The Velvet Underground & Nico at 50
Written by John Diliberto on March 15, 2017
I have to admit, I wasn’t a big fan of The Velvet Underground in the 1960s. They were the antithesis of the Summer of Love with their themes of drug abuse, prostitution, sadism, masochism and sexual deviancy. And that’s just the Wikipedia description. The Velvet’s were championed and financed by Andy Warhol and figured heavily into the scene he created in New York at the Factory. In that setting, the Velvet Underground were musician laureates.
When the Velvet’s ventured out of the city, they weren’t regarded so affectionately. I still remember a review of them by Ralph J Gleason, the co-founder of Rolling Stone Magazine, that oozed with loathing. In an article reprinted in Gleason’s book, The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound, he related watching Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Fillmore with unveiled disgust. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was a multimedia a performance art work centered on the Velvet Underground. Gleason wrote of the band: ‘The girl and the guy with the whips danced on stage in a crude attempt to be sexual. The Velvet Underpants sang a song about whips. It was all very campy and very Greenwich Village sick. But the worst thing was that it was non-creative and hence non-artistic.” There you have the East Coast-West Coast schism in a nutshell, spiked with acid and opiates. It was Herman Hesse versus Hubert Selby, Jr.
That piece colored my view of the Velvet Underground for years. Gleason was a terrific writer and champion of a lot of music I loved, from The Jefferson Airplane to John Coltrane, but he missed that one and I can see why. The Velvets were the Id of the Summer of Love. They peeled back utopia to see the bugs crawling underneath. And while Warhol’s presentation was indeed, “campy”, the music wasn’t. Ultimately, the band and its music remain as influential today as psychedelic music. VU and this album in particular went on to influence groups like Cluster, Can, and Neu and later punk rockers and art rockers sang their praises. The XX wouldn’t be possible without The Velvet Underground. Fifty years on, The Velvet Underground remain current.
The Velvet Underground and Nico was released on March 12, 1967 on Verve Records. Its Andy Warhol designed cover of a banana is as iconic as the recording. Originally you could peel the skin off and see a flesh colored banana underneath. It may have been an unintentional, or like much of Warhol’s work, a subliminal reference to the music which revealed more upon each listen and each decade of criticism and research.
The album was born in New York City and the artistic, hedonistic scene surrounding Warhol’s Factory. Some of the songs were written about characters who inhabited the fringes of society and the center of the Factory. Lou Reed captured the shadows of the city with songs like “Waiting for My Man” and “Heroin.” Both were signature songs with “Heroin” in particular breaking new ground in structure. “Waiting for My Man” was a grinding garage rock track, but “Heroin” takes a slow, almost symphonic build culminating in a menacing, screaming frenzy.
The core of The Velvet Underground was John Cale on viola and miscellaneous instruments, singer and guitarist Lou Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison, drummer Maureen Tucker and on this one album, singer Nico.
Nico was kind of foisted on the Velvet’s by Andy Warhol. She was an Aryan beauty, blonde, lean and haughty. She sang in accented English with a shrouded tone that could best be described as flat, cold and expressionless. But that flat tone was a perfect marriage with the droning modal groove of songs like “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” It was another one written by Reed about the scene at the Factory, depicting a sad, dissolute world where outsiders came to belong for a moment. Cale’s arrangement with its droning guitar and churning electric undertow combined with Reed playing guitar in a raga mode, turning that psychedelic trope on its head. Sterling Morrison playing bass and drummer Moe Tucker formed a slow ritual groove that sounds like a death march.
“Venus in Furs” uses a similar mode. The song is inspired by a book of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch exploring sadomasochism. He’s the guy whose surname game us gave us the word masochist. You can hear the avant-garde influences of LaMonte Young, eastern influences and the literary affections the group often explored.
You can also hear the impact of Velvet’s violist John Cale who came from Lamonte Young’s group. Cale was classically trained and played many different instruments on The Velvet Underground and Nico, lending the group a wider and often more dissonant palette than most rock bands recording in 1966. On “Venus in Furs,” Reed’s chiming guitar and Cale’s electric viola combine into a dark tamboura drone that would’ve fit in Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music. On Lou Reed’s 2007 ambient album, Hudson River Wind Meditations, I’m pretty sure he sampled and processed some of this song.
The Velvet Underground and Nico was a groundbreaking, avant-garde rock album before there was really such a thing. Only The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! pushed the envelope as forcefully. But Frank Zappa’s humor often undermined the more experimental tendencies of the Mothers, turning them into novelty. The Velvet Underground went for full, dark explorations.
Instead of undermining the experimental with humor, the Velvets undermined conventional songs with discord and dark imagery. The pastoral album opener, “Sunday Morning” with Reed imitating Nico’s tone, is actually about paranoia. “There She Goes Again” sounds like a song The Byrd’s may have recorded, but its lyrics detail the fall of a woman into prostitution, “down on her knees again.”
The Velvet Underground and Nico leaves us in a cloud of distortion and free-form improvising on “European Son,” presaging noise-rock by some 15-20 years. Clocking in at nearly 8 minutes long, they were never thinking of Top 40 success although their actual producer, Tom Wilson, may have. (On the album cover you just see Warhol’s name and on the back cover title header, Warhol is listed as producer in equal size font as the group. But Warhol was reputedly producer in spirit and finances only).
As I said at the beginning, I was a Velvet Underground denier for years. I preferred the more idyllic side of the 60s and was more prone, and still am, to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band than The Velvet Underground and Nico. At WXPN, as late as 1983, I remember fighting against a Velvet Underground special from now author Richie Unterberger as late as 1983 or so. He got it in on-air on a technicality and in retrospect, I’m glad he did. I like the yin as well as the yang. And I can hear VU in the dissonance of Neu, the motoric rhythms of Can, the dark shadows of Siouxsie & the Banshees and stripped down minimalism of The XX.
Three fifths of this band are no longer with us. Nico died in 1988, Sterling Morrison followed in 1995. Lou Reed left us in 2013. But The Velvet Underground and Nico at 50, lives on.
We’ll be featuring music from The Velvet Underground and Nico tonight on program 1711C, on Echoes.