Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now. This week: The Velvet Underground’s The Velvet Underground & Nico.
Anniversary Records: The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico
by Chad Jewett
1967 was the year when rock-and-roll’s signature artistic document officially became the album. 1965 saw The Beatles and Bob Dylan taking first steps with the cohesive, comprehensive aesthetic statements of Rubber Soul and Highway 61 Revisited. 1966 ushered in Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys’ wistful masterpiece, which bandleader and head songwriter Brian Wilson envisioned as both a response to and expansion of Rubber Soul – an album tied together by a mood, sound, and emotional palette. But 1967 – remembered nostalgically as “The Summer of Love” – was the year when 45s, with their market-oriented A and B sides, officially became adjuncts to the spatial and sonic possibilities of the LP and its 45 minutes of room to explore.
What remains amazing about the year was the sheer number of artists that galloped ahead with the art form almost immediately. The Beatles, sick of touring and emboldened by the artistic breakthroughs of Rubber Soul and Revolver, hunkered down for months in the studio to create the Technicolor triptych that was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Brian Wilson doubled down on the direction taken with Pet Sounds to begin developing the Smile project, a sort of multi-part pop-Americana symphony. L.A.’s Love offered a psych-rock masterpiece with Forever Changes; The Kinks explored a more baroque, literary path with Something Else. But while most of the many definitive albums released in 1967 found bands expanding their sounds with careful studio work and chemically-altered imaginations, one of the year’s most iconic releases was a jarring, outré affair, one that daringly used the long-playing format as a sort of reckless chemistry experiment more informed by the postmodernist Factory art scene of hip New York City than the maturing echoes of the British Invasion.
That album was The Velvet Underground & Nico, the debut from The Velvet Underground. Released on March 12th and produced by the legendary Tom Wilson and Pop Art maestro Andy Warhol, the album was equal parts primitive and modernist, defiant and sneakily classic, aggressive and gentle. It dragged rock-and-roll back to its scrappy origins and envisioned its future as punk. The Velvet Underground & Nico was having a very different conversation than Sgt. Pepper’s or Smile, even as its scratchy, scruffy production values hearkened back to rock-and-roll’s first lo-fi baby steps. The Beatles and The Beach Boys were going for rock as art music, pop as poetic sophistication. Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and German chanteuse Nico were going for something more subversive, less interested in typical understandings of guitar music. The old cliché goes that only 10,000 people bought The Velvet Underground & Nico, but each of them started a band. It’s a good way of talking about the record’s influence, but the real, lasting impact of The Velvet Underground’s debut was the license it gave to deconstruct rock-and-roll and invest in whatever weird, outsider art that project yielded. Rock’s mainstream took the space afforded by the album format to make something grander. The Velvet Underground took that same space to make something urgently different.
Of course, that version of The Velvet Underground & Nico – the one that’s all about sonic confrontation and clanging discord – is really only part of the actual album, the one you can put on your turntable and drop the needle on. The LP actually begins with an ornate, stately pop song that had all the quiet grace of “She’s Leaving Home” or “Don’t Talk, Put Your Head On My Shoulder”. Arriving to the tune of a gentle glockenspiel and a warm, round blanket of bass and echo-washed snare, “Sunday Morning” found bandleader Lou Reed in his gentlest register, delivered in a comforting falsetto. The song was originally written for Nico, and is indeed built for her warming coo; but much of its emotional charge comes from the way in which it offers a change in scenery for the often prickly Reed. For all of the electric shock of The Velvet Underground & Nico, from the neon yellow and pink of its Warhol-designed album art to the abrasive slashing of its most acidic songs, it’s worth remembering that the album works so well thanks to songs like “Sunday Morning” – tracks that ring with the sun-dappled solitude of early-morning city streets, of which Reed was a poet laureate.
Along with “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” – a pair of sparkling ballads sung with otherworldly beauty by Nico – “Sunday Morning” ostensibly invented indie-pop, creating a genre in which the staples of pop music (major keys, salient hooks, captivating melodies) were lent a certain quirky depth by abstract touches. “Sunday Morning” floats atop a whole lot of ambient noise and studio hiss – the very stuff George Martin and Brian Wilson were working hard in that era to cut out. “Femme Fatale” is full of phantom notes that rumble against one another and against Nico’s odd tenor and the almost willfully flat backups provided by Reed and company. It’s impossible to imagine Belle & Sebastian, Yo La Tengo, Beat Happening, Camera Obscura or Rilo Kiley without the dazzling “I’ll Be Your Mirror” – a song of revelatory introspection and engrossing beauty. “I’ll be your mirror / Reflect what you are / In case you don’t know / I’ll be the wind, the rain and the sunset / The light on your door / To show that your home”. The song actually works in one of pop music’s most familiar registers: the love balladeer pledging devotion by turning his or herself into metaphors of fidelity (the moon, the stars, the sun). But, as with so much of The Velvet Underground & Nico, Reed and Nico take the mainstream cliché and turn into something revelatory, a feat accomplished by the band’s nuanced minimalism (basically, a echo-bathed guitar and a single tambourine) and Nico’s tour de force vocal.
