Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Velvet Underground - April 1966 Scepter Studios (Norman Dolph Acetate)

I just learned that rock giant Lou Reed died this morning . . . a tremendous loss to the music world.  Through his work, both as a solo artist and especially as a founding member of The Velvet Underground, for over fifty years Reed was a visionary, a chameleon, a poet, an agent provocateur, a pop tunesmith, and a pioneer who changed the course of popular music.

The Velvet Underground began coming together in 1964, when Reed, then a songwriter for low-budget label Pickwick Records, met John Cale, a Welsh classical violist (viola player) studying in the U.S., who became interested in rock music.  The two began jamming together, and soon added Sterling Morrison, an old college friend of Reed's.  After original drummer Angus MacLise quit the band in a huff in the fall of 1965 after the group accepted $75 for their first paying gig at a New Jersey high school ("Angus was in it for art", Morrison later stated), new drummer Maureen "Mo" Tucker was recruited.  Later that year, The Velvet Underground got a regular gig playing at Café Bizarre (a Greenwich Village coffeehouse/folk/beatnik joint located about a block south of Washington Square Park, close to New York University), and began getting good buzz among various city art/music aficionados.  Soon, artist  
Andy Warhol discovered them, and by the end of that year he was serving as the group's manager, getting The Velvet Underground more paying gigs and utilizing them as the musical accompaniment to his avant-garde multimedia roadshow, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI).

As part of their work in the EPI, Warhol foisted a new member upon the band to serve as a "chanteuse" -  Nico (born Christa Paffgen), a German model, actress and occasional jazz vocalist who had fallen into Warhol's filmmaking circle.  The Velvet Underground wasn't all that thrilled with having the decision regarding an additional band member dictated to them, but at the time they regarded Warhol and his purported music industry connections as their meal ticket to bigger things, and as such they weren't quite ready to piss him off just yet by rejecting Nico out of hand.  So they acquiesced.  But there was plenty of grumbling behind the scenes, out of Andy's earshot.  Lou Reed in particular disliked Nico for her diva-ish tendencies (such as extended dressing room preparations that would sometimes hold up performances) and her tendency to sing off-key, a result of her partial deafness.  So their early days together were rough, to say the least (to their credit, in later years, Reed and the rest of the Velvet Underground would come to respect and support Nico's artistry).

Warhol's early Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows began generating a lot of press (both favorable and unfavorable), and he was eager to keep that buzz building as he made plans to take his show on the road to cities across the U.S.  So Andy's next move was to release a record, featuring music from his 'happenings', as quickly as possible.  In exchange for one of his paintings, Warhol persuaded a sales executive from Columbia Records, Norman Dolph, to helm a recording session with The Velvet Underground at a local studio.  The band was equally eager to begin taking advantage of Warhol's contacts and seek out a major-label record deal.  So they had no objections to the arrangement, even though Warhol insisted on having Nico join them during the taping, which was held at a decrepit Manhattan studio on 54th Street, Scepter Studios (located in the same building that a decade later would house the Studio 54 nightclub).

Over a four-day period in April, 1966, Dolph and his engineer John Licata recorded nine of the group's songs - including "Femme Fatale", "I'm Waiting For The Man", and "Venus In Furs" - at Scepter.  Warhol sat in the control booth during the sessions ostensibly as the "producer", but from all accounts had no real input or influence over the music; the main music arranger during that first session was John Cale.

Shortly after the completion of the session and initial mixing, Dolph arranged for the pressing of an acetate (a metallic "master" record) and forwarded it on to his superiors at Columbia, hoping to interest them in signing the band.  Columbia aggressively rejected it, returning it to Dolph with a handwritten note, the gist of which was "not only no, but fuck no."  Dolph also
forwarded the disc on to Atlantic Records and Elektra Records, who also declined the offer in the same manner as Columbia.  Finally, however, Verve Records showed some interest in these rough recordings.  After extensive remixing and polishing by Verve staff producer Tom Wilson, and rerecording of four songs, including "Heroin" and "Sunday Morning", the label released the then-ignored but now-classic album The Velvet Underground and Nico on March 12th, 1967.

