Daily Archives: March 12, 2017

On the Charts: Ed Sheeran's 'Divide' Adds Up Best Sales Week of 2017

Rolling Stone cover star Ed Sheeran‘s Divide cruised to the top of the Billboard 200 on the strength of the best sales week of 2017 so far.

In its first week of release, Divide sold 451,000 total albums to easily capture Number One after two weeks of a record-setting Future reign, with 322,000 of that sum coming from traditional album sales.

Divide marked the singer’s second straight Billboard 200 album, following 2014’s Multiply, and even more impressive, Divide more than doubled the 209,000 opening week sales of its predecessor, Billboard reports. Sheeran’s 2011 debut Plus peaked at Number Five.

Four months after debuting at Number One, Metallica’s Hardwired… to Self-Destruct jumped back into the Top 10 and finished the week at Number Two thanks to a promotion that paired tickets sales from the band’s upcoming North American tour with copies of the group’s latest LP. In total, Hardwired… added another 81,000 copies to its tally.

Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic stayed locked in at Number Three, followed by Future’s self-titled album and HNDRXX at Number Four and Five respectively.

Besides, Sheeran, the only other newcomer to crack the Top 10 was Khalid’s American Teen, which placed Number Nine. Migos’ Culture (Number Six), the Weeknd’s Starboy (Number Seven), the Moana soundtrack (Number Nine) and the Trolls soundtrack (Number 10) rounded out the Billboard 200’s upper tier.

The only new arrival that could prevent Sheeran from capturing a second straight Number One week is the soundtrack for the live-action Beauty and the Beast film, which was released on Friday, a week before it hits theaters.

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Joni Sledge, Sister Sledge Singer, Dead at 60

Joni Sledge, who along with her three sisters founded the R&B group Sister Sledge of “We Are Family” fame, died Saturday at her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She was 60.

The Sledge family said in a statement, “Yesterday, numbness fell upon our family. We are saddened to inform you that our dear sister, mother, aunt, niece and cousin, Joni passed away yesterday. Please pray for us as we weep for this loss. We do know that she is now eternally with Our Lord. We thank you in advance for allowing us the privacy to mourn quietly as a family. We miss her and hurt for her presence, her radiance, and the sincerity with which she loved & embraced life.”

Sledge was found unresponsive by a friend at her Phoenix home Saturday; no cause of death has been determined, AZ Central reports. Memorial services will be announced in the next week.

Joni, the second eldest of the Philadelphia-born Sledge sisters, co-founded Sister Sledge along with Debbie, Kim and Kathy in 1971. The daughters of a Broadway dancer and an actress and the granddaughters of an opera singer, the quartet released two albums that had little traction before breaking out with their third LP We Are Family, featuring the classic title track written and produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.

“The four of us had been in the music business for eight years and we were frustrated. We were saying: ‘Well, maybe we should go to college and just become lawyers or something other than music, because it really is tough,” Joni Sledge told the Guardian in 2016.

“We Are Family” – the recording of which Joni called “a one-take party” – would climb to Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979; Sister Sledge would also garner hit singles with the Rodgers/Edwards-penned tracks “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and “Lost in Music.”

Sister Sledge would record one more hit – a cover of Mary Wells’ “My Guy” in 1982 – before Kathy Sledge departed to pursue a solo career in 1989. Joni, Debbie and Kim continued on as a trio until Joni’s unexpected death. The group last performed together in October, and their next show together was scheduled for March 18th.

In 2016, Joni Sledge revealed that Sister Sledge would record a song called “W.A.M.O.W.,” an acronym for “Woman Are the Music of the World.”

“We’re very excited there’s a W.A.M.O.W. running for President of the United States,” Joni Sledge said on November 3rd, just days before Election Day. “We support her 100 percent.” Sister Sledge previously performed for Hillary Clinton at the White House when she was First Lady in 2000.

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See Lorde Unleash Spirited 'Melodrama' Songs on 'SNL'

Lorde served as musical guest on the latest episode of Saturday Night Live, playing two cuts off of her upcoming LP Melodrama, “Green Light” and “Liability. The performances marked the first time Lorde had played both songs live.

While Lorde wasn’t technically making her SNL debut – in November 2015, she performed Disclosure’s “Magnets” alongside the British dance duo for their musical guest spot – Saturday’s episode also marked her first appearance as SNL headliner.

The singer opened things up with the spirited “Green Light,” the first single off the June 16th-bound Melodrama, with Lorde – bathed in red light – backed by a group that included a trio of young singers.

For her second performance of the night, Lorde scaled things back for “Liability,” her just-released ballad. Donning a wedding dress and sitting back-to-back on a bench with her pianist, the singer delivered a sparse, understated rendition of the track.

In addition to her musical performances, Lorde also popped up in the closing seconds of SNL‘s “A Sketch for the Women,” where Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney hijack her rendition of “Royals”.

