“What’s a Velvet Underground?”

Understandably concerned about the demon Crowley’s (né Crawley, as in the serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden) driving 90 MPH through the streets of London, the angel Aziraphale suggests: “Music. . . . Why don’t I put on a little music?”

Not recognizing any of the bands in Crowley’s glove compartment, he asks: “What’s a Velvet Underground?”

Crowley states, “You wouldn’t like it.”

To which Aziraphale replies: “Oh, bebop.”

Of course, no serious music fan could let this sort of ignorance pass. Near the end of the episode, the demon returns to the angel’s miscategorization: “You know, if you lined up everyone in the whole world and asked them to describe the Velvet Underground, nobody, at all, would say bebop.”

As it turns out, Michael Sheen, who plays Aziraphale in Good Omens, knows the Velvet Underground very well. He even attended the October 9, 2018, opening of The Velvet Underground Experience in New York as the personal guest of his good friend, ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale:

Salon des Refusés: Roxy Music

In 1863, the Salon des Refusés was launched to counter the conservative aesthetics enforced by the Academy of Fine Arts in the annual Paris Salon. That year, the “rejects” included such later revered painters as Manet, Courbet, Whistler, Pissarro and Cezanne. Perhaps it is now time to establish a Salon des Refusés for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame‘s rejects.

The rules of eligibility for induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame include:

Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.

And yet many artists who have had huge impacts on the development and evolution of rock & roll have been snubbed over and over, including: Kraftwerk, Chic, Big Star, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, New York Dolls, T. Rex, Television, The Slits, X-Ray Spex, Sonic Youth, Joy Division.

Roxy Music was a thoroughly British band. Every one of their eight studio albums entered the U.K. top ten, with three of them topping the charts, while only three entered the U.S. top 40, none breaching the top 20. They had numerous top 10 singles in the U.K., beginning with their debut, “Virginia Plain,” . . .

. . . but only one top 40 hit in the U.S., “Love Is the  Drug,” which reached only #30.

Many British bands in the ’60s and ’70s were formed in art schools. However, as Michael Bracewell’s excellent pre-history of the band, Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music, makes very clear, bandleader Bryan Ferry took his art studies far more seriously than most would-be rockers. He was particularly influenced by the instruction of British pop artist Richard Hamilton at the University of Newcastle.

Richard Hamilton is perhaps best known to the general public for designing the cover of The Beatles, AKA the “White Album.” He and the Independent Group launched British pop art (Hamilton is credited with the first documented use of the term “pop art”) in their section of the This Is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956, when Andy Warhol was still drawing shoes. (Bryan Ferry would later record a solo song titled “This Is Tomorrow.”)

Both U.K. and U.S. pop art reveled in contemporary pop culture and embraced its imagery, but those on opposite sides of “the pond” approached the similar material in very different ways. Early U.S. Pop tended to focus on and blow up individual images: flags and targets (Jasper Johns), single frames from comic books (Roy Lichtenstein and Warhol), consumer goods like Campbell soup cans or Brillo boxes, celebrity and/or tabloid photos (Warhol).

U.K. Pop also appropriated images of (mostly American) comic books and consumer goods, but they were more likely to mash them up in a postmodern pastiche, as in Richard Hamilton’s collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, which made a big impression at This Is Tomorrow . . .


. . . and later, presumably, on Bryan Ferry. Could this living room be the setting of “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” on Roxy Music’s second album, For Your Pleasure?

Of course, there were trans-Atlantic bridges between the two movements, particularly in the person of Mark Lancaster. Hamilton supplied his student with an introduction to Warhol, for whom Lancaster briefly worked as an assistant. He even appeared in a few of Warhol’s films.

Upon his return to the U.K., Lancaster shared his travel photos:

Back in Newcastle I put together a slide show for the school, with all the things I had photographed in New York, and music like that at the Factory, such as Lesley Gore singing “It’s My Party,” and ending with the taxi sequence with “Moon River” playing, because it reminded me, like all of New York in 1964, of Breakfast at Tiffanys. Images from America were still pretty rare, and some of the students, including my friends Stephen Buckley and Bryan Ferry, were impressed and affected by this experience. I remember I was just trying to keep the projector and the record player going and trying not to cry.

The Factory and Warhol’s traveling multi-media show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, also provided a platform for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees The Velvet Underground. In some ways, Roxy Music was to Richard Hamilton as The Velvet Underground was to Andy Warhol. The Velvet Underground had the amphetamine focus of Warhol’s pop art, homing in on a single riff, chord, even note, repeating it endlessly with very little variation. Roxy Music engaged in musical pastiche, juxtaposing bits and pieces from many different musical styles from many different contexts and eras.

