The Album List #25: The Velvet Underground and Nico “The Velvet Underground and Nico”


No, I am happy to see you.

Everyone who bought this album started a band.

So goes the myth.

There are albums who influence far outstrips the record sales. This album is exhibit “A”.

It is one of the darkest, strangest albums ever made, a true piece of avant-garde music if there ever was one. The VU were part of Warhol’s Factory scene, the house band if you were, and Warhol created the infamous banana album cover. He also inflicted on the quartet German-born “chanteuse” Nico, who was compelling enough a monotonous droning force to make me not hate her. It’s a strange thing that I love this record so much, as frankly, there is so much to dislike. Frequent lack of melody ( or at least being completely atonal) usually annoys me (see: Eurovision 2011, Greece’s inexplicably popular entry, which was completely devoid of anything resembling melody I nearly went there to smash the songwriter in the face). Here, it’s completely and utterly perfect. Is it the context? The album is viewed by me as high art in a pop world- I certainly think it’s the best thing Warhol was ever involved with. Is it that I find John Cale a brilliant musician and arranger and appreciate his experiments as a result? Is it the fact I think Lou Reed is one of the great lyricists of all time? Or Sterling Morrison is an underrated guitarist? Or that they had Maureen Tucker on drums and that appeals to my younger, more naïve sense of feminism? God knows. I’ve never been able to figure it out.

The album itself is thematically solid, if some what bold for 1967. The songs are all about drugs, sex, and more drugs. “I’m Waiting For The Man” is all about sitting on your ass waiting for your dealer. The song is almost mundane in its tale- “I’m waiting for my man with $26 in my hand”- but it tells the rather simple tale of needing a fix and waiting for the person who gives it to you. Addiction comes in various forms, and we have all nad that rush when we have that first morning cup of coffee or drag of a cigarette. Reed puts the idea in your head, and makes it universal. I get it. I have my morning coffee, and I’ve had my morning cigarette already.

“Run, Run, Run” remains a personal fave, again about drugs, but this time a series of vignettes, as various characters seek and use drugs and Lou talks about their various ways of maintaining their ability to get a fix. Women frequently prostitute themselves in Lou’s songs for drugs, but he sings about is rather matter of factly. He doesn’t pity them, condemn them, exalt them, or judge them. He’s just the facts on the deal. Matched with the primitive Mo back beat and some creative guitar work that tries to sound like a wonky sitar in feedback mode. It’s a song as documentary.

Nico’s vocals match perfectly with the band’s experimental nature. A deep smoky alto with a surprising flat tone and no vibrato, she was distinctive from the get go. Many people claim Nico couldn’t sing. Nico, in fact, had a great musical mind, and created beautiful vocal melodies for the songs she sings on the album. Her voice is in the forefront of the beautiful and almost conventional “Femme Fatale”, and her voice is hypnotic on the lovely and sad “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. Looking back at footage of her, you can see the charisma and beauty. It makes the story of her life all that much more thrilling and sad.

The tinkly celesta of “Sunday Morning”, another almost conventional track, is breathtakingly pretty. The surf like syncopation of the guitars of “There She Goes Again” makes this song the closest thing Lou ever wrote to a Beach Boys track ( it does sound eerily like one, only with a far dirtier mind). “Venus in Furs” famously is about BDSM that drones on with middle eastern touches and fantastic viola work from the always impressive Cage. The band’s album closer “European Son” is seven minutes of noise and jazz like improvisation on acid. “The Black Angel of Death’s Song” is once again all viola squealing incessantly over simple guitars and Reed’s darkly sardonic lyrics.  “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is another lovely display of Nico’s unique voice.

But the album’s centerpiece is the seven minute song Lou Reed wrote that was another documentary style song about his world. “Heroin” is disturbing because while it doesn’t condone using the drug, it also fails to condemn it.  As the band plays on and on, twin arpeggiated guitars and a steady drum beat, the band speeds up and slows down in time with the rush and release of the protagonist. I see  Mo’s beat as the beating of the heart and the guitar’s representing blood flowing through the veins, and the viola representing the brain’s ability to focus, and the lyrics are the internal monologue of our character. Reed again goes with just the facts. The high is met with resignation. “Heroin be the death of me, Heroin it’s my wife and it’s my life”. The song is real. I think it’s actually an effective piece of antidrug propaganda. Because it’s not glamorous in Lou’s mind. It’s hectic, there is a rush, but still, you will want to die at some point. And the viola will begin to scream in your ears. The song is simply brilliant.

Critically and commercially ignored when released, it is now one of the most acclaimed albums in history. The album has been citied as important to their musical sensibilities from bands and artists such as R.E.M., Beck, James, OMD, Matthew Sweet, David Bowie, Vanessa Paradis, Duran Duran, Dramarama, The Melvins, the Strokes, Bauhaus, Iron and Wine, Bryan Ferry… I have somewhere in the neighbourhood of 150 different covers of songs of this album by various artists. That’s what we call impacting your world.

See? Everyone who owned this album started a band. Or at least started writing about music, at the very least.

 

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