From the Velvet Underground to Curiosity Killed The Cat, Andy Warhol’s relationship with music was always ambiguous. Glen Johnson, sometime Warhol-esque leader/curator of art rock collective Piano Magic, rummages through Andy’s musical chest.
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Andy Warhol. When he died, in , I paid my respects by spending a day trawling a multitude of commemorative London exhibitions; seizing the opportunity to scrutinise, up close, the iconic images that had so enthralled me throughout my teens. Colossal screen prints in the Hayward; Cocteau- esque sketches of well-endowed young men in a dim Soho basement; garish, Lear-ish designs for ladies’ shoes; faded Polaroids of fading stars; jumpy, scratchy, Super 8 movies where ennui masqueraded as beauty… There were grimy piss paintings; cartoonish, Technicolour soup cans, Brillo pad boxes, dollar bills, Coke bottles; electric chairs sucked of life; silver pillow balloons; Kiss, Eat, Couch, Blowjob, Elvis, Marilyn, Mao Tse- Tung… Yet, despite gorging on Warhol, I didn’t feel remotely satiated. Could it be that Andy lacked substance? Did the meal not resemble anything like the picture on the can?
Every teenager goes through their Warhol/Dali/Munch/Rothko (insert nonconformist artist here) phase – the “postcard artists”. Modern, contrary, vulgar, depressive, naïve – anything but the boring, portentous, classicist Goliaths that hang in the National Gallery. Warhol’s schtick, of course, was that anything could be art. A soup can was as relevant as The Last Judgement. And, as punk pissed in the eye of 70’s prog-rock fret-wankery, Pop Art (like surrealism and Dadaism before it) pissed in the eye of fine art classicism. Technical ability was virtually irrelevant. It was all about the idea. And whilst I was with Warhol on this, as I left my teens behind, I realised I just didn’t like his ideas very much anymore; except one.
Do you see yourself as a creator, or more as a magnet who attracts other talents?
More like a pencil sharpener.
It’s purely speculative what might or might not have happened to The Velvet Underground had they not been introduced to Andy Warhol. At the time, they weren’t on anyone’s radar, simply the resident group at Café Bizarre, a tourist-friendly club in New York’s Greenwich Village. Even so, they were hardly a jobbing beat combo. Singer-guitarist and electro- shock therapy survivor Lou Reed, in-house songwriter for bargain bin pop imprint Pickwick Records, bonded with classically trained Welsh viola player John Cale over a mutual love of alternative tunings. Their androgynous drummer, Maureen “Moe” Tucker, beat with mallets on toms and an upturned bass drum (no cymbals). Sterling Morrison, an accomplished bass player, claimed not to enjoy playing the instrument. Their songs, with gothic titles like ‘Venus In Furs,’ ‘Heroin,’ ‘ The Black Angel’s Death Song,’ were challenging, cacophonous drones; the antithesis of the Californian sunshine and love idyll. Undoubtedly, the VU were never going to see “chart action” or shake the President’s hand. Warhol, on the other hand, was the talk of the town in 1965. Attention for his paintings and films had been snowballing since his first solo show three years prior.The Factory, his converted warehouse production hub on East 47th St, struggled to match supply with demand for copies of his silk screened icons, whilst simultaneously providing a drop-in centre for New York’s drop-outs, oddballs and would-be stars. That winter, Broadway producer Michael Myerburg offered Warhol a pittance to simply turn up, with his freakish, ever-expanding entourage, at his new discotheque in Queens, hoping it would inject the venue with a shot of credibility. Warhol’s principle acolyte, filmmaker Paul Morrissey, wanted to do more than simply sit around looking cool. He was convinced that he and Warhol could make money from managing a rock ‘n’ roll band, one that could get Warhol’s name in yet more papers by mere association. According to Morrissey, Warhol wasn’t interested in the rock ‘n’ roll game but he wasn’t averse to more fame and money. They had the stage, now they needed a band.
