Clip: First VU Recording Found
- TTHE VELVET UNDERGROUND PLAY PORTLAND
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.
N STANDS FOR NORMAN
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.
THREE CHORDS, THE TRUTH, AND ONE EXPENSIVE RECORD
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
The record now resides comfortably in a safe house at significant distance from