MOJO Time Machine: The Velvet Underground Play The Exploding Plastic Inevitable

On 1 April, 1966 Andy Warhol staged The Velvet Underground’s art rock happening.


by Fred Dellar |
Published on

1 April, 1966

“COME BLOW YOUR MIND,” read the advert in the previous day’s Village Voice. “The silver dream factory presents the first ERUPTING PLASTIC INEVITABLE.”

Andy Warhol quickly tired of the ‘Erupting’ part. He was still smarting from his split with muse/anima Edie Sedgwick, who’d recently left his orbit for Bob Dylan. But he had to attend to his latest project, The Velvet Underground and the multimedia production he called “the biggest discotheque in the world”. He decided to let the creative universe which revolved around him explode instead.

After its original venue in Queens elected to put on The Young Rascals instead, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable would debut at the Open Stage, an East Village space above Polish community hall the Polski Dom Narodowy, AKA the Dom. Warhol conspirator Paul Morrissey rented it for a month from April 1. Velvets viola player/bassist John Cale remembered it as a dump that smelt of urine. Nonetheless, on the opening afternoon, the group set up their gear, walls were whitewashed, and a light show was assembled.

“It was a show by and for freaks.” 

Lou Reed

“It was a show by and for freaks, of which there turned out to be a great many more than anyone had suspected,” said VU guitarist and main songwriter Lou Reed in 1975. A typical night at the EPI involved simultaneous showings of perverse/banal Warhol movies including Empire, Sleep, Blow Job and Kiss. Slide projectors threw manipulated coloured patterns across surfaces and performers, who were also illuminated by mirror ball, strobe and spotlights. DJ Norman Dolph played soul and R&B. The main draw was the Velvets: with vocalist Nico in white and the rest of the band in black, they played two loud, distorted sets per night of avant-garde rock’n’roll, articulating deviant life in all its vivid glory.

With film of the group rehearsing projected over them as they played, narcotic drama and S&M kink were added to the sensory overload. Excited reports described the band’s performance of Venus In Furs, as Warhol Superstars Mary Woronov (in leather) and Gerard Malanga (in a zebra skin outfit) danced suggestively on-stage brandishing leather whips before he kissed her boots. For Heroin, Malanga feigned intravenous injection using a large pink cake-icing syringe, as Reed generated purging feedback. British broadcaster Charlie Gillett, then studying in New York, went along and wrote in 2007, “I wondered if this was the first time [the VU had] ever played together, as they hammered the same chord relentlessly… I was horrified, but fascinated.”

For the next month, bar the occasional night off, it was the place to be in New York City, with approving press notices, healthy receipts and eminent attendees including Salvador Dali, Allen Ginsberg, Jackie Kennedy and Walter Cronkite. (Catching them at the Village Gate later in the month, however, Frank Sinatra reputedly left immediately). Occasional hiccups – Reed was nearly electrocuted one night, and rumour has it that drummer Moe Tucker had to play miked-up garbage cans for a few gigs after her kit was stolen – were all overcome.

That month also saw the group enter Scepter Studios in midtown Manhattan (later the site of the Studio 54 disco) for four days. Produced by Warhol, and engineered by Columbia employee Dolph with John Licata, Reed told Musician magazine in 1989, “[Andy] didn’t know anything about record production… he just sat there and said, ‘Ooh, that’s fantastic.’” Cale, meanwhile, who remembered Scepter as dilapidated with only four working microphones, described the experience as enjoyable but also the point, thanks to Reed, at which the group began to fracture. Dolph, who was paid with one of Warhol’s ‘Death and Disaster’ prints, took the resulting acetate to his superiors at Columbia and was told, he paraphrased, “Are you out of your fucking mind?”

The Velvets still had ground to cover. The EPI crossed the States to The Trip on Sunset Strip in Hollywood in May, and later to Chicago, where they played without a hepatitis- stricken Reed, before the concept was retired in May 1967. Band cornerstones Heroin, I’m Waiting For The Man and Venus In Furs were re-recorded during the Hollywood stay, appearing beside remixed tracks from the Scepter sessions on debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico, released on Verve in March 1967.

Largely ignored, it sold little, and by 1971 the band was no more. Posthumously, of course, they would be recognised as one of the most influential groups in rock’n’roll and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable as one of their finest hours.

“April 1966 was our best month with [Andy],” Cale reflected in his 1999 memoir What’s Welsh For Zen. “If I could freeze a moment that symbolised the positive character of our work together, it would be on-stage at the Dom.”

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