As for the original acetate - Dolph gave it to Andy Warhol, who filed it away and apparently forgot about it.  After Warhol's death in 1987, the disc just sort of disappeared - very few people knew of its existence, and none seemed to care about its whereabouts.

Cut to fifteen years later . . .

In the summer of 2002, a Canadian record geek named Warren Hill attended a weekend flea market in the Chelsea section of New York City, looking for old tunes.  In a box full of soggy punk and '60s garage albums, he stumbled across a worn, sleeveless record with the handwritten center label "Velvet Underground... 4/25/66... N. Dolph."  Believing that, at best case, he had acquired a test pressing of the original VU and Nico, Hill bought the album . . . for 75 cents.  It wasn't until after listening to it, and discovering that the disc contained a different running order and markedly different mixes, that Hill determined that he had inadvertently purchased the long-lost Norman Dolph acetate.  Because the original master tapes of the Scepter session have long been lost or destroyed, this acetate remains a one-of-a-kind testament to The Velvet Underground's first studio session, containing "lost" versions of "Venus in Furs," "I'm Waiting for the Man," and "Heroin."  It's rough and hissy in places, but it's unadorned and unadulterated VU, and as such is a must-hear for fans of the group.

So here, for your listening pleasure, is the April 1966 Scepter Studios (Norman Dolph Acetate) disc, containing the demos for The Velvet Underground and Nico, one of the top twenty greatest rock albums ever released.  What better way to reflect upon and remember Lou Reed's life and art at its conclusion then by going back to the beginning, and hearing where it all started for him.  Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

And farewell to you, Lou - say hi to Andy for us.

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Beatles - Before America (Live) (Purple Chick) (2 Discs)

Earlier this year, I posted The Beatles' eleven-disc Complete BBC Sessions (released by bootleg label Purple Chick back in 2004).  A couple of months afterwards, a writer named Colin Fleming penned a superb article about the band's BBC radio shows for the Atlantic Monthly magazine (I added a link to this piece in the original posting; here it is again).  Shortly after it was published, I began receiving exponentially more requests for my Purple Chick BBC posting; as it turned out, my site was apparently one of the very few places, if not the ONLY place, on the Internet to find the complete set.  I made a point of thanking Mr. Fleming here in writing for indirectly bringing the power and glory (ha ha) of Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole to the attention of literally thousands more people. 

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to actually meet him; he recently published a couple of books (Dark March and Between Cloud and Horizon), and had a reading/book signing up in Boston that I attended.  I made sure to introduce myself; he brightened considerably when I told him who I was and what I was there representing!  We spoke for a few minutes about some of his recent in-progress projects, which included expanding his Atlantic Monthly article into a full Beatles book, slated for publication sometime in mid-2014.

Well, it appears that he had too much of the Fabs on the brain to hold out until next year; a new Fleming-authored Beatles article appeared in the Atlantic Monthly this morning.  This new piece commemorates the 50th anniversary (to the day) of what he calls "The greatest Beatles performance of all time", a seven-song concert played before a miniscule audience for broadcast on a Swedish radio show, "Pop '63".  Fleming focuses on the energy and rawness inherent in this music - back in the pre-Sullivan time before The Beatles became megastars, when they could actually throw themselves with abandon into a live show and hear themselves during their concerts - in making his case for the greatness of the particular performance.

The piece includes links to YouTube recordings of all seven songs - and yes, there is rawness and power aplenty in this gig.  I don't have any considered opinion regarding whether or not this was The Beatles' 'best ever' live gig . . . but I'll defer to the experts (i.e., Mr. Fleming) on that point.  I will say that, all in all, the entire Swedish set is pretty good.

I realized, as I was listening to these YouTube clips, that I already owned this entire concert on .mp3; it's part of Purple Chick's two-disc Before America set.  About five years ago, Purple Chick released a series of sets - about a dozen in all - cataloging and collecting almost all of existing Beatles' live show recordings, from their earliest days in Hamburg (Star Club) to their U.S. breakthrough (Conquering America), and on through their various concert tours up to their last official show in 1966 in San Francisco (The Last Tour).  Generally speaking, the musicianship and sound quality on these live sets gets progressively worse after early 1964.  After their initial flush with international success, the band quickly bored of touring, and were fed up and frustrated with the shrieking fans drowning out the sound of their meticulously-crafted songs.  Frankly, they stopped giving a shit - and you can hear it.