This postmodern approach was not just apparent in their music. As Chic‘s Nile Rodgers explains, Roxy Music was a whole package. . . .

. . . integrating music, performance, fashion and art into their overall image.

With few exceptions (Richard Hamilton’s cover of the “White Album” being a rare and notable one), most pop and rock albums of the late ’60s and early ’70s featured the performers on the cover. Roxy Music had different designs. They featured classic pin up style glamour shots by Karl Stoecker, beginning with former Bond girl Kari-Ann Muller on the cover of the band’s debut album:

Bryan Ferry was known to date most of these cover models, even became engaged to Jerry Hall (before losing her to Mick Jagger):

(In his autobiography, Le Freak, Nile Rodgers tells the funny story of Chic also imitating this aspect of Roxy’s overall package, featuring two models on the cover of their debut album, only to end up hiring two female singers for their tours because fans kept asking where the women on the cover were. Their next several album covers featured the band.)

Roxy Music was not just Bryan Ferry, though, as quickly becomes evident when you compare Roxy’s albums to Ferry’s solo albums. Even though the latter feature a few of the same songs and even some of the same musicians (as well as Nile Rodgers, who has played on several of Ferry’s later solo albums), they sound very different from Roxy albums. Roxy Music was very much a collaborative project, with guitarist Phil Manzanera, saxophonist Andy Mackay and drummer Paul Thompson being the other constants in the band.

Perhaps foremost among Ferry’s collaborators in Roxy Music, at least at the beginning, was Brian Eno who played John Cale to Ferry’s Lou Reed. Eno, who studied cybernetics with pioneering interactive artist Roy Ascott, often described himself as a non-musician. He did not play an instrument, but fiddled with a mixing deck through which he live processed all of the other instruments. He initially manipulated the music out of view, but he eventually joined the rest of the band onstage with his electronics, and his flamboyant fashion sense:

Following John Cale’s model, Eno left the band after two albums, though Eno’s departure seems to have been far more amicable than when Reed kicked Cale out of the Velvet Underground. And don’t cry for Eno, who pursued a very successful career as a solo artist, often collaborating with various former bandmates, as well as John Cale and David Bowie, and especially as a producer of such bands as Talking Heads and U2.

Roxy’s next album, Stranded, proved that it was as overly simplistic to view Eno as wholly responsible for Roxy’s experimental side as it was to believe the same of John Cale in The Velvet Underground.

However, with the next two albums, Country Life and Siren, the band’s sound became more integrated. There was now one distinct Roxy Music style instead of a pastiche of many styles. That should not be taken as a criticism, though, as it was quite a distinctive style they settled on. It even earned them their one U.S. hit, “Love Is the Drug”:

Many even claim Siren is their best album, though I am partial to For Your Pleasure.

And then Roxy Music was done . . . at least for a while. Although Ferry had already released several solo albums, In Your Mind was his first to feature all original songs (the earlier albums were dominated by quirky covers, including some of Roxy songs). The other members also released solo albums, as well as collaborating with Eno in the band 801.

Roxy Music reformed in 1979, . . .

. . . just in time to usher in the era of the New Romantics, who were so influenced by the band’s original incarnation, both their music and their fashion sense.

Roxy’s influence is obvious in bands such as Ultravox, . . .

. . . The Human League, . . .

. . . ABC, . . .

. . . even in bigger bands like Duran Duran and Depeche Mode.

To Roxy, though, it must have felt like the same old scene . . .

. . . and they packed it in with their next studio album, Avalon.

It was a glorious, but ultimately nostalgic, valedictory. No longer postmodern deconstruction, but nostalgic revival.

Even notorious curmudgeon John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten) has nice things to say about Roxy:

Roxy Music surely deserves to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, both for their “unquestionable musical excellence” and their “significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.”

Cigarettes After Sex: Ambient Pop or Slowcore?

According to the band’s press packet, Cigarettes After Sex is “an ambient pop group based out of Brooklyn, NY.” Isn’t “ambient pop” an oxymoron? Ambient music is supposed to fade into the background, create a mood without calling attention to itself, while pop music aspires to be unignorable, to get stuck in your head.

I think the genre listed on the band’s Facebook page is more appropriate, “slow motion”:

Plus it echoes the label of the 1990s microgenre the band’s sound also evokes, slowcore.

Slowcore crept in this petty pace of Galaxie 500:

No surprise given the band’s name, Codeine played at a drugged, narcotized pace:

Most of Bedhead‘s songs moved at the same glacial pace as other slowcore bands and the vocals always dragged, . . .

