Revisiting “The Velvet Underground & Nico”, a timeless music gem
The 1967 album sponsored by Andy Warhol remains one of the most influential ever
Revisiting “The Velvet Underground & Nico”, a timeless music gem
David Warren is editor and author for Pop Expresso reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org
1967, often regarded as one of the golden years for Rock and Pop music. A year that introduced several new bands through their debut albums, a lot of them, becoming absolute classics and influential for decades to come. And others, the already established acts, such as the Rolling Stones and The Beatles, were reinventing themselves as part of the new musical revolution of the late 1960’s. Bands such as The Doors, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Big Brother And The Holding Company or Pink Floyd, released their timeless debuts. Experimental was the way to go in 1967, so, when The Velvet Underground failed to achieve commercial success with their first album “The Velvet Underground & Nico”, it just meant one thing: no matter how good and timeless or even experimental were some of the bands that step into the scene that year, none were as experimental and musically daring as The Velvet Underground, and so, the world was not prepared for their music. Sure, there are moments in the album that you can feel the 60’s Pop music vibe, mellow, melodic, and maybe if it was someone else other than German chanteuse Nico doing the lead vocals, on songs such as “I’ll Be Your Mirror” or “Femme Fatale”, they might had gotten more airplay, but like the band itself, Nico was also unique, one of a kind, I dare to say the first alternative rock female singer in history. It’s fair to say that despite core members Lou Reed and John Cale, the energy and vibe of “The Velvet Underground & Nico” wouldn’t be completed without Nico, even if Lou Reed at times wasn’t happy with the former German model being a member of the band. Andy Warhol, that has been credited over the years as the creator and mastermind behind The Velvet Underground, had the final word in putting Nico on lead vocals in some of the songs of the album that he “claimed” (and was credited) to produce.
The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground were born in New York, and came to completion on Warhol’s famous Factory. They were given freedom by their number one sponsor or as it’s now said, “patreon”, to play music as they wanted and feel like, no matter if the guitars were out of tune, no matter if the drummer could play the drums, no matter how much feedback and noise, no matter if you could sing or not, this was absolute freedom conceived to a Rock band by one of the most admired and important artists. The uniqueness of their sound, has been compared to many genres, such as Proto Punk, Proto Noise, Art Rock…but in fact, there isn’t only one category or any in specific in which the debut album of The Velvet Underground can fit in. Back in the 1980’s, it was a thing to say that “The Velvet Underground & Nico” was at least 20 years ahead of it’s time, and, time has proven to be generous for it. Over 5 decades after it was first released, the album remains fresh and influential, unlike some chart toppers back in 1967 that had been relegated to the past and “oldies” shelve. Recorded in 1966 while Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and Nico were featured on Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable tour, which gained attention for its experimental performance sensibilities, the debut album of The Velvet Underground, supposedly had the modest cost between $1,500 and $3,000, an extremely low price for what would be one of the most influential albums ever in history. It wasn’t just the music that was new, creative and unique, it was also the subjects approached by the band on the lyrics of their songs: drug abuse, prostitution, sadomasochism and sexual deviancy, just to name a few. This would play a crucial role on the band releasing the album with the Verve label, the only to accept to publish it after Columbia, Atlantic and even the open-minded Elektra all declined it, mainly due to the controversial topics of the lyrics. Verve Records accepted to release it, with the help of staff producer Tom Wilson who had recently moved from a job at Columbia. Wilson, who was in fact the rumored actual producer of the album according to Lou Reed and John Cale.