Indeed, there’s an empathy in Nico’s moments throughout the album – the gentle, understanding embrace of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” or the nuanced insight of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” – that now reverberates as an early feminist intervention into rock (and eventually punk) at the precise moment when the genre was hitting its first artistic acme. “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, written by Reed but defined by Nico, finds the singer describing a young woman battling existential doubt against a backdrop of hip young New York. The song, a sweeping six-minute experiment, serves as a refutation of Bob Dylan’s then-contemporary version of the same story as outlined in “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”, songs that sneered at their young female subjects rather than sympathize with them. “A hand-me-down dress from who knows where / To all tomorrow’s parties / And where will she go and what shall she do when midnight comes around? / She’ll turn once more to Sunday’s clown / And cry behind the door.” The change in perspective – telling stories about women from their perspective, as opposed to that of often antagonistic men — along with the fearless way in which that perspective was delivered, echoed in Riot Grrrl and Kim Gordon’s work in Sonic Youth.
Where the more tuneful stretches of The Velvet Underground & Nico represent a thread that would run through the Paisley Underground, Elephant 6 and Saddle Creek, the album’s trio of rockers – “I’m Waiting For The Man”, “Run Run Run” and “European Song” would push the bluesy garage rock of Highway 61-era Dylan (which producer Tom Wilson helped to capture and enhance) and The Who in their pugalistic early years to the doorstep of punk, where Iggy Pop and the MC5 would pick it up. “I’m Waiting For The Man”, with its trashy guitars and pounding thump, offers a study in contrasts, coming as it does in the wake of the plush “Sunday Morning” — even if both songs seem to take place in the same rough-and-tumble East Village, separated into a hazy dawn and a wild midnight. Where Bob Dylan drew from the Beat Poets a certain wild vision of American expanse, Reed learned from the more daring stuff offered by the movement. His vision of a rebellious, illicit New York City would unfold like Allen Ginsburg with a garage-punk soundtrack, anticipating the way the city would be depicted by New Hollywood innovators like Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola the next decade. “I’m Waiting For The Man”, like the antic “Run Run Run” which comes four songs later, would create a vision of the Big Apple full of young rebels scraping by with an abandon that was equal parts triumphant and squalid.
If two-thirds of The Velvet Underground & Nico are devoted in equal measure to lo-fi basement pop and high-energy proto-punk, then the album’s remaining space is given over to its most challenging, avant-garde material. “European Song” bridges the gap, starting out like an outsider artist’s version of rhythm and blues then eventually dashing itself into fragments (punctuated by shattering glass) before collecting itself, only to have its jangling, blues-punk rhythm painted over with a noisy squall courtesy of Reed, Cale, and guitarist Sterling Morrison. “The Black Angel’s Death Song” is almost a ballad, except that it’s lashed with the scraping, sawing whine of John Cale’s violin. “Venus In Furs” unfolds like an aural descent into some eerie subterranean den, psychedelic in the way that a nightmare acid trip is psychedelic as Reed intones lines like “Different colors, made of tears” over yelping tendrils of guitar noise, Moe Tucker’s insistent bass-tambourine thump and more of Cale’s sharp, bending violin. The song is a writhing tangle of noise, one you can practically see as a billow of ghostly-lit smoke. Every time a critic would make the easy comparison between Sonic Youth and the Velvets, it’s likely they had “Venus In Furs” in mind.
Starting with placid delicateness and slowly building in stages to a torrential close, “Heroin” is one of The Velvet Underground & Nico’s most storied passages, eschewing the winking drug references of Dylan and The Beatles and instead explicitly naming its drug of choice and creating harrowing yet gorgeous poetry out of the subject. “I have madea big decision / I’m gonna try to nullify my life / ‘Cause when the blood begins to flow / When it shoots up the dropper’s neck / When I’m closing in on death” goes one especially striking line, as the song speeds up and takes on noise like a rising tide. Reed details both the material process of the drug and the wider existential ripples that flow out from the experience. When “Heroin” isn’t set at a somber whisper its rushing with manic fever, embodying something, though Reed never specifies what. That, as much as anything, is the key to The Velvet Underground & Nico, an album that is at times terrifying and at others thrilling, but is at its best when it could be either. The vision that Reed, Nico, Cale, Morrison, and Tucker paint across the album’s 50 minutes is one of danger and beauty and despair and joy and guilt; and the dividing lines are never clear. Instead, they’re etched over with howling guitars and gauzy melodies. The album’s characters throw themselves defiantly into any number of witching hour mysteries, and then are found on the other side in the soft-lit quiet of dawn. The Velvet Underground & Nico is a classic not only because it feels lived-in, but because you could imagine living in it. It remains one of rock-and-roll’s most influential statements because it dared musicians to challenge themselves in depicting a challenging world.