A couple of years ago I was a cog in a process that confirmed a friends’ long running assertion that he was into the Velvet Underground when he was eleven. My chance meeting with his music teacher of the time provided the affirmation, which both cheered and chilled me, for I realised in an instant that any dubious claims at cool I might have once aspired to were merely the palest of illusions.
Most assuredly I did not listen to the Velvet Underground when I was eleven. Aside from anything else I would have had no idea where I might have had the opportunity, although my suspicion is that I would have found it all impenetrable and a bit scary even if I had. No regrets.
Instead, I remember discovering The Velvet Underground in much the same way as I discovered all other music of the 1960s: through words written in fanzines and articles in the music press. Looking back, I’m conscious now of a period in my late teens and early twenties when time seemed to accelerate exponentially with every passing day. So many connections to explore. This leads to that, now onto the other and back again to this. My world span. I swam in a sea of possibilities. Drowning was part of the pleasure.
I once wrote a series of short articles about ‘Twenty albums that changed my life’. In it I recounted a vision of lying on my back in the rare sun of a Scottish summer listening to Galaxie 500 and The Velvet Underground, poring over ‘Up-Tight’ and dreaming of my Edie Sedgwick. That series contained an abiding memory of listening to The Velvet Underground on a nighttime walk around my old home town. This memory stirs me still. Of the sound. Of the feelings of isolation, detachment and a sense of belonging to something I could barely define. That something, I recognise now, was all to do with networks of connectivity; notions of what and who and why being so much more important than where.
The 1969 incarnation of The Velvet Underground may be my favourite, for even without the glamorous grime of Warhol and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable they seemed like the most exciting group in existence. The eponymous album is now considered a classic and has been the subject of extended archaeology but it was not always the case. Such records really were quite hard to hear at one point. Which must seem unimaginable to anyone grown up with the instant access to everything afforded by the Internet.
Now there are few live recordings that I prefer to their studio versions but this take on ‘What Goes On’ is assuredly one of them. Stretching the core of the song, it builds tension and release into one looping moment of ecstasy. Mesmerising and hypnotic, this take on ‘What Goes On’ is, even more than on the studio album, a perfect example of psychedelia New York style: paranoid, cinematic, arrogant, troubled, euphoric. The song is a shivering beauty of a beast, yet warmth inexplicably exudes from its impeccable cool. Such a challenge, so effortlessly executed.
Didn’t Lou Reed once say something about only ever wanting to play rhythm guitar? The Live ’69 version of ‘What Goes On’ is the proof of that. And more. And of course Lou ended up being so much more than a rhythm guitarist, but if you are reading this the chances are you know all that already. So let’s move on.
Danny Lyon’s photographs of the destruction of Lower Manhattan feel inextricably connected to the music of The Velvet Underground in that they capture a New York that was already dissolving around them even as it informed their sound and suffused their very souls. I’m conscious of playing an artistic license card early in this series by aligning this body or work with the 1969 date of its publication in book form, since most of the work was created two years prior. But like I’ve said already and will say again no doubt: It’s my party...
Lyon’s ‘Bikeriders’ collection is perhaps his most iconic body of work and certainly its influence has filtered into many corners, from 'Easy Rider' to the sleeve of A Classic Education’s terrific 2011 ‘Call It Blazing’ set. They are fabulous photographs that capture the flavour of a distinctive outsider culture. The fact that they make what is to me such an aesthetically unappealing culture so attractive is surely a sign of a great artist. However it is these shots of mostly empty buildings and almost deserted streets that I like most from Lyon’s work, primarily for the very absence of people and culture in many of the shots. Rather than their value as a document of lost architectural structure and history, it is absence which becomes the very essence of the work. These photographs are cinema sets awaiting a narrative, ghost ships at anchor.
Filling these photographs with romanticised fiction is easy, particularly from such a distance of time and geography. Who once lived in these buildings? Who worked here; loved here; lost here; died here? Imaginations run riot. Who draped damp stockings over that radiator? Whose boots trailed up and down those no longer extant stairs? Facts have been long since poured away, leaving the thin residue of invention. In many ways that self-mediated projection onto emptiness is made all the sharper by the juxtaposition with the closing section of Lyon’s collection that focuses on the demolition teams tasked with pulling the buildings down. No room for any misplaced nostalgia here. This is work.
It’s work for Lyon too, and if there is distinction to be made between the nature of work and the body of work then there is also by implication a clearly drawn connection between the two. The importance of commitment. The value of immersion. The essential triangle of thinking, taking and processing that informs great photography.
Some history books tell us that 1968 was a year of turmoil and revolt. They tell that it was a year of a younger generation struggling to be heard, battling to make change. Film and photography captured it for posterity. Like in any year, it was certainly those things and more, but seeing photographs of Paris in May and Prague in August 1968 when I was in my own early twenties had a significant impact. The appeal of activism allied to a mediated vision that looked so much more appealing than what was contemporary to me. Over time, I admit, that it is the visual aspect that has had the most lasting impact. On occasion this embarrasses me, but then we cannot all be activists. We cannot all be artists. We cannot all be teachers.
