April 18-23, 1966


Scepter Records Studios, 254 W 54th Street, New York, NY. Producer Andy Warhol; engineers Norman Dolph, John Licata.

The Velvet Underground finally enter a recording studio for the first time, laying down the bulk of their classic debut album within the space of a few days. Exactly which (and how many) days the Velvets spend at Scepter is unclear: because they aren’t yet signed to a recording contract, the group are not working within the usual system of preparing material for release – which tends usually to ensure some sort of documentation as to when the tapes are recorded and mixed. But whenever they take place, these sessions don’t just generate the heart of a classic album: they also produce one of rock’s rarest and most expensive relics in the form of an acetate disc (the mere existence of which will not be discovered for nearly 40 years).

    The idea behind the sessions is to produce material that can then be shopped around for a record deal. The costs are shared roughly equally between Andy Warhol and Norman Dolph, a Columbia Records sales executive and art collector who met Warhol in the course of his side job of supplying music for art gallery shows and openings with his mobile disco. (He asks to be paid in art rather than cash.) Dolph’s main job is in Columbia’s Custom Labels Division, which provides services for smaller labels without their own pressing plants. It’s through this work that he notices that one of his accounts, Scepter Records, has its own recording studios, which is how these sessions come to take place at Scepter’s midtown Manhattan facility on West 54th Street – later home to the famous Studio 54 discotheque.

    On the first or second night of the Velvets’ stint at the Dom, Dolph recalls being told, by Warhol, of his plan to “do an album” with the group. “I said, ‘I can help you with that.’ He said, ‘Oh really? Okay, good. Do it.’ I think he did that with a lot of people; if he found somebody that could do what he wanted, he’d just say, ‘Do it.’ And they would, whether it was appear in this movie or go out for pizza. He never gave a lot of orders that I ever saw. He just made suggestions and people took him up on it. He had plenty of people around to do anything he wanted. He didn’t ask me any questions about ‘do you know this studio or that engineer or this producer’ or any of that. It was: ‘We’d like to make a record,’ and I said,
‘I’ll take care of it.’”

    Although the Velvets don’t yet have a record deal, the intention is to make a releasable album, not just a collection of demos. “At no time was what we were doing ever referred to by anybody as a demo,” Dolph recalls. “They were going for the jugular. They wanted to make a record that sounded like they sounded.”

    According to Paul Morrissey, this has to do, at least in part, with Warhol’s eagerness to see a return on his investment. “Andy was [saying], ‘There’s no money here. We’re not making any money. What is happening?’ He was always very uncomfortable if money wasn’t coming in. Even though they had signed their management contract before the Dom had opened, it was not easy, and Andy had to pay for the lawyers and all that. I said, ‘We have to do what everybody else does. They have to make a recording, and we have to try to sell it to a record company.’ Again he had to lay out the money for the recording studio, but it was only two or three thousand dollars for two or three nights.” (Other sources put the figure closer to $1,500.)

    In Joe Harvard’s book The Velvet Underground & Nico, part of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series on classic albums, Dolph speculates that the sessions take place somewhere between April 18–23. He believes that the sessions amount to a total of four days: two for recording, with a third for listening to playbacks and a fourth for mixing. The Velvets themselves will later give different estimates as to how much time is involved, but the total recording time probably adds up to around ten hours. In any case, the sessions must be complete by April 25, as acetates are cut on that day of the finished tracks, with one scratchy copy later generating an astronomic bid of $155,401 when auctioned on eBay (see entry for December
8 2006).

    However long it takes, the session is a prolific and momentous turn of the calendar for The Velvet Underground who, after a lively year of fits and starts, are about to record the bulk of their first LP in little more than one fell swoop. Crammed, hasty studio dates such as these are not uncommon in the mid 60s, and not limited to smaller groups or albums. Ten of the fourteen tracks on The Beatles’ debut album, Please Please Me, were recorded on February 11 1963, later described as one of the most astonishingly productive days in the history of rock recording. Although it won’t receive as much acclaim, the first proper day of studio recording for The Velvet Underground & Nico doesn’t rank too far behind.

