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The Velvet Underground Reigns in Paris

Who would have thought that, when they made their debut on stage at the Café Bizarre in New York, the young Lou Reed and John Cale would end up being the stars of an exhibition paying tribute to their band in Paris? That was back in 1965 when, having first called themselves The Warlocks and then The Falling Spikes, they had finally settled on a name that would identify and enshrine them for posterity. Incidentally, The Velvet Underground was the title of a book on sado-masochism written by Michael Leigh which had fallen into their hands by sheer chance. Nothing unusual, however, considering that drugs, prostitution, transvestism and homosexuality were rife in their New York haunts and would become the subject of many of their song lyrics, a fact which rattled more than one music producer.

Andy Warhol, a great one for moving in the New York underground and absorbing it into his parties and his works, particularly in the film pieces he shot with Paul Morrissey, was enthralled with the music of this upcoming band and added them to the prevailing fauna in The Factory. What’s more, he even took the bold step of taking over as manager of the group and in 1967 released his first production, The Velvet Underground & Nico, for which he did the cover design. Indeed, I am referring to the famous cover with the banana sticker, a veritable icon in the art world. But, the album’s value lies not only in its wrapping. Its content includes some genuine musical pearls like Sunday Morning, I’m Waiting for the Man, Venus in Furs and Heroin.One of the upshots of their collaboration with the pop artist par excellence were the videos he recorded with them, which ranged from ghoulish to arty, in which he enveloped the band in light and colour.

While the album was not a super-hit – only some 30,000 copies were sold – the band decided to  break with the core of Andy Warhol and The Factory to pursue their career as musicians. The Velvet Underground remained active until 1973, when differences between the leaders were responsible for precipitating a break-up – John Cale having had a more academic music training, while Lou Reed had followed a more rebellious line. They actually started moving in and out of the band, until they eventually decided to break up altogether.

Despite their short career and meagre success, at least as far as album sales is concerned, The Velvet Underground was one of the most influential bands of New York. Heirs to the beat generation legacy, they played a crucial role in New York’s counter-culture, far removed from the psychedelic hippie culture of the seventies that reigned in San Francisco, the other major hub of creativity in the United States. Among those who inherited their destructured sound and coarse lyrics were Ramones, The Voidoids, Dead Boys, The Heartbreakers, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, Bauhaus, The Contortions, Bush Tetras, Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, DNA, Sonic Youth, Spacemen 3 and Nirvana.

The Philharmonie de Paris is hosting a tribute to this band in the form of an exhibition entitled, The Velvet Underground. New York Extravaganza, which runs until 12 August. Audiovisual material has been carefully curated, with six films being purpose produced for the occasion, also featuring television file pictures, photos and portraits of the band members, objects from private collections and works by contemporary and later artists who were seduced by the charms of the band. This whole ensemble is designed to recount the story of the group and its lasting legacy. But, there is more – the exhibition will be supported by a parallel set of activities, including conferences, screenings and concerts.

Go back down memory lane and relive one of the outstanding rock bands of New York’s counter-culture by taking a getaway to Paris. Check out your Vueling here.


Text by Los Viajes de ISABELYLUIS

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