It’s Friday night and Clarence dock is basking under the evening sun where thousands have descended to kick-off their Sound City weekend and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of the prophetic album The Velvet Underground and Nico with John Cale and a collective of hand-picked artists.
Hailing from Wales, Cale moved to New York to study classical music in the late sixties where he met the legendary singer-songwriter Lou Reed, recruiting guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker to finally form The Velvet Underground. They released their debut album with its iconic peeling banana cover in 1967, but without the guidance of Andy Warhol and the glamour of the German-born singer Nico, these pioneering misfits may have been hidden in the underground avant-garde music scene of Manhattan till many years later.
As once proclaimed by Brian Eno, their debut album achieved minimal commercial success in the years following its release, but those who did buy it started a band. Artists such as David Bowie, Talking Heads and R.E.M are indebted to this massively influential album, which we were about to celebrate in all its glory.
Cale is an impressively talented multi-instrumentalist and played viola, bass guitar and piano on the record, with occasional backing vocals. Since then he has gone on to work with The Stooges, Manic Street Preachers and Happy Mondays to name a few. Tonight, only Cale remains from the original line up and he was to be joined by special guests including Fat White Family, Super Fury Animals’ frontman Gruff Rhys and The Kills for reimagined performances of the classics including I’ll be your Mirror, Venus in Furs and Sunday Morning.
After many endured the long queue for the ‘Crabbies bus’ and picked up a quick bite – Pure Vegans infamous halloumi fries we’re going down a storm – we were all Waiting for the Man himself, which kicked off the set suitably. I wasn’t sure what I was in for to begin with but once the crowd let loose with the percussive rhythm of the song, I had no doubt this would be a special night. This was chased by another up-tempo classic, White Light/White Heat, with one of rocks greatest contemporary female voices, Alison Mosshart of The Kills, joining Cale.
The mood sobered and as the late orange sun glowed behind stage, the crowd was captivated by Fat White Family frontman Lias Saoudi’s eccentric stage presence, with his version of All Tomorrow’s Parties. Cale took to the front of stage for Venus in Furs and onlookers were lulled willingly into a viola-induced velvety haze of rhythm and strings. Faces of The Factory, including Bob Dylan and Edie Sedgewick, poured across the two large projectors in psychedelic waves, taking us back to the hip hangout of hedonistic Warhol superstars where The Velvet Underground once served as a house band.
Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe added a delicacy to I’ll Be Your Mirror, the recording of which Andy Warhol suggested have a built-in scratch so that the ending would repeat infinitely until the needle was moved. If this idea could have been transferred to the live performance, I’m confident that many would have relished the moment, happily hypnotised, for just a little bit longer.
There was a one-minute silence in respect of the tragic events in Manchester last week, which allowed a moment to reflect on Liverpool’s support for its northerly neighbour. The crowd then broke into huge cheers and there was a real sense of coming together which was timed perfectly with the intro of Run, Run, Run, teamed with Liverpool’s Clinic. This was followed by Black Angel’s Death Song with Gruff Rhys and a beautiful rendition of Femme Fatale by Nadine Shah. Mosshart returned to duet with Cale for the classic Sunday Morning and with the chiming of the celesta I took a moment to absorb the heavenly atmosphere. The appearance of stars in the sky added a finishing touch to this clichéd moment of whimsical positivity.
The emotional sucker punch that is Heroin washed over the crowd before the set came to an epic climax with the seventeen and a half minute masterpiece Sister Ray. “That’s what Sister Ray said!” was chanted throughout by the pumped-up superfans surrounding me who were shedding clothes by the verse, developing into a tops-off frenzy. I think we would all have liked to have seen how this song went down in the sixties.
To witness these songs in this gigantic live set-up probably wasn’t quite as The Velvet Underground had imagined but for each and every person there who has been inspired by this album, it was a precious evening to revel in music and culture and one not to be forgotten.