The Velvet Underground & Andy Warhol Stage Proto-Punk Performance Art: Discover the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966)

Punk rock, an art­less pro­le­tar­i­an sneer, a work­ing-class revolt against bour­geois tastes, good man­ners, and cor­rupt sys­tems of con­sump­tion. Right? Sure… and also pure per­for­mance art. Or do we for­get that its fore­bears were avant-garde fringe artists: whether Iggy Pop onstage fight­ing a vac­u­um clean­er and blender and smear­ing peanut but­ter on him­self, or Pat­ti Smith read­ing her Rim­baud-inspired poet­ry at CBGB’s. And before rock crit­ic Dave Marsh first used the word “Punk” (to describe Ques­tion Mark and the Mysterians)—before even Sgt. Pepper’s and the death of Jimi Hendrix—there came the Vel­vet Under­ground, pro­tégés of Andy Warhol and dark psy­che­del­ic pio­neers whose ear­ly songs were as punk rock as it gets.

Some evi­dence: a dog-eared copy of Please Kill Me, the “uncen­sored oral his­to­ry of punk,” which begins with the Vel­vets and, specif­i­cal­ly John Cale remem­ber­ing 1965: “I couldn’t give a shit about folk music… The first time Lou Played ‘Hero­in’ for me it total­ly knocked me out. The words and music were so raunchy and dev­as­tat­ing.… Lou had these songs where there was an ele­ment of char­ac­ter assas­si­na­tion going on.” Now these days, every­one from the may­or of Lon­don to Shake­speare has been asso­ci­at­ed with punk, but maybe Lou Reed first defined its raunch­i­ness and dev­as­ta­tion back in the mid-six­ties. And the per­for­mances of those songs were sheer art-rock spec­ta­cle, thanks to Andy Warhol’s Explod­ing Plas­tic Inevitable, or EPI.

Crit­ic Wayne McGuire described these Explod­ing Plas­tic Inevitable per­for­mances, orga­nized in 1966 and 1967, as “elec­tron­ic: inter­me­dia: total scale.” The Explod­ing Plas­tic Inevitable enveloped the Vel­vets in a dark, hazy, strobe-lit cir­cus. Writer Bran­den Joseph describes it in detail:

… the Explod­ing Plas­tic Inevitable includ­ed three to five film pro­jec­tors, often show­ing dif­fer­ent reels of the same film simul­ta­ne­ous­ly: a sim­i­lar num­ber of slide pro­jec­tors, mov­able by hand so that their images swept the audi­to­ri­um; four vari­able-speed strobe lights; three mov­ing spots with an assort­ment of coloured gels; sev­er­al pis­tol lights; a mir­ror ball hung from the ceil­ing and anoth­er on the floor; as many as three loud­speak­ers blar­ing dif­fer­ent pop records at once; one or two sets by the Vel­vet Under­ground and Nico…

… and so on. “It doesn’t go togeth­er,” wrote Lar­ry McCombs in a 1966 review, “But some­times it does.” Warhol had attempt­ed to stage sim­i­lar events since 1963, with a short-lived band called the Druids, which includ­ed New York avant-garde com­pos­er La Monte Young (“the best drug con­nec­tion in New York,” remem­bered Bil­ly Name). Then Warhol met the Vel­vet Under­ground at the Café Bizarre, forced the broody Nico on them, and it sud­den­ly came togeth­er. The new, Warhol-man­aged band first launched at film­mak­er Jonas Mekas’ Ciné­math­èque the­ater. “Andy would show his movies on us,” remem­bers Reed, “We wore black so you could see the movie. But we were all wear­ing black any­way.”

As you can see in the 1966 film at the top of an EPI/Velvets per­for­mance, Reed’s pro­to-punk odes to intra­venous drugs and sado­masochism pro­vid­ed the ide­al sound­track to Warhol’s cel­e­bra­tions of the trag­i­cal­ly hip and pret­ty. The expe­ri­ence (at least as recre­at­ed by the Warhol Muse­um) put art stu­dent Karen Lue in mind of “Wagner’s gesamtkunst­werk, or a total work of art.” The film we expe­ri­ence here was shot by direc­tor Ronald Nameth at an EPI hap­pen­ing at Poor Richards in Chica­go.

The over­dubbed sound­track blends record­ings of “I’ll Be Your Mir­ror” and “Euro­pean Son,” “It Was a Plea­sure” from Nico’s Chelsea Girl, and live ver­sions of “Hero­in” and “Venus in Furs,” with John Cale on vocals. This par­tic­u­lar hap­pen­ing fea­tured nei­ther Reed nor Nico, so Cale took the lead. Nonethe­less, as Ubuweb writes, Nameth’s film “is an expe­ri­ence” ful­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of “Warhol’s hell­ish sen­so­ri­um… the most unique and effec­tive dis­cotheque envi­ron­ment pri­or to the Fillmore/Electric Cir­cus era.” The short “ris­es above a mere graph­ic exer­cise,” mak­ing “kinet­ic empa­thy a new kind of poet­ry” and a visu­al record of how punk arose as much from art-house the­aters and gal­leries as it did from dive bars and garages.

Relat­ed Con­tent:    

A Sym­pho­ny of Sound (1966): Vel­vet Under­ground Impro­vis­es, Warhol Films It, Until the Cops Turn Up

Nico, Lou Reed & John Cale Sing the Clas­sic Vel­vet Under­ground Song ‘Femme Fatale’ (Paris, 1972)

Pat­ti Smith Plays at CBGB In One of Her First Record­ed Con­certs, Joined by Sem­i­nal Punk Band Tele­vi­sion (1975)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • dobie gillis says:

    Inter­est­ing. Thank you.

    I believe the band “offi­cial­ly” went by the name

    “? and The Mys­te­ri­ans” if I remem­ber my old ’45 label cor­rect­ly (no quotes).

    And I’m pret­ty sure I do. [And, yes, it’s “Mys­te­ri­ans”, not “Mys­te­ri­ons”.]

    Any­way — I recent­ly read the auto­bi­og­ra­phy of one Richard Mey­ers, a/k/a Richard Hell (Tele­vi­sion, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, etc.) called “I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp”; plus in oth­er read­ings about the begin­nings of punk rock I was struck by exact­ly what you describe: how the musi­cians, artists and poets who were there before punk was a thing were, in fact, inter­est­ing, cre­ative, smart peo­ple mak­ing art not only on the fringe of the art world but of main­stream soci­ety itself.

    The video is intense­ly insane.

  • rozzistar says:

    I just wrote my senior the­sis on this sub­ject! awe­some!

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