THE MYSTERY OF THE VELVET UNDERGROUND'S "REAL FIRST RECORD" (AND HOW THE ONLY EXISTING COPY WAS BOUGHT FOR 75 CENTS)
In September of 2002 Warren Hill of Montreal Canada was perusing a box of records at a Chelsea, New York street sale when he happened upon a nice Leadbelly 10" on Folkways, a water damaged copy of the first Modern Lovers LP on Beserkely, and a brittle 12" piece of acetone-covered aluminum with the words "Velvet Underground. 4-25-66. Att N. Dolph" written on the label. He purchased the three records for 75 cents each.
As I have a small knowledge of records and am an old friend of Warren's, I got a call from him the next day in which he described the acetate. Because of the date and the unique type of pressing, we both agreed that it was probably an in-studio acetate made during the recording of the first Velvet Underground LP back in 1966 (I had heard that they occasionally would have
a vinyl cutting lathe in the studio to cut records of the day's recordings for the artists and/or producers to take home for review). Warren didn't want to play the mysterious platter due to the fragile nature of acetates, and the cheap nature of his record needle, so we agreed that the next time he was visiting me in Portland we would check it out together. If it turned out to be what we thought it was, maybe we could sell it at Mississippi Records, the small neighborhood record store in Portland that I work at. Sight unseen and sound unheard, I assumed that it was likely an acetate pressing of the recording which would be eventually be released as
the group's first album, "The Velvet Underground & Nico".
It took awhile for Warren to visit, but when he did he brought along the acetate. We cued it up and were stunned -- the first song was not "Sunday Morning" as on the "Velvet Underground & Nico" Verve LP, but rather it was "European Son"- the song that is last on that LP, and it was a version neither of us had ever heard before! It was less bombastic and more bluesy
than the released version, and it clocked in at a full two minutes longer. I immediately took the needle off the record, and realized that we had something special. Between the two of us we had heard many Velvets outtakes on both official and less than official releases, but the present material had never been heard by either of us.
The next few days found us scrambling for clues and information about what to make of this find; calling every record collector/historian we knew and reading everything we could find concerning the early recordings of the VU. We pieced together that this was probably a surviving copy of the legendary Scepter studios recordings which had been regarded as lost (hence the epic moniker "the lost scepter studios recordings" applied to these unheard sessions over the years). The recording is comprised of the primitive first "finished" version of the LP that Andy Warhol had shopped to Columbia as a ready-to-release debut album by his protege collective "The Velvet Underground".
This acetate, which is possibly the only surviving copy, represents the first Velvet Underground album as Andy Warhol intended it to be released.
Though the same compositions and even a few of the same "takes" (albeit in different mixes) were used on the subsequent commercial release, that which was eventually issued as their debut album on Verve, "The Velvet Underground & Nico", was a significantly different creation. I had heard of these nascent recordings before... it was said by some that the master
tapes had burned in a fire, by others that all of those recordings ended up being on the released album, and still by others that the only existing copy of that material was on an acetate owned by David Bowie, and that he was known to tout it as his most prized possession.
The truth about what we held was fuzzy until Warren managed to track down the N. Dolph referred to on the label for an interview.
Norman Dolph was a perennial in the New York art & music scene of the 1960's. He worked as a sales representative at Columbia Records through 1967, and was deeply involved with different facets of the independent music world on the side. Andy Warhol, who was managing the Velvets at the time, contacted Dolph & offered him a painting in exchange for services as
"ghost" (uncredited) producer for the Velvet's first recording session. Warhol wanted to record a Velvets album before they had a record company behind them as this would tend to minimize meddling label executives' mobility in compromising the musical arrangement's distraught primal force, not to mention the unprecedented taboo lyrics which openly address sex, drugs, and depravity. Warhol's plan was to have Dolph record it and then shop it around to labels (first & foremost Columbia) as a finished recording.
...and so Dolph rented out Scepter studios, and with an engineer named John Licata by his side, they recorded the Velvets for four days. At the time Scepter studios was between reconstruction and demolition with walls falling over and holes in the floor. Velvets' bass & viola player John Cale would later recall the environment as "Post-Apocalyptic".
