Ahead of John Cale’s Liverpool show, Richard Norris of Beyond the Wizard’s Sleeve sat down with Getintothis’ Rick Leach to discuss the Velvet Underground and 50 years of psychedelia.
In a special show – one of only two worldwide and the only one in the UK – Cale will be performing The Velvet Underground and Nico in its entirety at a bespoke stage constructed at the heart of Liverpool’s docklands. Facing out to sea and across to New York City, home of the Velvets, it feels appropriate that Cale picked Liverpool as the venue for this show.
Indisputably one of the most influential albums from one of the most signficiant bands of the 1960s, The Velvet Underground and Nico has left a mark upon countless numbers of musicians over the intervening half-century and continues to do so to this day.
As a measure of its influence, a one-off and spectacular after show party will be taking place the very same night, running from 10pm until very late in honour of Cale, the Velvets‘ album and all things psych.
Promising a ‘night of sensory assault in psychedelic technicolour, live music, and a celebration of all things VU’, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, as well as being the Offical Aftershow Party for Liverpool Sound City, looks set to cap a memorable night off in a way not to be forgotten.
Getintothis caught up with Richard Norris (The Grid, Beyond the Wizard’s Sleeve and much sought after producer) who will be playing an eclectic mix of sounds at The Exploding Plastic Inevitable alongside DJ Andy Carroll and Bernie Connor, to discuss The Velvets, Andy Warhol, the appeal of obscure records, the enduring influence of pysch and more.
Getintothis: Ahead of your post-Velvets show can you run past us the influence of the Velvets, Warhol and psyche in general?
Richard Norris: “Well, my first introduction to psychedelia was many, many years ago around the mid-1980s, 1984 or so, when I went to Liverpool University. I was living in Edge Hill and I was going back in the holidays to St Albans.
“I got involved with the Bam Caruso label, the psychedelic reissue label, and I was doing a club in Liverpool where the 0151 was. It was called loads of different things; it was called Dingwalls for a bit – and then Crackers I think when we were doing it.
“They’d have bands on a bit as well. Groundpig seemed to play every single Saturday! And The Farm played a fair bit as well. It was a fairly rough place. Every weekend they’d change the glasses to plastic glasses, because there’d always be something going on in there.
“But we did Thursday nights there; it was called The Hangout, which is where I first met Bernie Connors and Mick from Probe. We put some bands on- Zodiac Mindwarp and The Cardiacs- and a couple of other acts.
“Obviously the Velvets were the New York end of that, light shows and happenings and early versions of multimedia. So for me, going onto do The Grid and stuff later, and even today, doing electronic music with film and lights and so on, I always thought if you were going to do a proper psychedelic evening then, then those elements have to be in there. You have to have great lighting. It’s not just the DJs and the music – it’s got to be a good setting, immersive and done well. The first Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable had it spot on as well as what was happening on the West Coast…”
Getintothis: With the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test?
Richard Norris: “Yes! Probably the first and the most influential stuff that was happening. I was always drawn to that thing. In fact at the 0151 and where the Bierkeller was, I saw 23 Skidoo and Cabaret Voltaire very early on, and they had banks of TV and films of kung fu and kick boxing and there was something about lights and film with sound that’s always more interesting and I’ve always been more into that than just music with guitars.”
Getintothis: It’s quite remarkable that psychedelia has not only survived, but prospered?
Richard Norris: “It’s weird. That’s a good point. I mean, I started a thing ago a few years ago in Lewes, the Lewes Psychedelic Festival in 2009 and it was sort of, but not quite a laughing stock at that point, but there was a few years before that where you’d never see the word ‘psychedelic’ in a music paper or whatever.
“It was just thought of as hippy, in quite a quite a derogatory way, but suddenly it started cropping up again and the records started cropping up again. It think it just goes in cycles, there’s just waves of it that happens every few years. If you’ve got sound and vision together well, it’s always going to come back at some point.”
Getintothis: Is there something about it that makes it endure? I mean, it’s over 50 years old now I guess?
Richard Norris: “Completely! It’s people wanting to go on a trip, in terms of, not necessarily the drug thing but going out on an adventure that means going out and having an experience and in a heightened atmosphere. I guess that’s true of any sub-culture, but it’s more so and very heightened in the psychedelic thing. A combination of everything and overload of the senses that’s been popular since time began really!”
Getintothis: And when you think about the Velvets themselves as a band, they were quite ordinary as a band – where Lou Reed came from, basic rock and roll and doo-wop influences but…
Richard Norris: “Yes, there’s a great quote in the Robbie Roberston book, the new book about the Velvets, when he was living at the Chelsea Hotel. He was living along the corridor from Edie Sedgwick and The Velvets were a bit ‘We’ve just got guitars for Christmas…’ and he said they were like ‘Wow! We can do this!’ which I thought was a bit derogatory but very funny! I think half the bands I like are ‘We’ve just got guitars for Christmas!’ to be honest.”
Getintothis: Like all the stuff on the Pebbles and Nuggets compilations? Those bands who cut maybe one single and ended up working as mechanics or butchers in some small town in the mid-West?
Richard Norris: “Yeah, yeah. Even Mo Tucker. In fact, when I was in college in Liverpool my mate wrote to Mo Tucker and saying ‘what are you up to?’ Like the Velvets always had a cool cachet; like things sort of like Nick Drake. Kind of gone in and out and then suddenly it’s in a car ad!
“So my mate actually wrote to Mo Tucker of the Velvets at her home address asking what she was up to and unbelievably she wrote back and said she was working in a Velvets factory as a keypunch operator. And she said she was grateful that he really liked the band! So that’s what we were doing when we weren’t going to college – we were writing to Mo Tucker!
“So there’s definitely something about all those bands and Liverpool. Love and the Velvets obviously. There’s something in the water.”
Getintothis: That rock influence? Like there are maybe two strands to psychedelia, like the rock branch…
Richard Norris: “Yes, the harder, the slightly more cynical New York…”
Getintothis: Yes…and then you’ve got the English, sun-dappled meadows, whimsical, Canterbury type…
Richard Norris: “Yes, the Victoriana end of it. And then the West Coast, California Be-In part of it. So three strands really. And then you’ve got the California end from The Grateful Dead branching off again into almost, country. Cosmic cowboy really. So different angles.
“But the Velvets have just endured. You know, like the famous quote of whoever bought their record went and formed a band, it’s kind of right.
“But we see those records as massive and somewhat monolithic, like Love’s Forever Changes or Alone Again and the first Velvets album or Surf’s Up by The Beach Boys and I remember hearing that Surf’s Up only became a gold record like, 25 or 30 years later. It only sold 200,000 copies. The waves each copy must have made was incredible. Probably each copy influenced 50 or so people. It’s incredible!”
Getintothis: And on the other hand, you listen to albums that are lauded at the time and you think they are brilliant yet when you listen to them again years later they sound awful; while there are bands such as Big Star, who never really did anything at the time but now…
Richard Norris: “Truly beautiful records and so well recorded with incredible dynamics. There’s a handful of bands like that and I think in particular with the first Velvets album, what I like about coming back to it, because it’s got that sort of quiet, muddy mix and you can’t quite make everything out, it’s quite layered in the mix. It’s great because when you come back to it you always hear something else. Each time you come back to it there’s something different in that weird, murky mix. It’s quite amazing.
“So when we saw that the John Cale gig was on we were ‘right, we have to do an after-party!’ A late night one, in honour of it!”
Getintothis: So, what should we expect from it? What have you got planned?
Richard Norris: “So, basically there’s going to be a lot of visuals. Multi-coloured dripping wall visuals. And The Floormen, a great band from Liverpool in the true spirit of psychedelia and me and Bernie and Andy playing a lot of…of course the Velvets and beyond. I have a stupid collection of collection of bootlegs and reissues of the first Lou Reed tracks, before the Velvets, when he did tracks like Do The Ostrich and Sneaky Pete. Dozens of bootlegs.”
Getintothis: He recorded as a house musician for Pickwick, didn’t he?
Richard Norris: “You know I’ve probably got the record [at this point Richard rummaged around] and I if can find it…hang on…the sort of Ronco-esque compilations that that’s on…so it’ll be all that plus kind of all the recent sort of stuff as the Wizards Sleeve that I’ve been doing recently. Playing a lot of 60s records that we’ve mangled up a bit and chopped around and made things that work for the dancefloor.
“A lot of things that people concentrate on with psychedelia is that a lot of it is really good beat music, twisted R & B. When we were at Bam Caruso, Phil (Smee), who ran Bam Caruso, came up with the term Freakbeat which is the start of Mod records which have gone a bit weird. And that’s what’s the start of it.
“I’ve found the record! It’s called ‘Top Pop Greats’ on Design Records! It’s got Paul Revere and the Raiders, Joe Tex and The Beachnuts – which is Lou Reed – doing Psycho Annie. There’s a picture of Lou Reed on the sleeve but…they’re not even mentioned on the back!”
Getintothis: Ha! They don’t even warrant a mention?
Richard Norris: “No! Not even a mention! A very bizarre record. It’s got Lou Rawls doing Walking, which is a great track, and Joe Tex and Tommy Roe and The Beachnuts. A strange mixture of things.A 5p bargain bin record that’s got a Lou Reed track on it!”
Getintothis: That’s what’s incredible. All these obscure records, like old blues records from the 1930s and the artists probably never thought that years and years later, across the Atlantic we’d be sitting here revering what they recorded?