In an interview with Zane Lowe, Lorde revealed that she was inspired to pen the song after hearing Rihanna’s “Higher” while in a cab; the track opens with the lyric, “Baby really hurt me / Crying in a taxi.”

“I had a little cry and I was just like ‘It’s always going to be this way, at some point with everyone it’s going to be this way,'” Lorde told Lowe. “But the song kind of ended up turning into a bit of a protective talismans for me. I was like, you know what, I’m always gonna have myself so I have to really nurture this relationship and feel good about hanging out with myself and loving myself.”

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LCD Soundsystem's 'Sound of Silver': 10 Things You Didn't Know

“There’s too much music” declared LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy in 2007. “Major labels are pretty terrible at what they do; radio is absolutely shit. Production is terrible, people are terrible at making records – they sound awful.” Murphy was backstage at London’s Brixton Academy at the time, about to play a huge show at the end of a year that saw his second LCD album, Sound of Silver, receive a rapturous response. “I used to like when there was less music, because good things sneak through,” he shrugged. “And now there’s a lot of white noise.”

The irony, of course, is that Murphy’s despair at the mid-Aughts state of music is part of the reason why Sound of Silver struck such a resounding chord. It was an album as raw and honest in emotion as it was clever and slick in execution, and the results appealed to fans from all over the musical map. As Rolling Stone put it in 2012, “Earlier in the decade, [Murphy’s] DFA label had helped get indie-rock kids on the dancefloor. Here he had those same kids shuffling their Converse to the electro of ‘Get Innocuous,’ laughing their asses off to the Euro-baiting boogie of ‘North American Scum,’ and crying in their craft brews to ‘All My Friends’ and ‘Someone Great,’ reflections on aging and regret set to gorgeously throbbing synth grooves.”

At 36, Murphy was no spring chicken when he cut Sound of Silver; he’d already spent years DJ’ing and producing records (and as a defiant youth he’d famously turned down a job writing for Seinfeld). But his experience and ennui only served to intensify the album’s poignancy. (“Rock has become an older person’s game,” he told Spin.) At its heart was the propulsive, anthemic “All My Friends.” The track was covered at the time by everyone from Franz Ferdinand to John Cale, and in 2009, Pitchfork deemed it the second best song of the decade. Meanwhile, Sound of Silver as a whole earned a Grammy nod for Best Electronic/Dance Album and would later turn up on RS‘ 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.

Murphy followed Sound of Silver with 2010’s This is Happening and ended the band a year later with a four-hour-long farewell show at MSG. He produced Arcade Fire’s Reflektor album, scored two Noah Baumbach films, opened a restaurant and wine bar in Williamsburg, and launched his own coffee brand. Finally, in 2016, Murphy reconvened LCD Soundsystem, with a new album due this year.

It’s Sound of Silver, though, that still serves as LCD Soundsystem’s defining statement – and the record that produces the most heartfelt response from its fans. In honor of its tenth anniversary, we look back at 10 lesser-known facts about this seminal album.

1. Murphy framed Sound of Silver as an antithesis to meaningless rock posturing.
“I’m really focused and obsessed with writing things that are specific. I don’t like big rock lyrics – I find them infuriating,” Murphy told Mojo in 2007. “Rock, in general, gets away with that. It’s like bad poetry. It’s the ‘Mystery of Rock.’ People like that. I don’t.” Accordingly, the songs on Sound of Silver focus on real-life vignettes: A frayed DJ surveying a crowd of teenagers and missing his friends, or a man drinking coffee and marveling at the horror of lovely weather at a time of grief. 

2. The album was recorded at a farm, with tin foil on the walls.
That farm was the renowned Long View Farm in Massachusetts. Once a dairy estate, its early-20th-century house and barn were converted into two studios in 1972 by former philosophy professor Gil Markle, and its distinguished, maverick alumni include Stevie Wonder, Bad Brains and John Belushi. It was here that Keith Richards recorded his gin-soaked 1981 Lost Sessions, when he visited the studio to get a feel for the room in advance of the Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You tour. Having recorded their 2005 debut at Long View, LCD Soundsystem returned for Sound of Silver‘s 2006 sessions. Murphy told Clash that he draped the whole studio in silver to set the tone for the album. “The first record I went to a farm and I walked away from it and I listened to the record and I thought it sounded too woody,” he said. “With Sound of Silver I went to the farm again and covered the whole studio in silver fabric and tin foil so it would be more silver.” You can’t fault the logic, and it clearly worked for Murphy; for follow-up disc This Is Happening, the band brought one of the original pieces of silver fabric to L.A. and hung it artfully in the studio at Rick Rubin’s recording den the Mansion.