. . . but a few of them featured dynamic shifts not unlike Pavement’s as the slow and soft strumming grew faster and louder:

The Velvet Underground, particularly its third album, obviously resonates throughout slowcore. Both Galaxie 500 (“Ceremony”) and Bedhead (“Disorder”) covered Joy Division. Codeine dug deeper for its covers, MX-80 Sound and Unrest.

Perversely, Cigarettes After Sex covered REO Speedwagon, . . .

. . . but slowed the AOR anthem to a crawl.

Thanks, Thom, for calling this band to my attention.

Denis Johnson (1949-2017)

Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a collection of interconnected stories about rural U.S. addicts and petty criminals, took its title from the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”:

Johnson established his wide range of styles from the beginning, moving directly from the noir of his debut, Angels, to the speculative fiction of Fiskadoro, which was set in the post-apocalyptic culture that grew within the quarantine zone after Miami was nuked. Jesus’ Son was probably his masterpiece, but his novels are all well worth reading.

New New Jersey Music: Feelies and Real Estate

For a blog created to promote new music (see motto/mission statement above), I have certainly been focusing on a lot of old music lately. So this week I will be highlighting some more recent music I’ve been listening to.

Only on the last track of their new album, In Between, do The Feelies approach the intensity of their early days when they regularly explored “What Went On” with probably their biggest influence, The Velvet Underground:

The strum may not be quite so drang these days, a bit slower, a bit starker, yet they strum on, guitars against the current:

Overall, it’s a nice, casual visit with old friends.

Like The VU before them, The Feelies have been more influential than well known. One band The Feelies have influenced is fellow New Jerseyites, Real Estate (the two bands have even played together on occasion).

Real Estate have also released new music:

The full album, In Mind, drops March 17.

Box Set Season, part 1

With Christmas coming very soon, it is officially box set season.

First there is Bob Dylan and the Band’s The Basement Tapes Complete:

After his motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan withdrew from the spotlight to Woodstock, NY (several years before the rock festival, which wasn’t actually in Woodstock anyway). He spent many evenings playing music at “Big Pink,” the nearby house rented by his recent backup band the Hawks, soon to be renamed The Band. As this six-CD box documents, they played a number of traditional songs, rearrangements of some of Dylan’s older songs, and a whole lot of new songs Dylan had written. Although a number of the songs were recorded by others — including Manfred Mann (“Mighty Quinn”), Fairport Convention (“Million Dollar Bash”) and, of course, the Byrds and the Band themself; Coulson, Dean, McGuinness, Flint’s Lo and Behold album was almost entirely comprised of songs from these sessions — only a few ever appeared on Dylan albums.

The Basement Tapes Complete is the latest volume of Dylan’s ongoing “Bootleg Series,” which is only appropriate since it was interest in these tapes that led to the release of what is considered to be one of, if not the very first popular rock bootleg, Great White Wonder in 1969:

Now, 45 years later, the complete collection is officially available for the first time. That said, only a Dylan fanatic, of which there are many of us, would want the complete set. The best songs have long been available on The Basement Tapes, the official double album released in 1975 (although there were some complaints at the time about minor overdubbing and the inclusion of some songs the Band recorded in that basement without Dylan).  For fanatics, though, the set offers the bridge between Dylan’s “electric period” culminating on Blonde on Blonde and his return to roots on John Wesley Harding.

The “Super Deluxe” edition of Velvet Underground: 45th Anniversary Edition also contains six discs:

The Velvet Underground‘s third is considered their “quiet album,” especially following the very loud White Light White Heat, which ended with the very noisey “Sister Ray.” This was also the first VU album recorded after Lou Reed forced John Cale out. This was now Lou Reed’s band. To make that point totally clear, after Val Valentin initially mixed the album, Lou Reed remixed it to highlight his own vocals. Leaving the band sounding muffled, this version became known as “The Closet Mix.” The two mixes can be compared on the first two discs of the set. The third disc offers still another, formerly promo-only mono mix.

The fourth disc compiles the recordings that have come to be known as The Lost Album. They are far more upbeat than most of the band’s earlier recordings, revealing Reed’s love of classic rock and roll and leading the way to the band’s last album, the relatively straight rock album, Loaded, that holds the later classic “Sweet Jane.” However, the tracks have long been available on the compilations VU and Another View (they have been remastered here).

So the final two discs are the real attraction.  They contain a very good live show (compiled from two 1969 shows at the Matrix in San Francisco). A few of these tracks have been previously released, but the source for this release sounds better. And it includes a preview of the song “Rock and Roll,” another later classic that would appear on Loaded.

Part 2 coming soon, featuring Captain Beefheart and the Go-Betweens

ps — when buying box sets (or imports), I highly recommend importsCDs; they are consistently $20-$30 cheaper than most other sources.