There will never be another album like The Velvet Underground and Nico.
Never will there be an album that stabs you in the head repeatedly with its violent noise and death inducing claws of sonic devastation, only to be coupled with a gleaming sense of reality that went straight to the heart. This was 1967, Lou Reed’s exploration into the dark, beating, urban sprawl of New York, against what he saw as the ‘boring’ idealism of the hippie dominated west coast culture. Here were drugs, here was love, here was sadism and masochism, death and beauty – here was, despite it all, the ultimate failed experiment.
Rolling Stone writer David Fricke summed up the music of the Velvet’s as “a concept in overdrive” – no description has ever been truer. The Velvet Underground were a creative force to be reckoned with, and perhaps is no truer than in the way in which the band came together: in 1965, John Cale, the aspiring avant-garde rock musician met the dreamer that took the form of Lou Reed, and began a band that would influence entire genres of music for decades to come. Recognizing the potential of the band, the eccentric Andy Warhol, father of the modern pop art movement, took the band under his wing and gave the band a breath of life, ensuring their name in the annals of history. So it was that the musician, the dreamer and the artist set about creating perhaps one of the most revolutionary albums of the late 60’s, which would remain ‘underground’ for years, while the rest of the world fell head over heels for the sunshine pop of The Beatles
, still riding their wave of success of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club and the Magical Mystery Tour, both of which were released during the same year.
So came The Velvet Underground and Nico. And then it went; quite quickly in fact. Despite its status as one of the ‘best and most influential albums ever created’ and the oft quoted statement from Brain Eno that ‘everyone who listed to it went off to start their own band’, it only managed to peak at a whopping 171 on the billboard 200. Ah, but of course, commercial success hardly equates to brilliance, point out the ubiquitous musical elite who exist only in the shadows of internet forums and school halls. Perhaps. Perhaps the world just wasn’t ready for the music of the Velvet Underground – but would they ever be? Today even, Nico
sounds like an incredibly dated album, exemplified no better than in the horrible reverb that was put over Reed’s voice in Sunday Morning
, an otherwise beautiful song. Conversely, it’s dark themes of drug use, sexual deviancy and stark reality assured that in an relatively conservative commercial world inverse to that of today’s (with our shining idols like Pete Doherty and 50 Cent), it would never get too far in the world of 1967. With the proceeding decades dominated by hard rock, glam and then grunge, the work of the Velvet Underground threatens to remain in the vacuum of time which has kept it there thus far.
Despite its anachronistic nature, a look at the music on the album, revels further cracks in it’s foundations as a classic record – For one, this album is frustrating. Mindbogglingly frustrating. It’s an album that has the word ‘potential’ scribbled, burnt, etched, carved and written all over it in cursive, block and bold writing and simply fails to live up to it. The Underground staple, Waiting For My man
, is a classic example of this, with its pounding beat and chugging guitar riff, and Reed’s cool as hell voice, laced with the attitude and spirit of the times, singing about heading out to wait for his dealer to come round; it’s a great song – until about the four minute mark, where you realize that music hasn’t actually changed one bit. The band sort of seemed to realize this and chucked in some rock piano and a funky bass solo during the last thirty seconds to make up for it. It simply doesn’t cover up the lack of movement within the music. Waiting For My man is not the only song to suffer from this: both The Black Angel’s Death Song
and European Son
, the closers for the album, start off as these interesting soundscapes which again, have the potential to be molded and turned into masterpieces, but are left to their devises and drag off into unlistenable rubbish. Many of the songs of the record exhibit a similar problem, but not to the extent of either Death Song or European Son.
In that way, Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground were the perfect mix. Warhol, whose most famous artworks consisted of paintings of perfectly ordinary cans of Campbell’s Soup and films of people sleeping for eight hours, and The Velvets, whose songs consisted of Reeds insistence of showing the world just how bad he was at putting together a solo and Cale having no idea to play a viola – It was very art house, it was very rebellious. It was revolutionary in the same way the fellow who invented the wheel was revolutionary. All very good, but utterly useless until you used it
. And the Velvets didn’t use what they had – they remained an idealized “concept in overdrive”, letting their noise rock atheistic take over the music, letting it shape their works, rather than the other way around. Furthermore, as bad as that was, the Velvet’s overlooked their second major flaw – Nico. Reed had the right idea when insisting that Nico was kept as separate from the band in the album title, and the songs she sings on show exactly why. I don’t care if her voice is ‘unique’ or ‘baroque’ or any other fancy term – It doesn’t fit. At all. Her stone hard European accent as she sings “just a li-ddle teeaseee” and “please put down your han-dsss”, totally ruins the beautiful sense of melody that Reed instills on songs like Femme Fatale
and I’ll Be Your Mirror
Then there’s Heroin
Velvet Underground song. It mimics the feeling of a hit of skag by…starting slow and then going fast. Wow. Congratulations. Would you people like a medal now? But, no, honestly, I’m just being harsh. In truth, heroin is rightfully known as one of the best songs on the album. If anything, the changing dynamics means it doesn’t have much choice in the matter, given the stagnant nature of most of the others. But what truly sets it apart are its brilliant lyrics:
I have made the big decision
I'm gonna try to nullify my life…
When I'm closing in on death
And you can't help me now, you guys…
In fact, Nico has some of the best lyrics I’ve heard on an album of its kind. What’s more, just because many of the songs drone on, doesn’t mean that what is there isn’t good. Venus In Furs
has got a wicked eastern tinge to it, Im Waiting for My Man
has a really cool hook, Sunday Morning
is beautiful and catchy and Run Run Run
really gets your body moving - The truth is that Velvet Underground and Nico is an undoubtedly powerful album. But it’s also a very specific
album, straying too far off the tightrope that separates genius and fantastical and losing sight of the music on the way. Perhaps that makes it ‘classic’ in the eyes of many. The Velvet Underground may have started something great, but it wasn’t always done in a way that could have truly made itself
intrinsically great. Good try, but no fish.