3. The album is dedicated to a Bulgarian-born psychiatrist.
Sound of Silver is dedicated to the memory of Dr. George Kamen (1942–2006),” reads the inner sleeve, “One of the great minds of his or any generation.” Kamen was a pioneer of psychodynamic and group therapy in NYC – and was reputed to be Murphy’s longtime therapist. For this reason, there was no small amount of speculation surrounding the lyrics to “Someone Great,” which seem to reference a therapist/patient relationship: “I wish that we could talk about it/But there, that’s the problem/With someone new I couldn’t start it/Too late, for beginnings.” Murphy has been repeatedly questioned about the meaning of the song and refused to answer. “I just think it’s unnecessary because it’s personal,” he told The Quietus in 2010. “Songs are songs and to reduce them is to waste them.”

4. Murphy has said he felt suicidal during the making of Sound of Silver.
Themes of loss loom large on Sound of Silver, from heartbreak, as in the elegiac “Someone Great,” to the loss of youth that’s explored on “All My Friends.” And there’s a sense of societal loss, too, as in “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” which explores the sanitization of Murphy’s beloved Big Apple. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Murphy had a tough time making the record. “Making Sound of Silver was very emotional at times, where I just hated making that record,” he told Clash in 2010. “In the first half I wanted to kill myself.”

5. Making a running album for Nike served as a creative breakthrough for Murphy.
Ever a corporate trailblazer, Nike had enough cred to persuade James Murphy to contribute to its iTunes-only “Original Run” series in 2006 – yielding the one-track 45:33 album – and given Murphy’s turbulent emotional state halfway through the making of Sound of Silver, the offer turned up at just the right time. “That just calmed me down, and the second half of the record was just a breeze,” he said. “45.33 allowed Sound of Silver to become wide. Before 45.33, it was like a parody of the first record and then some embarrassing attempts at reinvention.” At the time, Nike suggested that the album had been sonically tweaked for runners following Murphy’s own treadmill tests, a claim that Murphy later debunked. “I lied,” he admitted to The Guardian in 2007. A jiu-jitsu practitioner, Murphy added, “I’m not built to run. I’m built for fighting, not running away!”

6. “All My Friends” was Murphy’s attempt to rival Joy Division.
Murphy has spoken about the relish he takes in accepting a challenge, especially when bound by clear rules, and on “All My Friends,” he threw down a gauntlet of sorts to himself: to make a song in the vein of post-punk’s most influential band, and to craft the entire track alone. “[‘All My Friends’] is purposefully trying to chase a feeling that I got from [Joy Division’s] ‘Transmission,'” Murphy told Mojo in 2007. “Because it’s the same thing the whole way through, and without any kind of embarrassing rockist gesture. It starts off so gentle, and becomes so fucking overwhelming. By the time he’s going, ‘Dance, dance, dance to the radio,’ your head’s exploding. And I wanted to see if I could make a song without people playing together. Just do it all myself by doing it in layers.” Asked why he thought “All My Friends” had subsequently resonated so deeply, Murphy supposed, “It’s sad-ish, and people are old.”

7. For Murphy, the album’s title signified many things, from fatherhood to “shiny music.”
“I very much like the concept of silver,” Murphy told Fact. “My dad used to say, ‘Having a child is a permanent silver medal,’ meaning that the best you can ever do for the rest of your life is second place. Because you just made something that for your lifetime has to be first place. I’m aware that this is our second record, and I think it’s better than the first.” There’s also that recurrent theme of growing older, as on the album’s wry title track, where a silver-haired Murphy chants, “Sound of silver talk to me/Makes you want to feel like a teenager/Until you remember the feelings of/A real-life emotional teenager/Then you think again.” But the strongest meaning of that title, according to Murphy, is that he felt “the first record was a little beige, was a little ‘safe,’ This time around, we made the studio silver as a constant reminder to remember the glam rock, Chrome and DAF, the things that I think of as shiny music – T. Rex, Heaven 17 and Human League, but more Hawkwind, with ‘Silver Machine.'”

8. Sound of Silver was a one-man show – just the way Murphy liked it.
Officially, the Sound of Silver recording band comprised Murphy plus DFA associates Pat Mahoney, Tyler Pope and Nancy Whang. What this meant in practice, however, is that the rest of the band would generally sketch out their parts, and then Murphy would re-record his own takes. “I don’t have to sit there and pretend it’s a democracy and really be trying to control everything,” he told The Village Voice. “I feel like bands’ ideas become really mushy. They get too democratic; they get watered down.” Murphy just knew exactly how he liked things to sound: “Every person who plays their instrument is better at their instrument than I am,” he told The New Yorker. “I happen to be better at being me. So I can take your instrument and play what I want better than you can.”

9. Murphy was gigantically uncomfortable recording his own vocals.
“I’m still uncomfortable!” he admitted at the time. “There’s never been a time when I wasn’t uncomfortable. It’s horrifying. I kick everybody out, pretty much.” He may have felt awkward, but not so awkward he couldn’t laugh at the vocal comparisons some critics made with the Muppets’ Kermit the Frog on “New York, I Love You. …” The Kermit-starring video that appeared online in 2008 reveals, at its end, Murphy himself as Kermy’s puppeteer. Man and frog would team up once again in 2011 in Javier Douglas’s video for “Dance Yourself Clean,” which includes an afterparty DJ’d by Animal.