I’ll endorse with my name any of the following; clothing AC-DC, cigarettes, small tapes, sound equipment, ROCK N’ ROLL RECORDS, anything, lm and lm equipment, Food, Helium, Whips, MONEY!! – Andy Warhol
Within a month and by pure coincidence, Gerard Malanga, Warhol’s production assistant at the Factory, whip-danced his way into meeting Reed and Cale at Café Bizarre. It took only one further introduction for Warhol and Morrissey to commence managing The Velvet Underground. Malanga took care of official business, whilst Warhol established himself in a characteristically hands-off supervisory role. Reed shared Warhol’s vicious ambition. Warhol’s cardinal advice, that the band shouldn’t compromise, that they were fine how they were, struck a deep chord with Reed (one that’s served him well ever since). Warhol also attempted to instil his near-mechanical work ethic in Reed, playfully deriding him for only writing ten songs when he should have written fifteen. On occasion, Warhol would even suggest lyrical subject matter. ‘Sunday Morning’s “Watch out, the world’s behind you” allegedly sprung from Warhol’s paranoia that everyone was out to destroy him (ironically Valerie Solanas, a Factory bit-part player, almost did when she shot him in ). Reed’s ‘Vicious,’ written later for a proposed Broadway musical to be produced by Warhol and Yves St Laurent, came straight from Andy’s lips. “Why don’t you write a song called, ‘Vicious’? Oh, you know, like ‘I hit you with a flower’…”
The Factory’s conveyor belt of oddities and beautiful people, likewise, became a fertile source of inspiration for the group. ‘Femme Fatale’, at Warhol’s suggestion, was about his most iconic, doomed film starlet, Edie Sedgwick. Another, Candy Darling, was immortalised not only in ‘Candy Says’ but also in Reed’s infamous ‘Walk On The Wildside,’ alongside other Factory denizens Joe Dallesandro, Holly Woodlawn and the “sugarplum fairy,” Joe Campbell.
The Velvet Underground were soon immersed in the bustling, outré environment of e Factory; rehearsing there amidst the non-stop traffic of colourful visitors and hangers-on. They quickly became the focal point of the multimedia car-crash live show/event, Andy Warhol, Up-Tight (later rechristened the Exploding Plastic Inevitable); their warts ‘n’ all tales of the gutter recontextualising Warhol and Morrissey’s eventless art films; bestowing on them at least some semblance of life. Concerned that the band had no great visual focus (Reed appeared uncomfortable and static on stage), in an inspired, though controversial move, Warhol persuaded a reluctant VU to adopt a beautiful, though equally reluctant German chanteuse, Christa AKA Nico, as their iconic, blonde-fringed poster girl.
By the time she visited the Factory in 1965, Nico had already lived a bohemian dream of a life. A multi-linguist, fashion model, film actress for the likes of Fellini, ex-lover of Bob Dylan, mother to a son by French superstar actor Alain Delon and more, Nico also had a record deal. She was looking for a backing band, even if the VU certainly weren’t looking for a singer. Still, Warhol and Morrissey were persuasive. After all, they’d offered the band free rehearsal space and bought them brand new instruments; surely they could write a couple of songs for Nico to sing? Reed and Cale initially made Nico’s life as difficult as possible, resentful of this intrusion into their inner sanctum, though both eventually fell into bed with her and wrote for her. Live, she would sing two or three numbers including, to the band’s chagrin, a rendition of Dylan’s ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’, a song written about her and which would later grace her debut album, Chelsea Girl, alongside several Reed/Cale contributions. Otherwise, she was forced into the shadows by Reed’s paranoia. It is ironic, then, that it was Nico’s friendship with A&R man Tom Wilson which led to the band signing with Verve when no other label would dare touch them. At a stretch, Warhol’s first album sleeve design, for the prolific American songsmith and cabaret artist John Wallowitch– a collection of faceless photo booth shots – may have some cryptic connection to the Noel Coward-like jollities within. But his next sleeve, for the VU’s first album ( The Velvet Underground & Nico), bore precious little relation to the record’s subject matter, the group’s image or Verve’s production budget. For years I, like so many others, had no idea what to call the Velvets’ first album. The Banana Album? Andy Warhol? Such confusion would undoubtedly appeal to the artist, but it begs the question: how did a group with such a strongly defined sense of their own image consent to allowing their sleeve designer’s name to grace the cover of their debut album while theirs was entirely absent?
Conceptually, The Velvet Underground & Nico sleeve is undoubtedly a work of graphic design genius. The buyer is instructed to “peel back and see” an adhesive yellow banana to reveal a flesh-tinted image of the fruit beneath. Warhol’s name is presented as it would be on a signed painting, though somewhat exaggerated, magnified. It is, essentially, a Warhol screen print, reformatted to the specifications of a vinyl record sleeve. The benefit to Warhol, of course, was instantaneous and infinite – his art and name entering new arenas: the record store, the music magazine and, so he hoped, thousands of fans’ bedrooms.
