True, there’s never a shortage of 24-hour wonders (either involving chimpanzees and/or battery acid), let alone new angles on long-running news stories. And yet, sometimes it’s nice to take a step back to immerse one’s self in something with more substance. When I write, there’s always a song playing in the background, so today I decided to write about that instead. The song in question is ‘Venus in Furs’ by The Velvet Underground. It might be over fifty years old, but it still sounds like nothing else; and it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard it – it always sounds sinister. Few records have ever managed to manufacture such an eerie ambience with so few instruments, and as crucial a role as the Eastern-tinged guitar and brutally primal drums play in the claustrophobic wall of sound, there’s no denying the guilty party responsible for the unsettling atmosphere is that circular saw of a viola, curling and swirling its way in and out of the rhythm section like a greased electric eel. It applies the weapons of the avant-garde to a conventional melodic structure and makes a marriage of glorious inconvenience in the process.
But while ‘Venus in Furs’ may share something of the night with the likes of the Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’, it lacks that ominous anthem’s apocalyptic, epic scale. No, this hymn to the deviant delights of S&M is very much a domestic drama, a private party taking place behind closed doors and between consenting adults seeking mutual arousal in the illicit. It might chill the spine, but it also stirs something many would rather remained unstirred. I first heard it as a 17-year-old when, prompted by constant references to the Velvets as an influential act, I bought the band’s first LP; it was the only way to hear them; I couldn’t just pop onto YouTube in the mid-80s, and nobody I knew had ‘killed music’ by home-taping it for me. It was the fourth track on side one, the first song I heard on the album that really made me realise what all the fuss was about. Frankie Goes To Hollywood were playing with the same imagery at the time, but I had to remind myself ‘Venus in Furs’ had predated ‘Relax’ by almost two decades.
And it is the song’s subject matter that isolates it from the cluster of nihilistic walks on the wild side that are retrospectively collected as symbolic of the 1960s drawing to a gruesomely shuddering halt. For one thing, its 1966 recording predates even the Summer of Love, and it appeared long before Manson and Altamont and the iconic revolutionary fervour that characterised the spirit of ’68. It could be perceived as a sneering slice of New York cynicism aimed at a naive culture with its head in the Californian clouds, a petulant East Coast anomaly at odds with the zeitgeist; and while there’s possibly a grain of truth to that when one takes Lou Reed’s infamously awkward attitude into account, the fact the song is about sex rather than drugs places it in a different category altogether from its contemporaries.
Sex as a subject matter had fuelled early Rock ‘n’ Roll and earned it a good deal of its initial notoriety in the process, but it was superseded by the far less problematic love as a preoccupation and then by an increasing range of political, social and lysergic lyrical concerns as the 60s progressed. The odd notable exception aside – ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’, for example – sex outside of R&B and Soul wasn’t really selling in the mid-60s. And nobody in pop music was singing about ‘unhealthy’ sex – that is, the kinky kind of sex promoted in cheap, sensationalistic pulp fiction of the sort that gave ‘Venus in Furs’ its title. Only grubby little shops in Soho dirtied their fingers (and other parts of their anatomies) with that.
When ‘sexy’ pop records are discussed, ‘Venus in Furs’ doesn’t often get a look in. But it is sexy, no doubt about it. It just takes an unusual musical approach to the subject, employing none of the tricks and gimmicks that usually embellish self-consciously ‘sexy’ songs to sonically simulate an orgasm. There are no silky strings or pouty female vocals, but without John Cale’s droning, electrified viola, the sound of the song would be radically altered, and it is his viola – a strange instrument to be found on a pop record to begin with – that gives the track its distinctive, arousing element; but that arousal is one that appears under-the-counter because the invitation to this particular party suggests it’s going to be rather naughty.
Nobody is going to be adopting the missionary position to ‘Venus in Furs’; even if whips, handcuffs and all the rest of the familiarly fetishist paraphernalia of sadomasochism are left in the cupboard, chances are one of the participants will be on all fours at some point of the evening and enjoying something they’d ordinarily blush at. When in the heat of the moment, however, anything goes. And acknowledgement of this is what enables ‘Venus in Furs’ to retain its decadent magic more than fifty years after its arrival.
Perhaps part of the record’s ongoing appeal is that it harks back to an era when perversions were practiced in the privacy of one’s home with a specially invited audience rather than being streamed to the world. It’s the thought of something divinely decadent taking place behind the lace curtains of an eminently respectable household in an eminently respectable neighbourhood with eminently respectable pillars of the community participating that infuses what the song conjures up in the mind of the listener with such insatiable curiosity.
The over-ground emergence of pornography and the endless demand for rights and recognition of proclivities that seemingly define their practitioners above every other facet of their personalities has served to dull and dilute the once-alluring clandestine thrill of sexual acts previously hidden from the public gaze. No, in an age of ‘porn chic’ and casual mainstream use of imagery once viewed as beyond the acceptable pale, maybe it’s hard to appreciate how shocking ‘Venus in Furs’ – both lyrically and musically – may have once sounded to teenage ears.
But over half-a-century on, the song still possesses a uniquely erotic energy, a licentious slow-burner of an erection stealthily plodding its way through five minutes and twelve seconds of deliciously salacious sexual ecstasy that can just as easily celebrate the company of two as much as three, four or however many more. There may have been nothing like it before, but there’s certainly never been anything quite like it since. It stands – or perhaps stoops – alone.
© The Editor