The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Undergound & Nico

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Post #250. Milestone. Woo. Hoo. Celebrate. I first became aware of the Velvet Underground in eighth grade, I think; a friend somehow became a big fan, which I was witness to, but I didn’t give the band a listen until much later, maybe law school, even. I’m not sure why it took me so long – obviously I had seen the band cited if not lionized a million times by then as a major influence on the bands and sounds I loved. I don’t know. Better late than never. I am sorry that the reunion tour never made it to the U.S. I would have loved that.

What I Think of This Album

Sometimes, a little context is helpful. This album was released in early 1967, approximately one year after Pet Sounds, about two months after Between the Buttons and The Doors (ugh), roughly two months before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (possibly the most overrated album in history) and Are You Experienced, more than a year before Kick Out the Jams, and two years before The Stooges. While the Mothers of Invention were already active on the West Coast, nothing else released around this time came anywhere close to what Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker were doing.

Cale had a background in the avant-garde scene, complementing his foundation in classical music. For his part, Reed began his career with pop songwriting, but had an experimental streak and a literary bent. The enigmatic Morrison was Reed’s acquaintance and Tucker’s childhood friend, and was the technical foil to Reed’s rough approach on guitar. Tucker was a self-taught drummer with an unconventional but well thought out style. Together, they forged a unique, distinctive sound that nonetheless could not be pigeonholed. Of course, on this album – and at the insistence of mentor and producer Andy Warhol – they were joined by Nico, partially deaf former fashion model turned actor and singer.

Much of the album is characterized by Cale’s violent and vivid work on the viola. The sadomasochistic sex tale “Venus In Furs” is a showcase, with Cale’s droning, distorted, atonal sounds providing the ideal backdrop for Reed’s scandalous but monotone lyrics. Note how Tucker basically plays a two-hit pattern on the bass drum (followed by a single tambourine hit) for the entire song. One of my favorite VU songs ever is “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” which should be like three times as long, and also should have ended the album. In any event, this song is basically goth ten years early. Reed spouts nonsense lyrics while Cale furiously saws away, creating a force field around the band that you have to be invited to pass through. Cale is also responsible for the vicious hissing into the microphone. Cale arguably steals the show on “Heroin,” which is no small feat given Tucker’s hypnotic drumming, Reed’s fascinating and matter-of-fact explanation of the whys and hows of shooting up, and the spectacular dynamics of the piece. The subtle drones early on provide an eerie disquiet, and eventually the viola unleashes a cascade of piercing tones, creating an aural (if not neural) network of confusion, paranoia, and devastation.

Elsewhere, Reed’s songwriting and guitar dominate. “Waiting For the Man” is a revelatory recitation of scoring heroin, essentially a short story set to a stunning percussive attack (due in no small part to the staccato distorted guitar part) and almost humorous piano element. There is a strong Dylan influence on “Run Run Run,” which is essentially a folk song at heart, but Reed’s grotesque, feedback-laced solos would not have gone over well at Newport. Reed’s singular guitar playing again elevates the somber, dramatic “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” with its funereal drum beat and Nico’s husky vocals. That said, not every song is groundbreaking – which is not to say they aren’t excellent. “There She Goes” is relatively straight-forward, jangly to its core, but the lyrics are disturbingly misogynistic; the tempo shifts are interesting. Also not terribly unconventional is opener “Sunday Morning,” which approaches dream pop in its arrangement and production (courtesy of Tom Wilson (Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Mothers of Invention)). And the delicate “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is probably Nico’s best performance on the album, where she adopts a gentler, warmer tone. Nico also sings lead on “Femme Fatale.”

Nico’s vocals were novel and not at all conventional in the realm of rock. Her strong accent and stentorian, icy tone were a far cry from what was acceptable from a woman at that time. I will say the one song I do not care for here is “European Son,” a lengthy preview of the style later featured prominently on White Light / White Heat. The improvisation is not terribly interesting (I do like the sound of crashing plates, though) and the piece is fairly tedious. It’s not a stretch to see how this album influenced if not birthed entire genres. Monumental. Essential. R.E.M. covered two songs off this album.

The Best Thing About This Album

So many options to choose from:  the way Nico pronounces “clown” (klahhhn); Reed’s little laugh in the middle of “Heroin” (right after “It’s my life / It’s my wife”); the “I chi chi / Chi chi I / Chi chi chi / Tai tai ko / Choose to choose / Choose to choose / Choose to go”) in “Black Angel’s Death Song.” But mostly because I won’t get a chance to really praise Cale again, I am saying Cale’s viola.

Release Date

March, 1967

The Cover Art

Honestly, I’m not even sure how I’m supposed to judge this. It’s achieved such iconic status. I guess I think it’s fine, but I don’t love it. I do like the font for Warhol’s name. I think I like it better as art than as album art. The actual design was by Any Lehman.

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