In 1993 it had been 25 years since John Cale last played with The Velvet Underground, except for a one-off encore of Heroin sometime during 1990.
Brian Eno famously said that everyone who bought the Banana album went out and formed a band. This statement certainly seems to ring true of Scotland’s Independent music scene, which this clip from our Big Gold Dream movie seems to backup:
The best rock music is full of twists and surprises and January 1972 brought one of these.
Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico would briefly perform together at La Bataclan in Paris for the first time since 1967, an event nobody thought they would witness. Another partial reunion would come shortly after with John Cale, Nico and the previously mentioned Brian Eno performing, aptly on the 1st June of 1974.
The 1st June 1993 however brought an even bigger surprise. An event which can be seen as a full circling of the story told in Big Gold Dream. The Velvet Underground would reform and play their first gig in Edinburgh, at The Playhouse.
Manchester’s Lesser Free-Trade Hall’s Sex Pistols/Buzzcocks concert, much like Brian Eno’s proclaiming of the first VU album was a rock milestone which inspired thousands of teenagers to get out and form a band. The closest Scotland had was the infamous White Riot tour of 1977.
While long ceasing to be a functioning unit in 1977, The Velvet Underground would provide a Lesser-Free Trade Hall in reverse moment for Scotland during 1993: Everyone who had been inspired to form a band by listening to this music would now get the chance to see the 1968 line-up perform for the first time – and bizarrely, in Edinburgh.
This weekend is the 25th anniversary of The Velvet Underground playing their first reformed concerts in Edinburgh.
We thought it would be a good opportunity to speak to a few who were there over this weekend.
Roy Møller has kindly written a fantastic recollection of his thoughts on the 1st and 2nd of June 1993:
“Hearing that the Velvet Underground were playing the Playhouse was mind-blowing. And not one but two shows – I remember saying one must be for Sister Ray and the other for the rest of the material.
I’d read that the Velvets had played Heroin live in 1990 but the idea of them getting together half a mile from where I grew up was crazy: my favourite group reuniting after 25 years (with Cale) or 23 years (with Reed) and doing it on Greenside Place – it was outrageous.
I’d had a little VU history with the venue as in early 1982 I’d seen Nico play at the Nite Club (directly above the Playhouse) with the Blue Orchids. At one point she mentioned L-oooo-uuuu Reeeeed was soon to play in London and the thought of him playing 393 miles away was pretty exciting in itself.
I didn’t know she’d stayed in Edinburgh and was living in Manchester. I was aware of Rab from The Scars but, living away from the city, hadn’t realised they’d briefly lived together in Stockbridge, frequenting bars on St Stephen Street. That would have blown my teenage mind.
I saw Lou in the flesh for the first time in 1992 when he brought the Magic & Loss tour to the Playhouse. I was drunk as a lord for that show and sober as a judge for the VU ones. Wrong way round, I think, but I was exultant to hear him play my favourite song, Sweet Jane, and Rock And Roll as encores. Little did I know this was but a preview of the full VU experience. As was Lou’s white jacket, mullet and headstock-free guitar.
When the Velvets shows were announced, I read that Lou had proclaimed the Playhouse his favourite venue in the world and lobbied for the first VU reunion shows to take place there. I don’t know how familiar he was with his influence on independent Scottish pop and if he would have cared. I wonder if anyone showed him the flyer from Hugh Reed And The Velvet Underpants who were playing a post-VU show a stone’s throw away from the Playhouse on (I think) the first night. I remember it contained an “Invitation To Lou” to check them out. Not such a far-fetched thought, perhaps, as Debbie Harry recruited them as support band that same year. Apparently Debbie faxed Lou to tell him about his near-namesake.
I was living in Glasgow at the time of the shows and made a trip through to Edinburgh to buy tickets from the Playhouse box office with a VU-loving pal, a pre-Belle and Sebastian Stevie Jackson. We spent a Saturday night at my mum’s house and walked up to the venue on, appropriately enough, the Sunday morning. Stevie got a ticket for the second night and I picked up tickets for both. I remember one of my tickets was misprinted Velvet Undreground which made me slightly paranoid that it wouldn’t be valid.
The weeks before the shows I was apprehensive in case I lost the tickets, and about the Undreground typo, and also more excited than a 29-year-old Directory Enquiries operator had a right to be. I met a drummer friend of mine on Great Western Road one day who was under the impression that not only was I going to both the VU’s Edinburgh shows but I was also going to follow them around Europe.
There was a buzz around for sure but like when Bowie came to Murrayfield with Serious Moonlight in 1983, I got the sense that amongst some of the indie cognoscenti it was a bit uncool to be into the reunion, that it was better to stay at home with the records than watch a bunch of old dudes try to recreate former glories.
