Focusing on a single band over a weekend is a tricky business on the radio. Get it wrong and you risk provoking the ire of the music police, who are a bit like the fashion police only more militant. They will rain hellfire and damnation down on you on Twitter, picket outside your office and very likely follow you home, barge into your house, skim through your record collection and locate the copy of Kylie and Jason's "Especially for You" that you had studiously hidden from your family, and hold it up as evidence of your abominable taste.
Fortunately, BBC6 Music was on to a winner in its weekend-long tribute to The Velvet Underground and, specifically, their 45-year-old debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, otherwise known as "the banana album" on account of the fruit that adorns the Warhol-designed cover.
Why? Mainly because it's a work of extraordinary, unassailable brilliance with its wailing feedback and its sudden tenderness and its vividly nihilistic tales of drag queens, street-walkers and drug-users, and the fact that it begat punk and all that came after (it is claimed to be one of the three most influential LPs of all time). But also because it features Lou Reed, and these days no one would dare call an album by Reed anything but brilliant, even the unfathomably awful Metal Machine Music, for fear of being at the sharp end of his legendary bad temper.
Reed's fractiousness is so famous that even the rock journalist Lester Bangs was scared of him, and waited until there was a good 1,000 miles between them before calling him a "bibulous bozo" in print.
When I last saw Reed perform, he cursed under his breath for a full two hours, and once bubbled over into actual aggression at the audience for daring to shout out requests (I know, how dare they).
Such cantankerousness might explain why his new BBC6 show, Lou Reed's New York Shuffle, is scheduled to start at midnight and is recorded in the US. While it's a coup to have a towering musical figure fronting a radio show, it would be cruelty to expect anyone to share a studio with the old goat.
Naturally, Reed didn't go in for small talk. Instead, he played a succession of songs back to back by bands that were unfailingly interesting and cool (Low, Young Man, James Blake, The Antlers), which pointed to the fact that what he lacks in manners, he certainly makes up for in good taste. On the rare occasions that he did talk – roughly every 25 minutes, because that's how he rolls – it was a relief to find he had brought along the producer Hal Willner for company. The pair made a terrific double act, talking at and over each other like a pair of pensioners hitting the sherry. "Hey, Willner, I was watching your feet just then and you weren't tapping them," rumbled Reed at the end of a record. "Tapping them?" Willner croaked back. "I was being healed."
While Reed was kept at a safe distance, John Cale, Velvet Underground bassist and co-founder and avant-garde wunderkind, was embraced in all his warmth and even-temperedness. In Matt Everitt's interview series The First Time With..., Cale recalled his pre-Velvet Underground days moving to London clutching tapes of his own music: "I just charged around town like a kid in a candy store grabbing people and saying, "What do you think of this?" He was thoughtful, charming and still clearly in love with his job. On making the Velvet's masterpiece, he noted, "the most important thing was to do something that nobody could imitate."
Reed, Cale and co may not have made a dime out of the album in the 10 years after it was released, but that much they certainly achieved.
- More about:
- Andy Warhol
- Experimental Rock (avant-rock)
- Lou Reed
- The Velvet Underground
- Us Psychedelic And Prog Rock 60's And 70's