The album opens with the Pop and melodic “Sunday Morning”, perfect vocal job by Lou Reed and Nico, it’s one of the best Velvet’s songs. The journey goes on with another timeless classic “I’m Waiting For The Man”, a frenetic and repetitive guitar riff telling the story from the perspective of someone who’s a heroin addict waiting for his drug dealer. “Femme Fatale”, the third track, the first one in the album featuring lead vocals by Nico, it’s a sort of pop cabaret song, seductive, yet, different, and Nico’s accent couldn’t be more perfect for the song. “Venus In Furs”, keeps the listener interested and intrigued, a song structure and ambiance never before felt in Rock or Pop, featuring all kind of different moods, instruments, noise, and the S&M tale about shiny leather, whips and boots. “Run, Run, Run” it’s an upbeat Folk/Rock song, it puts in perspective how eclectic this album really is, doesn’t gets stuck to a genre, to a style, and “Run, Run, Run” could had been easily made by Dylan back then. The side A closes with Nico’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, well ahead of it’s time, this track starts quiet, and then the signature drum pound, echoing along with the repetitive keyboard played by Cale. Hypnotic at it’s best, in the same group as “Venus In Furs”, and the track that opens the side B: “Heroin”, the highest of all moments in the album, one of the most popular tracks featured on it. The frenetic evolution of sound, noise, beat, and the descends, and the ups again. This is an absolute music classic, one of the songs that makes the album what it is. “Heroin”, it’s giving the listener the experience to be high on heroin through music. And Reed did a phenomenal job in converting heroin and it’s effects into music. The initial melody of the song evolves into a frenzy of guitar noise, chords noise, crazy drums, all to fall back into the quiet, into the silence. Somewhere in the middle, you feel like you’re riding a horse. “There She Goes Again”, it’s a good song, but, fair to say, nothing there really but the 1960’s vibe, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Nico’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” it’s another one of the most celebrated tracks in this album, melodic and again, without Nico’s vocals, possibly wouldn’t just feel the same. The song is also reminiscent of the songs Nico would release in her debut album “Chelsea Girls”. “The Black Angel’s Death Song”, a mad arrangement of strings, violins, Velvet Underground’s essence is present there, and by listening to it, you can quickly understand why this album was doomed to be a commercial flop, and serves as a bridge to the song that closes this magnificent masterpiece, “European Son”. The album’s longest track, a festival of guitar noise, before noise rock was even a thing, No better way to close this journey.
Aside of all the music, the album features one of the most iconic and admired artwork ever. The famous Warhol banana sticker, remains a collectible and admired piece of art to this day and it is said that, whoever is lucky to own the original first pressing of the album in mint condition, owns an original Warhol artwork, so limited was the release of the album.
“The Velvet Underground & Nico” was originally released on March 12, 1967, but it could had been on March 12, 1987 or 1997 or 2007 or 2027, It’s timeless, a gold piece of Rock and music history.
1 “Sunday Morning” (Lou Reed, John Cale)
2 “I’m Waiting for the Man”
3 “Femme Fatale”
4 “Venus in Furs”
5 “Run Run Run”
6 “All Tomorrow’s Parties”
8 “There She Goes Again”
9 “I’ll Be Your Mirror”
10 “The Black Angel’s Death Song” (Lou Reed, John Cale)
11 “European Son” (Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker)
All songs written by Lou Reed except where noted.
Lou Reed:vocals; lead guitar; ostrich guitar, backing vocals
John Cale:electric viola; piano; bass guitar; backing vocals; celesta; hissing; sound effects
Sterling Morrison: rhythm guitar; lead guitar; bass guitar; backing vocals
Maureen Tucker:percussion; drums; snare drum; tambourine; bass drum
Nico:vocals; backing vocals
Produced by: Andy Warhol (credited) Tom Wilson (uncredited)
Recorded during: April–May and November 1966 at Scepter, Manhattan TTG, Hollywood Mayfair, Manhattan
Released: March, 12, 1967
“All Tomorrow’s Parties” / “I’ll Be Your Mirror” Released: July 1966
“Sunday Morning” / “Femme Fatale” Released: December 1966
Watch an official music video for “Sunday Morning” by The Velvet Underground
Also watch a film featuring Nico, with “I’ll Be Your Mirror” by The Velvet Underground
Listen to the album “The Velvet Underground & Nico” on Spotify
Watch more music and 1960’s related videos
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