and young adult audience.)
“The Fugs, the Holy Modal Rounders, and the Velvet Underground were the only authentic Lower East Side bands,” guitarist Sterling Morrison said, perhaps with a bit of exaggeration. “We were real bands playing for real people in a real scene. We helped each other out if we could and generally hung out at the same places.” Poet and provocateur Ed Sanders had already formed the Fugs in late 1964, a few months before the Velvets coalesced. “I felt camaraderie towards The Velvets,” Sanders recalled. “We overlapped. So people would come to both shows. Nico used to come to my bookstore, the Peace Eye.” The connections among this lowly trinity of bands ran deep. The Holy Modal Rounders first emerged on the Lower East Side in May 1963, and about a year later Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber joined the Fugs—contributing radio-unfriendly songs to the group’s repertoire (like Stampfel’s “New Amphetamine Shriek” and Weber’s “Boobs a Lot”).
From Chapter 15 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Remarkably, both the Holy Modal Rounders and the Velvet Underground appeared on national television, reaching millions of households. In 1965, legendary CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite introduced “The Making of an Underground Film,” a five-and-a-half-minute segment that featured Jonas Mekas, Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol, and the Velvet Underground (whose members—except for drummer Maureen Tucker—were shirtless and wearing body paint). “Some underground films have been criticized for dealing too frankly with such themes as sex and nudity,” CBS correspondent Dave Dugan reported, “but many movies such as this one may simply seem confusing.” Even the Fugs came close to making it on network television after Sanders’s face landed on the cover of the February 17, 1967, issue of Life—one of the nation’s highest-circulation magazines. This led to a call from The Tonight Show to appear as Johnny Carson’s guest. Ed Sanders stubbornly insisted that the Fugs should be allowed to perform “Kill for Peace” on the program as a protest against the Vietnam War but, not surprisingly, the network refused to let the Fugs sing, “If you don’t like the people or the way that they talk / If you don’t like their manners or they way that they walk / Kill, kill, kill for peace!”
Patti Smith’s audience grew throughout her CBGB residency with Television in early 1975, which created more momentum for the scene. “That was the first time when it started to get crowded,” doorwoman Roberta Bayley said, “and I think by the end it was sold out.” This was followed by CBGB’s Festival of Unsigned Bands in the summer of 1975, which drew even more attention. “The Ramones started to get a following,” she said, “and I think the Ramones were probably the first band to really build a fan base, and packed the place. Not long before it was just thirty, forty, maybe eighty people on a good night.” The media coverage that CBGB and Smith received benefited both parties, and on May 1, 1975, Arista Records mogul Clive Davis offered her a contract. Later that month, after signing, they celebrated with a live set that aired on the local radio station, WBAI, which she revered for its lack of formatting constraints (a freedom that complemented her approach to music, both aesthetically and ideologically). It was Smith’s first, but certainly not last, appearance on radio. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale produced the Patti Smith Group’s debut, Horses, and Robert Mapplethorpe shot the striking cover photo of her in a white men’s dress shirt and skinny tie. By this point, Smith’s band had outgrown CBGB and started to play larger venues in the city, such as the Palladium (formerly the Academy of Music).
From Chapter 32 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore