“That’s so punk rock.” It’s a popular phrase these days, a cool quote, part of English lexicon and integral Hollywood jargon. But what is Punk Rock? How do we define or refine this colorful description that has become one of the most substantial, impactful and honestly complimentary assessments with which someone can be imbued. I’ve heard descriptions from “Not caring what anybody thinks” to “Questioning anything and everything,” yet the true meaning of Punk Rock still seems ambiguous. So what defines this great auditory art form, this startling sparseness of musicality which subjects the listener to raw emotion unencumbered by the conventions of melody and harmony, this purposeful disorder, lightning speed and primitive power that expresses social disharmony with ultimate clarity and poignancy? What is Punk Rock? In a word: Warhol.
So what does an oddly dressed, white-wigged pop-artist have to do with one of the most pervasive and powerful forms of music to evolve in the past century? Well, before there was the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, or Patty Smith, or the New York Dolls, before Iggy popped, those old enough or cool enough remember the Velvet Underground, the uber-cool and amazingly influential band started by the original punks, the true OG’s, John Cale and Lou Reed (May he be in heaven a full half-hour before the devil knows he’s dead). Sure, the Velvet Underground would toss their hat into to the burgeoning Experimental Rock scene that would culminate in dramatically different bands like Television and Pink Floyd, but it’s with songs like, “Waiting for my Man” and “European Son,” the Underground would begin a movement that would quickly blossom into full-fledged Punk Rock, the ultimate minimalist art form.
The surface story is well known. It was 1964 when Reed and Cale started a small experimental band called the Primitives. After adding Sterling Morrison on guitar and eventually Maureen Tucker on percussion, they change their name to the “Velvet Underground” after a pulp fiction paperback of the same title by Michael Leigh. That’s were Andy Warhol comes in.
Warhol is instrumental in the development of the Underground. While the artist extraordinaire is active creating assorted artworks and bizarre films in his notorious tin-foil lined studio, “The Factory,” Warhol catches an early Velvet Underground performance and is instantly intrigued by the ethereal drone emanating from the stage. Andy instantly hires the newly formed Velvet Underground as his house band at “The Factory.” By 1965 Warhol is managing the Velvet Underground, unleashing them on unsuspecting crowds at his hang out, Max’s Kansas City, as well as having them provide the music for his surreal multimedia road show, “Exploding Plastic Inevitable.” This association with Warhol, and the publicity it provides, does wonders for the band’s popularity. They are able to hone their craft under the big tent of Warhol’s studio, and are afforded the rare freedom to openly experiment and explore entirely new musical styles.
By ’67, with the Underground finally finding its form, Warhol scores the band a recording contact with Verve Records, and introduces the band to Nico, a german model and singer who becomes a part-time vocalist. At Andy’s insistence, Nico sings several tracks on the Velvet Underground’s first album, for which Warhol takes a “Producer” credit and creates the album cover art, the famous peel away yellow banana.
Although the Velvet Underground’s self-titled debut album originally sells a paltry 30,000 copies, it is more influential than a deep-pocketed Washington lobbyist. As Roxy Music’s Brian Eno so eloquently stated, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” And out of that plethora of bands charges the New York Dolls, who brazenly borrowed the Underground’s crude, overly simplified musical style (and seemingly their top notch song writing ability as well), and followed the Underground like a adorable puppy to Max’s Kansas City, where they played gigs upstairs while the Underground played the main room downstairs… that is, if Lou Reed didn’t cancel them first. The Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain once commented, “Max’s Kansas City was really the Velvet Underground’s hang out. They hated us, we got our ass kicked… Lou Reed didn’t like us, he canceled our very first show… Billy Murcia was still our drummer! It was two weeks before he died, poor guy.” However, despite animosity from the oft-imitated Underground, the Dolls go on to anchor the New York City club scene of the early 70’s, entertaining while inspiring bands like the Ramones, Patty Smith, Blondie and the rest of the early east coast punks to pick up their instruments and make some noise.
In 1968, John Cale uses his newly found position in the music scene afforded him by the success of the Velvet Underground’s second record, “White Light/White Heat”, to procure himself a producing gig on the debut album of an aggressive new band recently signed to Electra Records by young executive Danny Fields. The upstart band, named the Stooges, features a dynamic, balls-to-the-wall frontman who calls himself Iggy Pop.
Trading on the Stooges success, and that of his other major signing, the MC5 (Kick out the Jams MotherF—-), Danny Fields goes on to discover and manage the Ramones. Meanwhile, the now former manager of the tragically short lived New York Dolls, Malcolm McLaren, would find his way back to England and begin to piece together a quaint little local band he coins the “Sex Pistols” (for which he unsuccessfully lobbied the Dolls’ Sylvain Sylvain for the job of lead guitarist, a position eventually filled by Steve Jones), and just like that, Punk Rock explodes from its “Underground” birth into a fully grown, disgruntled teenager.
Lou Reed would eventually dissolve the seminal band in 1970 and go on to become, well… Lou Reed, but without Warhol’s discovery and careful rearing of the Underground, there would most likely be no Stooges, no New York Dolls, no Ramones, no Sex Pistols, no punk rock as we know it. Without Warhol and the Velvet Underground, our world is a sadly different place. So, do I really have the audacity, before the shovels are even cold on the invaluable, ultra-talented and profoundly cool Lou Reed, to say that the most culturally relevant musical genre in modern history is actually the brainchild of a quirky, slightly effeminate, amphetamine-aided, consumerism obsessed, Campbell’s soup loving, genius painter? Am I really going to say that Andy Warhol invented Punk? Well… yes, yes I am, and I don’t care what anybody else thinks. And that’s Punk Rock.