    The Velvets are not exactly studio neophytes when they walk into Scepter Studios. Lou Reed first worked in a professional recording environment in 1958, and recently spent about as year as an all-round handyman at Pickwick Records. Nico made a flop 45 for Immediate Records with some of the biggest names of the British Invasion in 1965, and has worked with top UK session-drummer Bobby Graham and Serge Gainsbourg. John Cale has recorded extensively with La Monte Young, Angus MacLise, and others; even Sterling Morrison has worked on home demos with Reed and Cale. Only Maureen Tucker has no experience of anything approaching a studio environment; Martha Morrison later recalls that “Moe’s drums were wiggling around, so I had to go in there and hold them for her.”

    Even so, it’s something rather different to be recording as part of a band managed, produced, and half-financed by one of the world’s most renowned contemporary visual artists – or at least sort of ‘financed’ and ‘produced’ by him. For all the resources at his disposal, Warhol seems unwilling to invest large sums in the band’s maiden studio voyage. He and Morrissey put in $700 – culled mostly from revenue earned by the Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows – toward the cost of the sessions, alongside $800 from Dolph. Although he is described by Cale in Transformer: The Lou Reed Story as a “shoe salesman,” Dolph does at least have some experience of the record business, which is more than can be said of Warhol or Morrissey. (Years later, responding to Cale’s jibe, Dolph tells Joe Harvard, “If you run into Cale, tell him to give you his foot size, and I’ll send him a fucking pair of shoes.”)

    Dolph has no experience as a record producer, however, so John Licata, Scepter’s in-house engineer, is brought in to lend the proceedings some semblance of professionalism. Neither man is credited on the eventual The Velvet Underground & Nico LP, but both will be listed as engineers of the Scepter sessions in later CD reissues, even if Dolph’s role is much more like that of a producer. Licata, says Dolph, “was wonderful, co-operative, easy to get along with … he was the total antithesis of The Velvet Underground. At no time did any of the musicians ever tell him what to do. They went in and played, and he got what they wanted. On the ‘banana’ album, they credit Val Valentin with the engineering. He may have done much of the remix or whatever, but he’s certainly not the engineer that was responsible for the sound of the album at its basis. When I heard the album [a year later], it sounded to me just like what we did. It didn’t sound appreciably different from what we did at Scepter.”

    Although the Scepter label is known for out-and-out pop/rock and soul records by the likes of The Shirelles and Dionne Warwick, its studios are not quite so state-of-the-art as one might expect. In fact, the studio is probably only available to the VU because the building is on the verge of being condemned. “We went in there and found that the floorboards were torn up, the walls were out, there were only four mics working,” Cale recalls in his autobiography. “We set up the drums where there was enough floor, turned it all up, and went from there. Dolph ran the sessions, but he didn’t understand the first thing about recording.”

    “I was not the producer in any sense that Quincy Jones is a producer,” Dolph admits. “The only thing I would say is because they were doing it on my money, and we had limited time resources fiscally – ’cause we were always bumping up against commitments that Scepter had in the studio – I kept the thing on the rails. I think part of the way the record sounds the way it sounds is because of John and I keeping the damned thing going and moving – you know, ‘Okay, next take, let’s do it, blah blah.’ That’s my contribution as a producer.”

    According to Dolph, the recordings are made on half-inch tape. The studio has a two-track machine and a four-track machine, which are probably used for overdubbing and alternate vocals. Dolph describes the Scepter studio as “small, certainly by contemporary studio sound. But they often recorded fairly large ensembles. They recorded a big orchestra behind Dionne Warwick, and they recorded gospel choirs in there. But they were always very crowded. It wasn’t Columbia’s 30th Street [studio] or some such. Once you had everybody in there, they had to pretty well stay put, because there wasn’t a lot of room to move around. For a playback everybody but John and I had to stand, there were no real seats in the place.”

