The Velvet Underground & Nico: self-titled

Adrien Begrand

The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground & Nico (Deluxe Edition)

Label: Deluxe Edition
US Release Date: 2002-06-25
UK Release Date: 2002-06-24

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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.