Art from the Attic: The Velvet Underground, Entrepreneurs of the Music World

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Most people think of an entrepreneur as someone who starts their own business, who builds their own brand whatever the cost —  but the real question is, how does this translate into other industries?

In the music industry, independent artists are entrepreneurs. Indie artists in particular choose to brand themselves and to try to make a name for their work on their own terms.

One of the most successful was The Velvet Underground, who got their start in New York City in the mid-1960s, by passing out demo tapes to anyone and everyone who would take them.

Just how successful is that method, you may ask? I wanted to find out myself, so I took a look at some of the first demo tracks from the band, later released in the “Peel Slowly and See” box set, to see where the band planted its seeds.

The first track on the alleged original demo was titled “Prominent Men.” A folk-sounding tune with discordant harmonica riffs and spoken word introductions, this song has a much more aggressive style than the typical soothing The Velvet Underground we all know and love, especially in vocals.

It is interesting to see just how much the band’s sound changed as they came into the spotlight. The twang, steady acoustic guitar backing, and nice touches of strings are lost, chasing away the folk sound. As the rough edges are

smoothed however, the adamant anti-establishment attitude remains. This may be what the potential producers saw in this band above all else -— an attitude that can’t be lost to tuning and touchups. It resides in the lyrics.

In this song, the chorus rings true with the words “prominent men tell prominent lies.” That message is still very relevant: be cautious about who is allowed to tell you what information is important. Knowledge is power; make sure yours comes from the right sources.

The next track, “It’s All Right (The Way That You Live)”is much more familiar, vocally. The lead singer is soft, pursuing simple melodies very emotionally. However, the track starts out with a typical velvet-soft guitar intro the rhythms and instrumentals are still much rougher than expected. I can’t decide if that’s a change in style or a transformation in recording quality. I guess the world will never know.

Next, comes “I’m Not Too Sorry (Now That You’re Gone).” This is the only song where you can really see the final style of The Velvet Underground being realized, though, like the rest of the demo, it is much faster in tempo than one would expect from these players. Perhaps it is the haunting violin descants and guitar solos. Maybe it is the lack of definite drum bases. I feel that the familiarity comes from the sitar-eastern influence that is apparent in this track. It is fascinating to think that someone saw the potential in this band, and was able to curate them into their fame today.

Finally, jazz influences bear their heads in “Countess from Hong Kong,” the last track of the demo. Though riddled with harmonica and upbeat guitar bits, this song has a significant jazz drum line, with resonant hi-hat that compliments the resonating string section. This is a swaying song and the only one that really makes you want to dance. “Countess” is the track that truly got The Velvet Underground, off the ground. You can tell they’re having a blast in this track, and you can feel the soul when Lou Reed goes from harmonica blowing into boisterous singing. Combine this kind of energy with the pre-punk attitude of “Prominent Men,” and you’ve got a movement on your hands.

And a movement we had indeed. The Velvet Underground facilitated the development of punk rock in the United States and had a profound influence on music for decades to follow.

Overall, this original demo had a much less psychedelic sound than its descendants. It was much less polished, but beyond the quality, it was much more Bo Diddley influenced than well, The Velvet Underground influenced. The band became a sound all their own, which is the ultimate beauty of independent musical entrepreneurship: originality.

m.hulse@dailyutahchronicle.com

@megshulse

Photo Courtesy of nico7martin


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