    Recording The Velvet Underground in such an environment presents its own special challenges. “It seemed to me that the instruments, as heard live in the studio as opposed to on the other side of the glass, were being played rather loudly,” Dolph recalls. “You would ordinarily expect if they were gonna play that loud, they would be in a much larger room to get some isolation between one and the other. But there could have been little separation or isolation in any kind of modern sense in that room, considering how loud they were playing. The adrenaline quality of it was because we knew we had eight hours, and they wanted to get on with it, and I wanted to get on with it. Anytime they’d break down, I’d stop the tape and we’d start over. I don’t think there are two different complete takes of more than one or two songs, and I’m not even sure the breakdowns were saved. Because we were paying for the tape at probably $125 a roll, usually the broken takes were backed up and recorded over. Otherwise there would be some interesting scraps lying around.”

    The role Andy Warhol plays in the recording studio during these sessions will be much debated in years to come. He clearly doesn’t have the technical experience to ‘produce’ a record in a conventional sense. In a 1970 interview with Fusion magazine, Sterling Morrison describes Warhol as a producer “in the sense of producing a film,” helping to finance the sessions and generally keeping the band afloat and in good enough shape to enter the studio in the first place. Years later, in a 1986 interview with Ignacio Julia, Morrison will add: “He wasn’t really with us in the studio much, but he would come down … He would say what he liked – his main contribution was to give us confidence.”

    As Dolph recalls, “Licata was there 100 per cent of the time, I’m there 100 per cent of the time, and Morrissey was there much of the time. Warhol was there on occasion. He had his little tape recorder, which he carried all the time. I seem to remember him there probably for about two hours in the aggregate over maybe three occasions. But he was totally fascinated by what was going on, and I don’t think he made any aesthetic judgment whatsoever. ‘Gee, that sounds good’ might have been it. He was a spectator.”

    Both Cale and Reed however will later emphasize how Warhol’s contributions aren’t merely decorative, with Cale praising Warhol’s insistence that the band stay true to their live sound, and Reed appreciative of his refusal to bow to commercial considerations. “What he did do is he made it all possible,” Reed recalls in the Transformer documentary. “One by his backing. And two, before we went in the studio he said, ‘You’ve got to make sure – use all the dirty words. And don’t let them clean things.’ And so, when he was there, they – you know – they didn’t dare try to say, ‘Hey, why don’t you don’t do that over,’ or, gee, any one of all the other things they would normally have done never happened.”

    Reed’s observation might not wholly apply to this first session, as there is no record company looking over the Velvets’ shoulders to make sure the lyrics are sanitized or diluted. These recordings are designed instead to get the group a deal with a big label. Yet there can be no overestimation of the importance of a figure of Warhol’s stature giving the goahead to an unadulterated representation of the band’s sound and songs. That’s certainly what The Velvet Underground deliver on a set of material that pushes the sonic and lyric boundaries of rock music into previously uncharted territory, with the best songs enduring as classics.

    Although Sterling Morrison is usually thought of as a guitarist, he needs to play bass on several occasions during these sessions while Cale is occupied with other instruments. “I thought he was quite good [on bass],” Dolph recalls. “If I close my eyes and think of the session, the first thing that comes to mind is the pieces where John Cale is playing the viola. Because those drones and eastern figures that he’d create, which had to have that bass behind him, were just as locked in as you could imagine. And so I don’t have any real recollection in my mind of Sterling as a guitarist. I see him in tandem, in my mind, with John Cale.”

    Even by the standards of an April 1966 rock recording, the production on these dates is rudimentary, due in large part to the lack of funds available for buying more studio time and expertise. And yet, as Dolph stresses, the Velvets “were quite clear what they wanted to do. I don’t know that anybody really told Lou Reed what to do or what they thought, but you had the feeling that musical decisions were being made largely by John Cale, sort of in conference with Sterling. Moe was very quiet in the whole thing. I don’t think I heard her speak ten words. “Anything to do with a vocal performance where Lou Reed is singing, nobody influenced that at all,” Dolph continues. “If it was a thing where he was the focus of what was going on, he was it. But to the extent that it involved an ensemble, I would think that the credit fell to John Cale. You had the impression that John was a studied, learned musician in the sense that he could read scores and all that sort of thing. Lou Reed was essentially a performer. I don’t mean that derogatorily, but that he was the Mick Jagger of the deal, whereas John Cale was the Keith Richards of the deal.”

