Guitarist Sterling Morrison met Lou Reed at Syracuse University and later reconnected with the songwriter in New York City, where he joined the fledgling 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
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.
From Chapter 11 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
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.
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
In April 1966, the Velvet Underground began their residency playing with Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Dom, where Factory newcomer Mary Woronov joined in. “Gerard Malanga felt we would be center stage and liven things up,” Woronov said. “So he brought me on with the black leather suit and a whip, and we worked out a dance with a sort of S&M kind of theme.” Their routines were supposed to be dark and theatrical, but they sometimes veered into goofier realms. “For ‘Waiting for the Man,’ I would lift weights,” Woronov said. “For ‘Heroin,’ Gerard would run around with a plastic needle that was two feet long and shoot up. It was sort of an act, to music.” Meanwhile, the Velvet Underground unleashed sheets of sound as Warhol slipped colored gelatin slides over film projector lenses or just stood on the balcony, observing the crowded scene. One night he saw “a small, muscular blond kid make a ballet leap that practically spanned the dance floor.” Warhol promptly went downstairs and met the young man, Eric Emerson, whose good looks and magnetic personality secured him a spot in several Warhol films. He was cast alongside Nico and Woronov in The Chelsea Girls and appeared in Lonesome Cowboys, San Diego Surf, and Heat.
The Velvet Underground & Nico was recorded in 1966 but wasn’t released until the following year. Bucking the music industry norm of securing a contract with a record label, Warhol and the Velvets went the independent route—recording it themselves. “The album says, ‘Produced by Andy Warhol,’ ” Sterling Morrison noted. “Well, it was produced in the sense that a movie is produced. He put up the money. We made the album ourselves and then took it around because we knew that no one was going to sign us off the streets. And we didn’t want any A&R department telling us what songs we should record.” Unfortunately, Factory scenester Eric Emerson played a fateful role in torpedoing the Velvet Underground’s (slim) chances of commercial success soon after the release of their 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. The album’s back cover originally featured a shot of the band playing with an image of Emerson’s face from The Chelsea Girls projected prominently in the background. Emerson either needed drug money or was simply broke, so he threatened to sue the record label because he hadn’t signed a photo release. Verve Records pulled the album from record stores and redacted Emerson’s face from the back cover, which was a disaster for the band. “The album vanished from the charts almost immediately in June 1967,” Sterling Morrison lamented, “just when it was about to enter the Top 100. It never returned to the charts.”
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!”