[29 July 2002]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
What more needs to be said about The Velvet Underground’s first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, that hasn’t been said already, countless times in the past, by musicians, hipsters, and myriad rock critics? You probably have come across many famous quotes about the band, ranging from Lester Bangs’s many tributes to the band to Brian Eno’s legendary line about how back in the late 1960s, not many people bought their albums, but those who did went on to form famous bands. And even if you’ve never heard the album, you’ve likely heard covers of their tunes by the likes of R.E.M., Nirvana, and David Bowie, and people like Bono and Julian Casablancas (The Strokes) describing the Velvets’ merits. Plus, you’ve seen Andy Warhol’s famous banana album cover. It’s all enough to make a jaded Tween teenager think, What’s the big deal?
Fact is, The Velvet Underground were, and still remain a very big deal, indeed. Aside from the Beatles, no band in the history of rock and roll has had more of an influence on younger bands than the Velvets, and that influence has lasted over 30 years, helping to spawn the likes of David Bowie, Roxy Music, the Sex Pistols, U2, Joy Division, New Order, R.E.M., Nirvana, and most recently, The Strokes. The Velvet Underground only released four albums, but those four albums (The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground, and Loaded) cover almost every facet of rock music, both musically and thematically: rock and roll as high art, experimentation, catharsis, redemption, and celebration.
Released a few months before the Beatles’ landmark Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in early 1967, but recorded close to a year before, The Velvet Underground & Nico, along with Sgt. Pepper, introduced a new form of rock music: the artsy concept album. Sgt. Pepper had its lavish, high-concept album cover, while The Velvet Underground & Nico represented the postmodern side, with Andy Warhol’s banana on a white background, with the curious message “Peel Slowly and See” in fine print (when peeled, the listener would be treated to a pink, phallic banana underneath). Musically, the Beatles pulled out all the stops, meticulously recording their album over several months. The Velvet Underground (Guitarist/singer Lou Reed, multi-instrumentalist John Cale, rhythm guitarist/bassist Sterling Morrison, drummer Maureen Tucker, and “chanteuse” Nico), on the other hand, needed just 3000 dollars and one day in the studio.
The result of that quick studio visit is astonishing, a combination of white noise, classic rock and roll, soul, and folk music, a sound that is impossible to categorize in anything else but “The Velvet Underground”. Wispy-gentle one moment, chugging and driving the next, disturbing a few minutes later, and cacophonous at the end, The Velvet Underground & Nico was so far ahead of its time that it still sounds fresh today, and thanks to a brand-new two-disc, Deluxe Edition of the album, fans can now own the definitive version.
Some may argue that The Velvet Underground & Nico is not a concept album, but think about it: Lou Reed’s bittersweet, first-person narratives cut from scene to scene, much like William S. Burroughs’ books Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine, a nonlinear tale of life in New York City. Opening with the startlingly beautiful “Sunday Morning”, Reed’s narrator wakes up on the morning after a night’s debauchery, afraid to remember what happened the night before (“Sunday morning / And I’m falling / I’ve got a feeling / I don’t want to know”). “I’m Waiting for the Man”, with its pulsating beat by Tucker and Reed’s and Morrison’s distorted guitars, depicts a Manhattanite’s journey into Harlem to score some heroin (“Hey white boy, what you doin’ uptown? . . . He’s got the works, he gives you sweet taste”), while the grandiose, yet seamy “Venus in Furs” describes a sadomasochistic scene inspired by Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s infamous novel of the same name (“Tongue the thongs, the belt that does await you”) as Cale plays a sumptuous drone on electric viola, as Morrison repeats the same two-bar bassline and Tucker pounds ominously on tom-toms, one of the best marriages of rock and modal jazz ever recorded. The Bo Diddley-influenced shuffle on “Run Run Run” dominates Reed’s story of homeless characters such as “Teenage Mary”, “Seasick Sarah”, and “Beardless Harry”, while Cale’s boogie-woogie piano riff drives the majestic “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, a heartbreaking sketch of an empty, upper crust party girl (When midnight comes around / She’ll turn once more to Sunday’s clown and cry behind the door”). “There She Goes Again” niftily steals its opening guitar riff from Otis Redding’s “Hitch Hike” as the song’s misogynist narrator tells a cuckold to set his unfaithful woman straight: “You better hit her”. The twisted, Dylanesque “The Black Angel’s Death Song” represents the darker side of psychedelia, and the frenetic noise-fest “European Son”, complete with its unsettling sounds of a table scraping across the studio floor and glass shattering, closes out the album.
The album’s three centerpiece songs are also polar opposites of each other. Reed’s “Heroin”, with its speeding and slowing tempo accompanied by Cale’s one-chord viola playing is neither a cautionary tale, nor a pro-drugs rant; in keeping with the rest of the album, it’s just another first-person depiction of a scene, but the difference here is the quality of Reed’s lyrics, whose simplicity and poeticism (“When I’m rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus’ son”) paint a picture of the drug experience as effectively as Burroughs’ Junky, and Hubert Selby, Jr.‘s novel Requiem for a Dream. On the other end, Nico provides the other highlights. The statuesque German-born model/singer (who joined the band on the request of Andy Warhol) puts her own husky-voiced stamp on the album on “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, two of the best love songs Reed has ever written (she also sings on “All Tomorrow’s Parties”). She isn’t the greatest singer, but neither is Reed, and her sultry, Eastern European accent further enhances the album’s mystique.
This new release of The Velvet Underground & Nico is a beauty. It comes in a gorgeous digipak, complete with peelable banana, along with lyrics and extensive liner notes. The first disc features the stereo version of the album, as well as five songs from Nico’s solo debut Chelsea Girls that reunited Cale, Reed, and Morison with Nico in 1967 (the rest of the album was written in collaboration with a young Jackson Browne); highlights include the early Reed tune “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” (a demo of the song can be heard on the VU retrospective Peel Slowly and See), Cale’s Celtic-tinged folk of “Winter Song”, and “Chelsea Girls”, another brilliant character sketch by Reed, this time about the denizens of New York’s famous Chelsea Hotel.
Best of all, though, is the second disc, which features the album’s original mono mix, previously unavailable on CD, as well as mono versions of the album’s two singles. Considered by fans to be the definitive version of the album, the mono version has the band sounding more cohesive, and much heavier, as the bass features very prominently. The mono mix of “I’m Waiting for the Man” blows away the stereo version, as the song thunders along, with more reverb added to Reed’s vocals. Many younger VU fans, including yours truly, have only known the stereo version of The Velvet Underground & Nico, and this release of the mono mix is a revelation, and a must-own for longtime fans.
In a nutshell, you can’t call yourself a rock music fan unless you own the entire Velvet Underground catalog (the Peel Slowly and See box set is an easy way to do it), and if you’re going to start, start by buying this Deluxe Edition of The Velvet Underground & Nico. It may change your life, or it may not, but I guarantee you’ll hear music differently after listening to it. Music does not get any more essential than this.