    In The Velvet Underground Under Review, Dolph adds, “I didn’t have the last word on anything, except to listen for things that sounded like true mistakes – if somebody knocked over a music stand, or you’d hear something that wasn’t mixed right, that you just clearly couldn’t handle. And then we’d look at John and say yeah, let’s start it over. And we’d break the take down, and start the thing over from the head. [That’s why] in most of those songs, there is only one surviving take.”

    In the same documentary, Tucker suggests that the limited time “affected the process or the result favorably, because we didn’t have time for nonsense.” According to Dolph, “At no time did anybody on either side of the glass say, ‘Well, we’ll fix it in the mix.’ There was never any ‘I don’t know, I’ll play it back tomorrow, see if I like it tomorrow, and if I don’t, then I’ll redo it.’ It was all just like they’d just sung it live.”

    In the liner notes to Peel Slowly And See, Cale describes the recording process as “a complete shambles. Norman Dolph is in the booth making comments like ‘Great! Dynamite! We got it!’ And we’re all looking at each other, going ‘Where is it written that he gets to say ‘This is a take’?” At the same time, as Cale emphasizes in his autobiography, “We were really excited. We had this opportunity to do something revolutionary – to combine the avant-garde and rock and roll, to do something symphonic. No matter how borderline destructive everything was, there was real excitement there for all of us. We just started playing and held it to the wall. I mean, we had a good time.”

    More time and technical fuss might not be necessary, as these songs have been perfected in both rehearsals and live performance for months. The real challenge is to arrive at a blend of frequencies rarely – if ever – heard in rock music before: a low rumble of guitars, often lowered from the more common E tuning to D, not to mention the fretless ‘ostrich guitar,’ on which all six strings are first tuned to the same pitch and then allowed gradually to detune, yielding a distinctively clashing, twanging sound; the piercing squeaks of feedback; Cale’s alternately screeching and soothing viola, not to mention his pounding, ominous piano; Tucker’s funereal, minimal drums; and, on the songs Nico sings, her ghostly voice (and, perhaps, tambourine). Whether it’s Reed or Nico singing, it’s crucial that the vocals be decipherable, given the pains the group has taken to preserve such taboo-busting lyrics untouched.

    Do they succeed? Well, yes and no. The mix on the harder-rocking songs in particular is, by conventional standards, somewhat blurry and murky, if not cacophonous on the largely instrumental ‘European Son.’ Yet these subterranean clouds of sound don’t interfere with the effectiveness of the tracks, and in some respects actually enhance them. ‘Run Run Run’ has the guttural churning of the New York subway, and ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ a dense foreboding wholly in keeping with the despondent ennui of the song’s sad, empty debutante. The Nico-sung ballads ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ and ‘Femme Fatale’ boast by contrast a clear, clean sound, balancing the vocals, light percussion, and guitars well enough to indicate that someone in the control booth knows what they’re doing.

    The big point of contention among the band-members as they ready first recordings appears not to relate to specifics about the sound or mix but to how many songs Nico should be allowed to sing. Cale will later recall that Reed doesn’t want Nico on the album at all; Paul Morrissey, who carries weight as one of the group’s managers, wants her to be the featured vocalist. “Lou didn’t want Nico to sing at all,” Morrissey confirms in Nico: The Life & Lies Of An Icon. “I’d say, ‘But Nico sings that song on stage,’ and he’d reply, ‘Well, it’s my song,’ like it was his family. He was so petty.”

    As he will later note in an unpublished interview with M.C. Kostek and Phil Milstein on the What Goes On fanzine, Sterling Morrison prefers Nico’s voice “when she sings sort of whispery, like in ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror,’ as opposed to ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties.’” In the Nico/Icon documentary, Morrison adds that the voicing of just such an opinion “actually reduced [her] to tears in the studio because we wanted her to sing in a soft voice, rather than in a hard, Germanic voice.” According to Warhol, Nico also keeps bawling that she wants to sing like Bob Dylan – which is not only a style that she is ill-equipped for, but also one that the rest of the band have no interest in pursuing.