10. Murphy wasn’t terribly impressed by the rave reviews the album received.
The plaudits for the album rolled in; in addition to a four-star rave in Rolling Stone, it earned a 9.2 rating and coveted Best New Music tag from Pitchfork. Metacritic dubbed it the 10th-best-reviewed album of 2007, and Sound of Silver was also named album of the year by Uncut, The Guardian and others. Murphy, as ever, was circumspect. “I don’t read magazines, so all I get is clippings sent to me,” he told Mojo at the end of the year. “So I don’t know what people write about other bands, and all I get is mostly positive reviews and I don’t take it very deeply. …” He conceded that it might make a difference if the reviews were going the other way. “I think that not being all that overwhelmed by good reviews is a luxury,” he said. “I’m like a rich person who says he doesn’t care about money.”

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'The Velvet Underground and Nico': 10 Things You Didn't Know

A half-century on, The Velvet Underground and Nico remains the quintessential emblem of a certain brand of countercultural cool. Not the Haight-Ashbury or Sgt. Pepper kind but an eerier, artier, more NYC-rooted strain. Released on March 12th, 1967, the Velvet Underground‘s debut was an album that brought with it an awareness of the new, the possible and the darker edge of humanity. Bolstered by the patronage of Andy Warhol and the exotic vocal contributions of Nico, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker declared their independence from Top 40 decorum with a gritty, innovative and unapologetically self-possessed work. In many ways, The Velvet Underground and Nico was the first rock album that truly seemed to invite the designation alternative.

Fifty years after its release, the LP still sounds stunningly original, providing inspiration and a blueprint for everything from lo-fi punk rock to highbrow avant-garde – and so much in between. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about the album’s creation. 

1. Lou Reed first united with John Cale to play a knockoff of “The Twist.”
Reed’s professional music career took root in 1964 when he was hired as a staff songwriter at Pickwick Records, an NYC-based budget label specializing in soundalikes of contemporary chart-toppers. “We just churned out songs; that’s all,” Reed remembered in 1972. “Never a hit song. What we were doing was churning out these rip-off albums.”

When ostrich feathers became the hot trend in women’s fashion magazines, Reed was moved to write a parody of the increasingly ridiculous dance songs sweeping the airwaves. “The Twist” had nothing on “The Ostrich,” a hilariously oddball number featuring the unforgettable opening lines: “Put your head on the floor and have somebody step on it!” While composing the song, Reed took the unique approach of tuning all six of his guitar strings to the same note, creating the effect of a vaguely Middle Eastern drone. “This guy at Pickwick had this idea that I appropriated,” he told Mojo in 2005. “It sounded fantastic. And I was kidding around and I wrote a song doing that.”

Reed recorded the song with a group of studio players, releasing the song under the name the Primitives. Despite the unorthodox modes, Pickwick heard potential in “The Ostrich” and released it as a single. It sold in respectable quantities, convincing the label to assemble musicians to pose as the phony band and promote the song at live gigs. Reed began hunting for potential members, valuing attitude as much as musical aptitude. He found both in John Cale.

The pair crossed paths at a house party on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Reed was drawn to Cale’s Beatle-y long hair. A classically trained prodigy, the young Welshman had moved to the city months earlier to pursue his musical studies and play viola with avant-garde composer La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music. Intrigued by his pedigree, Reed invited him to join the Primitives. Sensing the opportunity for easy money and some laughs, Cale agreed.

Gathering to rehearse the song, Cale was astonished to discover that the “Ostrich tuning” produced essentially the same drone he was accustomed to playing with Young. Clearly on the same musical wavelength, they connected on a personal level afterwards. “More than anything it was meeting Lou in the coffee shop,” Cale says in a 1998 American Masters documentary. “He made me nice cup of coffee out of the hot water tap, and sat me down and started quizzing me as to what I was really doing in New York. There was a certain meeting of the minds there.”

2. “The Black Angel’s Death Song” got the band fired from their residency.
Sterling Morrison became involved with the duo after a chance meeting with Reed, his classmate at Syracuse University, on the subway. Together they formed a loose band with Cale’s roommate Angus MacLise, a fellow member of the Theater of Eternal Music collective. Lacking a consistent name – they morphed from the Primitives to the Warlocks, and then the Falling Spikes before taking their soon-to-be-iconic final moniker from a pulp paperback exposé – the quartet rehearsed and recorded demos in Cale’s apartment throughout the summer of 1965.

The fledgling Velvet Underground were befriended by pioneering rock journalist Al Aronowitz, who managed to book them a gig at a New Jersey high school that November. This irritated the bohemian MacLise, who resented having to show up anywhere at a specific time. When informed that they would be receiving money for the performance, he quit on the spot, grumbling that the group had sold out. Desperate to fill his spot on the drums, they asked Morrison’s friend Jim Tucker if his sister Maureen (known as “Moe”) was available. She was, and the classic lineup was in place.

