The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground & Nico

Marshall Bowden

The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground & Nico

Label: Polydor
US Release Date: 1967-03-28
"Anyone should be able to play these songs, that's what I like about them."
-- Lou Reed

The Velvet Underground & Nico is one of those debut albums where the band got absolutely everything right. It is at once primitive in its execution and epic in its aspirations, dark yet infused with a deadpan humor that suggests we take none of this too seriously. It is voyeuristic, yet often confessional. Everything that the Velvets were and everything they were to become was right there, in that one slab of glorious vinyl. The raucous, chugging, feedback-stoked display of White Light/White Heat was there, in "I'm Waiting for the Man", in the rushing conclusion of "Heroin", and in the closing "Black Angel's Death Song" and "European Son." The fragile, doomed beauty of 1969's Velvet Underground was there in the deceptively tranquil sounding opener "Sunday Morning", and in the songs featuring Nico: "Femme Fatale", "All Tomorrow's Parties", and "I'll Be Your Mirror". And the flat-out rock and roll found on the group's last album, Loaded, was there in "I'm Waiting for the Man" and the slightly askew "There She Goes Again".

I knew this would always be one of my favorite albums from the moment I heard it. Since I was only five years old at the time it was first released, I became familiar with it later, during my junior high school years. My group of friends cultivated a very rock snob aesthetic and it was only a matter of time before we stumbled upon the Velvets both because of the writing of rock critics like Robert Christigau and Lester Bangs and because of their association with Andy Warhol. But it was the description in Lillian Roxan's Rock Encyclopedia that initially set me in search of their music: "Theirs was the dim world of drugs and sexual perversion, of heroin addiction and the desperate loss of hope that goes with it. Their concern was with death and violence . . . Oozing evil and lubricity, they made every other group look like kid stuff, and they made a lot of people nervous . . ." I bought a two-album Velvet Underground anthology on MGM records that featured an Andy Warhol cover consisting of a series of drawings of a set of lips closing around a straw inserted into a Coke bottle. Most of the songs from The Velvet Underground & Nico were there, along with representative samplings of their other albums. But nothing quite prepares one for the album itself, with its masterful sequencing of songs.

Initially the tracks were recorded in a single day with $1500 of time at the decrepit Scepter Records studios. The group redid "Heroin", "Venus in Furs", and "I'm Waiting for the Man" with Tom Wilson when they signed on with Verve Records. "Sunday Morning", which Wilson thought might make a decent single for the band, was recorded in New York. So there is a bit of tension between the tracks done at Scepter with Andy Warhol (who is credited as producer) pretty much just rolling tape and the tracks redone with a couple of days time at a good studio. The music is every bit as primitive, but on the redone tracks it is turned up, and details come to the fore that might not have been clear originally. The Scepter tracks have a more casual feeling to them, a tossed off vibe that makes them seem almost spontaneous.

Once I heard The Velvet Underground & Nico, I knew I would never have any affinity with the music and aesthetic of the West Coast. Never would I be able to tout the artfulness of Van Dyke Parks or Pet Sounds with a straight face. I would never be able to fathom the hold that the Grateful Dead had on the hearts and minds of acid-dropping Deadheads. Nor would I be able to tolerate the seriousness and high-art pretensions of British prog rock. Falling under the spell of this album set one on a collision course with a very special set of music to come, music whose lineage invariably led one back to the back alleys, shooting galleries, and S&M dungeons of this album. The original Modern Lovers, Patti Smith, Jesus and Mary Chain, the Stooges, Joy Division, Bowie, Roxy Music, Talking Heads, Dream Syndicate, the Cowboy Junkies -- all of these bands manifest some or all of the Velvet Underground's vision and aesthetic.

But it is easy to misunderstand all this. Lou Reed is sometimes considered "the godfather of punk rock" because he supposedly made it possible for taboo subjects to be the subject of rock songs. In addition, the Velvets certainly embraced a minimalist musical aesthetic. But what Reed and the Velvets really did was to make it possible for their chosen topics to be taken seriously and for the listener to get beyond the mere shock of subject matter and perhaps empathize with the characters involved a la Hubert Selby. The minimalism, the concentration on taboo subject matter, was all about transcendence. On all of their recordings nihilism is there, beckoning, but it is not embraced as the answer. In the Velvets' world love exists and is real, but it is frightening to love in a world that is harsh and which seeks to destroy you. Love is an answer, just as drugs, sex, violence, and narcissism are answers. I think it becomes explicit in Reed's solo work that love is the only possible answer that actually leads anywhere, but the implication is there even on this first Velvets album.

One way or another human beings will find, must have, transcendence, and here is chronicled many of the ways that it can be found. "Heroin" is one of the most beautiful songs on the album, summing up the addict's dilemma, explaining the allure of the drug, pulling the listener along on the incredible rush of intoxication followed by the disoriented, nodding state where nothing at all matters. Reed's junkie is painfully self-aware: "Heroin / Be the death of me / Heroin / It's my life and it's my wife". Nor is there any judgment of the empty life of the society party girl in "All Tomorrow's Parties". Nico's famous "Teutonic" delivery (she was actually born in Budapest, Hungary) seems to emphasize emptiness and a certain sense of despair, but there is empathy (maybe even sympathy) in the lyrics: "And what costume shall the poor girl wear / To all tomorrow's parties / A hand-me-down dress from who knows where / To all tomorrow's parties." The music, with John Cale's ringing modal piano drone and the sitar-like guitar work by Reed that results from all the strings being tuned to the same note, is sumptuous and decadent. Maureen Tucker's drums and Sterling Morrison's bass provide the tabla. The air is filled with delicate incense; one can imagine the "poor girl" in her boudoir, the silk pillows and perfume, the faint scent of opium and decay, the windows shut against the waning late afternoon sun. Perhaps she has only just awakened from her previous evening's debauchery. In fact, it is she who sings the opening song of the album, "Sunday Morning". Nico was slated to sing the song, but Reed later decided to do the vocal himself. The result is that we instead watch her rising from slumber and hear her thoughts from Lou the narrator. "Sunday Morning" is a paranoid little ode, one in which there is always something to atone for, something done that lies just outside the bounds of memory.

In the end, The Velvet Underground & Nico is as affirming an album as has ever been released. While it is very much a product of its time and place, it still imparts its message to anyone who cares to listen. I'm not sure the same can be said about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and in the end it's what you take away from an album that determines its importance to you, not whether it was the first to use a sitar or cover certain subject matter. I still feel the rattle of a subway and smell the overheated trash of a city summer when I hear "I'm Waiting for the Man", sigh when I hear Nico sing "Femme Fatale" or "I'll Be Your Mirror", shudder when Lou Reed sings "I have made a very big decision / I'm going to try for the kingdom if I can . . ." I still believe in the ability of rock and popular music to have a profound effect on the listener. I still believe that life, with all its ugliness and horror, is a pretty beautiful thing.

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

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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.

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