Barry Shank on the Drone of the Velvet Underground

VuThe story of the
Velvets’ intervention into the popular begins before the individuals in the
band met each other. When Terry Phillips met Cale and Tony Conrad at a party in
the summer of 1965 and invited them to join Reed in the Primitives, a diverse
set of influences flowed together. Most accounts of the band acknowledge the
significance of Reed’s study of narrative and character with the writer Delmore
Schwartz at Syracuse University. These accounts typically highlight Cale’s work
with La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music. Perhaps they mention the
specific contributions of the rest of the band: Morrison, Tucker, and, for one
album, Nico. The accounts all speculate on the impact of Andy Warhol. I will
cover those events and influences. But most previous accounts ascribe the
impact of the Velvets to a merger of pop and art without clearly articulating
what art and pop meant and, most important, what it meant to truly combine art
and pop in 1965–67. As Bernie Gendron, Simon Frith and Howard Horne have shown,
it was during this period that popular music underwent a significant change,
which was stimulated by the infusion of high-art values. But neither of these
classic studies takes into account the continuing power of the marketplace to
define value, even once high-art values began to influence popular-music production.
When the Beatles and the Who combined art and pop, their success was measured
by their record sales. When Bob Dylan went electric, he was both championed and
castigated for merging the artistic and political conventions of what was then
called “folk music” and pop. But “Like a Rolling Stone” went to number 2 on the
pop charts. The Beatles reached the top 10 with almost every release. Before
the Velvets, chart success was the measure that mattered for popular music.
Only after the Velvets was it possible for new articulations of art and pop in
music to be judged by their sound and the impact that their sound had on those
who made music after them. That is, after the Velvets’ experiments with pop and
art, it became possible to hear popular music in terms that were familiar from
art, terms of influence and impact, rather than accountings of sales figures.

With the
reevaluation of musical meaning that was enabled by the beauty of the drone,
every other aspect of the Velvets’ sonic signals took on heightened
significance. Tucker’s version of “African” beats was not heard as white
misappropriation. Reed’s lyrical precision was not judged according to the
conventions of folk-descendant singer-songwriters. Morrison’s mastery of rhythm
guitar, where it was commented on at all, was not compared to the classic
models of John Lennon, Keith Richards, and Robbie Robertson. Beneath the drone,
outside of the sphere of market calculation, the Velvet Underground’s sound
created its own terms for critical evaluation and, in so doing, carved a new
political aesthetic from the driftwood of the popular.

 

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