Album of the Week, December 29: The Velvet Underground and Nico

VUNicoMirrorThe originality and influence of The Velvet Underground & Nico cannot be overstated. Perhaps Brian Eno’s observation about this album fifteen years after its release has become a cliché, but it carries a fundamental truth.

The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band

Lou Reed was a singer, guitarist, English lit scholar, and house songwriter for Pickwick. He met John Cale, a classically trained musician who left Wales to study with some leading lights in the avant garde music world. When they decided to form a band, they invited Reed’s college roommate, Sterling Morrison, to join the crew. They experimented with sounds and material, eventually adding drummer Maureen “Mo” Tucker and settling on the name the Velvet Underground. They came to the attention of Andy Warhol, who became their manager and incorporated them into his roadshow, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. He sponsored the band’s early studio sessions and became the producer of record for their first album.

Title The Velvet Underground & Nico
Act The Velvet Underground
Label Verve Release Date March 12, 1967
Producer Andy Warhol
U.S. Chart  171 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Sunday Morning
  2. I’m Waiting For the Man
  3. Femme Fatale
  4. Venus In Furs
  5. Run Run Run
  6. All Tomorrow’s Parties
  7. Heroin
  8. There She Goes Again
  9. I’ll Be Your Mirror
  10. The Black Angel’s Death Song
  11. European Son

The actual credit for the production is hotly debated, although both Reed and Morrison have agreed that Warhol deserves his due. His influence allowed the group to record what they wanted how they wanted to, and his money helped ensure that the result was released. He also insisted on the addition of German singer Nico, another move debated by critics but significant in the unique sound of the debut album. Tom Wilson — superstar producer of artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Simon and Garfunkel to the Mothers of Invention — stepped in for the album’s last track recorded, Sunday Morning, and some reworking of original tracks. The words and music were fundamentally Lou Reed’s, and his influence is critical to the sound of the album. John Cale is widely recognized as the arranger of the sound and the one who really pushed the musical envelope. Regardless of who gets the official credit, the combined work of these creative forces resulted in something magical.

The VU were known for gritty, experimental, noisy music (something that Reed and Cale would both explore in their long solo careers as well). Those elements are significant and run through many of the tracks, but that reputation overlooks the complexity and outright beauty of much of the album. The two closing tracks hew closest to the legend. The Black Angel’s Death Song, co-written by Cale, is a dark tale set to stark music, with hissing sound effects and a claustrophobic atmosphere. European Son, credited to the whole band, is a bitter kiss-off of a song with a roots rock feel that devolves into a chaos of dissonant jamming and found sounds. While both songs were massively influential on future musical generations — and pointedly put last to be the sound that lingered — they only tell part of the story.

The rest of the album can be split into two categories: the Nico songs and the urban songs. Reed wrote all of them (with Cale sharing credit on Sunday Morning), but it’s telling to see which were shared with the woman who was never quite a member of the band. The opening Sunday Morning was intended for Nico, but she was relegated to backing vocals on the final version. A thing of fragile beauty, it shows off Reed’s flawless sense of pop music and the complexity of Cale’s musical themes. It also hardly prepares the listener for the complicated journey to come.

The other three Nico songs feature her distinctive stylings as lead vocalist. Femme Fatale is a wonderful song of longing nicely suited to her smoky delivery. I’ll Be Your Mirror is one of Reed’s finest straightforward love songs, and Nico manages to capture a joyous ache that resonates perfectly. Her high point is the austere All Tomorrow’s Parties a song of desperation and loneliness that her Teutonic majesty absolutely masters. Reed could easily have sung any of these songs (and did in live shows after Nico’s departure), but they were well selected for the dour chanteuse. Her vocals added a complexity to the album that helped it truly shine.

The rest of the album consists of Reed’s snapshots of life, sung in his equally distinctive, often deadpan voice. His goal, he observed, was not to shock — although the unusual for the time subject matter often did — but to reflect what he saw in the world around him. If there are books and poems about such things, he reasoned, why not songs? I’m Waiting for the Man is a perfect second track, taking the listener from the morning reflections of the opener to a gritty urban streetcorner. Musically and lyrically flawless, it tells its tale with bracing honesty. Venus In Furs is a retelling of a 19th Century novel of sexual experimentation. Reed’s narration is backed by haunting music, punctuated by a viola and tambourine feature that sounds like the repeated crack of a whip.

Run Run Run and There She Goes Again seem as though they could easily fit on other 60s rock albums. The former has a solid blues base and catchy hook that drive it forward. The latter has an almost doo-wop feel and great harmonies by the whole band. Lyrically, however, they are distinctly VU, telling dark tales of despair, addiction, dependency, hopelessness, and violence. Honest and stark, they form the root of much of Reed’s work — and influence over future musicians — for the rest of his career.

There’s no single masterpiece on an album this strong, but the centerpiece is clearly Heroin. Capturing the darkest themes of the album and making them powerfully personal, Reed constructs a compelling narrative. Musically, the band capture the cycle of addiction flawlessly, with ache, tension, release, and despair resonating in every note. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s one of the most important songs in rock. And so it goes with this amazing album. Nearly four decades after it was recorded, it remains fresh, compelling and unique.

FURTHER LISTENING: The VU released four amazingly important and fairly disparate albums. All of them are worth knowing. White Light/White Heat is the most like their reputation — experimental, jarring, dark, dissonant, challenging. Cale was shoved out of the band after that and the sound became much more distinctly Reed’s. The Velvet Underground is a wonderful set of edgy rock and potent pop; Loaded is more uneven but has some classic songs and sets the stage for the singer’s solo career. Reed, Cale, and Nico all have had impressive solo careers which we’ll look at more closely in future albums of the week.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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