There are many iconic shots from 1968, even if just from Paris or Prague. It is Ian Berry’s shots though that have resonated most with me, and the reason for this is increasingly wrapped up in the idea of meaning changing over time. Truths become altered through the prism of time and experience. Photographs that once told stories of harsh realities, that were primarily journalistic vehicles, become stripped of that initial intention and meaning. They become something other.
Berry’s ‘Neutrality!” shot is a perfect example. Stripped of its context it increasingly becomes… what? An image of idealistic struggle? The conflict of generations - young vs old? A study of tone and composition? Or just a photograph of a pretty young woman in a stylish hat?
I think it is all of these things and needs only to potentially apologise for being the latter. For it is striking when flicking through shots from these events to see just how many use the pretty young woman motif as the point of focus. I choose to read this as a comment on the nature of rebellion and revolution; that such actions are not the sole preserve of the masculine. Equally, I accept they can be read as sexist and (consciously or subconsciously) exploitative. Berry’s extensive body of work would suggest my reading is nearer the truth, for his work rarely, if ever, falls into the realm of the obvious stereotype. His work is largely joyous in the face of death; sensitive in the grip of violence.
And what of the young woman, frozen as an icon of youthful revolution? She would now be at least as old as the women out of focus in her background. Does she now gaze with the same barely disguised contempt at the youth of today with their social-mediated rebellions? How quickly did the activist fire in those eyes fade in the glare of pragmatic age? And indeed is it not perhaps already faltering in this photograph? Something in the relationship between eyes, mouth and setting of the head. A hint of a hesitation. A flicker of doubts even here.
In my 1967 entry I suggested to you that I did not really go through a period of being a particularly impressionable youth. This is true, and when I stop to think about even my early teenage years I see only vague shadows of reason and the thinnest wisps of memories. Neither music nor art had a significant impact on my existence when I was growing up. This is not something I mention with any regret and nor is it an attempt at a double-bluff of cool. It is merely a statement of my facts. And the past, after all, is passed. Or it is a foreign country. Or something, anything, else.
We had records at home. A suitcase full of 45s and 78s, mostly from the 1940s and ‘50s. Most, as I later realised, having belonged to my mother’s sister. Frankie Lane. Lonnie Donegan. I forget what else except that there were early Elvis Presley singles, and a record by The Teddy Bears that I loved. It was only years afterwards that I discovered it was an early Phil Spector production, which leads me to think that our preferences for sonic textures are somehow set early in life. How, I do not know. Magic, probably.
Growing up into the 1970s and 1980s then, the sounds of the sixties were largely absent in my house. Only the faintest flicker of Elvis, and certainly no Beatles or Rolling Stones. Joe Strummer would have been proud.
Like The Kinks I have fanzines to thank for hipping me to the brilliance of The Byrds when I was poised to slip out of my teenage years. Academics and sociologists at the time would have argued that the notion of ‘teenage’ spanned into the early twenties, however, and I like this theory. I wonder if it is a theory still held to be true? Or have definitions of adolescence and what constitutes ‘teenage’ become fragmented like everything else over the years such that there is no dominant theory, only dissonant voices that no-one listens to or cares about? Least of all you. Least of all me.
The Byrds came to me via some lines in 'Are You Scared To Get Happy’, photocopied pages of 'Hungry Beat' and a fanzine called ‘Turn!' that came with a Sha-La-La flexidisc. At the time I had not knowingly heard ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ or any Byrds apart from ‘Tambourine Man’. At the time I remember travelling to Glasgow in the car with my dad, me on my way to the Art School and he on his way to work. Radio Clyde was playing. I want to say it was Mark Goodier on the breakfast show but regardless, my head was filled with a million and one things, including the thought that I really needed to hear these Byrds records that people were referencing. Of course coincidences are nothing more than mathematical equations of probability, but on that particular morning the stars aligned with the numbers and suddenly the car was filled with the cascading light of McGuinns’ guitar. ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ took my breath away, as I knew it surely would.
In subsequent years there have been times when I have listened to little except the records of The Byrds. On any particular day I might tell you that The Byrds are my favourite group who were making records in the 1960s or any time. On those days it will be the truth. On some of those days I will tell you that ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ is my favourite Byrds album. Again, on those days that will be the truth, and if you were lucky I might further whisper another truth suggesting ‘Going Back’ as my favourite song. It is, of course, a rare gem even within the heavenly firmament of the Goffin and King songbook and in all honesty Dusty Springfield’s version would run close as a moment to illuminate here. But this is my spotlight and The Byrds are where my light must fall.
Finally, my dad did not really know about The Byrds until his last few years, although he very much adored California. In the Autumn of 2013 I bought him an iPod and filled it with a playlist of Californian Pop and folk. The songs of The Byrds were prominent. At his funeral in January 2014 we played ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ at the start and ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ at the end. Joyous in the face of death.