Velvet Underground’s Scepter master tapes (and 100 bananas) at The Warhol

Pop & Rock, Sixties

Last year November I received an email from Matt Gray, manager of archives at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, with truly fantastic news: “We recently identified the master tapes to The Velvet Underground & Nico album from a large donation from Warhol’s estate. Exciting to say the least! We’re planning an exhibition in 2023 with the audio as the main focal point. It’s going to be very different than a usual Andy Warhol Museum exhibition and very cool.”

The Warhol has now officially announced the dates of the exhibition: “The Velvet Underground & Nico: Scepter Studio Sessions” opens on May 12, 2023 and will “Run, Run, Run” until September 25. Read the full announcement on The Warhol’s website here.

The newly found treasure: two monophonic reel-to-reel ¼” Scotch master tapes for the Velvet Underground at Scepter Studios, April 1966. Photo The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

So, what are these master tapes?

In four days in April 1966 The Velvet Underground (Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker and the German ‘chanteuse’  Nico) recorded nine songs in the Scepter Studios in New York. The band had yet to sign a record deal. Not bothered by record company executives interference, the Velvets could be their true creative selves and play whatever and however they wanted. Strongly encouraged by their then manager Andy Warhol.

An acetate (or several copies?) of the sessions’ tapes was cut by director of recording Norman Dolph, and sent to record companies. The songs of the newly discovered master tapes are thus not really unknown, because the acetate has found its way to VU-fans in several forms. Remember the story of a man who bought the Norman Dolph acetate at a flea market for not even one dollar, and sold it on eBay for over 25.000. In 2007 the acetate album was bootlegged as ‘Unripened’, with a green banana on cover. In 2012, the recordings of the acetate were released officially by Universal in the 45th Anniversary Deluxe edition of The Velvet Underground & Nico, and separately on vinyl as a Black Friday/Record Store Day release.

My copies of the bootleg Unripened (left, green banana cover), and the official 2012 Record Store Day release Scepter Studios Sessions.

MGM/Verve Records signed the V.U. on May 2, 1966. The Velvet Underground & Nico was released in March 1967, with Warhol’s iconic peelable banana on the cover. With Verve’s Tom Wilson as executive producer, five tracks of the original recordings got a different mix (The Black Angel’s Death Song, All Tomorrow’s Parties, I’ll Be Your Mirror, Femme Fatale, Run Run Run), and four titles were completely re-recorded (European Son, Heroin, Venus In Furs and Waiting For The Man).

“The original Scepter master tapes were given to Warhol after the album’s creation and have remained unheard since that time”, according to The Warhol Museum. “Although an acetate version, which was made from these master tapes, was released for the 45th anniversary of the album, it is of a different sonic quality, given the generation loss inherent in an analog copy.”

“The music from the tapes will play continuously in the gallery. You’re hearing the album as the band originally intended”, says Matt Gray. “The track listing alone is a retelling of the album; the quality of sound is remarkable; it gives you a new perspective.”

Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground in 1966. From left to right: Nico, Warhol, Moe Tucker, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and John Cale. PHOTO STEVE SCHAPIRO

The track listings of the Scepter sessions and the final album release on Verve are signifantally different. If you are just familiar with the Verve release, you are in for “a sonic surprise” indeed. For the Verve album, producer Tom Wilson had the band record a brand new song, not present on the Scepter studio recordings: Sunday Morning. This (relatively) sweet sounding song became the opening track of The Velvet Underground & Nico album. The song served two purposes: getting radio airplay, and gently lure the listener into the album, before all mayhem breaks loose.

Opening track of the Scepter tapes, on the other hand, is European Son (which on the Verve album comes as very last, in a different and shorter take): a song with very short and strange lyrics, and then followed by nine minutes of vintage Velvet Underground instrumental chaos and breaking glass. A great track, but be prepared! Not out, but in with a bang!

The exhibition also offers some other interesting ‘Velvet Undergroundiana’: a selection of photographs from 1966/67 by Steve Schapiro (check out his recently published, very expensive Warhol coffee table book at Taschen); unseen footage of the band performing live; more than thirty Warhol Screen Tests featuring the five members of the band filmed during the peak of their collaboration in 1966; and hooray – this is a blog on Warhol cover art after all: 100 copies of the “banana album”, all from the collection of Velvets enthusiast Mark Satlof.

The Velvet Underground & Nico: Scepter Studio Sessions is curated by Ben Harrison, The Warhol’s senior director of performing arts and programming, in collaboration with Matt Gray, manager of archives, and Greg Pierce, director of film and video.

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