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.