Velvet Underground- Pre-Op

The Primitives, 1964

Lou Reed with an early high school group- The CHD (Dry Hump Club, backwards).

L.A. & the Eldorados, Syracuse, N.Y., early 60’s.
Primitives 45.

Even the Velvet Underground seem to be sick of the subject of the Velvet Underground. Recent years have seen such holy grails as an acetate version of their first LP with four alternate takes, and a killer live set from the Gymnasium in New York City, ’68 (John Cale’s final show) surface, and neither the group members or their record companies couldn’t be bothered to cash in on them. Both items, essential for the Velvets fans are all over the web for free download.
Yet, like the Stooges, the Velvets represent to me one of those things you discover as a teenager that changes your life. Their music hinted at a world different from the one I’d grown up in, full of all sorts of forbidden pleasures, stuff that you didn’t see on TV or hear on the radio (there was no Internet back then, only fanzines). But their story has been told so many times there’s really nothing to add to it, other than the handful of discs that Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico left behind in the years before the Velvet Underground. This stuff has been bootlegged (and some of it legally re-issued) a thousand times, but it’s worth revisiting one more time, since there’s some great rock’n’roll there, and if the Velvet Underground had never formed, we’d all be wondering just who the fuck where the Primitives? So, for those who’ve heard and read it all before, my apologies for not digging up some obscure, old cotton picker to blogerate about, and for those of you who haven’t heard this stuff, I think you’re in for a treat, as these are some of the most unique garage style rock’n’roll records what ever been made.
Lou Reed had been playing guitar in high school rock’n’roll bands since his early teens, and one of his earliest bands– the Shades managed to get an audition with record man Bob Shad who had been an A&R exec at Mercury and produced sides by Charlie Parker at Savoy before starting a handful of his own labels, recording the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Terry, and Smokey Hogg for the Shad label. Eventually he’d score with Big Brother and the Amboy Dukes on his Mainstream label.
Shad was based out of Long Island, and someone Reed knew from high school knew his daughter. As he was just starting up his Time and Broadway labels, he signed the Shades, changing their name to the Jades to avoid confusion with the Shades of Sunglasses (Big Top) fame. According to Reed they weren’t a real group, just Lou and his guitar and two other guys he knew from Freeport High, Phil Harris (an interview with Harris on the subject of the Shades/Jades can be found here) and Al Walters. Their one 45– So Blue b/w Leave Her For Me was issued in 1958 on Time, written by Reed and Harris (who sang lead), it’s charmingly inept high school rock’n’roll, unfortunately for the Jades, Time’s next release– the Bell Notes’ I’ve Had It would become a huge hit and steal their thunder. I’ve Had It is a much better record anyway, when playing guest DJ on the old WPIX-FM in 1979 Reed played it, noting it was one of his favorite records. Soon Reed was off to college, attending Syracuse University, where he majored in English Lit. and on spring break of ’62 he returned to Shad to record demos for two tunes– Merry Go Round and Your Love, both tunes featuring King Curtis on sax and Dave “Baby” Cortez on organ, they weren’t released until the nineties when the UK Ace label put them on a Time/Broadway compilation. If you want to hear these records they way they were meant to be heard, at 45 RPM and on vinyl, you can order the Norton Records EP- Lou Reed: All Tomorrow’s Dance Parties, which not only has all four tunes but great photos of the Shades and Lou’s high school year book shot.
After graduating from Syracuse, in 1963 Reed went to work for Pickwick Records, a budget label based in Long Island City, Queens, that specialized in cheesy rock’n’roll records that sounded sort of like recent hits. Teamed up with Terry Phillips (whose family might have owned the label) and Jerry Vance (real name Jerry Peligrino), he was put to work writing and recording tunes in the pre-Beatles rock’n’roll styles of the day. From this period we get some excellent garage rockers including the Roughnecks’ You’re Driving Me Insane and the Beach Nuts’ Cycle Annie, both of which feature Lou singing lead. They appeared on an LP called Soundsville on the Design label, Cycle Annie also showing up on another Design album called Out Of Sight. Other noteworthy tunes from this team are the Intimates I’ve Got A Tiger In My Tank, which was also issued under the Beachnuts name, the versions are slightly different. Another excellent Reed-Phillips-Vance tune from the Out Of Sight LP is Soul City by the Hi-Lifes, a tune that also appeared on 45 by the Foxes on the Bridgeview label in a much inferior version. The Fleshtones would cover Soul City for Henry Jones’ experimental short film in 1979. Another Reed-Vance-Phillips tune, this one issued under Terry Phillips name– Wild One isn’t half bad.
