Album Analysis | The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico
We take a look at the 1967 album that not only defined the post-psychedelic era soundscape of rock and roll, but the entire art of songwriting to this day - which almost nobody bought.
It is the summer of 1967 - the summer of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll - the musicality of the year personified in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys and Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane. Yet drifting across a few home stereos in the June heat was the music of a little known band from deep in Andy Warhol's smokey Factory studio, born out of New York, led by a young, scruffy kid named Lou. They were The Velvet Underground. As everyone else was playing to the tune of a version of the sixties they believed would never end, Velvet was playing to what the decade would become known for. Because as festivals in sunny California welcomed free-loving hippies in vans and bright clothes, the nation was just one year from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and would soon know the full perils of the senseless war in Vietnam, which began to rip itself apart as the country was thrown into civil rights rioting and violence through to the end of the decade. The Velvet Underground represented this imminent future in every way, and their debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, exemplifies this thinking and musical clairvoyance to its greatest extent.
When it came to the art of the sixties, the name Andy Warhol embodied to all the zeitgeist that dominated the alternative, avant-garde scene. Warhol did not act alone however, and he led a collective studio known as the "Factory", for its ability to churn out increasingly strange and eclectic work at a pace reminiscent less of an art commune and more of a Victorian sweatshop. Now, Warhol fashioned himself an artist of many types, and chose to take a foray into music when he, in early 1966, orchestrated a travelling show known as the "Exploding Plastic Inevitable", performed by a band put together from young upstarts willing to work for almost no money or guaranteed success - with their main payment simply being their ability to work with Warhol himself. These kids were Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker.
Having received their name from a novel about the early '60s sexual subculture that existed in New York City, and riding off the publicity of the often controversial but nevertheless talked-about EPI tour, The Velvet Underground took to the studio with Warhol as their producer to record their debut record. But there was a catch - Warhol felt the band could not stand alone and would need the aid of a foreign face to add to the band’s eccentricity. This came in the form of German model 'Nico', born Christa Päffgen, who was brought to New York to aid the group’s status and add a different musical and vocal presence to Lou Reed’s almost arrogant-sounding drawl and Cale’s Welsh nasal line delivery. It would not be a successful collaboration.
The listener's first interaction with the record is laying eyes upon Warhol’s greatest gift to the band - the album’s cover. Rather than the band’s name adorning the front, Warhol’s signature forms the main text of the cover - alongside a small message “Peel Slowly and See”, a reference to the owner’s ability to rip off a bright yellow banana sticker and reveal a bright pink version of the fruit underneath. But this cover was a double-edged sword - whereas the front stands up as one of the most famous album faces of all time, the lesser-known back cover would be a part of what doomed the commercial potential of the record and the band as a whole. The back cover, also designed by Warhol and containing photos of the EPI tour, also contained a photograph of Eric Emerson, who had recently been charged with drug possession, was destitute, and living on the street. He threatened to sue Verve Records unless his image was removed, banking that Verve would keep the already mass-produced album on store shelves and settle with him quietly. However, in a decision Warhol and the band would never forgive, Verve caved - pulling most of the albums off store shelves, stopping production until the back cover could be altered, and permanently destroying the album's ability to gain momentum on radio stations and in stores in ‘67. By its re-release, it never again approached the Billboard Top 100 and ensured the group would always be on the back foot in their attempts to break through the scene.
When the needle drops, the listener is exposed to the most complex and expensive-to-produce track on the LP - “Sunday Morning”, a song originally written for Nico but sung by Lou Reed in near-falsetto for the version present on the album. The song is hauntingly beautiful, utilizing a viola and celesta to create a lush sound (showcasing the band’s clear desire for this to be the hit single it never would become). It contains the narrator discussing the feeling of waking up disoriented in the morning after a night of drinking and partying, and the intense paranoia brought with coming off the previous night’s mistakes:
“Watch out, the world's behind you, there's always someone around you who will call - It's nothing at all…”
- "Sunday Morning"
It’s also a partially autobiographical account of Lou Reed’s life at the time, a theme present in much of his songwriting - the track “Heroin” having been inspired by his frequent run-ins with users of the drug, where the relaxed guitar represents first injecting, and the angry electric noise and strings representing the intense withdrawal. Reed would later have many fans approach him, informing Lou how much they enjoyed shooting up to the song, which would begin his increasing alienation with his own fanbase as he watched his song be hopelessly misunderstood. It’s all the same though - by the outbreak of his solo career in the seventies, Reed would become notorious for chasing the dragon any chance he could.