School gymnasiums were not the ideal venue for the band. “We were so loud and horrifying to the high school audience that the majority of them – teachers, students and parents – fled screaming,” Cale says in American Masters. Instead, Aronowitz found them a residency in a Greenwich Village club, the Café Bizarre. Its name was something of a misnomer, as neither the owners nor the handful of customers appreciated the way-out sounds. In a half-hearted attempt at assimilation, the group added some rock standards to their repertoire. “We got six nights a week at the Café Bizarre, some ungodly number of sets, 40 minutes on and 20 minutes off,” Morrison described in a 1990 interview. “We played some covers – ‘Little Queenie,’ ‘Bright Lights Big City’ … the black R&B songs Lou and I liked – and as many of our own songs as we had.”

Three weeks in, the tedium became too much bear. “One night we played ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ and the owner came up and said, ‘If you play that song one more time you’re fired!’ So we started the next set with it,” Morrison told Sluggo! of their ignoble end as a bar band in a tourist trap. The self-sabotage had the desired effect and they were relieved of their post – but not before they caught the attention of Andy Warhol.

3. The album’s co-producer refused to accept cash payment, asking for a Warhol painting instead.
Already a prolific painter, sculptor and filmmaker, by the mid-Sixties Warhol sought to expand his famous Factory empire into rock & roll. On the advice of confidant Paul Morrissey, the 37-year-old art star dropped in on the Velvet Underground’s set at the Café Bizarre and impulsively extended an offer to act as their manager. The title would have rather loose connotations, though he did make one significant alteration to their sound. Fearing that the group lacked the requisite glamour to become stars, he suggested the addition of a striking German model known as Nico. The proposal was not met with complete enthusiasm – Reed was particularly displeased – but she was tentatively accepted into the ranks as a featured vocalist.

Now billed as the Velvet Underground with Nico, Warhol incorporated the band into a series of multimedia performances dubbed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable: a marriage of underground music, film, dance and lights. Also assisting was 27-year-old Norman Dolph, an account representative at Columbia Records who moonlit as a DJ and soundman. “I operated a mobile discotheque – if not the first then at least the second one in New York,” he later told author Joe Harvard. “I was an art buff, and my thing was I’d provide the music at art galleries, for shows and openings, but I’d ask for a piece of art as payment instead of cash. That’s how I met Andy Warhol.”

By the spring of 1966, Warhol decided it was time to take his charges into the recording studio. Knowing little about such matters, he sought out Dolph for advice. “When Warhol told me he wanted to make a record with those guys, I said, ‘Oh, I can take care of that, no problem. I’ll do it in exchange for a picture,'” he said in Sound on Sound. “I could have said I’d do it in exchange for some kind of finder’s fee, but I asked for some artwork, [and] he was agreeable to that.”

Dolph was tasked with booking a studio, covering a portion of the costs himself, producing and leaning on colleagues at Columbia to ultimately release the product. For his trouble he was given one of Warhol’s silver “Death and Disaster Series” canvases. “A beautiful painting, really. Regrettably, I sold it around ’75, when I was going through a divorce, for $17,000. I remember thinking at the time, ‘Geez, I bet Lou Reed hasn’t made $17,000 from this album yet.’ If I had it today, it would be worth around $2 million.”

4. It was recorded in the same building that later housed Studio 54.
Dolph’s day job at Columbia’s custom labels division saw him working with smaller imprints that lacked their own pressing plants. One of his clients was Scepter Records, best known for releasing singles by the Shirelles and Dionne Warwick. Their modest offices on 254 West 54th Street in midtown Manhattan were noteworthy for having their own self-contained recording facility.

Though the Velvet Underground were studio novices, it didn’t take an engineer to know that the room had seen better days. Reed, in the liner notes to the Peel Slowly and See boxed set, describes it as “somewhere between reconstruction and demolition … the walls were falling over, there were gaping holes in the floor, and carpentry equipment littered the place.” Cale recalls being similarly underwhelmed in his 1999 autobiography. “The building was on the verge of being condemned. We went in there and found that the floorboards were torn up, the walls were out, there was only four mics working.”

It wasn’t glamorous, and at times it was barely functional, but for four days in mid-April 1966 (the exact dates remain disputed), the Specter Records studios would play host to the bulk of the Velvet Underground and Nico recording sessions. Though Warhol played only a distant role in proceedings, he would return to 254 West 54th Street a great deal in the following decade, when the ground floor housed the infamous Studio 54 nightclub.

5. Warhol wanted to put a built-in crack in all copies of the record to disrupt “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”
Andy Warhol is nominally the producer of The Velvet Underground and Nico, but in reality his role was more akin to producer of a film; one who finds the project, raises the capital and hires a crew to bring it to life. On the rare occasions he did attend the sessions, Reed recalls him “sitting behind the board gazing with rapt fascination at all the blinking lights … Of course he didn’t know anything about record production. He just sat there and said, ‘Oooh that’s fantastic.'”

