Sunday Night Journal, November 12, 2017
Sunday Night Journal, November 19, 2017

52 Albums, Week 46: The Velvet Underground and Nico

Velvet_Underground_and_Nico

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.

Comments

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I came to this album late, after going through Lou Reed's output first. Being a high school student in the 80s my initial interest was of course music happening then, and was able to see Reed in concert during that time (he was incredible).

So then buying and listening to The Velvet Underground and Nico was sort of a let-down. Nico's singing was just weird, not enough of Lou's poetry and personality. But as the years have gone by I now respect what they did, and even enjoy the album to some degree on occasion.

A few years ago a friend of mine put his Top Ten Desert Island discs as a Facebook post and this was one of them. I was like really, you're only giving yourself ten albums to listen to and Velvet Underground and Nico is one of those ten? He replied in the affirmative.

Not me. Once every five or ten years is plenty for me. I mean, it is a somewhat sick affair. And I'm kind of opposite from you--I wasn't keen on what I heard of Lou Reed's solo stuff and haven't heard most of it. And the ragged, kind of amateurish quality of this album is part of what makes it work. I guess it's another one of those "maybe you had to be there" albums. But then there are all those people who weren't even born in 1967 who think it's great....

I started writing the Terry Allen review, so should have it to you by Monday.

I came to the album more in Stu's time, but sort of from Mac's direction. I had first heard some of Nico's solo work when a friend bought the Marble Index (which was actually frightening when I first heard it on a summer afternoon in 1984, but I was determined to like it). Then I started looking for The Velvet Underground and Nico. I went to school near Greenwich Village, which had lots of used record shops, so it wasn't too hard to locate. I think I paid $20 for it (which was a lot for me) - with a peeled, but restuck banana.

I liked a lot of it. I surprised when I first heard Sunday Morning because I had heard how dark and subversive the album was. But there's plenty of that. My favorite songs are the three that Nico sings. But Heroin is the most powerful song. Maybe I was too innocent (or too comfortable) to be beguiled, but I never thought it made being a junky sound appealing. It always struck me as a moving portrait of despair.

Later I sought Lou Reed's solo work (after getting the other VU albums). Most of his work in the 70s was pretty uneven. At most a couple of good songs on an album, but mostly not so good. In the 80s he released some good work. Growing Up In Public, The Blue Mask, and New York are my favorites of his solo albums.

My original copy of course had the peelable banana cover, but I don't have it anymore. Bought a used cd copy when I got a yen to hear it again.

"It always struck me as a moving portrait of despair." Yes, that was my reaction. There was even a certain romanticism about the despair, but it certainly didn't produce any desire in me to do the same.

I think The Marble Index *is* a little frightening. I didn't like it when it first came out and it was probably at least 20 years later that I heard it again and changed my mind.

Looking forward to your review, Stu.

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