The Velvet Underground, the band with which Lou Reed and John Cale achieved artistic and cultural stardom under the management of Andy Warhol, surely have more listeners now than they did when they were active in the 1960s and 70s. But few self-described Velvet Underground enthusiasts ever had the chance to see the group perform. Not in person, anyway: last month we featured color footage from their 1969 Vietnam War protest concert, and we’ve previously offered opportunities to glimpse them playing a 1966 Warhol-filmed show that got broken up by the cops, composing “Sunday Morning,” the opening track from that same year’s album The Velvet Underground & Nico, and reuniting in 1972 to do an acoustic set on French television.
But what would it feel like to actually be at a Velvet Underground concert? The 1967 film above provides a view of the band performing, but even more so of their fans taking it in — not that they had many in those days. But what fans they had turned up over and over again to their shows at a club called The Boston Tea Party, which had opened the same year.
Shot by Warhol, one description says, it makes use of “sudden in-and-out zooms, sweeping panning shots, in-camera edits that create single frame images and bursts of light like paparazzi flash bulbs going off” that “mirror the kinesthetic experience of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable” — Warhol’s series of multimedia events put on in the mid-60s — “with its strobe lights, whip dancers, colorful slide shows, multi-screen projections, liberal use of amphetamines, and overpowering sound.”
As “one of only two known films with synchronous sound of the band performing live,” as well as the only one in color, this half-hour of the Velvet Underground experience captured on 16-millimeter (which you can also find on the Internet Archive) constitutes an important and vivid piece of the band’s recorded history. Today, any listener who has ever taken an interest in the Velvet Underground will have heard the clear-eyed drug song “Heroin” on The Velvet Underground & Nico and the epic of debauchery “Sister Ray” on White Light/White Heat many times. But these Harvard kids and others from more than half a century ago were getting down to them — if that is indeed the term for the behavior Warhol has captured here — well before most of today’s Velvets-inspired rockers were even born.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.