Enter John Cale, a Welsh expatriate who was studying classical music at Tanglewood on a scholarship and had shocked his professors with a recital that featured him demolishing a table with an axe. He had played with John Cage and was working with experimental “new music” composers like Lamonte Young and Terry Riley. There are two stories as to how he came to hook up with Reed. The first, as he tells it, was at a party. Reed, Phillips and Vance were in attendance and being the only other long hairs in the room they naturally gravitated towards each other. Another story emerged in Branden W. Joseph’s book The Dream Syndicate– Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage. According to Joseph, Tony Conrad, who wrote long, droning symphonies which Cale played on, the bridge of his viola filed flat and electrified to create a high decibel drone, had a tape of the Primitives, Lou Reed’s group, which featured Lou’s “Ostrich” guitar, that is, a guitar with all the strings tunes to one note (Metal Machine Music was recorded using one). Conrad had a tape of the group rehearsing and played it for Cale who demanded to know who they were and then sought them out and joined the band in time to collaborate on their first and only disc– the incredible single– Do The Ostrich b/w Sneaky Pete which came out on Pickwick in ’64 and with the writing credited to Reed-Vance-Phillips-Cale.
How Tony Conrad came to have a tape of the Primitives, and if the Primitives even existed before Cale met Reed, and where is that tape today? Those are three questions that we may take to our graves, but if someone out there really wants to dig up the story, I for one would love to read it, and hear that tape. On the other hand, the story can be so much ho-hah.
But with Cale involved the quartet came up with one of their best records yet– Why Don’t You Smile Now, which appeared on the b-side of the All Night Workers 45 Don’t Put All Your Eggs In One Basket on Round Sound. The All Night Workers were a Syracuse based frat band that Reed occasionally played with, their organ player Steve McCord having been Reed’s college roommate. Somehow the tune made it across the pond and was covered by the dear stalker wearing R&B/garage band the Downliner’s Sect. Some people prefer the Sect’s version, but I like the All Night Workers better for its drone factor. There were a few more tunes that emerged from these years, unfortunately they pretty much suck— Roberta Williams- Tell Mama Not To Cry b/w Maybe Tomorrow (Uptown), Donnie Burkes’ version of Why Don’t You Smile Now (Decca) and Ronnie Dickerson’s Maybe Tomorrow (same tune as the Roberta Williams, it’s on the Out Of Sight LP) aren’t really worth all the work of burning them to MP3 format. Sorry, completests, I’m feeling lazy, and they’re only worth hearing once, if that. There may be more tunes out there, anyone know? The above are pretty much what I am sure are records with Reed (and Cale’s) involvement. By 1965 they’d both left Pickwick and joined forces with fellow Syracuse graduate Donald “Sterling” Morrison and Angus Maclise (soon replaced by Maureen Tucker) on guitar and drums respectively to form the Velvet Underground. Enter Andy Warhol, and the rest is history.
Meanwhile, across the pond, German born Christa Paffgen, who had renamed herself Nico, had done some modeling and acting (appearing in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita) and was seen on the arm of Brian Jones and Bob Dylan. She began her musical career in 1963 singing the theme song for a French film called Strip-Tease, in which she also starred. I’ve never seen it, but the theme song is typical of the Ye-Ye girl style popular in France at the time. Except she sings in French with such a thick German accent it’s almost like a Mel Brooks parody of a Ye Ye girl. Nico next showed up in London in 1964 and Andrew Loog Oldham signed her for one single issued on his Immediate label, produced by Jimmy Page I’m Not Saying b/w The Last Mile, it was released without a picture sleeve, which would have been the best part of the record if it had. A year later in New York she would be forced on the Velvet Underground by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrisey who thought they needed a more charismatic front person. After a short affair with Lou Reed, she was fired from the group for stopping a rehearsal dead with the words– “I can no longer sleep with Jews”. My own account of a night babysitting Nico back in the late 70’s were the subject of an early posting on this blog back in 2008. It would be a long, hard road for Nico from Strip Tease to her version of Das Lied Der Deutschen (Island, 1974) to her untimely death in Ibiza where she fell of her bicycle.
Evidently the Primitives did do a few live shows to promote The Ostrich, and there’s even been mention of a tv appearance. Talk about holy grails, perhaps somewhere right now, in a warehouse in Long Island City sits a reel of tape of the Primitives live, or some video footage of them performing the Ostrich and Sneaky Pete. Stranger things have turned up. Can a Pre-VU box set be somewhere in our future?
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