Warhol’s lack of involvement was arguably his greatest gift to the Velvet Underground. “The advantage of having Andy Warhol as a producer was that, because it was Andy Warhol, [engineers] would leave everything in its pure state,” Reed reflected in a 1986 episode of The South Bank Show. “They’d say, ‘Is that alright, Mr. Warhol?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh … yeah!’ So right at the very beginning we experienced what it was like to be in the studio and record things our way and have essentially total freedom.”

Although he didn’t try to specifically shape the band in his own image, Warhol did make some suggestions. One of his more eccentric ideas for the track “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” Reed’s delicate ballad inspired by his simmering romantic feelings towards Nico, never came to fruition. “We would have the record fixed with a built-in crack so it would go, ‘I’ll be your mirror, I’ll be your mirror, I’ll be your mirror,’ so that it would never reject,” Reed explained in Victor Bockris’ Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story. “It would just play and play until you came over and took the arm off.”

6. “There She Goes Again” borrows a riff from a Marvin Gaye song.

Reed’s time at Pickwick instilled in him a fundamental fluency in the language of pop music. Often overshadowed by his innovative instrumental arrangements and taboo lyrical subjects, his ear for an instantly hummable tune is apparent with catchy confections like “Sunday Morning,” the album’s opening track. Bright and breezy, with Reed’s androgynous tone replacing Nico’s planned lead, the song’s introductory bass slide is an intentional nod to the Mamas and the Papas’ “Monday, Monday,” which topped the charts when it was first recorded in April 1966.

“There She Goes Again” also draws from the Top 40 well, borrowing a guitar part from one of Motown’s finest. “The riff is a soul thing, Marvin Gaye’s ‘Hitch Hike,’ with a nod to the Impressions,” Cale admitted to Uncut in 2012. “That was the easiest song of all, which came from Lou’s days writing pop at Pickwick.”

It would earn the distinction of becoming one of the first Velvet Underground tracks to ever be covered – half a world away in Vietnam. A group of U.S. servicemen, performing under the name the Electrical Banana during their off hours, were sent a copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico by a friend who thought they would appreciate the fruit on the cover. They appreciated the music as well, and resolved to record a version of “There She Goes Again.” Unwilling to wait until they returned to the States, they built a makeshift studio in the middle of the jungle by tossing down wooden pallets, pitching a tent, fashioning mic stands from bamboo branches and plugging their amps into a gas generator.

7. The drums break down during the climax of “Heroin.”
The most infamous track on the album is also one of the oldest, dating back to Reed’s days as a student at Syracuse University, where he performed with early folk and rock groups and sampled illicit substances. Drawing from skills honed through his journalism studies, not to mention a healthy affinity for William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Reed penned a verse that depicted the experience of shooting up with stunning clarity and eerie detachment.

Amazingly, Reed had attempted to record the song during his days on the pop assembly line at Pickwick Records. “They’d lock me in a room and they’d say, ‘Write 10 surfing songs,'” Reed told WLIR in 1972. “And I wrote ‘Heroin,’ and I said, ‘Hey I got something for ya!’ They said, ‘Never gonna happen, never gonna happen.'” But the band had no such constraints while being bankrolled by Andy Warhol.

Working in the still-unfamiliar setting of a studio proved to be a challenge for the band at some points, particularly during the breakneck outro of “Heroin.” Maureen Tucker eventually became lost in the cacophony and simply put down her sticks. “No one ever even notices this, but right in the middle the drums stop,” she says in the 2006 documentary The Velvet Underground: Under Review. “No one ever thinks about the drummer, they’re all worried about the guitar sound and stuff, and nobody’s thinking about the drummer. Well, as soon as it got loud and fast I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t hear anybody. So I stopped, assuming, ‘Oh, they’ll stop too and say, ‘What’s the matter, Moe?’ And nobody stopped! So I came back in.”

8. Lou Reed dedicated “European Son” to his college mentor who loathed rock music.
One of Reed’s formative influences was Delmore Schwartz, a poet and author who served as his professor and friend while a student at Syracuse University. With a cynical and often bitter wit, he instilled in Reed an innate sense of belief in his own writing. “Delmore Schwartz was the unhappiest man I ever met in my life, and the smartest … until I met Andy Warhol,” Reed told writer Bruce Pollock in 1973. “Once, drunk in a Syracuse bar, he said, ‘If you sell out, Lou, I’m gonna get ya.’ I hadn’t thought about doing anything, let alone selling out.”

Rock & roll counted as selling out in Schwartz’s mind. He apparently loathed the music – particularly the lyrics – but Reed couldn’t pass up a chance to salute his mentor on his first major artistic statement. He chose to dedicate the song “European Son” to Schwartz, simply because it’s the track that least resembled anything in the rock canon. After just 10 lines of lyrics, it descends into a chaotic avant-garde soundscape.