The Velvet Underground & Nico might’ve been “produced” by the hottest American artist of the day, but there was no getting away from its rather gritty subject matter, bold sonic experimentation and the fact that it just didn’t “fit” with anything else at the time. Its depiction of drug abuse, sadomasochism, prostitution and sexual deviance may do little more than titillate in but in it made radio programmers fidget uncomfortably in their seats. As a consequence, there were few reviews and very little airplay. It was even banned on New York radio for its content, unacceptable sound and length of tracks – something that incensed Reed enough to boycott playing there again until . Many newspaper and magazines followed suit, refusing to accept advertisements for the album, despite them being blessed with Warhol’s name and even image. “What happens when the daddy of Pop Art goes Pop Music? The most underground album of all! It’s Andy Warhol’s hip new trip to the current subterranean scene,” scats one ad. While Warhol was nominally credited as the album’s “producer”, his involvement has always been cruelly belittled by those present. Yes, he bankrolled the project but his studio involvement amounted to little more than characteristic “gees” and “hmms” of appreciation. The album flopped. Reed, becoming increasingly envious of the media’s preference for the Warhol-endorsed Nico as the band’s main focus, fired the singer and subsequently, acrimoniously, did the same to Warhol.
Undaunted, Warhol continued to be associated with Nico as far as the release of her “difficult”, John Cale-produced second solo album, The Marble Index, in (the public playback of which was held at the Factory; Warhol’s home-movies of the ice maiden providing a reverent backdrop). Cale, having left the VU by this point at bitter odds with Reed over the band’s direction, had never wanted Warhol or Nico fired and continued to work with Nico throughout the ’s. Warhol designed the sleeve for Cale’s solo record, Honi Soit (though Andy reportedly suggested Cale call it John and Yoko.) Although, by his own admission, Warhol would have put his name to virtually any commodity at that time, he clearly had more than a passing interest in music – and music continued to have more than a passing interest in him. Prior to the VU experience, Warhol claimed to have been the singer in a short-lived group featuring artists Claes Oldenburg and his wife Patti, Larry Poons, Lucas Samaras, Jasper Johns, Walter DeMaria and minimalist composer La Monte Young. It’s difficult to imagine Andy Warhol singing. A man of few words, his interview responses were often little more than perfunctory sound bites. What would he sing – his shopping list? Depending whose version you believe, this “art supergroup” collapsed after only a handful of rehearsals. Warhol noted, “We met ten times, and there were fights between Lucas and Patti over the music or something.” Other sources suggest that Young, whose early work included a piano being fed a bale of hay, did not share the others’ interest in commercial culture. Andy undoubtedly liked music. He was fond of listening to it on his Soundabout (prototype Walkman) as he worked. In he even professed to BBC Radio’s Edward Lucie Smith that painting was simply an excuse to listen to really good music. Despite a professed fondness for opera, Warhol’s precise musical taste is debatable. Over the years, he struck up friendships with and designed album sleeves for the likes of Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Deborah Harry, Grace Jones and Diana Ross. All, of course, iconic figures; but whether Andy had them on his Soundabout is another matter.
In the late ’70s, Warhol could be found holding court in the private booths of New York’s bacchanalian discotheques. At Studio and Xenon he would gleefully pose for pictures with the “glitzerati” – the bemused, displaced likes of Jagger, Nureyev, Capote, Travolta, Onassis, Taylor, Gere, Klein, Stallone et al. The music, of course, was disco, where tragedy and sex met the / kick, sizzling hi-hat and syncopated baseline. Sonically, it was a world away from The Velvet Underground (though drugs, sex and transvestism figured just as prominently). Divine, Sylvester, Donna Summer, the Jackson , Chic, Diana Ross, Gloria Gaynor and the Bee Gees soundtracked a near endless conga line of brown-nosing and white-lining. Warhol drank up the glitz and the tragedies like good champagne. Even when punk arrived, he continued to favour the glamorous, rich, iconic rock and pop stars of the day.
The Clash are cute but they all have bad teeth, sticks and stumps. And they scream about getting rid of the rid. Andy Warhol, 1979
Warhol liked liked his punks airbrushed. He was fixated with Deborah Harry from as far back as the mid-’70s and although a long-term friendship blossomed and he painted her on several occasions, there’s little evidence that he actually enjoyed Blondie’s music. Likewise, backstage after a particularly thrilling Prince concert, he gushed, perplexingly, that he (Prince) and Billy Idol, the ultimate ’s MTV plastic punk, were “the new Hollywood glamour girls, like Harlow and Marilyn.”
