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Podcast #72: Lou Reed on Playing Outside the Box


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It's difficult to overstate the influence of The Velvet Underground. In 1982, Brian Eno famously said of the band's debut album, "Everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band." For this week's episode of the New York Public Library Podcast, we're thrilled to present The Velvet Underground's Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker, and Doug Yule with prolific music journalist David Fricke discussing Andy Warhol and the early days of the band.

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Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker, and Doug Yule

In 1965, The Velvet Underground was introduced to Andy Warhol by filmmaker Barbara Rubin. Warhol would become one of the most important figures in the band's history. Lou Reed remembered the artist as The Velvet Underground's guardian:

"Warhol was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met in my life... he was like the big protector. We played all these galleries. We couldn’t get hired anywhere, so if he had a gallery opening, he took all of us. That’s how that worked. He fed everybody, and when they hired us to make a record, it wasn’t because of us, it was because of him. They didn’t know us, they thought he was the lead guitarist or something.  They were incredibly stupid, and they never listened to the record, they never listen to anything, they’re just stupid. And he just said, 'whatever you do, don’t change anything,' and so he was like the guard dog. And they say, 'how did he produce it?' Well, he really did it, he would really be there, and he’d say, 'oh, that’s great,' and then they’d say, 'what about the—' 'No, no, that’s great.' And it stayed that way and that’s why the records sound the way they sound, that’s why nothing got changed, because Andy said, 'don’t change anything, leave it alone, just do exactly—the exact same thing you’re doing, don’t let them near it.'”

Early on, the band decided to wear black. When asked about their wardrobe, Reed explained how this decision dovetailed with Warhol's film work:

"Part of the black thing is because Andy was projecting movies and the sunglasses was also the same thing, it was blinding and the strobes, and he was so smart. He would take some of these movies and pictures and make them in geometric shapes, no curves, and then project it on black, so we were like human screens for his potpourri of images. I mean, there’s a famous photo with John and a big thing of an eye and it’s his eye, and you know random, but we never—you know, so we just stayed that way, which is also the cheapest way."

Perhaps the most famous album cover of all time is that for The Velvet Underground & Nico, which features an Andy Warhol print of a banana. Reed explained the genesis of the image and discussed his favorite cover art:

"What he said was, 'Oooooh, what are we going to do?  We have to do a cover, oh, Mooooe,' and someone—who knows where the idea is, because everybody was there. But, I mean, the thing about the banana is you peel it. That’s when the fun started for Andy. No one ever saw a pink banana...  I love the cover of White Light/White Heat. All these reprints, I don’t know if they keep the original one, was one of the guys there had a tattoo, a death’s head tattoo on his shoulder, and you can only see it—No one knew this, but when they put shrink wrap over it, it disappeared, so it looked like a black cover, but then when you took this thing off, imagine, when people were stoned, 'aaaah! What’s that? The cover’s moving!'”

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