The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico
Released March, 1967
The Velvet Underground was formed by Lou Reed and John Cale in the mid-sixties. Reed saw himself as a bit of a beat poet and Cale was exploring the world of experimental sounds. After forming several bands they finally settled on The Velvet Underground a couple of years later, with Sterling Morrison also on guitar and Maureen ‘Mo’ Tucker on Drums. Enter stage left Andy Warhol, who became their manager in 1965. Warhol helped the band get exposure and secured them a record deal that afforded them creative control. It was also Warhol that introduced the band to German songstress Nico, and had her record on their debut album “The Velvet Underground & Nico”, recorded in April, 1966 in a four day period for the minimal cost of $1500-$3000.
“The Velvet Underground & Nico” was released in 1967, the year that was “the summer of love”. The year John Lennon sang to us of ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds’, Jefferson’s Airplane told us the tale of the ‘White Rabbit’, Jim Morrison wanted us to light his fire and Syd Barret introduced us to a mouse named Gerald. Drugs and sex where clearly a hot topic, but no other album of the time told the other side of the story, as The Velvet Underground do so unabashedly on tracks like ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’, ‘Heroin’ and ‘Venus in Furs’. Their nihilistic approach to both the music and lyrics not only pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable at the time, but completely obliterated them. And they did so unapologetically. It resulted in an album that was pretty much glossed over critically and had non-existent sales. It was only in later years that people started cottoning on to the special something that was happening here. In 2003, Rolling Stone Magazine listed it at #13 in their ‘500 Greatest Albums of All Time’ declaring “much of what we take for granted in rock would not exist without this New York band or its seminal debut; the androgynous sexuality of glitter; punk’s raw noir; the blackened-riff howl of grunge and noise rock; goth’s imperious gloom” and calling it “the most prophetic rock album ever made”.
There is something about the sounds here that are otherworldly. With Cale’s droning viola, Tucker’s mallets on the drums, Morrison’s dissident guitar and Reed’s raw tales and speak/sing vocals, it’s hard to compare it to anything else being made at the time.. And whether you love her or hate her, Nico and her deadpan vocals just helps tie all of this together for me. It’s an album that doesn’t shoehorn itself into one genre, snapping from saccharine sweet pop in ‘Sunday Morning’ to the droning “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and the squaller that is “European Son”. There is very much a yin and yang thing happening. This isn’t meant to be an album that is easy to listen to. They were tapping into something that I don’t think even they could explain at the time. What it ends up being is raw truth, and despair, and confusion, and hope. Just as each song seems to be of a different genre, it is these conflicting themes and threads that hold the songs together as a whole.
The Velvet Underground made it possible for so many bands that followed them to just be themselves. It didn’t matter if there was a big audience for it. What was important was that if they were true to themselves there would be an audience. As Brian Eno is famously quoted as saying that while the first Velvet Underground album may have sold only 30,000 copies in its early years, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
This album is all about light and shade. When it is light it is unbelievably sweet and in its dark moments we are drawn into the depths of despair with every grating strike of the viola and every droning strum of the guitar. I’ve been a fan of The Velvet Underground for many years now, so this is an album I am very familiar with. It took me a long time to become completely comfortable with it, but despite the challenging sounds within there was always something drawing me back in for one more listen, until the songs finally revealed their magic. There is beauty and redemption there in the chaos, you just have to work for it a little.
Even after a week, I’m not sure if I love or hate this album. Almost every song has something that makes me think, “Oh yeah, this is pretty rad”, then almost immediately something else happens in the same song that makes me want to just throw my iPod against a wall. One thing I can say for sure is that Andy Warhol is a stupid asshole, because anyone that insists someone as awful as Nico play on your album definitely doesn’t want the best for you. It’s a shame, really, because ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ would be an excellent song, if only Lou Reed had have sung it. Nico’s monotone is truly awful. The good news for the Underground is that Nico makes songs that Nico wasn’t involved in sound amazing. ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ is a fun song, even if the content is a little bleak. The jangly guitar is a bit annoying. It sounds a bit Rickenbacker-ish, but I was disappointed to find that Reed played a Gretsch for this album, normally a beautiful sounding guitar. My favourite track (because I know you care) is ‘Heroin’. It’s the change of pace that gets me moving, reflecting how the junkie feels when taking a hit. He’s lost, stuck in a dead end, then he takes the shot, and everything perks up, almost like an ad for drugs… The awful feedback laden guitar solo, while truly terrible to listen to, I reckon is used as a device to portray the messiness and erratic nature of being a drug user. These themes are Lou Reed’s bread and butter, and he tells them so well. I think I’ve ended up leaning on the hate side for this album, but I think it would be a whole different story if Nico wasn’t involved.
Listening to this album was quite a mind-numbing experience. Its sound is shambolic, de-constructed and ragged; there are moments of surprising beauty, closely followed by songs that grate against your nerves (take ‘European Son’, for example) with their dissonance and superfluity. But let’s face it, you couldn’t expect any less from a band that was managed by Andy Warhol. Once described as “The most prophetic album ever made”, the album is prophetic in the sense that it really did lay the foundations for what was to come. It may not have sold well, but is thought to have been responsible for the formation of many other bands, some of which went on to do great things. When you listen to “The Velvet Underground & Nico” you can clearly pick out elements that eventually would inspire the sound of other musical greats. As a whole, The Velvet Underground definitely pushed the boundaries of rock music with this album and created their own alternative, garage sound. The songs are experimental and question social idioms, while the sound is revolutionary. I like to find a positive in everything, so when I listened to this album, I remembered that music is an art form. Art doesn’t always make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It inspires thought, emotion, revolution, reform. Ok it wasn’t the prettiest of albums, it didn’t really float my boat. But it was an artistic statement that inspired other people to create other cool stuff. So for that, it gets my tick of approval.
I think I’m just beginning to understand why this album has been so influential, as it’s unlike any other music that was around in the mid-sixties. The band unabashedly presents the dark side of sex, drugs and rock & roll. Moving from sweet songs of whimsy to sonic soundscapes that assault the senses, this record is impossible to pigeon-hole. It’s a frustrating record for me, because classic tracks like ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ are some of my favourites from that era. Alongside noisy rubbish like ‘European Son’ and ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ their appeal is somewhat diminished. Lou Reed’s lead guitar work is erratic at best, and adds nothing to the fairly straightforward garage rock of ‘Run Run Run’. Nico’s unusual vocal delivery is also hard to connect with, hindering what could have been a pleasant ballad in ‘Femme Fatale’. While ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is engaging, thanks in no small part to John Cale’s piano work, Nico’s unsuccessful attempt to double track her lead vocal is too distracting. Having said all that, I don’t mind her voice on ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ and the harmonies at the end are pretty. Cale’s electric viola is arguably the album’s master stroke and its biggest liability. It adds a dreamy, trance-like atmosphere to the S&M drenched ‘Venus In Furs’, but then is almost unlistenable in the crescendo of ‘Heroin’. Maureen Tucker’s drum work is minimalistic, but it seems to work on most tracks, evoking a primitive kind of percussion. Reed’s speak-sing style has inspired many an artist who can’t sing that well to give it a go. Thankfully his lyrics are quite interesting, and like many, he owes a debt to Bob Dylan. The Velvets knocked down a door that many would later walk through, but I wish this album was easier to listen to.