55 years after it’s release, we honor the majesty of Andy Warhol’s greatest work of art
As the saying goes, when you have to choose between printing the fact and the legend, print the legend.
The lore in this case is that the few people who bought The Velvet Underground & Nico, released this month 55 years ago, went on to start their own bands. It’s a great line, but there’s a kernel of truth: Lou Reed and his bandmates would help influence generations of great bands and artists who came in their wake, from David Bowie and R.E.M. to Joy Division and the Jesus and Mary Chain. In a career that barely made a dent in the pop charts of the late 60’s, the Velvet Underground nonetheless became arguably the most influential band in alternative-rock history, and their songs still have the power to shock, amuse, and influence new and old fans alike to this day.
The album modestly billed to the group, along with German actress, model, and singer Nico, had a tortured history before it hit the charts in March 1967. Reed and bandmates John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen “Moe” Tucker had the patronage of Andy Warhol, whose “Pop Art” sensibilities were a perfect match for Reed’s caustic songwriting. But getting that sound on vinyl proved to be a tough sell, even after the group recorded much of the album a full year before its actual release.
Nico was brought on board, and the production (credited to Andy Warhol, but disputed; many sources cite Dylan producer Tom Wilson as the actual person running the boards) came about over the course of 1966, but still there were no takers. Verve, a jazz label, released the record in March 1967, and it promptly did little on the charts. Perhaps it was timing (the Summer of Love was already in full swing, and the Beatles would drop Sgt. Pepper on the world a couple of months later), perhaps it was the subject matter (frank depictions of scoring hard drugs like heroin, not the candy-colored LSD then coursing through the hippie movement, as well as light sado-masochism), or perhaps it was the sound of the band.
Whatever the case, The Velvet Underground & Nico came and went, and soon so did Nico from the group. She would pursue a solo career, as would Cale after the second album (White Light/White Heat) and, inevitably, so would Reed.
But it’s to the album’s credit that it was so uncompromising, so unique in the annals of pop culture. Had Reed and company taken a less stringent approach, pursued a more pop-friendly sound, they might have been on the hit parade. That’s the myth, anyway, that the band was above such concerns. But I think the band genuinely thought that their album would find a home on the record charts, and few artists in any form strike out with the intention of being cult legends.
Take the first single off the album, as well as the opening track: “Sunday Morning,” a gentle ballad that could either be about a lover or a drug experience (knowing Reed, it’s probably a mix of the two), that is so subversive because of what comes after it. It took me years to appreciate this song and its placement at the top, but it’s a gentle lullaby cooing us into a false sense of safety. I say false because the very next song, “I’m Waiting for the Man,” is most assuredly a sonic assault that wakes you the hell right up. Most assuredly about a drug deal (as is “Run Run Run,” while “Heroin” is about, well, heroin), “Man” is a subway ride through Hell, an epic travelogue through New York’s dingiest neighborhoods in order to transcend the mundane.
VIDEO: The Velvet Underground & Nico “Sunday Morning”
Nico comes front and center for “Femme Fatale,” and while that’s a good showcase for her almost monotone singing, I prefer “All Tomorrow’s Parties” as her main song on the album. Throughout the songs, the group continues to examine not just lyrical conceits that hadn’t been touched on in rock and roll before, but also sounds.
It doesn’t hurt that Cale was an experimental musician who worked with John Cage and LaMonte Young before he and Reed hooked up; when he left the group in 1968, he took a lot of that boundary-defying sense with him. Morrison and Tucker are essential to the sound as well, especially Moe’s unaffected, tom-tom-esque drumming.
The album is full of great songs, many of which rotate in my mind as being the best on the album or of the band’s career. The aforementioned “Heroin” is a bizarre odyssey about the experiences of being on the titular drug, complete with the narrator imagining himself in all kinds of scenarios. “There She Goes Again” is almost like “Sunday Morning” but peppier, perhaps an attempt at a surefire pop hit song. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is Nico at her most sweet, and “The Black Angel’s Death Song” is like an existential short story brought to music.
AUDIO: The Velvet Underground & Nico “I’ll Be Your Mirror”
But the closer, “European Son,” feels like the perfect cap to an album that began so gently; it breaks down after the slight verse into a cacophony of noise (it’s easy to see where the Jesus and Mary Chain got their distinctive sound from). The song, dedicated to Reed’s mentor Delmore Schwartz, is like an alarm going off, alerting the listener that everything they’ve heard makes any other music they might listen to in the immediate aftermath seem obscenely bland by comparison.
The Velvets would continue sans Nico and Warhol, who were both out of the picture by the end of 1967, and release three more albums, none of which resembled the others, before Reed’s departure in 1970. Among the many acts who benefited from the Velvets (sometimes directly) are Squeeze, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Stereolab, and countless others.
And it all begins here, with the album that has a banana on its cover and the instruction to “peel slowly and see.” Rarely has such a world-changing artifact been presented so modestly to the world.
AUDIO: The Velvet Underground & Nico “Heroin”