Schwartz almost certainly never heard the piece. Crippled by alcoholism and mental illness, he spent his final days as a recluse in a low-rent midtown Manhattan hotel. He died there of a heart attack on July 11, 1966, three months after the Velvet Underground recorded “European Son.” Isolated even in death, it took two days for his body to be identified at the morgue.

9. The back cover resulted in a lawsuit that delayed the album’s release.
Being managed by Andy Warhol came with certain perks, and one was the guarantee of a killer album cover. While the artist’s involvement in the music was spotty, the visual art was to be his purview. Bored by mere static images, he devised a peel-away sticker of a pop art banana illustration, under which would be a peeled pink (and slightly phallic) banana. Aside from fine print above the sticker helpfully urging buyers to “peel slowly and see,” the only text on the stark white cover was Warhol’s own name, gracing the lower right corner in stately Coronet Bold – adding his official signature to the Velvet Underground project.

The promise of what was essentially an original Warhol print on the front of each album was a major selling point to Verve, the MGM subsidiary that had purchased the distribution rights to the tapes, and they shelled out big bucks to obtain a special machine capable of manufacturing the artist’s vision. Ironically, it was the comparatively traditional back cover, a photo of the band in the midst of an Exploding Plastic Inevitable performance at Norfolk, Virginia’s Chrysler Art Museum, that would cause the most headaches. A slide montage was projected onto the stage and the upside-down image of actor and Factory associate Eric Emerson from Warhol’s Chelsea Girls film could be seen. Emerson, who had recently been busted for drug possession and was badly in need of money, threatened to sue the label for the unauthorized use of his image.

Rather than pay Emerson his claim – reportedly $500,000 – MGM halted production that spring while they grappled with how to remove the offending image. Copies of the album were recalled in June, all but dooming its commercial prospects. “The whole Eric business was a tragic fiasco for us, and proves what idiots they were at MGM,” Morrison told Bockris. “They responded by pulling the album off the shelves immediately and kept it off for a couple of months while they fooled around with stickers over Eric’s picture, and then finally the airbrush. The album thus vanished form the charts almost immediately in June, just when it was about to enter the Top 100. It never returned to the charts.”

10. The release delay sparked Sterling Morrison’s intense, and often hilarious, hatred of Frank Zappa.
The tracks for the album were largely complete by May 1966, but a combination of production logistics – including the tricky stickers on the cover – and promotional concerns delayed the release for nearly a year. The exact circumstances remain hazy, but instead of holding the record execs responsible, or Warhol in his capacity as their manager, the Velvet Underground blamed an unlikely target: their MGM/Verve labelmate Frank Zappa.

The band believed that Zappa used his clout to hold back their release in favor of his own album with the Mothers of Invention, Freak Out. “The problem [was] Frank Zappa and his manager, Herb Cohen,” said Morrison. “They sabotaged us in a number of ways, because they wanted to be the first with a freak release. And we were totally naive. We didn’t have a manager who would go to the record company every day and just drag the whole thing through production.” Cale claimed that the band’s wealthy patron affected the label’s judgment. “Verve’s promotional department [took] the attitude, ‘Zero bucks for VU, because they’ve got Andy Warhol; let’s give all the bucks to Zappa,'” he wrote in his memoir.

Whatever the truth may be, Sterling Morrison held a serious grudge against Zappa for the rest of his life, making no effort to hide his contempt in interviews. “Zappa is incapable of writing lyrics. He is shielding his musical deficiencies by proselytizing all these sundry groups that he appeals to,” he told Fusion in 1970. “He just throws enough dribble into those songs. I don’t know, I don’t like their music. … I think that album Freak Out was such a shuck.” He was even more blunt a decade later when speaking to Sluggo! magazine. “Oh, I hate Frank Zappa. He’s really horrible, but he’s a good guitar player. … If you told Frank Zappa to eat shit in public, he’d do it if it sold records.”

Reed also had some choice words for Zappa over the years. In Nigel Trevena’s 1973 biography booklet of the band, he refers to Zappa as “probably the single most untalented person I’ve heard in my life. He’s two-bit, pretentious, academic, and he can’t play his way out of anything. He can’t play rock & roll, because he’s a loser. … He’s not happy with himself and I think he’s right.” The pair must have buried the hatchet in later years – after Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993, Reed posthumously inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

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Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' Opera Trades Rock for Emotional Power

The world-premiere production of Another Brick in the Wall: L’Opéra got a standing ovation at the Opéra de Montréal before the orchestra even tuned up last night. It happened when it was announced that the work’s librettist, former Pink Floyd singer and songwriter Roger Waters, was in attendance.

It was a remarkable moment since it was nearly 40 years ago in this city that Waters, feeling bemused by rowdy stadium audiences, took out his anger on a concertgoer and, according to legend, spat in his face. The embarrassment he felt afterwards inspired him to write The Wall, which has since become a double LP, a movie and eye-popping concert tours by Floyd and Waters. Now, it’s a modern opera – using some of Floyd’s original music, but mostly delving into atonal territory – and it’s part of Montreal’s 375th-anniversary celebrations, complete with appreciations in the program by both the city’s mayor and Quebec’s minister for the region.

