Faber Social present: Jon Savage on Sonics and The Factory

Faber Social is the unerringly cool arm of London’s Faber & Faber publishing house. Over the coming months we will be featuring exclusive essays, extracts and articles from some of their finest authors.

In this essay, Britain’s foremost pop writer Jon Savage highlights the importance of music to Warhol’s work within The Factory and the multi-media saturation that ensued, ultimately became the defining aesthetic of the 1960s:

In Warhol’s elegiac account of the early days of the 47th Street Factory, he remembers how Billy Name ‘brought in a phonograph from somewhere’ as part of the space’s refurbishment. Name had a big collection of opera records – by Maria Callas in particular – and Warhol recalled how they ‘were all mixed in with the 45’s I did my painting to, and most times I’d have the radio on while the opera was going, and so songs like “Sugar Shack” or “Blue Velvet” or “Louie, Louie”––whatever was around then––were blended in with the arias’.

This would form an aural collage, an environment with clashing opposites. Remembering his routine for 1964, Warhol remarked how, after a long night working then partying, he would get in to the ‘Factory by early afternoon. As I walked in, the radio and the record player would both be blasting — “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” mixed with Turandot, “Where Did Our Love Go?” with Donizetti or Bellini, or the Stones doing “Not Fade Away” while Maria Callas did Norma.’

Reflecting off the newly mirrored silver foil, covered in silver foil, Warhol’s Factory became a research laboratory of sound, an environment of clashing opposites. This was an early appearance (1963-4) of the simultaneity that would become part of the sixties experience: the saturation in various media forms that became a way of life and then an aesthetic. Just the like the Beatles – who in 1963 were described by writer Michael Braun as simultaneously listening to the radio, watching TV, playing guitar and idly gossiping – Warhol was a master of this new consciousness.


Littered through “Pop-ism” are several records that were playing in the Factory while Warhol was silk-screening the pictures that would make his name (and which remain imperishable 20th century documents): “You Don’t Own Me”, “Where Did Our Love Go”, “A House Is Not A Home”, “Dancing in the Street”, “The Name Game”. Fascinated by pop in all its forms – as music, as art, as a mode perception, as indeed the true nature of America itself – Warhol weaves Girl Group hits, Motown and the Stones into a seamless strip of Superpop.

Superpop – a phrase coined in 1962 by the dandyish British crime writer Derek Raymond – described the first full innocence of pop music, not as Rock’n Roll, but as pure mass production product: pure melody, teenage yearning and transparent, transient emotion. Both Warhol and Lou Reed, the leader of the Velvet Underground, adored the 1963 hit by the Jaynettes, “Sally Go Round The Roses” which pushed the teenage mood swings of Superpop into an elliptical girl-group hymn that rises and falls in never-ending, cyclical waves of sadness and regret.

Lou Reed conceptualised Pop – in particular Superpop – as the only ‘living thing’ in a long essay for “Aspen” magazine, the only art form that truly reflected and enhanced the contemporary world. Warhol didn’t conceptualise at all, hiding behind a blank facade of dark sunglasses, deliberate vagueness or quite brutal negation. The problem for both was that by 1965, the innocence of Superpop had gone: the breakthrough of Pop as life, as the environment of the Now! had already happened, and the serpent of self-consciousness was let loose.

One incident showed how the ultimate drift of art was not painting, was not even the mass production of silk-screens or 45rpm records, but in Happenings. In early October 1965, Warhol traveled to Philadelphia for a major retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Curator Sam Green sent out six thousand invites for a 400 capacity space, which was more like a discotheque than an art gallery. To the amplified sounds of “It’s All Over Now” and Ian Whitcomb’s campy “You Turn Me On,” the crowd of about a thousand people slowly boiled over.

Chanting “we want Andy and Edie,” they cornered Warhol and his immediate retinue up against a closed-off ceiling. Warhol was both terrified and thrilled. He had become a rock star: ‘I’d seen kids scream over Elvis and the Beatles and the Stones — rock idols and movie stars — but it was incredible to think at it happening at an ART opening. Even a Pop Art opening. But then, we weren’t just AT the art exhibit — we WERE the art exhibit, we were the art incarnate and the sixties were really about people, not what about what they did’.

That winter, Warhol announced his ‘retirement’ from painting and got involved with the Velvet Underground. The new condition of art was The Happening, a multi-media extravaganza that encompassed several art forms in an overwhelming sensorium that shocked the viewer and participant out of their normal frame of reference. Warhol had attempted to work with musicians before, but the Velvet Underground were perfect for his purposes: avant-garde yet pop, experienced in the downtown scene and familiar with film-makers.

The result was the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, that found its fullest expression in its April 1966 residency at the Dom in St. Marks’ Place New York. In this new kind of environment, the radical sound of the Velvet Underground mixed with filmed back projections (taken from a number of Warhol’s “Screen Tests”), strobe lights, patterned spot lights and the shards of light travelling around the room from a mirror ball. The whole idea was to create an atmosphere well described in a contemporary account as ‘everything occurring simultaneously’.

Just as the Velvet Underground jammed Doo Wop, Superpop and Rolling Stones riffs against the previously untapped resource of minimalistic drones and explored in depth the distortion (another kind of environmental music) already pioneered by the Beatles and the Who, then Warhol took his painter’s eye into the world of sound, installation, film and music. It was a gigantic cultural mash-up, and you can still hear the traces in “The Velvet Underground and Nico” and all the music that it inspired.

1966: The Year The Decade Exploded by Jon Savage is out now from Faber.

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