Monday, April 16, 2012

The Velvet Underground and Nico

The album cover art by Andy Warhol for The Velvet Underground and Nico (1966).
Sometimes it is hard to appreciate the impact or significance of a musician, a band, a song, an album or a concert long after the landmark takes place, especially when there is no context to which to refer.  This is even more true when the importance of said musical aspect is not realized more broadly until much later.

Few bands in rock history have had as much impact on other musicians and on later audiences, while being almost wholly and roundly ignored in its own time as The Velvet Underground.  With a situation like that of VU, it is sometimes hard to sort out the myths from the realities and fiction from fact and sometimes it is more interesting and fun to not entirely be sure which is which.

In any case, this amazing band which emerged from New York as proteges of artist Andy Warhol and began making some waves in the rock underground in 1965 and afterward.  Though their association with Warhol and his coterie of interesting personages was relatively short, the Velvets are still often inextricably linked with that scene.  The band consisted of guitarist and vocalist Lou Reed, electric violist, pianist and bassist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker. 

The personnel was an interesting mix.  Reed had a troubled upbringing including a forced stay at a mental home because, allegedly, of homosexual "tendencies" that led to shock treatment, but was also a poet and budding songwriter who later worked in a songwriting house in New York churning out pop tunes for small record labels.  Cale was a classically trained musician, although early on he became a devotee of the avant garde, associated with important composers and musicians in that world.  He took on the bass guitar on joining the Velvets, which had a previous bassist.  Morrison was a quiet and studious man whose solid rhythm and laser-sharp soloing was a true anchor for the band and he also did backing vocals and played bass.  This was also true of Maureen Tucker, a rare woman in a major rock band, and even though she may not have been technically proficient (having to play the bass drum with a stick rather than a foot pedal), she kept a solid and reliable beat and was a steady and universally loved presence in the band.

Among the many distinguishing characteristics of this groundbreaking group was Reed's songwriting, which featured a direct and obvious reference of subjects generally considered taboo even in rock music unless they were reduced to puns, obscure references and other "covers", such as drug use, unconventional sexual situations, stories of drag queens and more.  However, Reed also used his pop songwriting skills to create memorable melodies and could craft beautiful pieces as well as experimental and experiential songs.  In a way, Reed was an interesting comparison to Bob Dylan and his famed lyrics and the fact that the two had singing styles that were wholly their own, but which also generated much derision.  And, as with Dylan, there truly was no one like Reed at the time, though many would be influenced by him afterward.  Cale's use of viola also added a very modern European and classical color to the group and his association with the classical avant garde suited the Velvets music and image quite well, even as his relationship with Reed became volatile.

This is the front cover image for disc 2 of the Peel Slowly and See box set with a facsimile of the tape box from the sessions for the album.  The set is an outstanding overview of The Velvet Underground's short, but spectacular, career.
Signed to Verve Records and its A & R man Tom Wilson, who made his mark in the 1950s as a jazz producer, the VU were produced on their first recording by Warhol who insisted that a German-born artist, Christa Paffgen, otherwise known as Nico, be included in the project.  This didn't sit too well with the band and a compromise of sorts was effected when the album was titled The Velvet Underground and Nico and which featured an iconic Warhol image of a banana on the front cover.  While Nico sang in a tuneless monotone, there is something about her icy vocals that blends in well with the songs she was given on this remarkable album.

Reed's ability to mix the tender and tough is amply demonstrated right away on the record, where the gorgeous and plaintive "Sunday Morning" is followed by the famed "I'm Waiting for the Man," in which protagonist relates the humiliation of going to score drugs.  Another ballad-like classic comes with "Femme Fatale," featuring Nico on vocals, followed by the S & M homage, "Venus in Furs."  A plaintive "All Tomorrow's Parties,"also with Nico, is followed by the mindblowing "Heroin," which seeks to mimic the drug's effects in a powerfully sonic way.  Then comes another awesome ballad, "I'll Be Your Mirror," also sung by Nico, before the album closes with more experimental, mind-bending pieces, "The Black Angel's Death Song," highlighting Cale's striking viola playing, and "European Son," a tribute to Reed's poetic mentor, Delmore Schwartz, and a good old freak out sonically.

Sadly, The Velvet Underground and Nico was recorded in Spring 1966 and then sat for a year while the execs at Verve decided what to do with the album, especially as the label had another "outside" band, the Frank Zappa-led Mothers of Invention.  While some believe the record would have had a better commercial showing had it been released in the Summer or Fall of 1966 as it should have, rather than March 1967, the subject matter of many of these songs were almost certainly not going to fly on mainstream rock radio or make much of a dent on the Billboard charts.

More important for posterity, if not for contemporary concerns for the band like recognition and financial rewards, was that the album and those that followed inspired a generation of musicians who would come of age in the 1970s and afterward.  Brian Eno is said to have remarked that the VU only sold a handful of albums, but everyone who bought a record went out and formed a rock band.  While not strictly the case, there is enough truth in the statement borne out by the many descendants of the Velvets whose music demonstrates the importance of this truly essential band.

The Velvet Underground and Nico (1966/67)

1.  Sunday Morning  2:54
2.  I'm Waiting for the Man  4:38
3.  Femme Fatale  2:37
4.  Venus in Furs  5:10
5.  Run Run Run  4:19
6.  All Tomorrow's Parties  5:58
7.  Heroin  7:10
8.  There She Goes Again  2:39
9.  I'll Be Your Mirror  2:12
10.  The Black Angel's Death Song  3:12
11.  European Son  7:47

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