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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  1. Thanks a million for this! It's a wonderful and important document. Getting more important with every passing day. RIP Lou.

  2. Thank you for posting this great rare recording.

  3. WOW just amazing
    Thanks for enlightening us.

  4. Wow.... I must hear this.. being a huge LR and VU fan. It all began here. Too bad all it ended with LuLu. (shudders)