In that regard, Fleming may have a point; the best live Beatles recordings are generally from the pre-first U.S. visit period, with the sweet spot being the late fall/early winter of 1963/64 - the specific period covered in Before America.  The first disc of this set contains the "Pop '63" show (tracks 11-18), along with another less heralded but equally excellent Beatles Swedish appearance less than a week later, on the Stockholm TV show "Drop In".  The disc also contains the band's entire Royal Variety Performance set (where John famously instructed the audience to rattle their jewelry instead of clapping) and their hilarious appearance on the Morecambe & Wise Show, where the Fabs more than hold their own with England's top TV comics of that period (I can't resist posting some video of a portion of this show - still funny today):

The second disc contains. among other gems, portions of The Beatles' January 1964 afternoon/evening stand at L'Olympia Theatre in Paris, France, their last major overseas gig before their arrival in America less than a month later. Pretty much everything on this set is outstanding - I'll leave it to you to decide if it's the all-time Beatles best.

Here, for you listening pleasure, is The Beatles' Before America, a two-disc collection released by Purple Chick in 2008.  Enjoy, and as always, please let me know what you think.    

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Various Artists - Flying Nun 25th Anniversary Box Set (4 Discs)

Yeah, yeah . . . OK.  I know . . . mea culpa.

Yes, folks - believe it or now, I'm still here, and so is Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole.  Don't let the dearth of new posts here lead you to believe that the demise of this blog is nigh . . . far from it.  I have yet to run out of ideas or stories.  By last check, I've got at least a dozen posts in various stages of development. 

The tragedy of it all is that, for the past three months, I just haven't been able to complete any of them to my satisfaction.  Despite this being a silly little music site of no major consequence to anything else going on in the world, it is mine own, and as such I try to put a little care, work and editing into my screeds.  With that in mind, I'm constantly in search of the perfect phrasing and narrative flow to make these tales at least somewhat interesting, in the hope that when visitors come here to grab the links for my latest album posting, they just possibly might linger a bit and actually read what I've penned in relation to the music.

Unfortunately for me, that quest for the "right" line has led to stagnation and writer's block.  I visit this site with a sense of shame now, looking back guiltily over the vast number of unfinished postings stretching back for months and wondering when the fog will lift, and when I'll be able to add them to the others.  It's annoying, to say the least.

But there is a bright side - this has happened before, and no doubt will occur again; sometimes I just get locked up.  But in the end, I always end up completing the stragglers and clearing out the backlog.  So keep watching this site; I will undoubtedly be backdating quite a few postings in the next few weeks.  But they will get done.

Until then, here's a stopgap to tide you over, the Flying Nun 25th Anniversary Box Set, four discs jam-packed with pure Kiwi punk/alternative goodness by New Zealand's premier independent music label.  These limited-edition discs contain a semi-chronological overview of nearly all of that country's (and label's) great non-mainstream artists - some of whom you may have heard of (The Chills, Toy Love, The Clean) and many others which may be new to you (The Pin Group, Straitjacket Fits, Love's Ugly Children, Chug, The Dead C).  Many of the tunes in this set have long been out of print, making it a must-have for anyone with any interest in the New Zealand scene.

The reason I'm posting this (other than as an apology for being so idle over the past couple of months) is because not only is this a great set, an outstanding overview of the evolution of New Zealand alternative music since 1980 - it's also annoying difficult to track down online.  And I know that if I have trouble finding it, many, many more of you are having a hard time as well.

So here - let me make it easy for you all:  Here's the Flying Nun 25th Anniversary Box Set, eighty-three tracks of Aotearoa brilliance, released on Flying Nun Records (duh) in December 2006.  Enjoy these while I get my act together, and let me know what you think. 

And one more thing - thanks for hanging in there with me and this blog.  More to come.

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