Velvet Underground

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Kink Culture

“Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather

Kink in popular music between “The Velvet Underground” and mainstream


Published on 24 January 2021
Text by Michael

When Rihanna sings:

Sticks and stones may break my bones  
But chains and whips excite me

or Adam Lambert appears in a leather costume in a music video, it’s not a big provocation anymore. It remains something exciting for many vanilla listeners, an adventure, which some dare to experience, before they return to the “normal” side. When the book “Fifty shades of grey” was published in 2011, many were surprised, that it got so many positve reactions among New York housewives. Surprise! Even if there are many areas, in which this still isn’t the case, it made clear: this whole topic has entered popular culture even further.

When Madonna provoked with her song “Erotica” in the 90s, or when Depeche Mode did with “Master and Servant” in 1984, both took bigger waves. But that was totally different from what happened, when the band “The Velvet Underground” produced their music in the late 60s and early 70s. The band’s name “The Velvet Underground” relates to underground movies, which were common at that time. Which meant no “Low-“, but “No-Budget-Films”, which could provide a better image of their milieus, because they didn’t include any professional producer or rental companies. But no one of the band objected to the fact, that the band name could also related to a book by Michael Leigh, which was called “The velvet underground” and described sadomasochism and sexual desires of America’s middle class. Singer Lou Reed and musician John Cale found that book in a carbage can from a previous tenant after a relocation.

“The Velvet Underground” with “Nico” and Andy Warhol
(f.l.t.r. “Nico”, Andy Warhol, “Moe” Tucker, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale) ©

They made their first album together with singer “Nico”, a german model. It was supported and produced by Andy Warhol, nowadays well known for his silkscreens and artistical movies; he made the iconic record cover with the banana on it. Warhol’s support given to the band meant an immensely freedom in its producing process, because the recoed label didn’t interefere in that quite unsual sound of a band at that time. Warhol’s backing also gave the band much public attention.

“Peel slowly and see”; below the yellow banana sticker a flesh coloured banana appears. This is the record cover of the Band’s firs album “The Velvet Underground & Nico” from 1967. A band name, or even an album title, are missing in the cover. (©, ©)

The Band wrote songs about drugs, sex, homosexuality and transsexuality. “Sweet Jane” means a prostitute, “I’m waiting for my man” describes a person waiting for a drug dealer, and “Too busy sucking on my ding-dong” explains itself in the song “Sister Ray”, while “Ray” means a transvestite. This caused scandals, but that was not a main motive. This all reflected the everyday life of their own milieu, even more life of the band members. It was meant as counterpoint to the flower power movement. Musical journalist Lester Bangs charakterized the band’s singer as follows: “Lou Reed is a completely depraved pervert and pathetic death dwarf and everything else you want to think he is. […] Lou Reed is the guy that gave dignity and poetry and rock ‘n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide”1 Since Reed was rebellious as a child, took drugs, and because his parents thought, he had homosexual tendencies, he was “cured” with electro shocks; he later wrote about this: “You can’t read a book, because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page 1 again.”2 He was later married to a trans woman, “Rachel”, talked openly about his homosexuality in the 70s, and after that he married again a woman, who he met first in a SM-club.

Lou Reed ©

“No one ever thought about Lou Reed as a rock poet”, said music critic Robert Christgau, “in restrospect it seems to me that he had one of the most authentic and original voices of anyone writing lyrics in the 60s, perhaps the most authentic and original voice, and the reason no one noticed it was, there was nothing even remotedly poetic in the appearance of his lyric. They were very demotic, very conversational, very deadpan, but in fact he was capable of real flights of lyricism”.3 So Lou Reed’s voice actually consists of many different ones: at least a hard and brutal one, a sarcastic and derisive one, a soft one, and a lost and erratic one. John Cale plays his viola electronical distorted, which is quite an unusual instrument for a rock band. Maureen (Moe) Tucker played her drums in her very own way; with a reduced set, in a minimalistic way, while standing. This all together gave them a quite avant-garde appearance.

When the band members found their name, their song “Venus in furs” was just finished. Lyrics in a society, in which BDSM was seen as a desease and practicing it meant committing a crime.

Shiny, shiny, shiny, boots of leather –
Whiplash girlchild in the dark

This relates to the same-titled novel “Venus in furs” by the “Father of SM”, Leopold Sacher-Masoch, of whom the term „masochism“ traces back. The story is about a man, “Severin”, who is looking for a sadomasochistic relationship.

Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather
Shiny leather in the dark
Tongue of thongs, the belt that does await you
Strike dear mistress and cure his heart

and the lines:

Taste the whip, in love not given lightly 
Taste the whip, now bleed for me

are showing these unprettified straightforwardness, even hardness. They touch the correlation between voluntary pain and love – pain as an expression of love.