Above all the intricate differences in sound, production style, and musical influences present on the album, there exists an overarching tension and almost friction in the album’s song order. The album feels like two separate records forced together - one a highly produced, folk and 50s-rock inspired effort (Sunday Morning, I’m Waiting for the Man, Femme Fatale) and the other a proto-punk, gritty, fringe statement (Venus in Furs, Black Angel’s Death Song, European Son). These two sounds, often at odds with each other and making the album a somewhat strange experience to listen to, represent the tension present in the band from their very beginning - the artistic differences between the two giants of the band, Lou Reed and John Cale. Whereas Lou Reed envisioned a band that, while still maintaining an experimental bent, would create songs with subtlety and commercial potential, Cale envisioned the band as a rejection of the entire music industry, an artistic statement that would see the band do whatever it took to push the boundaries of the public’s perception of rock. This dynamic would end up being untenable, and after the Cale-driven failure of the White Light/White Heat album, Reed and the other members of the group would fire him after he excitedly suggested their third album be recorded with the guitar amplifiers placed underwater.
Adding to the tension of the sessions was the near-constant fighting between the members of the band and Nico, who embodied everything Reed and Cale hated about "the industry". She would spend, to Lou, excessive amounts of time in a dressing room before getting ready to record, and would insist on burning a candle down to the wick before she would dare lend her voice to a production. These annoyances wore Reed and Cale to the point of berating her whenever her voice ventured off-key, a side effect of both her partial deafness and ever-present German accent. In the recording for "I’ll Be Your Mirror", a delicate song about loving another person and bringing them up when they’re down despite their faults, Reed and Cale mocked her incessantly, driving her to tears as she sang into the microphone. Additionally, the other members of the band can be heard sarcastically, half-heartedly singing the chorus to Femme Fatale on the version present on the album, showing just how low the respect was for the band’s ‘chanteuse’, as Warhol called her.
By the end of the 1966 recording sessions, it was decided that Nico would not be returning for any further ventures. Following the release and subsequent stunningly bad sales performance for the record, Reed took further matters into his hands and fired Andy Warhol, the band’s original creator, promoter, and media champion. In fact it would be that, within twenty-one months of the release of their debut, the Velvet Underground had shed three members of the original group, and with it had shed their last connections to the Factory, Warhol, and the New York avant-garde scene. Yet, despite the modern positive critical outlook on the group’s subsequent efforts, especially the ever-popular Loaded, the album most remembered today is that messy, conflict-driven, offbeat record from the spring of ‘66. When asked about the Velvet Underground & Nico, famed musician and producer Brian Eno remarked that though the record may have only sold 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought it formed a band”. And it is here that the influence of the album cannot be understated - for a record that borrowed as much from the past as it did, with its odes to folk and doo-wop, the album served as a blueprint for genres like punk, alt-rock and grunge, and as a blueprint for the modern songwriting industry as a whole. It redefined what a record could talk about; while artists like Bob Dylan dared to bring politics into lyricism, and the Beatles enjoyed adding in veiled drug references to their songs, Velvet brazenly wrote a love song to heroin, articulated the particular stress of waiting for your drug dealer in a subway terminal, and produced an ode to a leather-clad dominatrix. If anything defines twenty-first-century music, it is the complete breakdown of any expectation of modesty in what a song can discuss or examine. The industry has undergone a liberation in subject matter that would shock the '60s BBC censors who spent their days banning songs daring to mention religion or controversy. So whereas the popular discussion of the influence of the Velvet Underground’s debut album rightfully places importance upon the musical impact, one can argue the greatest lasting impact of the album in a rap-dominated, mostly post-rock world is that there should be no barrier between life and music, that nothing is too sacred or too “out there” to be strung together with notes and released to the world. The impact of the Velvet Underground is a redefining of what popular, or unpopular, music can be, in all its eccentric forms that the public can enjoy in 2019. So whether you’re at home listening to Tupac Shakur or Beyoncé, Nirvana or Lil Nas X, have a toast to the original trailblazing spirits of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker.