At a young age, I learned the meaning of kitsch from the Monkees, because I constantly listened to the radio, bought albums, and heard the difference between them and the bands that were expanding rock music. The Monkees were immediately different from the English blues based bands that came before. They were a popular band that became more about what they were than what their music was about. And their myth goes something like this: In 1966, too many bands were serious, dangerous, or revolutionary, and America wanted a band to puppy love. This sweetheart space was earlier occupied by the lovable fab four and bands like the Herman Hermits, the Young Rascals, and the Lovin’ Spoonful. Filmmakers Robert Rafelson and Bert Schneider held auditions, and enough power, to invent a band for a television show in prime time. The Beatles were now so advanced with Rubber Soul and Revolver, that it would be impossible to fit them in a worn out Beatles’ shoe version of a teenie-bopper TV show. But Rafelson and Co. had the sense that the younger sisters and brothers, who missed the first flash of Richard Lester’s kicky, free-wheeling, Hard Days’ Night, were now emerging as a strong audience. You could almost read the predictable formula from their Hollywood corporate desks…”mmm, John Lennon said that?… Oh shit… Lets invent a lovable american version of the Beatles, but we gotta put a cute little Brit in there somewhere. We’ll make ’em jump and dance around, make up wacky stories about a band that’s trying to make it. And if they can’t play, by God, we’ll give them songs to play. They’ll be innocent and safe with girls, but they can’t run off with ’em – we need ’em in a band. It will be a hit!” The Monkees were then commercially forced on an already distracted TV audience, who hungered for pop, yet were bloated from the Tiger Beat parade of 45 rpm bands like Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Blues Magoos, and Dino, Desi, and Billy. But nobody knew any Monkees songs before they hit TV. The Monkees were not played on the radio, but each week, bit by bit, we heard them mime act to a recorded song on their show. Their songs were strange and off in comparison to what was really going on in rock. Some of the Monkee’s songs had this weird tango beat or a country/western flavor, and they were always bringing in new angles and psychedelia to their catchy sound. Their pop songs were fun – about girls – full of tambourine or maracas over a softer drum beat, light-weight on the bass, a twangy Byrds type of 12 string guitar, and garage band farfisa organ with a circus waltz type of riff. You could easily sing their songs, and they had a sort of manifesto – “Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees and we’ve got something to say!” They even had their own designer car – the Monkeemobile – a warped, souped up, red GTO. But as the show moved along, they were always labeled kitsch with their musical dialogue to the Beatles. Their kitsch was retracing the Beatles Hard Day’s Night aura in a fantastic sunny contemporary LA – somewhere near the beach. The boys had matching outfits, got along living with each other in the same room, and were forever rushing to the next gig with a late payment to the landlord. Their musical processes were magical, hidden, and they were never seen practicing on the show as you might expect. The featured song of the show, with today’s sense – a music video, was a performance on a shallow stage with a montage of wacky scenes from the show, and thus the inspiration for the episode itself. The shows were gentle stoner comedies with sight gags, slapstick, and bell and whistle sound effects. Besides the Beatles’ films, the Monkees show owed a lot to earlier Gidget/Moondoggy surfer films with their fun-loving, fight the goofy bad guy, scenes. Producer Don Kirshner unfairly hyped the Monkees as being as popular as the Beatles (montage concert shots with screaming girls). Yet, “Kitschner” viewed them as actors not musicians, and they fought against him at the risk of their careers (Peter Tork left the show). It was left to them to deliver the goods by playing live somewhere. It turned out The Monkees had to prove they could actually play. Where did they come from? – sheer invention. Who wrote their songs? – Carole King and Neil Diamond were some of the many talents who tried so hard to write them hits and elevate them to the level of the Beatles. A large young audience were waiting for them. They managed to charm the dickens out of us. The powers primed us as much as a pop audience could be. Their first album was released minutes after their first show began and to no surprise shot to number one. We were waiting for them and they became something more than what we expected of them. (Author’s note: We lost Davy Jones at age 66 on 2-29-2012)
Like the Monkees, the Velvet Underground became something more than what they were. Nothing really happened for them until they somehow met Andy Warhol and he became their manager. Their fate was sealed when he chose them as his Factory house band. They could now hang around like Warhol pets, get publicity for their shows, and even get attention from high-brow art critics such as David Antin. Yet, Andy,in his own Warhol style, as with film, he did nothing but watch the recording roll, and the Velvets were free to do as they pleased in the studio and at the Factory. Now, with their association to high art and high society, the Velvet Underground became not only popular, but suspect as a fabricated band, that is, a band with a ready made Warhol stamp. This stigma was further advanced when Warhol made the banana cover for their first album. Yes, even kids could own a Warhol print by buying a Velvet Underground record. High art through rock was now produced for the people. But the Velvet Underground were dark and not a teenage band. Their songs were about hard drug usage, S&M sex, and reflections of the hard knocks in the big city. They were so seedy, that even when they played a soft ballad, it came off as disingenuous. They played loud on stage, but on record, debates still go on about how good they were. The Factory offered a stage for the Velvets, and for the most part, they really didn’t have to suffer the criticisms and the hassles of touring around the country. They also played regularly at the Boston Tea Party – a Boston night club. The Velvet Underground became one of those rare cult bands that are untouchable; their street tough aura sealed in the plasticity of their time, and seemingly beyond the reach of any contemporary criticism. John Cale’s viola and organ playing was the droning experimental center of the band, and after he left, the Velvets softened their tone. At this point, the party was over, and even Lou Reed eventually jumped this messy ship. Yet, to this day, Lou Reed still faithfully adheres to his Velvet’s sunglasses, black leather, and artsy-decadent heroin spiked past. The Velvet Underground have always played like they’re bored. They copied the ennui posture and cool indifference of Warhol. This is a hard band to like over time. Nico’s deep listless voice, Reed’s sloppy scuffling guitar playing within a wall of sound, and bad recording, really start to drag than come off as ecstatic spontaneity. But in their time, the Velvet Underground and the Factory created a total sensory experience for the audience. This was a performance that built up intensity and visual layers during the course of an evening. George English, writing in the Fire Island News, describes the Factory’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable in the following: “The rock ‘n’ roll music gets louder, the dancers get more frantic, and the lights start going on and off like crazy. And there are spotlights blinking in our eyes, and car horns beeping, and Gerard Malanga and the dancers are shaking like mad, and you don’t think the noise can get any louder, and then it does, until there is one big rhythmic tidal wave of sound, pressing down around you, just impure enough so you can still get the best; the audience, the dancers, the music and the movies, all of it fused together into one magnificent moment of hysteria.” The Velvet Underground was part of the Factory’s phenomena, and they certainly became more important by introducing their subject matter into the pop world. They forced their audience to grow up. Update: We lost Lou Reed to an ongoing liver illness October 27, 2013. His lyrics continue to resonate with the passing years.