album review ~ the velvet underground ~ the velvet underground and nico

This week Encore NI takes a look at one of America's most influential bands, the artistically acclaimed Velvet Underground. Their seminal debut was recorded back in 1966, at the dawn of the Summer of love and amidst a back drop of uncertainty, as the American war machine began ripping through Vietnam. Though you'll find no revolutionary statements here, well, not unless you're big into drugs, which many people were. Here Taylor Johnson takes a look at one of rock and roll's most definitive records and asks the question: was it really that good?

A lot can be said about The Velvet Underground. Most of it overwhelmingly positive, and for good reason. Primarily, The Velvet Underground were cool. Think of every possible combination of essential band criteria: Born and raised in New York City, a nonchalant, effortlessly brilliant front man and management in the shape of art hero Andy Warhol. Not convinced? Add the gorgeous German model Nico to backing vocal duty and songs of an increasingly sex-dominated nature. Come on, who wouldn't want to be in The Velvet Underground? 

Brian Eno once commented that although only 30,000 people bought a copy of 'The Velvet Underground and Nico, "every one of those people started a band" ~ so just what made this cultured art-rock album the phenomenon that it was? Surely a cool image isn't enough? Is it?  (No, it's not)

Opener 'Sunday Morning' sparkles from the first second. It's gentle harmony and effervescent texture makes it a perfect declaration of intent, with Lou Reed in great form. This album's production is often praised for it's delicate texture, and it's no more prevalent than here. Everything from the floating, hazy bass line, to Nico's reverberated backing vocals also add an extra layer for the listener. 'Sunday Morning' could be the most relaxed admission of drug fueled paranoia in history. Or, if you'd prefer, just another description of a Sunday. "Watch out, the worlds behind you, there's always someone around you...and I'm falling, I've got a feeling I don't want to know"

'I'm Waiting For The Man', see's Velvet Underground begin to release their rockier potential. Slightly dirtier, punk like distortion proves a strangely beautiful contrast to Reed's Dylan-esque spoken verse. The inclusion of bluesy piano (that later Noel Gallagher would borrow somewhat for 'Mucky Fingers') adds a new dimension to a song that rarely threatens to go anywhere, the chords almost rooted to the spot. Having said this, the groove and riffs that run parallel to Lou Reeds vocal give this track enough to move forward. It's engaging, uplifting, and another massive irony that such fast paced virility could prove the soundtrack to lyrics like "Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive"...

At manager Andy Warhol's request,  Lou Reed penned 'Femme Fatale' about actress and socialite Edie Sedgewick (right). The prose is typical Reed, though lead vocals were gifted to Nico for this one. Initially, the German's unusual tone comes across rather harsh, at odds with the lounge styled backing. After a few listens though, you begin to appreciate the singer for what she is. Although you'd rather hear Reed crooning through the verse on this sleepy, dream like track, you do see the artsy endeavor in the finished product.

'Venus In Furs' gives the first glimpse into Underground's foresight as an influential band. The brooding psychedelic vibes which radiate from start to finish may also be a manifestation of their singer's altered mind-set ~ it's dark. Seriously dark. The use of accentuated violin and the bizarre soundscapes which follow never really settle, even in the musically lighter chorus ('I am tired, I am weary, I could sleep for a thousand years, a thousand dreams that would awake me, different colours made of tears'). Inspired by an obscure Austrian author (Leopold von Sacher-Masoch if you must know...), 'Venus In Furs'  may be owed some amount of gratitude by the likes of The Doors ~ or more recently our own Joshua Burnside.

'Run, Run, Run' see's The Velvet Underground revert back to their blusey roots. A standard rock and roll tune, perhaps without 'I'm Waiting..."'s melody, this tracks obscure solo's and uneven finish gives it the artsy edge many bands could never emulate. Those that did, reinvented it slightly and called it punk. Though it has to be said, for all it's quirks, there remains an inexcusable predictability here. It's followed by side 1 closer and Andy Warhol's favorite, 'All Tomorrows Parties'. The soft guitar intro may be one of Lou Reed's best, integrating brilliantly into the piano. This may also be Nico's best vocal performance, particularly on the chorus. A window into the New York socialite scene of the time, it remains a refreshing insight from a band firmly part of 'the in-crowd' ~ a first at the time.

If Lou Reed had been keen to hide behind metaphors in previous tracks, 'Heroin' does not shy away from it's obvious influence. A simply beautiful cry for help, here Reed attempts to explain the mythology behind the drug and how it helps him become 'Jesus' son'. A synth driven quest for the truth, 'Heroin' ends with the kind of tragic cacophony usually reserved for Shakespeare's literature. "It will be the death of me, Heroin, it's my wife and it's my life". 

Here Velvet Underground make their biggest nod to mainstream rock, with The Rolling Stones pouring out of 'There She Goes Again'. Lou Reed is again in fine form, in a track you imagine was recorded swiftly in one of his brighter mindsets. On the contrary, 'I'll Be Your Mirror' slows proceedings back down again, as the philosophical ponderings again resurface on this relaxing song. By this stage, we are well accustomed to Nico's unconventional twang and are indeed warming to it.

'The Black Angels Death Song' returns back to Bob Dylan territory, long winded verses running into the tracks surreal accompaniment ~ like listening to Sgt Peppers, on acid, inside the mind of the mentally ill. The dissonance throughout the track, coupled with it's loud-hissing feedback, really begins this albums slide into artistic oblivion. Finale 'European Son' is even weirder again. Cited by some as the first 'metal song' alongside The Beatles 'Helter Skelter', it's psychotic bass lines and floury of noise makes little, to any sense and retains this madness to it's conclusion. Rampant, it becomes almost a challenge to find a single melody within it's cavern of insanity. It is, in all honesty, a sad end to a great album. The crash comes courtesy of bassist John Cale hitting a stack of plates with a metal chair. It makes little to no sense and yet, after sitting through five of it's seven minutes, is difficult not to finish.

In truth, 'The Velvet Underground and Nico' is not the precious haven of rock and roll jubilation as 'Sgt Pepper' or 'The White Album' once was, but nor was that their intention. Somewhere amongst the wall of noise and dark lyrics, I like so many others fell in love with New York's coolest art project.

Just one listen and you will too. Just don't be expecting any light. Lou Reed turns every one off on his way out...
Taylor Johnson

For fans of: Sonic Youth, Joy Division, Bob Dylan

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