Richard Norris: “Precisely. I’ve been trying to reissue things and it’s things like basically one single from a college town in Texas and you can’t even find anyone who had anything to do with it. It’s not registered with a publisher and you can’t find anything out about it. It can be a very bizarre trail if you can track it down.”
Getintothis: But it’s endured?
Richard Norris: “And there’s one and it sounds like a Krautrock record, but it’s from eight years before!”
Getintothis: You wonder where they came up with all this. There’s a great record by The Soup Greens, and I think it’s on one of the Pebbles compilations, who play Like A Rolling Stone. They know all the words for the Dylan song but they can only play the music for Louie Louie, so it’s Dylan to the tune of Louie Louie. And it really is a splendid record!
Richard Norris: “Sounds fantastic! Louie Louie – what else do you need!”
Getintothis: So anyway, how do you see the art influence of Andy Warhol on The Velvet Underground? He was a brazenly commercial artist really, wasn’t he?
Richard Norris: “Well, of course he was massively sharp and so ahead of the time. I saw a clip the other day and his interview technique was unbelievable. He was light years ahead of the people who were interviewing him. He was smart. Very, very smart. He found the 21st Century before anyone else.”
Getintothis: He had one of the very first cable TV shows in New York?
Richard Norris: “Yes, and the ‘famous for fifteen minutes’ quote becomes more and more true.”
Getintothis: Do you think there’s anyone from the Art world now doing what Warhol did then, or is popular music and now more disconnected?
Richard Norris: “I think that there are people who are looking to music over here. Like Jeremy Dellar, who’s done stuff recently with Iggy Pop and he’s worked with brass bands and acid house and The KLF. But I think it’s more kind of overt, whereas Warhol was making it up more as he went along.
“I think there is a crossover between art and music and really a lot more in the electronic/neo-classical world – the Nils Frahm thing. I think that’s got a bit of headway where art directly connects with music there. But it all is kind of pop culture and that’s what was good about Warhol because it broke down the barrier between High Art and Low Art. After him, it would be a lot more difficult in a strange way because he’d breached that barrier and made the dividing lines a lot more blurred. It would be harder to be like him. It can’t be black and white or either High Art or Low Art or Pop music anymore because it’s all pop art, isn’t it?”
Getintothis: But there’s no rock bands, post-Oasis, doing that sort of thing from the rock world anymore. As you say, if there’s any connection form the art world, it’s all the electronic side.
Richard Norris: “And Beyoncé with Lemonade. With the videos there’s definitely something there as well. One of my mates, an artist actually, says he’s a rock artist rather than a pop artist though! But you’re right. There’s none of the ‘four lads with guitars’ now into art.
“But the Velvets were always interested in art and more. A gay man and two women in the middle of it gave it a good balance.”
Getintothis: And with Cale’s classical background?
Richard Norris: “Well, you do wonder if a band like that would ever get together again? Some of it being from a background that as you say, was brazenly commercial and opportunistic and then with a completely avant-garde and conservatoire training; from John Cage and Stockhausen at one end to bubblegum at the other. As wide and as broad as you’re ever going to get.”
Getintothis: You could never imagine a Venn diagram where you’d get those five, six people working together?
Richard Norris: “And the humour as well! I like the darkness to it but it’s really funny as well.
“The films, we were obsessed with Warhol in The Grid. The whole reason we did tracks like Texas Cowboys and Swamp Thing was because we were obsessed with this Warhol film called Lonesome Cowboys which is a later Warhol film and is just some strange guys on enormous amounts of amphetamines going out into the desert and making up this weird cowboy movie! And we basically based those two singles on that. So those were the Warhol influences for us!”
Getintothis: So Warhol led you through that?
Richard Norris: “Absolutely. There were Lonesome Cowboy samples all over on Texas Cowboys. So if anyone ever wondered why The Grid made some odd cowboy records, then it’s down totally to Andy Warhol!
“It’s well worth tracking down Lonesome Cowboys as it’s a very odd film. But the idea of Sleep and Empire where like nothing happens for 24 hours is a great, wide view of what can be done – it’s so inventive.
“So we’re trying to bring all that together on the evening in the sense of the mixture of film and sound and vision.”
Getintothis: It’ll be an interesting evening for sure.
Richard Norris: “We’ll have to see if we can get John Cale down! We’ll have to send an invite out!”
Getintothis: He might be tucked up in bed with a cup of cocoa by then.
Richard North: “Oh, I think it’s only a five minute stroll from the gig so hopefully people will come and see us straight afterwards for a more psychedelic end to their evening.”
- The Exploding Plastic Inevitable After Party takes place at The North Shore Troubadour, Liverpool on May 27