50 Years Ago: The Velvet Underground Make Their First Live Appearance
On Dec. 11, 1965, an unknown four-piece rock 'n' roll band took to the stage for the first time. And no one in attendance that night watching a performance by the Velvet Underground could ever guess the legacy the band would leave.
Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker had recently formed a band, and a gig had come their way shortly afterward. They were invited to play the opening slot on a show headlined by the Myddle Class at the Summit High School Auditorium in Summit, N.J. The Myddle Class (who were managed by journalist Al Aronowitz) had recently signed a deal with Tomorrow Records, a new label founded by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and they were about to issue their debut single, "Free as the Wind," which was co-written with the songwriting legends.
"The kids wanted to see them," recalled drummer Maureen Tucker in a 2012 NPR interview. "We just played three songs to open. There was no booing, as I recall, but there was no cheering either." The short set included a snapshot of the band that was to be a true game-changer. They opened with the decidedly poppy "There She Goes Again" followed by the dark, haunting ode to S&M "Venus in Furs." That was followed by the even darker "Heroin." The audience, what few members there were, were most likely confused by what they were hearing and seeing. "In fact," Tucker recalled, "probably half the kids didn't come into the auditorium until the other band came on."
"Nothing could have prepared the kids and parents for what they were about to experience that night," wrote Rob Norris, a student at Summit at the time, in Kicks magazine. "Our only clue was the small crowd of strange-looking people hanging around in front of the stage. When the curtain went up, there stood the Velvet Underground. All tall, and dressed mostly in black. Two of them were wearing sunglasses, and one of the guys with the shades had VERY long hair."
"The murmur of surprise that greeted our appearance as the curtain went up increased to a roar of disbelief once we started to play 'Venus' and swelled to a mighty howl of outrage and bewilderment by the end of 'Heroin,'" recalled guitarist Morrison in the book Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story. "I remember that my drums basically fell apart during the three-song set," Tucker says in the same book.
In addition to the aural assault, the band's image spontaneously had been born that night. "We never planned our appearance, we just wore what we wanted," said Tucker. "We never sat down and said, 'Let's all wear black.' Our image was probably there from that first show."
Though some members of the Myddle Class were upset by the band's performance, manager Arnowitz saw much more at work and told Cale that the Velvet Underground gave the kids a night to remember. And the band's fee for this unforgettable debut show? $80.
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