The Velvet Underground: a New York Art

In December 1965, Andy Warhol chanced upon the Velvet Underground while visiting the Café Bizarre at the invitation of the film-maker Barbara Rubin. Their union was serendipitous, and mutually beneficial. Warhol acquired a band dressed in blank attire on which to project the movies and light shows of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. In return, he gave the group an immediate and intense direction, plugging them straight into the upper echelons of hip New York society.

One series of photographs published in the rock monograph or, as Lou Reed puts it better, coffee-table book The Velvet Underground: a New York Art shows the band performing at the annual dinner of the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry at the prestigious Delmon­ico Hotel on Park Avenue and 59th. Ed Sullivan, the TV host who introduced America to the Beatles, lived at the Delmonico. Lennon, McCartney et al were staying at the hotel when they made their breakthrough appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. Screaming girls lined the streets outside. Bob Dylan paid the boys a now-mythic visit, turning them on to marijuana in their hotel room.

It seems fitting that while their more lauded peers indulged their becoming-God status inside rooms upstairs at the hotel, the Velvets used the venue to attack the senses of an elite group of New York doctors as they ate. Rubin and her mentor Jonas Mekas rushed around the hall with a film crew as the band played, asking guests questions intended to provoke, such as "What does her vagina feel like?", "Is his penis big enough?" and "Why are you getting embarrassed?" One picture depicts the shadows of the band looming over the black-tied psychiatrists and their gowned wives like B-movie monsters. Newspaper clippings tell of the audience reaction to the onslaught. One doctor described the music to the New York Times as a short-lived torture of cacophony. Another reasoned: "It seemed like a whole prison ward had escaped."

Yet, as Jon Savage notes in an essay written for this collection - "A Mirror Reflection: Andy Warhol, the VU and 1966" - the band shocked people precisely because they reflected society's sickness back to it. In a fascinating trawl through Warhol's time capsules during the band's virgin year with him, Savage uncovers a series of newspaper cuttings kept by Andy that dwell on an apparent surge in senseless acts of violence during the mid-Sixties. America's first high-profile school shooting happened in the summer of 1966, when 16 people were killed and 31 injured at the University of Texas campus in Austin. It was, as Savage puts it, Vietnam come home to America. Three months earlier in Britain, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderers, had been sentenced to life imprisonment.

A particularly paranoid issue of Time, kept by Warhol, reflected the mood. Under the headline "The psychotic in society", the magazine identified a new type of madman, one who could snap at any time, anywhere. Potential killers are everywhere these days, warned a psychiatrist from Houston. They are driving cars, going to church with you, working with you. And you never know it until they snap.

The Velvet Underground were on the side of the dispossessed. Lou Reed, long typecast as rock's grump-in-chief, is repositioned as a spokesman for the rights of youth in the essay "The View from the Bandstand", written by Reed and first published in Aspen magazine in 1966. Draft only those over 40, he implored: "It's their war, let them kill each other." The dispossessed responded with adulation. Zine articles about the group by a young VU super-fan, Jonathan Richman, later of the Modern Lovers, are also included here, as is a poem about the band by a young Ian Curtis.

The book's editor, Johan Kugelberg, is a pop archivist par excellence and the ultimate VU fan­boy. As a result, the range of artefacts presented here is comprehensive. Some are fascinating, such as the pre-Andy photographs of the band appearing in the poet and film-maker Piero Heliczer's underground film Venus in Furs in 1965. Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison perform topless and painted, Rubin is dressed as a nun, and Maureen Tucker, before she had joined the band as drummer, wears a mourning veil. Elsewhere, Morrison, the guitarist who was to die in 1995, remembers an improbable CBS news item, hosted by Walter Cronkite and broadcast on New Year's Eve 1965, that featured footage of the same performance - the strains of "Heroin" followed Cronkite's catchphrase: "And that's the way it is."

In his introduction, Kugelberg offers Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and the recordings by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band as works of art that brought our collective consciousness into the 20th century. The Velvet Underground, he suggests, heralded the departure from it. Kugelberg's theory is tight. As the century wore on, the cult of the Velvets spread from Bowie to Pavement via punk, and today the band remain the epitome of cool.

The shock factor of the Velvets, however, has been surpassed by the ever-growing visibility of the myriad horrors of the 21st century: 24-hour news; ubiquitous porn; the general, dull panic that dwells in the stomach pit of a generation faced with rising tides and debt. Society does not need a mirror to reflect back its own hypocrisy; we are swimming in it.

Tim Burrows is the author of "From CBGB to the Roundhouse: Music Venues Through the Years" (Marion Boyars, £9.99)

The Velvet Underground: a New York Art
Johan Kugelberg
Rizzoli, 320pp, £35

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven