The following is a conversation transcript between Jerry Dannemiller, director of marketing and communications at the Wexner Center, and Mark Richardson, managing editor of Pitchfork and one of the speakers at Peel Slowly and See: Warhol, Music, and Image, a panel discussion at the center on November 20, 2008. After the discussion, Mark will also be signing copies of the newly released book, The Pitchfork 500.
JD: What kind of tack or spin are you planning on taking when you talk about Andy Warhol and music here next week?
MR: Well, a lot of this is still being refined, but one of the things I’ve always found very interesting is how the Velvet Underground has become such a critical institution. They’ve always been talked about in terms of, only X number of people ever bought a record, they’re always discussed in terms of influence, and their later critical reception, which has been a huge part of what they’re about. I’m interested in how they were received at the time, or what they originally were: it was all in place and has sort of been glorified. One of the ways to do that is thinking about what their music was like in those early years, especially when Warhol first presented them to the world and made the early part of their career possible by sponsoring them. It’s interesting to go back and read some of the reactions to what people experienced when they saw them back then, because they really were a very different kind of band.
Earlier this year a very rare recording of them from 1967 surfaced called Live at the Gymnasium. The Gymnasium was a club in New York City that Andy Warhol owned and put on shows at, and they had a couple of gigs there in April 1967. On it is a pretty good recording of the first known version of their song “Sister Ray,” which is one of their more notorious and extreme-sounding songs. Going back and hearing that song this year really made me think about 1967, and how it was ten years on from what was essentially the first band where rock n’ roll was really accepted as the leading force in culture and music. If you go back and think about the time between 1957 and 1967 and all the changes that music underwent in that period, it’s really astonishing. A lot of what the Velvet Underground did… it wasn’t so much that it was a brand new idea but here was a band that considered themselves a rock band. One thing that is interesting about the Velvet Underground is that in some ways they are such an American band, and exactly what Warhol’s role was in the direction they took that year. It’s always been understood that he didn’t know much technically about producing music even though he was listed as the producer of their first record, but he was the one that really pushed Nico to be part of the band and he definitely encouraged Lou Reed to go further out in terms of experimenting with noise and subject matter. Thinking about them as an American rock n’ roll band in 1967. There are some interesting things there that I want to explore with the talk.
JD: That’s great, and just how they worked for the time. The myth has obviously grown over the last forty years, and at the time they weren’t getting the kind of play that West Coast bands like the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane had.
MR: Those are definitely interesting parallels because all those groups were accepted into pop music, which to me is some pretty serious experimentation as well for them to be accepted in that same plane.
JD: That sounds great, and I don’t want to spoil it anymore, and folks can certainly hear a lot more when you’re here. So now can you tell us a little bit about the Pitchfork book that you edited, which is coming out, I believe, next week?
MR: Yes, it comes out Tuesday, November 11, 2008.
JD: Pitchfork 500.
MR: I’m a contributing editor of the book. It’s a collection of what we consider to be the 500 most significant songs in pop music beginning in 1977 and going through 2007, so it’s over a thirty-year period.
JD: That’s quite a task.
MR: It really is. We’re music critics, we’re story-oriented people; we really didn’t want to just say here is a list of the songs. We wanted to try and tell a story in music for that period through these 500 songs. We hope it reads more like a story of music during that stretch as told through these 500 amazing songs that cover the full gamut of music. The 500 songs form the core of the book and tell the story, but there are also a number of sidebars for strange musical tangents that weren’t necessarily key to telling that main story but are also interesting on their own.
JD: That sounds great, and again we’ll have some copies on sale here and available for signing at the Wexner Center, so if folks are interested in picking that up we’ll have that here for them. And then there’s another book that you are totally responsible for, coming out early next year. It’s one of the 33 1/3 books, the great series that Continuum does, and this one on the Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka. Tell us how you honed in on that one.
MR: Are you familiar at all with what Zaireeka is?
JD: Yes. The four separate channels and the whole “sensurround” experience.
MR: There are two things for me in that album. I thought it was pretty interesting, just as an experimental, rock-type album. I’ve always been really, really interested in the idea of an album that is not convenient to listen to, especially in this era where convenience rules everything.
MR: I think that Zaireeka as an album made a lot of people angry because it’s really a pain in the neck to actually make it happen. But it turned music into a social experience, and especially since then, what has been lost a little bit is the idea that listening to music is something that people do collectively with nothing else going on. Now it seems like a really strange idea to buy an album that doesn’t have a DVD that comes with it. So I am really, really interested in this idea of an album that forces you to listen to it in a certain way that turns it into an event. That is ultimately something rare that people weren’t going to be able to do but a few times in their life properly. And it’s a way to try and control this attention because it’s not something that you can do casually. It sort of makes people want to make the experience count.
JD: I’ve read a bunch of those 33 1/3 books and they’re wildly all over the map in terms of the approach that the author uses. Have you done more of a factual retelling of the album?
MR: My book is going to be divided into sections, and part of it is going to be the nuts and bolts of how it came together, which is an interesting story in itself.
JD: That was when they were doing the “Parking Lot Experiments.”
MR: Yep, exactly. It evolved out of that. It was right after Clouds Taste Metallic when the guitarist, Ronald Jones, quit the band. They were sort of uncertain of what to do, either get a guitarist or go on as a trio. Around that time Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd started making tapes that they ultimately put as the “Parking Lot Experiments” and they did a number of those, and started thinking about what they would be like (inaudible). Another part of my book is going to tell the story of the convention of album making over the years. I kind of wanted to explore how the album is a piece of art that has been experienced over the years, going back to the earliest days of recorded music.
JD: That sounds really great, and that is out when, Mark?
MR: It should be spring of next year.
JD: Sounds good, that’s great. Again, I want to encourage folks to come here on Thursday, November 20 at 5 pm in our Wexner Center Film/Video Theater to hear Mark along with Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 and Luna and various other projects since then, and Barry Shank, who is a comparative studies professor here at Ohio State and who actually played in some rock bands on the west coast a long, long time ago.
MR: I actually did a little poking around and saw some of his background, it’s very interesting, he’s a very interesting guy.
JD: He’s a good guy, he’s really looking forward to it, as am I, as are a lot of folks here in Columbus. Mark, thanks again for talking to us today.
MR: Thanks for having me.