But does The Wall, Waters’ most enduring creation and one of the greatest rock operas, work without the rock? Yes and no. The bad news is that it is not Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The good news is that it’s not Pink Floyd’s The Wall – and it’s barely Roger Waters’.

Although the production contains the same songs and running order as the original, the story of The Wall comes into better focus here. The opera shows the revelations of a shell-shocked rock star, so disgusted with himself that he retreats into his mind to find out why he feels so dejected, often watching his past in this-is-your-life–style flashbacks. Sure, that’s also the basic plot of the album, but seeing it acted out with different characters singing the songs, as opposed to just Waters, fleshes it out anew much like the Who did when they turned Tommy into a movie.

In Another Brick, the protagonist, Pink (brilliantly played by baritone Étienne Dupuis), is now able to duet with his mom (soprano France Bellemare) in the song “Mother.” There’s also his saucy, money-obsessed wife (soprano Caroline Bleau) and the sadistic teacher (tenor Dominic Lorange, who gets to sing the album’s funniest line, “If you don’t eat your meat …,” which is also written on a blackboard onstage), and both sing their own parts when it gets to “The Trial.” And, best yet, the daddy who “flies across the ocean, leaving just a memory” is a flesh-and-blood character here (tenor Jean-Michel Richer), interacting with Pink as a boy.

There’s also the benefit of the nearly 50-person choir who not only make the production grander and generally louder (though, as Waters has proved in recent years, it could always be even louder). They clamber the titular wall, they reenact battle scenes, they run like hell. Occasionally, their actions come off corny (running in place), but because it’s opera – and not a jukebox musical on Broadway (we can thank the great Syd in the sky for that one) – the music commands an air of solemnity.

To his credit, composer Julien Bilodeau built his own Wall, musically, using only a few bricks from Floyd. Many of the numbers are wholly unrecognizable. Big blocks of strings climb over tumultuous brass during the chaos of “In the Flesh,” as Pink in slow motion expectorates on one of his loyal subjects. A mini-choir of groupie trollops desperately sing “Young Lust” with Pink. The “We would meet again some sunny day” part of “Vera” is now a Roaring Twenties hot-jazz rave-up – leading to a moving, full-company rendition of “Bring the Boys Back Home,” complete with a display of the Eisenhower quote Waters was projecting on the wall of his most recent tour. And best of all, “Comfortably Numb” is set to flurrying, minimalist strings, allowing Dupuis to turn the line “I have become comfortably numb” into a standout aria with an ascending melody divorced from David Gilmour’s voice.

Also, notable is the starkly different approach to the “Nazi” sequences in the second act. That section of The Wall was always unsettling, but hearing it recontextualized – such as when Pink sings of “the final solution” and orders police to chase down a woman in a hijab and an African-American man – makes it even more disturbing and all the more powerful as a work decrying dictatorship and egoism.

Although it’s sometimes hard not to sing the original songs to yourself in your head while watching Another Brick in the Wall, for the sake of comparison, the differences between the two just go to show how far Bilodeau was willing to go. But that’s not to say he drafted new blueprints altogether. “Mother” and “Young Lust” still featured the same vocal melodies, and “The Trial” – the magnificent piece of melodrama that Bob Ezrin orchestrated – remains almost entirely intact (where’s the “Go on, judge, shit on him” operatic rejoinder?), though here, it’s led by a judge dressed as an oversized raven.

The giant bird is grotesque and strange – and the other characters in “The Trial” now wear raven costumes – but not so bizarre for opera, where fantastical conceptual costumes can be the norm. For the most part, though, Another Brick in the Wall rarely drifts into outright surrealism. The set features giant LED screens that depict Pink Floyd’s legendary circular projection screen, showing baby bottles against a starry night for “The Thin Ice” and the company’s “Nazi” insignia (here, a crosshair instead of The Wall’s usual hammers). The choir members dress as nurses, hippies and concertgoers, and they all come out en masse like a scene from something by Verdi for the final number, “Outside the Wall.”

There were no Vikings, no fat ladies singing to show the production was over, but Bilodeau and his collaborators accomplished what they intended: They transformed rock & roll into pure opera. And it was a mostly original work – where the Floyd album ran roughly 80 minutes, Another Brick takes its time at close to two hours, sometimes dragging in a few spots but overall holding onto the emotion of the source material. It likely won’t appeal to the average classic-rock FM listener but hardcore Floydiacs were buying T-shirts and posters at near-arena prices. The audience looked like a mix of older, buttoned-up operagoers, ready to see Puccini’s La Bohème and Tosca later this season, with the odd rock-looking dude in a hoodie or Sons of Anarchy vest and jeans.

The one thing they all had in common, though, was that when the wall came down, the entire audience was on its feet for another standing ovation, with concertgoers shouting “wow” and “bravo.” Judging from the reaction, it’s another brick that’s here to stay.

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