After about twenty minutes into the film parts of the audience started to walk out. Either the camera work had got to them or it was clear to them that the Velvets weren’t about to break into a chorus of Sweet Jane. What did these people expect from an Andy Warhol film? Hadn’t they heard The Velvet Underground playing Sister Ray? People continued to walk out throughout the film. I was chilled in the front row with TC, tranced out with the droning electric guitars that seemed to have more in common with the dust and scratches on the film than the black and white images of Nico or Lou Reed.
The Velvet Underground and Nico: a Symphony of Sound was filmed at the Factory in January 1966. Even though music video clips had not been invented yet this 67min film features many of what have now become clichés of music videos, including the use of rapid zooming and panning in time with the music. Even the plot for a music video is remarkably familiar: band is playing live and the cops turn up. One NYC police officer suddenly appears in shot, smiles at the camera and turns the music down. The band plays for a bit more – “that’s still too loud” says a voice off camera. The cops talk to Andy and Gerard Malanga, his studio assistant, And the band packs up.
Eventually the camera runs out of film, end of film. Although the camera remains in a fixed position throughout the film and there is only one shot. It appears that Andy, or who ever was behind the camera (because Andy is in front of the camera at the end), was endlessly playing with the camera rather than doing what Andy Warhol was famous for a static shot with no pans or zooms. If only they had done a fixed shot the film would have been a lot better.
The Velvet Underground and Nico: a Symphony of Sound was part of a series of films by Andy Warhol showing at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). I went with my old friend TC who played guitar in a garage band with me. We are both fans of the Velvets; we used to play cover versions of Sweet Jane and Venus in Furs. Later I played in a Velvet Underground cover band, Edie Sedgwick’s Overdose with Ron Rude. Although, we were both fans of the Velvets, neither TC nor myself had seen the film nor heard the music. This was a rare screening of the film. Except for footage from their revival tour I have never before seen The Velvet Underground playing. I have seen a few still images from this film but never the moving picture.
Although I had never heard the “symphony of sound” before the music was not unfamiliar. It was not unlike Sister Ray but without any vocals and an hour long – something like the performances that the Velvets would later do in the afternoons of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Mo Tucker’s ever steady drumming was holding the droning sound of guitars and electric viola together. At one stage John Cage appeared to play some amplified long steel springs with a table knife but it was difficult to see what he was doing as the camera was mostly on Nico (tambourine) or her 3-year old son, Ari (maraca).