THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO
Released in March 1967-nearly a full year after its tumultuous recording- The Velvet Underground and Nico produced by Andy Warhol arrived on the threshold of the summer of love and was defiantly and gloriously extremely out of step with the times.
With the trippy, dippy, hippy peace and love ethos a dominant force in pop culture songs wrapped up in themes such as heroin, transvestism ,sado-masochism, paranoia accompanied by dissonant, discordant and unconventional instrumentation were too much for a mainstream audience to assimilate. Indeed on the opening track the uncharacteristically lachrymose ‘Sunday Morning’ Lou Reed opined ‘Watch out the world’s behind you’ in an insidious reference to paranoia but could in fact be referring to the fact that they were ten steps ahead. More likely they were at least five years ahead of the competition as the birthing of both glam and punk rock can be found on this album.
As already mentioned the opening ‘Sunday Morning’ was a gentle paean not totally representative of the Velvets at this juncture. Sung in an effete, effeminate manner by Lou Reed who had refused to let Nico sing it he then went onto do more than an adequate impersonation of her unusual vocal stylings. It is a strange track to have chosen as an opener but typical of the wilful perverseness of the band it lulls the listener into a false sense of security. ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ then crashes out of the speakers and in contrast to its predecessor makes no attempt to assuage the listener but instead confronts them with a beautiful barrage of upbeat noise topped with Lou Reed’s sardonic couldn’t care less New York drawl. This was music as assault not caring if the listener liked what they were hearing and no effort was made to put them at ease preferring instead to elicit perverse pleasure out of unsettling them. Never before or since has whoring and scoring sounded so real and so desirable.
Next up is the first of the Nico selections ‘Femme Fatale- inspired by Warhol superstar and beauty Edie Sedgwick- that shows a gentler side to the band but still maintains their darker qualities whilst Nico swoons over the top with what sounds like a slowed down German accent with haughty froideur and a glacial beauty. ‘Venus in Furs’ introduces John Cale’s electric viola and together with Mo Tucker’s Neanderthal tub thumping creates a sonic interaction experience like no other. So much of the future can be heard in this track especially. A brief break in intensity arrives in the guise of ‘Run.Run,Run’ which showcases the bands live credentials and highlights Reed’s and guitarist Sterling Morrison’s intertwining guitar duelling chemistry. ‘All Tomorrows Parties’ brings Nico back into the fold and the swirling, circular, rhythmic soundscape perfectly encapsulates the never ending round of parties that lay at the core of Warhol’s retinue at this time.
‘Heroin’ the track which caused the most controversy at the time is one of Reed’s greatest compositions and it’s depiction of the life of a junkie is still disturbing and wholly convincing ‘And I feel just like Jesus’ son’ totally capturing the vibe of invincibility that addicts feel at the moment ‘the smack begins to flow’ An outstanding track wherein aural intensity matches the drug sated inertia of the narrator perfectly whilst Cale’s viola creates crescendos of nerve shattering intensity. ‘There She Goes Again’ is a strange comedown after such an intense high and probably the only track that sounds of its time. ‘I’ll be your Mirror’ is a twisted psychological love song by Lou for Nico and sung by her in a tone that is both wistful and detached. ‘The Black Angels Death Song’ re-introduces Cale’s screeching viola and an art-house re-imagining of a gypsy waltz to create something repellent but compelling. The closer ‘European Son’ eschews lyrics and vocals after the first minute-in deference to poet Delmore Schwartz who had taught Reed at Syracuse University and told him that lyrics in music were a no-no- before descending into a cacophonous freak out with a floor scraping chair, breaking glass and a band that is so tight they could only be separated by a blow torch. It is a fitting finale to a record whose impact would not be felt for several years yet.
As stated before the full impact of this album was not apparent on initial release but elements began to surface within a couple of years and a certain Mr. Bowie was certainly taking extensive notes that helped to launch his floundering early career to emerge as the brightest of their disciples.
The band themselves went onto create ‘White Light/ White Heat’ a record so abrasive in its claustrophobic heat and blistering aural assault that when the last chord of 17 minute closer ‘Sister Ray’ arrives the listener is confronted with a sense of relief, disappointment and exhilaration simultaneously. Things quietened down dramatically after this due equally to Cale’s departure-instigated by Reed’s controlling overbearing approach- and the loss of most of their equipment. Their eponymous third album was,in comparison, a muted acoustic affair compared to its predecessors but still inhabited a genre of its own and many classic songs were contained therein. The follow up ‘Loaded’ was almost a conventional album but still housed two bona-fide classics ‘Sweet Jane’ and the auto-biographical ‘Rock ’n’ Roll’. After this Reed left the band and it was all but over.
A six set disc released on October 1st attempts to add some thing to the concise package by including alternate versions as well as the original mono mixes of the Velvet Underground and Nico alongside previously unheard live versions of these and some previously unheard numbers. As far as legacy sets go this is a must for any Velvets fan but the impact of the original release has not diminished over the decades and its legacy courses through the DNA of modern music whilst established, stored and referred to in the hard drive and back up of any forward thinking band of the moment. Anything else will be interesting to hear but at the same time it is also superfluous. The original albums are probably the most consistent, brutal, tender, abrasive, intelligent, challenging, electrifying and ultimately complete oeuvre in rock and roll.
Their debut, however, is essential to any record collection. It was the first album to create and inhabit a universe all its own. Their live shows at this time, the Warhol sponsored The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, were groundbreaking in that they incorporated strobes, lights, dancers and film all a totally new concept in rock music. Rock theatre and the rock show were created by this band and Warhol as previously bands just plugged in, played and then left. This was, in contrast, a multi-media performance. Every time the listener plays The Velvet Underground and Nico they cannot help but be transported back to the Factory loft in 1966 and the Velvets with chanteuse Nico accompanied by Gerard Malanga doing his whip dance clad hear to toe in black leather- a look lifted wholesale by Jim Morrison much to Malanga’s chagrin- alongside Edie Sedgwick executing her infamous unique dance moves whilst the Passive Pope of Pop, Warhol , presided over the whole proceedings with a watchful, knowing eye and ear. The future began here!