I think the conception was Cale was a recovering addict who’d appeared overweight on the South Bank Show VU special in a Beethoven tee-shirt, Reed had recorded too many albums featuring fretless bass and singing about red joysticks and Honda bikes, Moe had done a garage cover of a Chuck Berry song but was playing up to a housewife image, complete with bubble perm and Sterling was a detached figure, a tugboat captain who had expressed his disdain in print for Pale Blue Eyes. I mean, how dare he!
On the first night my friend Moore predicted what the opening song would be but got delayed at the bar so he missed the start of We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together. Sat in the stalls, it was pretty obvious from the get-go that the Velvets sounded just like the Velvets of yore, despite Lou favouring a beheaded Steinberger guitar over a Gretsch Country Gentleman. Sterling Morrison resembled a bemused English lecturer, Moe Tucker had cut her hair and looked way younger – a lot like she did on the back of the Banana album. Cale also looked rejuvenated: acqualine-handsome with his floppy fringe straight off the cover of Songs For Drella.
Both nights featured the same low points – Reed intentionally screwing up the metre of the most Velvets of Velvets songs, Venus In Furs, like he was out-Dylaning a drunk Bob Dylan, and Cale’s sweeping nineties keyboard introduction to I’m Waiting For the Man which delayed the ecstasy of hearing the song the way nature intended, replete with Sterling’s Steve Cropper-style licks. The highlight was Cale playing bass and reciting The Gift.
I remember my thoughts prior to the second show were along the lines of, “I reckon my pals who are coming tomorrow will enjoy this, but just wait till they hear The Gift.” Never did the 93 Velvets sound more like the 68 Velvets and Cale tuned in a stellar performance.
On the second night I turned round to Stevie who was sat a few rows back and clocked his , “Oh, my God, this is really happening” grin. Moe singing I’m Sticking With You and After Hours was also a treat. It made sense to watch Cale sing Nico’s songs, although the gadgie who shouted “This is Nico’s town!” maybe had other ideas.
The audience were pretty interactive throughout. At one point, maybe the second night, Reed turned to Cale and said incredulously, “They want to hear Jesus!”.
Well, the second night we did get to hear a new Velvets composition, Coyote, and as they played, I imagined them writing it in the shadow of the Castle or Arthur’s Seat. I always thought that if you burrowed into Salisbury Crags they’d emit a Velvet Underground drone. Edinburgh landscapes always put me in mind of the VU sound way more than Glasgow scenes did. To me, the haar off the Forth swirled like Cale’s viola in The Black Angel’s Death Song, that the great big clipper ship in Heroin left from Leith Docks. The VU seemed the right soundtrack for the city of Mary King’s Close and Lou liked to sing about Mary, Queen Of Scots. Coyote, or Cast the First Stone as I thought it was called at the time, sounded simple and hypnotic, a little like Here by Pavement which was a contemporary favourite of mine, and a little like Indian Summer by Beat Happening which I first heard hauntingly covered in the support set by Luna.
I’d read Cale express his hope that rather than just play oldies the band could develop and play new material and I thought Coyote was a gentle start down that road. But apart from a brief ditty about being The Velvet Underground, that was the sum total of new music.
In 1993, 1968 seemed just as far away as it does now. Cars look the same to me, gigs feel the same to me, only technology feels different at all. But the time the Velvets were an active unit (when I was two till I was six) is another planet. It’s weird, but when I was in my first band in 1980, 1968 seemed equally ancient history. In June 1993 I was a month shy of thirty and transfixed to be face to face with these guys of fifty. What could it be like to hold a guitar at such an advanced age? I kept thinking of the ancient-looking photo of the early VU with Angus MacLise on a New York rooftop and then switching to Cale and Reed before me, thinking, “These are the same guys that wore the suits and groovy shades! These are the guys that made those spooky, sexy subterranean sounds I’d give my right arm to play ten seconds of, these are the men who flushed a toilet on the recording of European Son!” I focused on Lou and John with the backstage wall visible behind them and pretended it was 66, 67 or 68.
It was astounding these figures for so much of my internal musings were in front of me on stage and that Cale was gung-ho for singing on songs the band recorded after Reed edged him out of the band. All-in-all I loved both shows. I was disappointed to read a review (I think in The Scotsman from Allan Campbell, head of Supreme International records) which viewed the reunion as a slightly shoddy epitaph and decided it was “time for us all to move on,” or words to that effect. I still hoped it was a rebirth.
When Sterling Morrison died in 1995 it hit me pretty hard to the point where I couldn’t listen to VU music for five years. After Lou died I wrote an album’s worth of songs about Lou and the Velvets which are my favourite songs of any I’ve written. One of them was about the reunion and “It’s Nico’s town!” Like the man who shouted “Judas!” at Dylan at the Free Trade Hall, imagine buying a ticket just so you could heckle. For me, those two nights it was Cale’s town. If I could take one performance to cherish as I sat on a desert shore, it would always be The Gift.”
You can purchase and listen to Roy’s fantastic “My Week Beats Your Year” via Stereogram