Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Velvet Not So Underground

I'm sure you're familiar with the lazy old 'only a hundred people listened to The Velvet Underground in 1966, but each of them formed an important punk-era band' maxim. There's a nugget of truth in there--heck, a generous, plus-size nugget--but I'm here today to tell you that the Velvets were, despite their reputation as no-hope musical terrorists, also influential during their lifetime. They obviously didn't burrow their way into pop culture consciousness for another ten-plus years, but someone other than Jonathan Richman was listening to them in their heyday...and here's the proof.

Exhibit A: The Baskerville Hounds, a Cleveland, Ohio band who released their single Hold Me b/w Here I Come Miami on the Avco Embassy label in 1968. Produced by one James M. Testa (surely not the same James M. Testa who contributed liner notes to Screeching Weasel's 1996 LP Weasel Mania??), the single peaked at number 88 on the pop charts--and that was it for The Baskerville Hounds, who never had another sniff at the big time.Hold Me is a P.J. Proby song, executed nicely by the Hounds in a big, brash, garage-pop style that probably sounded dated to Cream and Hendrix-addled hipsters in 1968. There's a rather nice, Reedesque solo on it courtesy guitarist Lawrence Meese, but it's the B-side where the real magic happens (or the Velvets influence becomes glaringly obvious, take your pick). As Here I Come Miami begins, it sounds like it's going to be a rather routine Route 66 rip-off, but at the end of the first verse the distinctive guitar riff from There She Goes Again puts in an appearance--and then reappears a further five times before the end of the song. If the Hounds hadn't stolen this riff, I wouldn't have noticed the guitar solo on the A-side, but it's obvious that someone close to the band had listened to The Velvet Underground and Nico LP more than few times. I strongly recommend you track down a copy of the single (thus cleverly distracting you from searching for the Hounds 1967 Dot LP, which I want. Hands off!): there's probably one on Ebay right now, though it probably doesn't come with this incredibly cool if incredibly ugly picture sleeve.

Exhibit B: Harumi, a supposedly Japanese band (or person, I'm not exactly sure) who released a double LP on Verve Forecast in 1968. I say supposedly because, group photo of several Asian gentlemen in traditional Japanese garb aside, the album is sung in American-accented English and was recorded in New York by Tom Wilson...the same Tom Wilson who also produced White Light/White Heat in 1968. Whoever Harumi is or was, the album is really quite good, with the first disc comprised of shorter, poppier tracks and the second disc devoted to two long 'experimental' suites. Disc 2, side 2 is the one we're interested in today, though: entitled Samurai Memories, it's a nineteen-minute dead ringer for WL/WH's The Gift, with mumbled spoken word passages accompanied by an insistent beat propelled by percussion and trumpet. Did Harumi hear the second Velvets album on their own time, or did Wilson introduce them to it in the studio? We'll probably never know, but hear it they most certainly did. There's a bootleg reissue of the Harumi LP available on a label whose name I won't mention, but stick to the original gatefold vinyl and you won't be disappointed.

There are probably more Velvets influenced tracks from the 1966-70 period out there. If you know of any, please share them with me--and if I run across more, I'll be sure to mention them here.


Swopa said...

Consulting my mental file of VU trivia, I believe the origin of the aphorism you cite was a Lou Reed interview in the Los Angeles Times (back in the '80s/early '90s when I lived in L.A.) where he said he had talked to Brian Eno on the phone recently and told him the first VU album sold 35,000 copies in its first five years of release, to which Eno (according to Reed) said, "Everyone who bought it must have started a band!" Obviously, it wouldn't be surprising if it's been steadily exaggerated over time.

The anecdote stuck in my head because I wondered what the reason behind the call might have been, and spent a few years anxiously awaiting the announcement of an Eno-produced Lou Reed album. In retrospect, they were probably just talking trash about working with John Cale...

However accurate my memory is, it's true that the Velvets were more respected among their peers than their record sales would suggest. I remember reading that the Stones' "Stray Cat Blues" was an attempt to imitate the VU sound, and there's also a lo-fi recording somewhere of the Yardbirds covering "Waiting for the Man" (somewhere I read an anecdote of Lou proudly recalling Jimmy Page asking him about the chord change: "Is that an F sharp?").

Pickled Bologna said...

I heard there was an impromptu performance of Waiting for the Man by an ex-Rain Parade, ex-Sneetch, and ex-Johnny & the Straightjacket quite recently...apparently it was the stuff of legend.

Swopa said...

I heard that rumor, too, but it's hard to believe such an accumulation of talent could appear together without garnering more attention.

One version I heard said they segued ironically (if indirectly) from "Waiting for the Man" to "I'm Straight." Obviously an urban legend, a tale that grows taller with each retelling...

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