The summer of 1964 Lou Reed returned to Freeport, Long Island. Having just graduated from Syracuse University he refused to bend to his fathers wishes of stable employment as a clerical worker in town. Between pursuing local rock gigs and reviewing literary journal submission guidelines, Reed knew what he wanted was to be a writer or musician. He took his first real, though unromantic, steps in that direction when he landed a job as a tunesmith-for-hire at Pickwick Records. Whether or not this was felt by Reed, this would turn out to be a lucky break, putting him on the path more or less directly leading to the Velvet Underground and fame.
Pickwick Records was a knock-off Brill Building outfit. More akin to farm labor than artistic expression, it was located in an office building in Long Island City, and housed a factory of songwriters churning out style copies of pop hits. Reed would write songs following the fashion-of-the-week under a myriad of invented recording groups.
In a style termed "The Sounds of England" Lou Reed wrote "You're Driving Me Insane" and recorded it under the name The Roughnecks, and for the "Hot Rod" and "Motorcycle" themes we wrote songs "I've Got A Tiger In My Tank" and "Cycle Annie" recorded under the name The Beachnuts, all released on compilation album Soundsville! (1965) Pickwick DLP-187.
Lou Reed also wrote in the style of the Beach Boys with the one-off studio band The Surfsiders on their album The Surfsiders Sing The Beach Boys Songbook (1965) Pickwick DLP-208.
The only notable group of Lou Reed's one-off studio groups were The Primitives. Sometime in late 1964, Lou Reed wrote the song "The Ostrich", a spoof on the innumerable dance fads of the mid '60s.
Uniquely, however, it is considered to be the first commercial pop release to include a guitar tuned to a Trivial Tuning. In brief, Trivial Tuning is when all the strings on a stringed instrument are tuned to the same note. For the version that Lou Reed used on The Ostrich, which he coined "Ostrich guitar", all strings are tuned to D. On this recording, that included the guitar and bass. The upshot to this tuning was a droning repetitive sound that underlies the entire song.
Either in on the joke or just looking for anything reminiscent of a dance fad, The Ostrich was released, along with its B-side Sneaky Pete, as a single by Pickwick in 1965. It was recorded by The Primitives who were invented just for that session. The studio line-up was assembled by Pickwick director Terry Philips to include himself and staffers Lou Reed, Jerry Vance, and Jimmie Sims.
The release got more attention than was expected, however, and Philips decided to put together a group to tour the single. As the story goes he went to a party on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to look for "long haired" bohemian-type replacements for himself, Vance and Sims. There he met John Cale and Tony Conrad and invited them to join the band.
A Welsh avant-garde multi-instrumentalist, John Cale was an alumni of La Monte Young’s group Theatre of Eternal Music, had come to the United States from Wales, UK in 1963, and had already worked on a few John Cage projects. Tony Conrad also an avant-garde musician who was a fellow bandmate of Cale's in Theatre of Eternal Music. They were roommates at the time.
With the offer of work if they found a percussionist they invited Walter De Maria to round out the group. Sharing the same circle as Cale and Conrad, Walter De Maria was friends with La Monte Young but was not a professional musician himself, mainly focusing instead on sculpture and the visual arts.
The touring line-up for The Primitives are photographed here with a fifth man who is identified only by the inscription Ari Petel. L-R: Tony Conrad, Lou Reed, Ari Petel, Walter De Maria, John Cale. (Lou Reed Papers)
First performing at The Hotel Riverside Plaza, currently a condominium named The Level Club on West 73rd St. in Manhattan, The Primitives only played a few shows together. With the little public interest that The Ostrich ever had quickly evaporating, the tour was deemed a failure and the band broke up. However John Cale would stay on at Pickwick, joining Lou Reed as in-house songwriter.
Thanks to their respective backgrounds in drone music and experimentation, they would continue collaborating, and become close friends.
By 1965 Lou Reed had suddenly become surrounded by former and current members of La Monte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music, also known as the Dream Syndicate. While Reed did not himself come from a background of avant-garde, his interest in melding of popular Rock music with droning experimental sounds such as when using his Ostrich Guitar techniques would find him like minded collaborators then and for the rest of his career. At the very least in 1965 it played a part in bringing Reed and John Cale together and would be an integral inspiration and practice used throughout their collaborations.
Although temporary, the tenure of The Primitives had 3 key consequences.
On a personal level it must have crystalized Lou Reed's relationship with the avant-garde world of Drone Music, a sound that would be both a muse and a motivation for the rest of his life. Without a formal background or training in the genre, the exposure to classically trained and professionally practiced auditory experimenters must necessarily have been hugely influential.
For John Cale, the Primitives marked his first step into popular music, a journey that as of writing, September 2022, has yet to conclude. Having been trained at Goldsmith College, University of London, and working with John Cage and La Monte Young, his background was as far from the mainstream as one can get.
Lastly, and on an even larger scale, it brought John Cale and Lou Reed together, kicking off one of the most heralded and influential collaborations of Rock Music. Only lasting another 4 years in it's initial iteration, their collaboration would give rise to 3 studio albums, a live album, and the world renowned The Velvet Underground.