The Primitives with Lou Reed – “The Ostrich” (1964)

This past Sunday, October 27, 2013, Lou Reed died at the age of 71 from complications caused by a liver transplant. As the creative force behind the influential – and subversive – ‘60’s band known as the Velvet Underground, Reed inspired (either directly or indirectly) nearly every musical artist who has defied the mainstream over the last 45 years. Volumes have been written about how the punk, new wave, and alternative rock genres probably owe their existence to Reed and the Velvets. More of my personal thoughts on Reed and the VU can be found on their respective pages on my website.

While we mourn the passing of the legendary inspiration for so many musical innovators, I wish to point out a little-known rarity from Reed’s earliest years in the recording business: a single from before his Velvet Underground days.

One of the things that made Reed different from his peers was his unconventional way of tuning his guitar. He did this in such a way that all the strings were tuned to “D”, in order to achieve a droning effect that is common in avant garde music. This type of method is traditionally called “trivial tuning”, but Reed gave his version his own name: Ostrich guitar. And where did this name come from?

In 1964, shortly before the formation of the Velvet Underground, Reed worked as a staff songwriter and session musician for Pickwick Records, a budget record distribution label. Reed recorded a single for Pickwick titled “The Ostrich” with a studio band called the Primitives (not to be confused with a late-‘80’s alternative pop band of the same name). The single attracted enough attention to bring about the formation of a live performing version of the Primitives, with John Cale playing bass. The Primitives soon evolved into the Velvet Underground…and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, what did Reed’s pre-VU single sound like? Was it characteristically weird, noisy, abrasive, and defiantly anti-mainstream for its pre-punk time period? Well…yes, as a matter of fact, it can be described that way.

“The Ostrich” comes on like a parody of early-‘60’s dance-themed songs such as “The Loco-Motion” and “Hanky Panky”. The riff is blatantly lifted from the Crystals hit “Then He Kissed Me”, and the sound is like a low-budget imitation (parody?) of Phil Spector’s “wall-of-sound” production style, with background singers who hoot obnoxiously around Lou. Seemingly poking fun at the era’s pop trends, Reed already came across as the type of iconoclastic rebel that he would soon become. The B-side, “Sneaky Pete”, is a slightly less wild doo wop number in the Dion mold. It may have been meant as a straightforward entry in that genre, but those hooting backup singers (who are very annoying here, by the way) do raise some doubt about that. If the song doesn’t give you a headache, you might hear early echoes of White Light/White Heat in it. Maybe this was the moment when the alternative music genre was truly born.

The Primitives - The Ostrich / Sneaky Pete

The Primitives “The Ostrich” (b/w “Sneaky Pete”) (Pickwick City PC-9001) 1964

a. The Ostrich
b. Sneaky Pete