Counterbalance No. 4: 'The Velvet Underground and Nico'
The Velvet Underground & Nico's self-titled debut album started as all hype thanks to Andy Warhol, but it somehow managed to become one of the most influential records of all time. Has this record outlasted its 15 minutes of fame? Peel slowly and see.
The Velvet Underground & Nico
The Velvet Underground & Nico
12 March 1967
Mendelsohn: I love the way this album starts with the airy feel of "Sunday Morning" and its ambiguous, non-threatening lyrics. After that, it's all downhill, like picking up a rock and peering into the seedy underbelly of urban America in the 1960s. It's fantastic. Except for the parts where Nico sings. I could do without that.
Klinger: Ah, but Mendelsohn, without Nico, there might not be a Velvet Underground as we know it. Allow me to oversimplify. Andy Warhol essentially pulled Lou Reed, John Cale, and co. from obscurity to have a backing band for his newly-discovered "chanteuse", offering up his brand name and connections in exchange for hearing her Kissinger-esque tones on vinyl. After they got in the studio, actual producer Tom Wilson was so taken with Nico's Teutonic appeal that he insisted that Reed write a single just for her. Somehow that song became "Sunday Morning", and Lou ended up singing it anyway. I'm not sure how that happened. I'm assuming a blonde wig and some coquettish flirting were involved.
Mendelsohn: It's funny; I can't stand Nico, but without her, Warhol wouldn't have tapped the Velvet Underground, and without the Velvet Underground, the whole art house rock/avant/noise/punk thing wouldn't have spawned a ton of different bands that I (and you) love. Instead, rock would sound very clean and happy—somewhere between the Beatles and the Beach Boys—and that would get old quick.
Klinger: I'd go so far as to say that Nico's off-key caterwauling is what gives this album its off-kilter charm. But that's me; I think Beatles albums need Ringo songs for balance.
You mention the Beach Boys and the Beatles, and, interestingly, this album was being recorded at the same time as Pet Sounds and Revolver. Three of the top four albums on the big list were in progress concurrently, although this is the only one to touch on sadomasochism and intravenous drug use (unless there's something about "Sloop John B" that I'm missing).
Mendelsohn: When I listen to this album I hear a lot of the early pop and rock influences that fueled both Pet Sounds and Revolver, but there is something very raw within the songs, and it's not just the lyrical subject matter. Compared to pristine sounds of the Beatles and Beach Boys, the Velvet Underground sound like they are recording in a dirty alley, behind a couple of dumpsters, playing instruments they barely understand and overdriving their amps. It's tribal, trance-inducing and full of white noise—a distinct departure from the prevailing, feel-good aura of the late 1960s.
Klinger: But you're right that underneath the feedback and screeching viola, Velvet Underground & Nico, for the most part, features pop-oriented chord changes and melodies. Even something like "Black Angel's Death Song" could be a folk song if not for the odd tunings and what sounds like someone blowing up balloons every so often.
But that's not to say that the going doesn't get good and weird. "European Son" is a good old fashioned freakout, and "Venus in Furs" still sounds decadent even after countless listenings. And then there's "Heroin"...
Mendelsohn: Yeah, and then there's "Heroin". The title says it all. What I find fascinating is that Lou Reed isn't even trying to veil the song's true meaning. The Beatles and the Beach Boys wrote songs about their drug use but nothing so blatant. Do you think it's just his New York City mentality?
Klinger: While I'm tempted to believe that New Yorkers are more than willing to share with you all the most intimate details of their pharmaceutical use, from Sweet Lady H to Compound W, I suspect it's mostly down to the singularly prickly personality of Lou Reed.
Reed wrote the two most overt drug ditties, "Heroin" and "Waiting for the Man", in 1965, when he was a staff writer for the budget pop label Pickwick writing tunes like "Cycle Annie" and "The Ostrich". I'm not 100% convinced Reed ever expected his dope tracks to see widespread release. Still, Warhol's fascination with the seamier side of life appears to have carried the day, even if it did keep them off Atlantic Records (at least until Loaded in 1970). When you manage to freak out a cat as worldly as Ahmet Ertegun, you're really on to something.
And yet it can't be an accident that "Sunday Morning" is the first track on this album. For all the debauchery that follows, the Velvets' career begins with a song so sweet that Peter, Paul and Mary could have covered it. Is this the greatest sucker punch in the history of rock?
Mendelsohn: Starting the album with something so unthreatening is a good way to slip the listening public one hell of a mickey. But it was either that or start the record with an ode to Reed's adventures trying to score his next fix. Smart money says to lead with the song that isn't explicitly about buying heroin, preparing to take heroin, taking heroin, the wonderful way heroin makes you feel, or the horrible way heroin makes you feel once it's done making you feel wonderful. Looking over the album, "Sunday Morning" is the least threatening song on the record, and it doesn't feature Nico. Putting Nico front and center would also be ill-advised.
Klinger: Well, they could have also led with an ode to kinky sex, but I see your point. And this may explain how Lou Reed ended up singing "Sunday Morning". His not-conventionally-attractive voice already had a precedent thanks to Dylan. However, the wasted, weary tone suggests that Lou's vision of a Sunday morning differs a bit from Charles Osgood's.
But I think that if this wasn't a sucker punch—if it really was an earnest attempt at writing a viable pop song, then it underscores a point that I think we'll be returning to again and again over the next 2,996 weeks: it's called pop music for a reason. Artists may bring different sensibilities and different levels of tolerance for atonality, but there's a good chance that there will at least be an acknowledgment of musical conventions. And maybe it's that connection to a tradition that keeps discs like this one in the public consciousness, even with all the discord and references to shiny boots of leather.
Mendelsohn: Nico could put a shiny boot on the back of my neck anytime she wants. Just no singing.
I think the major reason the Underground remains so popular is the study in contrast it presents. The pop aesthetic remains, but the album is a much more visceral, realistic representation of humanity than the versions presented by either the Beach Boys or the Beatles. While the issues addressed on this record are nothing new, they are presented in a frank matter. Plus, Lou Reed pops up every couple of years and says something inappropriate, which is a good way to keep yourself slightly relevant.
Klinger: More realistic? Now I'm really curious about what goes into that basement of yours. But you're right about Loveable Lou and his cuddly curmudgeonry. I only hope that we can learn from his example.
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Ten years ago, we began presenting the beloved Counterbalance series that ran through 2016. Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger debate the merits of some of the most critically-acclaimed albums of all time. We are re-running the entire series with a new entry each week. Enjoy.
This article was originally published on 7 October 2010.
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