The Velvet Underground and Nico

The Velvet Underground & nico

So, the Velvet Underground & Nico; one of the most influential albums ever, yet hardly ever played on radio or featured in polls. So why does this album deserve it’s reputation? You have to actually look back to when it was released in March 1967, just before the Summer of Love. When America seemed to be following the hippie vibe, a group comprising in New York were recording an album, under the patronage of Andy Warhol. Singer and lyricist, Lou Reed was an English graduate from Syracuse College who was writing songs with the subject matter of a Raymond Chandler novel: drugs, violence, sex. Multi-instrumentalist John Cale, was from Wales and was living in New York after gaining a music scholarship. More interested in the avant-garde than classical music, Cale hooked up with Reed after hearing a song Reed had made with his previous band, the Primitives. Reed then recruited Sterling Morrison, an old college classmate, to play guitar, and eventually Maureen “Moe” Tucker to play drums. Moe had a groundbreaking drumming style; placing all of the drums on the floor and playing with mallets and hammers rather than using sticks, and hardly using cymbals. After playing some club dates, pop artist Andy Warhol was alerted to their presence and after being impressed managed the group for a while. Although he was later sacked, his profile, raised interest enough for the band to sign and deal and Warhol painted the iconic banana cover for their first album. Warhol also, pushed the inclusion of German model Nico (Christa Paffgen) as a singer, which the group didn’t approve of, but finally relented. The group recorded the album in roughly two days in November 1966 and the album was released in 1967. It was met with critical disdain and, thanks to legal issues, hardly any sales (the album peaked at 171 in the Billboard Top 200 albums, before plummeting in the sales chart). In Britain, the album never charted and the only “success” the Velvet Underground have had is from some re-issued singles and albums in the 90’s, none of which broke the top 40.

The Velvet underground

So after all of this what makes the album so important, and why is it rated so highly now? The Velvet Underground is one of the few bands that have all the right components and individually talented. Reed’s lyrics about heroin and sadomasochism were ground breaking then, and still powerful today. His fascination with atonal noise and feedback was supported by John Cale, whose classical training and screeching viola is instantly recognisable. Sterling Morrison is a great guitar player, and it was his suggestion to record the album in mono, creating a big slab of noise coming out of the speakers. Moe Tucker’s simplistic drums created an almost hypnotic effect. Nico’s vocals are well… it’s like Marmite; you either love it or you hate it. To be fair, her Teutonic tones fit in well with songs like “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”. But the album’s strength lies in the songs sung by Lou Reed in his deadpan style. A song like “I’m Waiting For The Man” has a great driving rhythm (the title refers to scoring drugs) and a great cacophonous ending. “Venus in Furs” is the track you may recognise from an advert for Dunlop tyres about 10 years ago. It’s screeching viola and almost Arabic sound come from the treble heavy guitars and Moe Tucker’s simplistic drumming. It’s the first example of the drone-rock sound they would make their own. “Run Run Run” almost has an R&B rhythm at it’s heart, but it’s simple chords and atonal guitar solos makes it much more interesting. Nico’s finest moment comes next in “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, with it’s out of focus, thundering piano and intricate guitar, it builds another wall of sound. “Heroin” is the albums standout; the simple, almost sweet melody gives way to a thunderous rush of guitar, viola and drums (reputed to resemble the rush of a hit). It’s the high-point of the album; Reed’s spot-on lyrics (everybody putting everybody, Tucker’s crashing drums and John Cale’s droning viola. “There She Goes Again” is another rock ‘n roll standard subverted, by Cale’s and Morrison’s over the top harmonies. “The Black Angel Death Song” is the bravest song on the album; just a constantly strumming guitar and a lead viola. Hardly your typical late ‘60’s rock music. The final track is the epitomy of drone rock: a fast and pacey guitar riff that seems to become faster after aminutes when the scraping and crashing noise comes in.

So all in all, a great album but why is it an important album? Well without the Velvet Underground (and the Stooges) there would be no punk; no punk, no post-punk or new wave. The themes and music of the Velvet Underground caused a generation to make rock music something other that white guys with guitars ripping off the blues. And it still sounds fresh today, which is maybe the greatest compliment you can give.


  1. Stoogy

    If you love this album so much why did you give it to me? hehe

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