The Velvet Underground & Nico
The Velvet Underground & Nico (MGM/Verve 1967)
In rock circles, it is known far and away as the "most influential album that nobody ever purchased." Or maybe even listened to. (Can you think of number two? Off the top of my head, maybe Richard & Linda Thompson's Shoot Out The Lights.)
But The Velvet Underground & Nico continues to cast a long shadow over the music landscape to this day. From the iconic Andy Warhol cover art to the controversial subject matter of some of its songs to the endless argument over the aesthetic value of Nico's voice, the album stays in the conversation.
Perhaps its best to try to put the work into the context of the times. While Warhol had created an artistic scene that would become legendary - painting, music, film, marketing, partying - New York City in the mid-1960s had a sense of foreboding. The West Coast was on the edge of The Summer of Love, while by 1968 a crazed hanger-on would almost kill Warhol. And NYC was hardly the center of the music world; Detroit, London, Memphis and even Los Angeles were more relevant at this point.
Into this weird breach steps The Velvet Underground, an ensemble probably no one could have dreamed up, even on paper: Lou Reed, an English literature student from Syracuse University; Welshman John Cale, classically trained viola player, influenced by musicians Erik Satie, John Cage and Aaron Copeland as well as the Fluxus movement; Maureen "Moe" Tucker, a former IBM keypunch operator who didn't start drumming until she was 19 years old (and then with quite an unconventional style); and Sterling Morrison, a guitar playing former classmate of Reed's who would later earn a PhD in medieval studies.
The Velvet Underground & Nico was recorded for a reported $1,500 in 1966 at NYC's run-down Scepter Studios. The acetate was rejected by Columbia, Atlantic and Elektra Records. Verve, a subsidiary of MGM, bought the rights in early 1967 and brought in newly acquired Tom Wilson (who had worked with Bob Dylan, among others, at Columbia) for post-production work. The album was released on 12 March 1967, without the benefit of any marketing push. Radio stations shied away from the record due to the controversial (at the time) subject matter of most of the lyrics. As a result, it sat at the bottom of the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart and then disappeared without much notice.
The Night Owl did not really become familiar with The Velvet Underground & Nico until the early 1980s, when I became immersed in the solo works of Lou Reed. Even in the afterglow of the punk and new wave movements, the album was very lo-fi and, shall we say, odd upon first listens. The most identifiable tunes were those that Reed had claimed for himself: "Femme Fatale" and "Heroin." Since then, I've tried to revisit it every few years as a whole work. During that span of time, the record has garnered many critical accolades as "all-time" (Spin #1) and "best of" (Rolling Stone #13) and "most important" (NPR) lists have come into vogue.
1. "Sunday Morning" - A curious opener. The Reed/Cage composition was supposedly added after Tom Wilson became involved; indeed, the production is more slick than the other cuts on the album. This lazy swing melody with Reed's gentle vocal was issued as a single which went nowhere. It has since become recognizable for its use in soundtracks.
2. "I'm Waiting For The Man" - A stunning rock achievement penned by Reed, who also takes lead vocal. If there is any validity to the claim that Lou is the "Godfather of Punk," this song is Exhibit A. This four and a half minute novel on vinyl brings a truly unique beat and protagonist approach. The listener can feel himself in the shoes of the narrator, who is waiting to make his drug connection in Harlem.
3. "Femme Fatale" - Written by Reed from a male perspective (about model and Warhol "superstar" Edie Sedgwick?), Nico takes the reigns on this one. It will be the true test of the new listener as to how you feel about her voice. While I side with Reed's version later released on "best of" compilations, one cannot deny Nico's performance is arresting: kind of like Marlene Dietrich meets Lulu.
4. "Venus In Furs" - In which rock meets John Cale and the viola drone. The subject matter has been exhaustively discussed (a nod to a nineteenth century notorious novel). It's avant-gard psychedelia, but definitely not the multi-colored kaleidoscope popular in California clubs at the time: this is a creepy trip down in the S&M dungeon.
5. "Run Run Run" - While speculation on this song again has centered around the drug culture, no one mentions that it's basically a bar-house blues, with a freak-out guitar thrown in for effect.
6. "All Tomorrow's Parties" - Even a music festival takes its name from this title. One of Reed's earliest compositions, it was written before he started hanging out with Warhol's gang. The Byrds-ish jangly guitar line flows into a free form jazz style, fronted by an anthemic Nico vocal.
7. "Heroin" - Flip over the record and go on a smack trip. A harrowing first-person account of an addict trying to "reach the kingdom" in order to "feel like Jesus' son." This sparse, original version of the noted song packs more emotional punch than any of the souped-up electric versions that Reed performed on stage in later years. Cale's crashing viola adds drama and climax (or is it denouement?).
8. "There She Goes Again" - Probably should have been a single. Seems to have been influenced by the British invasion.
9. "I'll Be Your Mirror" - Nico reappears as the album identified "chanteuse." A tender song from Reed that holds up well after all these years.
10. "The Black Angel's Death Song" - Clearly a nod by Reed to The Beats, who he has cited on many occasions as inspiration. Ambient noise is used to pepper the urgency of a poem sung by Reed in the style of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti.
11. "European Son" - Credited to the whole band, "Son" starts in a Dylanesque style and then evolves (devolves?) into an attack of alternately tuned sounds and feedback for its final five minutes. To these ears, the song is still barely accessible/listenable today. A curious closer, but could be a nod to Cale's admiration of John Cage and the Fluxus movement, which encouraged alternate ways of producing sound. But it seems nihilistic - do artists need that much time on vinyl to make their point?
Sure, it's a challenging, literate and thought provoking rock record. But Lou Reed didn't pander to his audience. In fact, he told an author that he thought joining gritty subject matter and music was a natural marriage: "That's the kind of stuff you might read. Why wouldn't you listen to it? You have the fun of reading that, and you get the fun of rock on top of it."
Over 43 years (!) later, The Velvet Underground & Nico still draws strong opinion amongst the music community. And isn't that a triumph for a record that was originally nothing more than an afterthought to critics, radio, rock enthusiasts and the music business?