The content of this song also expresses itself musically. As always with good songs, not only lyrics talks to listeners, but also music does. At the beginning of the song, some harmonies are played, which oscillate between different tonalities, either the more optimistic and festice major keys, or the more solemn and sad minor keys. The song starts without any long intro; it starts abruptly. The chorus differes in its mood from the verses, as if the person talking would wake up from a dream. John Cale plays his electric viola quite dissonant, with tones completely foreign to the main key of the song. Lou Reed produces a “Drone”-sound with his guitar at the end of the song, where he tuned all strings of his guitar in the same note – he calls it “Ostrich guitar”4 So this all makes a quite tense sound, as if not fitting spheres would meet, collide, looking for a way out.

Video 1: The Velvet Underground: Venus in furs

This music had its resonating body in their particular generation. Therefore, listening to it nowadays, this music could sound a bit strange. But in this case, it even amplifies its effect even more, because its sound was designed to irritate, provoke and dusturb. The band wasn’t commercially successful during all its four years of existance. Not until later they developed to an influencial myth. “This was hard to suss out at the time, which is probably why people are still learning from it”, as Christgau statet it.5 This song and the band’s music in particular was seen later as a prototype for many punk bands, as “The Sex Pistols”, which relate in their clothing, symbols, and lyrics to the “Velvets”. David Bowie got influenced by them as well; he and Reed even produced music togehter at the beginning of Reed’s successful solo career. And Patti Smith also took some borrowings form that band. Eventually it layed the ground for the musical appearance of “Queen”/Freddie Mercury, Elton John and U2.

Above: Exhibition to the band in Paris in 2016; below: Graffiti of Lou Reed in Melbourne. “Take a walk on the wild side” is one of his well known songs from his album “Transformer”, 1972, produced together with David Bowie (© ©)

But circumstances have changed over decades: So has become Kink a normal topic in contemporary music, just a blunt povocation? Western societies have liberalized, plualized and individualized since the 60s: sexual minorities got more rights, became accepted even more; but also self-referentiality in the whole society increased. The media’s role has changed as well: not only what’s written in the “Rolling Stone”, or in arts sections of newspapers is predominant anymore; new media emerged. Everyone can be self-effective, can write text on a blog or send some tweets. This raises one’s own range, but it also reduces exchange and a feeling of common sense between different milieus and filter bubbles. As an effect of the commercialization of music industry, artists became more cautious as well. Rihanna’s managers surely have considered, to what extend such a song has an effect on her image and her selling value. Even if earlier bands have acted in a similar way, commercialization, especially at an early stage of their careers, was not that widespreaded. They wrote songs to a greater extend based on experiences of their own lives. If such songs were sung against prevailing law, this was of course a provocation too, but with a much higher risk for the musicians, than just to produce a damage to one’s own image.

The entry of an art into mainstream culture is a balancing act. On the one hand it means profanization of its own substance, on the other hand, there is a sincere effort of artists, to convey their art into mainstream. Remaining in a subculture area diminishes further acceptance, when they keep on emphasising their yearslong special role (which of course wasn’t choosen voluntarily). On the contrary, a subculture must evade its own dilution, when it takes its own content seriously; because many fans in mainstream culture don’t know what a particular topic means at its core, beyond a fashion trend.

A glimpse back to a starting point of something shows exactly this, it’s always a kind of appreciation for achievements, and it provides a feeling for something “initial”. It shows the band and Lou Reed as a role model for fighting for freedoms in societies, it offers motivation for “continuing to work” on one’s own ideas and projects, even if it evokes no recognition – or even incomprehension; and it also refers to a still vibrant power of this song from the “Velvets”.

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This text as audio podcast:

Audio: Kink in Music – Between "The Velvet Underground" and Mainstream Music Kinky Flamingo Blog

(What you hear is not the voice of the author of this text)

Related videos to this topic:

Video 2: The Velvet Underground: Heroin (at their reunification in 1993. Characteristical here: Reed’s dry voice, Tucker plays her drums standing, and Cale’s almost “screaching” viola at the end of this song)

Video 3: The Velvet Underground: Pale blue eyes

Video 4: The Velvet Underground: I’ll be your mirror (sung by “Nico” with her awesome-awful german accent 😉 )

Sources:
1Lester Bangs: „Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves or, How I Slugged It Out with Lou Reed & Stayed Awake”, Creem, Vol. 6, No. 10, March, 1975, pp. 38-9.
2Lou Reed, cit. in: Legs McNeil und Gillian McCain: Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. Grove Press, New York 1996, p. 4.
3Robert Christgau, cit. in: The Velvet Underground, The South Bank Show, ITV, 1986.
4David Cheal: Venus in Furs — The Velvet Underground’s chilling drone-rock track was highly influential, Financial Times, 09. November 2020, URL.
5Robert Christgau: The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground and Nico, in: Verve, 1967, URL.

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