As late as the mid-’80s, on arriving in New York, pop’s latest sensations were invariably invited to e Factory for their “ minutes” with the gently- spoken, sallow-skinned King Of Pop Art. Few declined the invitation, though as Soft Cell’s Marc Almond reported, “He gives you a signed book, takes a couple of Polaroids, talks with you about trivial things and all that, has a cup of tea and that’s it. He just does an ‘Andy act’ for everybody that goes around. Very dull.” A preoccupation with Nick Rhodes of foppish Romos Duran Duran was less civilised. “I love him. I worship him. I masturbate to Duran Duran videos”, Warhol told a reporter. Rhodes did little to spurn Andy’s affections, visiting the Factory on numerous occasions and humouring the artist during his 15 Minutes With Andy Warhol cable TV show, as the host slimed, “Gee, you’re so beautiful in the light…”
Duran Duran, of course, were Warhol’s ideal group: commercial, famous, glossy, model-shagging yacht-owners. at they made music was purely by-the-by. Likewise, Warhol’s cameo in a video for funk-lite boy band Curiosity Killed The Cat, in , was a depressingly unbefitting clip that leaves you wondering what his motive might’ve been, other than sad lechery. In one scene, with Andy resembling an overprotective uncle you can’t shake off, he shadows the band with a boom box as they prance down the middle of a steaming New York street. In another, he mocks Bob Dylan’s famous ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ promo by systematically chucking wordless placards to the ground as frontman Ben Volpeliere- Pierrot does his curious bandy-legged dance, stage left. Warhol was perhaps getting back at Dylan, who had lured Edie Sedgwick away from the Factory in the mid-’60s and who’d later swapped a silver Elvis painting Andy had given him for a couch. Another equally iconic Factory visitor, David Bowie, fared much better with Warhol. When the two met in , Bowie, cocksure, played the artist a recording of a new song he’d written in anticipation of the encounter: ‘Andy Warhol’.
Put a peephole in my brain. Two new pence to have a go. I’d like to be gallery. Put you all inside my show.
Warhol’s reported response was a flustered, “ That was great -– thank you very much.” en they discussed Bowie’s shoes. On the same promotional visit to New York, Bowie met Lou Reed and Iggy Pop for the first time. Reed amused Bowie with a joke about The Velvet Underground once considering producing an Andy Warhol doll; when you wound it up, it did nothing at all. Bowie got infinitely closer to Warhol when he portrayed him, without embarrassment, in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic of the artist’s most famous protégé, (Jean-Michel) Basquiat. Reed, of course, had beaten Bowie to the line with his own Warhol song in 1969 . ‘Andy’sChest’ had originally been earmarked for the final (never completed) Velvet Underground album, though this perplexing slab of doo-wop gobbledygook was rescued from the bin and re-recorded more sensitively for his much- lauded, Bowie-produced, solo album Transformer in 1972.Warhol died of a sudden heart attack on February 22nd, 1987, following routine gall bladder surgery. He still hadn’t quite finished working his magic. At his memorial mass on April Fool’s Day that year, Lou Reed and John Cale miraculously buried the hatchet and agreed to conspire on the ultimate eulogy to Andy. Songs For Drella (a contraction of Dracula and Cinderella – a nickname for Warhol widely used by the Factory crowd) is part biography, part farewell; a musical without actors. Over the minimal frame of chugging, fuzzed guitars, percussive piano and serpentine viola, Reed and Cale reminisce about the life and times of “this pink-eyed painting albino,” cutting off the fat of Warhol’s perceived nonchalance and exposing the heart. ‘Hello, It’s Me,’ is a moving, mournful tear-jerker you might never have expected from Reed, given his fierce public persona and documented cold-shouldering of Warhol when last they met. “I have some resentments that can never be unmade / You hit me where it hurt and I didn’t laugh / Your diaries are not a worthy epitaph”. In 1990, at the inauguration of the the Andy Warhol Exposition in France, Reed and Cale shocked everyone by following their performance of songs from ‘Drella by inviting Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker to join the them onstage for a 17-minute version of ‘Heroin.’ The Velvet Underground officially re-formed in 1993 and played a short European tour. Prior to Warhol’s death, a reformation would’ve been inconceivable but it was undoubtedly his demise that bought them back together, however hard they might have had to bite the bullet. They still loved Andy, if not each other.
In 2008, there’s no equivalent of Warhol – no artist with the popularity, business-nose or talent for self-promotion to align him/herself with a “product”, musical or otherwise. Damien Hirst isn’t about to start managing Art Brut, in the same way that Francis Bacon never designed a Fall album sleeve. Nowadays, there’s a guarded reluctance for “high art” to be seen in the company of disposable “pop” music, whereas in the ‘60s it was the Velvets’ music that was the high art and it was Warhol producing the disposable pop (art).
Ironically, now it’s the pop stars who are endorsing products. Groove Armada are signed, not to a label but to Bacardi, the rum brand. Kylie, J-Lo, P-Diddy and a host of others proffer their own branded perfumes. Paolo Nutini flogs Puma sportswear. U2 have their own i-Pod. Bob Dylan releases records via Starbucks. It’s all so Warholian.