I've heard it said of this album that when it was first released in 1967 only a thousand people heard it, but that they all went out and started a band. Neither part of that is very accurate. I heard it when it was released, and so did all my friends, and many of us bought it. And this was in a small college town in Alabama. Granted, there were only a few of us. But still, the fact that it was available in record stores there means it must have received the same sort of distribution that most pop albums of the time did. It certainly was not successful, but neither was it something that only a handful of people knew about. After all, it had Andy Warhol's name on the cover, which guaranteed some attention. (The band had provided music for some Warhol performances and he was credited as producer.) It did manage to hang on to the lower rungs of the Billboard Top 200 for a while.
And none of us started a band, though I did make a stab at learning a few of the songs on my acoustic guitar. More to the point, I don't think it had much, if any, noticeable influence on other music at the time. The next few years were the flowering of hippie music, and if anyone else in that period, besides the Velvet Underground themselves in their next few albums, followed in their footsteps, I didn't hear it. (The Stooges, who are sometimes compared to them, seem to have been more parallel than following. And I don't hear that much resemblance myself.)
But there is something to the "thousand copies" story. It's a somewhat exaggerated version of something Brian Eno said in 1982:
I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. The sales have picked up in the past few years, but I mean, that record was such an important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!
In 1982 that was justifiable hyperbole, because it was sometime in the 1970s that the album's influence really did begin to make itself felt. Over the following years it became a generally recognized classic, at least among critics and those musicians and fans of indie- or alt-rock. And yet even now, fifty years on, neither it nor the band that produced it can be considered a stodgy, once-edgy-but-now-dull mainstay of classic rock radio or the casino circuit. It's still powerful, still almost shocking, still about as far from formulaic pop as anything can be without tipping over into noise.
I had considered writing about it in this series, and more or less decided not to, until last week when I wrote about the Incredible String Band. The ISB's elaborate, melodic, poetic, mystical work represents very well one aspect of the late '60s. I suppose the popular image now is that flower power, peace-and-love, etc., were the whole picture. But that wasn't true. There was always something dark in that picture. The times were a sort of explosion of energies, and by no means was it all positive. The Velvet Underground and The Doors were the most striking instances of that dark side. And I might add that Dylan in this period was not exactly a flower child.
I can't remember where I heard the phrase "the glamour of ruin," but this album has it. The music is mostly ragged, noisy, abrasive. The lyrics are mostly about ugly things: heroin, perverse sex, the hard edges of life in the concrete jungle. What did I, an 18-year-old college student in Alabama, hear in it? There was that glamour, of course, the fascination of looking into the dark side (from a comfortable place outside it). But fundamentally it was the music, by which I mean the whole package of sound and words. I listened to the album for the first time in many years before writing this, and it is just as powerful as it was in 1967.
It's not all noisy. The opening song is sweet and wistful, the empty pause of a Godless Sunday morning in the city.
Then the very next song comes crashing in with an almost mindless but driving I-V riff and a story about meeting a pusher. Another sweet song, but with an edge: "Femme Fatale," sung by the icy Teutonic goddess Nico, a German model with very limited but in the context effective vocal ability. Then perversity, with "Venus in Furs" ("Taste the whip..."). Another gripping hard rocker, "Run Run Run." A droning dirge for a troubled beauty, "All Tomorrow's Parties," sung hauntingly by Nico.
Then the song that pretty much blew everybody away both sonically and lyrically, "Heroin." I knew someone who said he knew someone who was so fascinated by this song that he wanted to become a heroin addict. It certainly didn't affect me that way. I took it as a straightforward description of the user's psychology and experience of the simultaneous longing for transcendence and oblivion, which ultimately must mean death.
"There She Goes Again" comes closest to something one could imagine hearing on Top 40 radio, thought it was too raw for that. And in the context of the album the lyrics suggested that she was going somewhere very sordid. "I'll Be Your Mirror" is another Nico vocal, a gentle declaration of some kind of love and support, whether romantic or not isn't entirely clear. It's these sweet moments that help to give the album its poignancy.
And the album ends with the somewhat scary "Black Angel's Death Song"--take that, American Bandstand--and "European Son,' which still seems to me a disappointing ending. Perhaps if it had more lyrics it might have been better, but after a few lines at the opening it's seven minutes of somewhat monotonous instrumental racket.
The Velvet Underground as a band didn't outlast the '60s, but Lou Reed and John Cale went on to successful solo careers. Cale appeared here early in this series. He collaborated with Nico on a couple of albums that were credited to her alone but are obviously at least as much his work. They are extremely weird and I like them a lot.
--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.