    The group end up doing what Warhol has apparently been encouraging them to do all along: follow the lines of their live performances. And so Reed assumes lead vocal duties on most of the songs, with Nico singing only the three songs she is used to performing on stage. “It wasn’t enough, but it took an awful lot of arguing to get that far,” says Paul Morrissey in Nico: The Life & Lies Of An Icon. Since joining the group, Nico has pushed to sing tougher Reed songs such as ‘Heroin’ and ‘I’m Waiting For The Man,’ for which her voice would be totally inappropriate, but in the end the only official Velvet Underground recordings she will ever sing lead on will be ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror,’ ‘Femme Fatale,’ and ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties.’

    It’s ironic then that, of the half-dozen tracks from this session that will eventually find release (sometimes in a slightly altered fashion) on The Velvet Underground & Nico, these Nico-sung productions are perhaps the finest. ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ in particular is proof that the Velvets are not just about drugs, deprivation, and kinky sex set to a nails-on-blackboard soundtrack. A lilting and quite melodic piece, it also allows for the possibility of love as a redemptive force, quite apart from the admittedly compelling degradation of songs such as ‘Venus In Furs.’ The delicately picked guitar, sparse tambourine, and restrained, magnificently deep vocals work together to create a low-key masterpiece. These elements are buttressed by muted power-chords at the stop-start end of the reassuring bridge and high harmonies on the fade.

    Although the acetate version probably uses the same backing track that will eventually appear on The Velvet Underground & Nico, the vocal is different, most noticeably when Nico sings “to show that you’re home” instead of “so you won’t be afraid” at the end of the second verse, having almost stumbled over the same verse’s opening line. The falsetto backing harmonies are also much lower in the mix than on the official release.

    ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ almost isn’t completed at all, however, as Nico keeps breaking down in tears between takes after failing to nail the vocal. “At that point we said, ‘Oh, try it just one more time and then fuck it – if it doesn’t work this time we’re not going to do the song,’” Sterling Morrison will later claim in a 1981 interview with the New Musical Express. The next take, fortunately, is the one that Nico gets right.

    ‘Femme Fatale’ has a seductively bittersweet melody just as attractive as that of ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror,’ and a similar Nico vocal made up from equal parts gloom and croon. But the lyrics here are far more downbeat, detailing an icy, remorseless master of heartbreak – perhaps even modeled on Nico herself, although Edie Sedgwick is usually acknowledged as the primary inspiration. The song offers further evidence of the Velvets’ underrated knack for both softly shimmering guitar-lines and slightly sardonic backing-vocals, pitched much higher here than on the official version, where the “she’s a femme fatale” harmonies are mixed down so low that they sound like a Greek chorus spilling over from the next room. Reed will later claim, in the November 1987 issue of Creem, that the lead vocal is given to Nico in part because “she could sing the high chorus. That’s why, at the end of the song, you get those ‘oh-woa-woe’s.”

    ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is not the most renowned of The Velvet Underground’s early songs, but this Warhol favorite is a sleeper contender for the greatest achievement on their debut album. Lyrically, it’s a six-minute wail of despair, made all the more chilling by its detached third-person narrative, enunciated by Nico in her lowest and most booming, Wagnerian tones. Once again Reed is venturing into virgin territory for rock music, detailing a more contemporary, urban, and decadent isolation than is usually heard in laments over failed love: a party girl consumed by enervating boredom, her façade crumbling into solitary tears behin  her door. Just as important to the odd power of the song’s deathly pallor are the gothic tune and the inventive arrangement, which features swooping bass-notes that glide into coffin-slamming thumps; Cale’s barroom-boogie-from-hell piano, its unusual clipped tone produced by stringing a chain of paper clips between the strings; and spiky squawks of guitar culminating in a brief crescendo that cuts off as if the power has suddenly cut out. Cleaved in half upon its initial release on the band’s first single, the full album version of ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is not as noisy as The Velvet Underground get, but they would never be more devastatingly disturbing. (The 1986 CD release of the ‘banana’ album uses an alternate mix featuring a single-tracked Nico vocal, as opposed to the usual doubletracked version.)

    “That was John Cale’s arrangement,” Reed later explains in a 1971 interview with Vernon Gibbs for Metropolitan Review. “The original song was very folky, he made it very grand and Gothic and then of course Nico’s vocal changed it around a lot. Fabulous that Nico, she really is great.” Asked whether the protagonist of the song is a friend of his, Reed replies, “Well, we knew each other. I wasn’t that friendly with her. I knew enough about her to stick her in a song. I always just exaggerate parts of people … I thought Nico and John did it up really well. If you get into Nico there’s always the danger that you don’t want to leave.”

    Although stories will later circulate of a troubled relationship between Nico and the rest of the Velvets, Norman Dolph notes that they “treated her with great respect” during the Scepter sessions. “Imagine [jazzman] Les Brown and his band of renown, and Doris Day as their singer,” he adds. “It’s as though when Doris Day came on, she was a special focus of what that orchestra did.” Similarly, as Dolph recalls, the Velvets saw Nico as “a jewel in a setting. It was in no way slapdash or quick or ‘let’s get this broad out of here.’ It was, ‘Now we’re gonna shift into a quieter gear, and we’re gonna do Nico.’ Things went into sort of a quiet mode when she was there. I don’t believe she was in the studio much longer than when she was performing in the studio.”
    Among the other tracks recorded at these sessions are three songs that aren’t quite up to the standard of the Nico-sung material, but are certainly impressive and vital to the diversity of the running order of the eventual LP. ‘Run Run Run’ might not be quite so notorious as ‘I’m Waiting For The Man,’ but it’s just as hardening and realistic a look at inner-city lost souls and junkies. The muddiest and least evenly balanced cut on the album, it has a percolating, muffled roar carried by one of Reed’s best rock’n’roll vocals (joined by almost distracted-sounded harmonies in the chorus); unpredictable bursts of feedback; and strangled, distorted ‘ostrich’ guitar.

    The sole Reed/Cale composition recorded at these sessions, ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ (or ‘The Black Angel Of Death,’ as it’s still known when it’s recorded) takes the band much further from the unwritten laws of rock’n’roll. Reed’s declamatory sing-speak vocal is backed only by Cale’s dance-on-fire viola and a low guitar-figure that’s strummed with an edginess suggestive of whirling dervish madness; Cale leans into the mic to hiss viciously and wordlessly during the instrumental breaks. As odd as all of this is, the lyrics are even more outrageously weird, Reed’s tongue-twisting prose a match for any of Dylan’s surreal, poetic creations. (Dylan however is unlikely to have used such scatological imagery as bowels-embedded rat tails and suchlike.)

    More than any other early Velvets song, ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ reflects Reed’s schooling in the literature of his early mentor, Delmore Schwartz. So too, less obviously, does ‘European Son,’ if only by virtue of an implied dedication in The Velvet Underground & Nico’s liner notes, where the composer credits list it as ‘European Son To Delmore Schwartz.’ The dedication is somewhat tongue-in-cheek: as Sterling Morrison will later explain to Ignacio Julia, “Delmore despised rock’n’roll lyrics, he thought they were ridiculous and awful, and ‘European Son’ has hardly any lyrics so that meant that was a song that Delmore might like. He didn’t care about the music part of rock’n’roll, he just hated the lyrics, so we wrote a song that Delmore would like: 20 seconds of lyrics and seven minutes of noise.”

    ‘European Son’ is in some respects the most radical recording of the Scepter sessions, its manic up-and-down guitar riff joined by a choppy rhythm as Reed spits out a single verse of bitter non-sequiturs. An unearthly howl and a mirror-smashing crash then lead into more than five minutes of frenzied instrumental jamming. Tucker’s irregular drum-patterns collapse and collide with hair-raising guitar and ear-piercing feedback, culminating in the thunderous clang of a discord. Considering the fact that most of it sounds like a group improvisation, it’s appropriate that the song is credited to the four band-members heard on the recording: Reed, Cale, Morrison, and Tucker.

    The least accessible track on The Velvet Underground & Nico, ‘European Son’ bears little relation to any rock recording before it – except perhaps The Who’s equally turbulent (but less dissonant) instrumental ‘The Ox,’ as heard on The Who Sing My Generation. When ‘European Son’ is placed at the end of side two of the Velvets’ own debut, however, it will bring proceedings to a fitting take-no-prisoners climax. It’s surely an act of perversity then to place it as track one on side one of the acetate cut from these sessions – the very acetate designed to land the group a record deal! The acetate version is about a minute longer than the version on The Velvet Underground & Nico, from which more chaotic guitar-soloing (perhaps a little more bluesy than the rest) is cut right after the loud crash.

    Despite the relatively primitive technological conditions of the sessions, one particularly imaginative maximization of the tools available can be heard on ‘European Son.’ In the third issue of What Goes On, Warhol assistant and EPI dancer Ronnie Cutrone claims that the ‘broken glass’ effect heard on the song is in fact the sound of somebody (probably John Cale) running a chair down a grocery-store dolly into a stack of steel plates. According to Maureen Tucker, however, the noise is simply the sound of a chair being dragged across the floor by Cale, who then drops a glass or bottle after stopping in front of Reed. Martha Morrison, a visitor to the sessions, remembers Reed actually dropping a mirror – “it had to be perfect timing, it couldn’t have been just anybody” – to mimic the sound of breaking glass, “and me getting hysterical, and getting yelled at by Lou. I just thought it was a riot, what they were doing to get their sound effects. I wasn’t serious enough.” Seriousness, in fact, is the prevailing mood as the Velvets work through their first proper studio session. “It was very tense,” Morrison says. “There’d be some laughing, of course, but it was a very tense scene. It wasn’t party time.”

    The versions of ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror,’ ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties,’ ‘Femme Fatale,’ ‘Run Run Run,’ ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song,’ and ‘European Son’ recorded at Scepter will all be used on The Velvet Underground & Nico, albeit in different mixes. (Dolph later notes that ‘There She Goes Again’ is also cut at the same time, but doesn’t appear on the acetate, and might not be the same recording as can be heard on the Velvets’ debut.)

    The Scepter acetate also includes three other songs which, taken together, are the most famous Lou Reed compositions to appear on the album. But the renditions of ‘Heroin,’ ‘I’m Waiting For The Man,’ and ‘Venus In Furs’ laid down at Scepter are not the versions that will appear on The Velvet Underground & Nico. Each of these songs will be re-recorded in May at TTG Studios in Hollywood, with Tom Wilson probably handling the production. (Years later, there remains some dispute over whether the ‘official’ versions of these songs were produced by Wilson or Warhol, or recorded in New York or Hollywood.)
    The acetate versions of these three landmark songs are noticeably different. ‘Heroin’ has a different opening line: “I know just where I’m going” instead of “I don’t know just where I’m going,” a seemingly slight alteration that nonetheless completely changes the song’s meaning. It also has a shorter instrumental intro, and a different guitar line. “That was the one where Lou Reed needed to kind of get his head in the right place,” Dolph recalls. “In the control room, nobody moved a muscle when he was singing that song. You didn’t want anything to go wrong with that take at all, because if it had, he would have torn a wall down. Every bit of the energy in the song, you experienced in his persona at that point.”

    In a less significant variation, ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ begins with “the man” rather than “my man,” which might just clear up why the song is so titled. It also has a rather more conventional, bluesy guitar-solo, and Reed’s memorable final aside – “walk it home” – is absent. ‘Venus In Furs’ is pretty close to the version on what will come to be known as the ‘banana’ album, but it’s possibly a bit faster and slightly less tight, with Reed’s vocal not quite dripping with as much deadpan venom.

    These are admittedly hairline distinctions, so it’s perhaps most interesting to puzzle over why it was felt necessary to re-cut these three tunes – particularly since the TTG retakes don’t sound particularly clearer or more professional than the versions cut at the supposedly slapdash Scepter date (and this, too, despite the likely involvement of Wilson, one of the most esteemed producers in the business). Perhaps Warhol, Dolph, and the Velvets are more competent at recording themselves than will sometimes be assumed, or maybe the band’s raw approach neither benefits nor suffers from more experienced technological supervision.

    Whatever the case, the acetate resulting from the session is an artistic triumph but a commercial failure as it fails initially to attract any industry interest. A deal with Verve/MGM is however looming on the horizon, and the session can be seen as a great success in that it generates over half of what ends up on The Velvet Underground & Nico. But it will take at least two more sessions, two more studios, and one more producer to complete the final tracks – and almost a year will pass until the record is finally released.

The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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