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9975Clip: First VU Recording Found

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  • Barry Mazor
    Nov 30, 2004

      by Ryan Dirks

      How an Original Velvet Underground Acetate Wound Up in Portland
      (And Could Be the Most Expensive Record in the World!)

      Yard sales are like junior high dances. You show up full of anticipation, bump
      into a lot of people, and then leave disappointed. But in both cases, an
      ineffable sense of possibility spawns return, over and over. Maybe this time
      I'll slow dance with Tiffany Pfeiffer. Maybe this time I'll find a first edition
      of Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Maybe my life will change within the

      And so earlier this year, with flickering expectation, Warren Hill picked
      through some old records at a yard sale in Chelsea, New York. They seemed
      out of place compared with the rest the junk, like a box that had been
      forgotten in the attic and left untouched by a string of disinterested tenants.
      He pulled out a soggy copy of the Modern Lovers' first LP and then he saw it, a
      record with no sleeve and only a few hand-written words on the label: "Velvet
      Underground... 4/25/66... N. Dolph." He bought it for $0.75.


      Back in the spring of 1966, Bonanza was lighting TV sets and John Lennon was
      declaring the Beatles "more popular than Jesus," but at a Polish Community Hall
      called the Dom in New York City's East Village, a modern myth was created. The
      Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a music-art-freak-out-happening, was the
      collaborative effort of Andy Warhol, his Factory followers, and the Velvet
      Underground. Epic versions of songs like "All Tomorrow's Parties" were played
      at deafening volumes, dancers cracked whips, colored strobe lights flashed,
      and projected films drenched the audience, the walls, and the band in broken
      images of Edie Sedgwick's face.

      Warhol was keen to capitalize on the buzz surrounding the events. In hopes of
      maintaining the band's abrasive sound and seedy subject matter, he saw the
      need for a completed record, one that could be given to record labels without
      allowing them creative control. In exchange for one of his paintings, Warhol
      asked a sales executive at Columbia Records to oversee a one-day recording
      session at the dilapidated Scepter Studios. He would not be credited as a
      producer, but he would play an integral part in the Velvet Underground's
      earliest studio recordings. That man's name was Norman Dolph.

      On a single day in April, Dolph sat behind Scepter's mixing boards as the band
      recorded what they thought would be their first record. Dolph had an acetate
      (a metallic "master" record) pressed after-hours at Columbia and sent it to the
      executives at the label. He still has the handwritten response he received when
      the acetate was returned, one he has paraphrased as, "You have to be fucking

      After the initial rejection, the band would enlist another "ghost" producer, Tom
      Wilson, re-recording some of the songs and adding others. Eventually, all the
      master tapes would be re-mixed by Wilson and the final product would be
      released as The Velvet Underground and Nico.


      Before returning home to Montreal, Warren Hill went to other sales and bought
      more records, but when he called longtime friend, Portland's Mississippi
      Records' owner Eric Isaacson, the mysterious Velvet Underground record
      seemed like the biggest find.

      "We assumed it was a test pressing at first," recalls Isaacson. "I told Warren
      we could put an $800 price tag on it and put it on the wall at the store."

      Once Hill brought the record to Portland, the two began to realize they were in
      for a bigger payday. The track list was different than the official record
      released by Verve, and a few songs were missing. The sound mix seemed
      weird and versions of some of the songs were markedly different than anything
      either had heard before.

      "You can damage acetates by playing them too much," says Isaacson, "But I put
      it on anyway and right away we were like 'Holy shit!' We knew it was really

      Hill tracked down the phone number for Norman Dolph and, after verifying the
      serial number, the former producer confirmed that it was the record he had
      pressed for Columbia executives. Because the original master tapes of the
      Scepter session have been lost or destroyed, it remains as a one-of-a-kind
      testament to the band's first studio session, containing "lost" versions of
      "Venus in Furs," "I'm Waiting for the Man," and "Heroin." The last time Dolph
      saw the record, it was collecting dust in Warhol's estate. How it ended up in a
      Chelsea attic remains a mystery, as does its future.

      "We're petrified and don't really know how to sell it" says Isaacson. "We got an
      offer right away for $10,000, but we turned it down."

      Not bad for a $0.75 investment. It now seems likely that the record will become
      the most expensive ever sold, exceeding the sale of Bob Dylan's Blonde on
      Blonde acetate and topping $40,000. Like finding the U.S. Constitution behind a
      painting, it's the kind of event that will drive yard sale attendance for years
      to come.

      The record now resides comfortably in a safe house at significant distance from
      Mercury readers.