Dolph took the master tapes made during this session to the Columbia building, which still had an in-house pressing plant, and cut the acetate "after hours" with people he knew on the inside. Dolph then sent the acetate to Columbia to see if they were interested in releasing it. It was returned promptly with a note that said something akin to "do you think we're out of our f**king minds?" Dolph then gave the acetate to Andy Warhol or John Cale, he cannot remember which.
Six of the songs recorded during the Scepter session made it on to the "Velvet Underground & Nico" LP, albeit with radically different mixes. The other four songs were re-recorded in LA by Tom Wilson. As far as we know, the only listenable copy of the original versions of Heroin, Venus In Furs, I'm Waiting For The Man, and European Son exist on the acetate that Warren
found. (A Japanese bootleg of the same material did appear, but in poor, arguably ‘unlistenable' sound quality. It is possible that the source tape for the Japanese bootleg was made from this very acetate decades ago when it was in different hands. Who knows?) We have since realized that we are in possession of a likely one of a kind artifact - the first recordings by one of the most influential rock bands of all time!
After establishing the authenticity of Warren's find we photographed the item and made a high quality digital back-up copy of the material. A media frenzy ensued, with articles appearing in Rolling Stone, Mojo, Record Collector, The Globe & Mail, and many other news sources. Calls started flooding in from people interested in buying the acetate, as well as record companies interested in releasing the songs on it. After much consideration, we decided that it would be best to release it to the highest bidder through an auction facilitated by our good friends at Saturn Records in Oakland, California (a store that has a well-established presence in the international vinyl collecting community, and an excellent reputation on the internet).
As to the most interesting mystery brought up by the appearance of this item - how did such an important artifact disappear for 37 years & end up at a Chelsea New York yard sale priced at 75 cents? ...We have no answer.
The track differences between the acetate versions and the commercial recordings on "The Velvet Underground & Nico" are detailed as follows:
1.European Son- completely different version,. Guitar solo is much bluesier. Less noisy and experimental. Longer by 2 minutes or so.
2.Black Angel's Death Song-Same take as released version. Different mix.
3.All Tomorrow's Parties- Same take as released version. Different mix.
4.I'll Be Your Mirror-Same take as released version. Radically different mix. No echo on Nico's vocals. Background vocals on end of song are more subdued.
5.Heroin-Completely different take than released version. Guitar line is different. Vocal inflections different, and a few different lyrics. Drumming is more primitive & off kilter. There is a tambourine dragging throughout the song.
6.Femme Fatale- Same take as released version. Radically different mix. Percussion more prominent. Alternate take on background vocals. Much more "poppy".
7.Venus In Furs- Different take than released version. Vocal inflections completely different. Instrumentation more based around Cales' violin than the guitar as in the released version.
8.I'm Waiting For The Man- Different take than released version. Guitar line is completely different. Vocal inflections different, and a few different lyrics. No drums, just tambourine. Bluesy guitar solo.
9.Run Run Run- Same take as released version. Different mix.
This .75 piece of vinyl is currently going for over $150,000 on ebay, with one day left in the auction (check it out for yourself here while it is still happening) . I predict at least half a mil. (and I thought getting close to $200 for Jars of Clay's first CD or 100 bucks for Daniel Amos' Shotgun Angel was a rush! Damn!!)
UPDATE: That first auction fell through (at 155k). Fake bidders swarm like bugs to this sort of thing, but despite rejecting high-risk bidders until further authentication (one person bid 2,000,000!), a fake still got through and won. A more private auction garnered a more conservative winning bid of $20,000. I'm depressed. I mean, 20 grand is still a great return on .75 cents, but to go from 155k to 20k? well, I'd need some drugs and therapy, that's all I'm saying. Before I turned my prize over to it's new owner I might even listen it on a normal turntable out of frustration and bitterness. I'd be too disgusted by what I was doing to enjoy it, but my disappointment would have to express itself somewhere...