By Venus Rittenberg, Contributor
[Verve Records; March 12, 1967]
Highlights: “Heroin”, “Sunday Morning”, “I’ll Be Your Mirror”
Over 50 years since its release, The Velvet Underground’s debut record remains unique but was received very poorly at first, due to its dark subject matter, such as drugs and bondage, as well as the experimental nature of the music.
Lou Reed’s singing style is very laid back, Nico’s accent is extremely thick, and many songs from the album incorporate more noise than was common at the time, often via John Cale’s avant-garde style of playing the viola.
Despite its poor initial reception, The Velvet Underground & Nico is now known as one of the most influential albums of all time, with its influence reaching nearly every genre that followed.
It contributed to punk, post-punk and art rock, but its influence can also be felt in ambient, garage, goth, noise, shoegaze and twee pop music. Yet, is this record really any of those genres? Not really, but given that it is one of my favorite albums of all time, as well as one of the building blocks of punk, it is a fitting installment for the first issue of this column.
The cover art of this record is at least as iconic as the record itself. It’s an Andy Warhol drawing of a banana. Warhol “produced” this album. Produced is used here more in a movie sense than an album sense; the band described him as a director of sorts.
Right from the first second of this album, it’s clear it’s something special. The opener, “Sunday Morning”, begins with a celesta melody that, in the over-50 years since it’s release, has rarely been matched.
Lou Reed sings in his signature breathy, near-talking style. After a couple of verses, there is an excellent guitar solo, and upon the return of Lou’s vocals, layers of backing vocals from Nico and viola from John Cale make the song even more beautiful than it already was.
Although the lyrics are apparently about anxiety and paranoia, the warmth of the instrumental feels like a hug from a friend, and the impact of the lyrics is lost, which in this case, isn’t really a bad thing.
“Sunday Morning” was the last song recorded for the album; it was added late as a last-ditch attempt to make the album more marketable, by providing it with a “hit.” In celebration of the 50th anniversary of this album’s release in 2017, the song received a music video. I am not usually a fan of music videos, but this video matches this song perfectly. It’s a gorgeous blend of green and orange psychedelic animations that capture the beauty of this song perfectly.
As the layers of “Sunday Morning” gradually fade into nothing, the listener is given a mere second before the pianos and drums kick off in “I’m Waiting For The Man”.
This track is grimy and dirty, juxtaposing the tender beauty of “Sunday Morning”. Contrast like this can be seen all over this album, sometimes even within the same song. (“Heroin” is a prime example of this, which will be discussed more in-depth later.) In fact, this contrast is one of the album’s defining qualities that makes it so unique and significant.
The piano sounds rough—you can almost imagine the player (John Cale)’s fingers tripping over themselves. The guitars and drums are muddy, and this track is a lot fuzzier than the prior track. But it’s not just the sonics that feel grimy; Lou’s lyrics do, too.
He provides a graphic and detailed narrative about purchasing heroin. This is the first of many times throughout The Velvet Underground’s discography that drugs are the subject matter. Revolutionary for the time, the explicit depiction of drug use was controversial because of its graphic nature.
Lou is very open about his drugs, though. He describes the wonderful highs and dreadful lows. The narrator of this track is both “feeling good, feeling oh so fine” and “sick and dirty, more dead than alive.” Lou’s ability to acknowledge the good and the bad of his drug use makes him ahead of the time lyrically, reminiscent of the recent trend in hip hop to take a more critical approach to drug use.
The song wraps up, and another tender track, titled “Femme Fatale” begins. This is the first of a few songs on this album to feature German artist Nico on lead vocals. On later records by The Velvet Underground, specifically, their self-titled third record, Lou not being the main vocalist becomes common.
Nico’s vocals can be very polarizing, as her accent is incredibly thick. There’s a delicacy to her voice that captures what songs like “Femme Fatale” are aiming for. Lou’s flat and scratchy singing-style doesn’t match up with the style of this song. The mixing on this track is also very interesting. During the chorus of this song, background vocals sing in the left channel only, a technique that was not common in 1967. The lyrics are about Edie Sedgwick, one of Andy Warhol’s models and muses.
The next song on this album is “Venus In Furs”. This song deals with BDSM, an uncommon topic in music to this day. There’s a vivid description of a dominatrix and the associated acts.
As the song progresses, there are splashes of personal emotion put into the lyrics, as well as a first-person perspective. For the most part, however, this song is similar to “Femme Fatale”, simply describing the woman it is about.
More iconic than the jarring lyrical matter is John Cale’s electric viola riff. It’s sinister and noisy. This style of viola playing is used throughout the album. It’s a unique technique, especially of the time, and is an inspiration for the noise rock that would come in the following decades.
Also likely inspirational for noise rock is the following track, “Run Run Run”. Similarly as fuzzy as “I’m Waiting For The Man”, this song features more lyricism about drugs. The most interesting thing about this relatively-innocuous rock ’n’ roll song, however, is Lou Reed’s guitar solo. His guitar is distorted, wailing as he plays a cacophony of notes between verses. The solos gradually get more and more chaotic as the song progresses.
“All Tomorrow’s Parties” is a beast of a track, ending Side A on a memorable note. The song can only be described as archaic.
It’s easy to write it off as indescribable, but what is it about this song that gives it this quality? Perhaps it’s the lack of focus on the guitar, which is already being played in an avant-garde style. Perhaps it’s the thick, ceremonial drums. Perhaps it’s the piano, hammering away on the same note, incredibly deep in the left channel. All of these things contribute to the unique nature of the song, making it feel very large as if it was recorded live in a massive ballroom.
This song is Warhol’s favorite, and it’s no surprise why. Nico’s lyrics describe the parties Warhol would host, and the song’s strange nature certainly fits with his aesthetic.
Side B begins with “Heroin”, one of the most lyrically and sonically jarring songs on the whole album, if not throughout discography. It is a work of pure genius and has been cited as one of the best songs of all time. As if Lou hasn’t already shown his lyrical prowess for writing about drugs, he certainly does it on this song.
Many listeners, including myself, have been fooled into believing Lou Reed was addicted to heroin at the time that he wrote this because of the nature of the song’s lyrics. But to simply write off this masterpiece’s lyrics as merely about the use of heroin would miss so much.
Lou does a deep dive into the psyche of a frequent heroin user, describing their relationship with the drug, what drove them to the drug, their love for the drug and their hate for the drug. He quite vividly describes the use and the high, but this song is so much more than heroin.
It’s political, with references to government corruption and the Vietnam War. It’s shocking. It’s eye-opening. Lines like “It’s my wife and it’s my life” may seem simple, but Lou is laughing as he sings. He’s a method actor of epic proportions. He’s convincing. He’s believable. He’s concerning. It’s not an easy thing he’s achieved here.
The song starts off simply enough, but just like a drug habit, it quickly spirals into chaos. John Cale and his electric viola are back and noisier than ever. The piercing noise it adds to this song feels like a needle. The way it screeches and gradually overtakes every other aspect of the track until it’s just a mess of screaming viola and Lou’s faint vocals in the back remains one of the most attention-grabbing moments in music to this day.
Noise and distortion are something that the band has dipped their feet into throughout this album, but what they’re doing here is a different beast. This is noise music—in 1967—played with a viola. It’s not just ahead of its time, it’s distinctive to this day—over half a century since.
The vocals vanish, the viola calms down, and the guitar plays its final notes, the listener is left with a moment of silence after the hurricane of noise and existential dread that this song leaves in its wake.
After a little time to take a deep breath, “There She Goes Again” begins. Sonically, this is the most conventional track on the album, but once again, the lyrics were not for the time. Lou Reed depicts a prostitute in a respectful manner, which was a very uncommon discourse.
“I’ll Be Your Mirror”, the following song, is the last song on the album to feature Nico on lead vocals. It is my personal favorite performance of hers, as her voice suits the minimal instrumentation incredibly well, and the tender lyrics on top of it make this song feel like a lullaby.
Stripped down and simple the song is guitar and bass, with a tambourine for percussion. The lyrics, written by Reed and dedicated to Nico, are a tender poem dedicated to being someone’s “mirror.” The meaning of this is to reflect one’s true self. “I find it hard to believe you don’t know the beauty you are, but if you don’t let me be your eyes.” It’s such a simple line, but a truly caring sentiment. It’s so…unselfish and simple. It displays pure love, romantic or platonic.
It’s a moment of tenderness on the album, like “Sunday Morning”, but this time with lyrics to match the mood of the music. The song gradually fades out.
“The Black Angel’s Death Song” immediately puts the listener back in the electric viola chaos of the climax of “Heroin”. The noise is more melodic than “Heroin”, but still noisy and furious. The song is raw and minimal with electric viola and vocals, yet it is one of the loudest moments on the album. It’s a brief glimpse into where the band will head on their next record, White Light/White Heat. Playing this song live back in the ’60s resulted in the band being kicked out of venues.
“The Black Angel’s Death Song” getting the band kicked out of venues seems absurd when played back to back with the album’s closing track, “European Son”. “European Son” sounds like a normal rock ’n’ roll cut for about a minute, before there’s a great deal of crashing noises, followed by seven minutes of noisy jamming.
Although the song is often regarded as a weak point on the album due to its length and lack of direction, it is good for what it is: a distorted, live improvisation. This song can also be viewed as a precursor for the forthcoming White Light/White Heat, especially that album’s 17-minute closer “Sister Ray”, and the roaring distortion that would consume that album. When looked at in the context of this album, perhaps it’s sad to see such an iconic album end on a weaker cut, but when taken in the context of the band’s entire discography, this song is an important note.
The Velvet Underground & Nico remains one of the most influential albums of all time. It laid the groundwork for countless genres and spawned so many amazing artists.
If they hadn’t utilized noise and distortion in this way, would Sonic Youth and other bands have gone on to do it in a few decades? Without artists like that would we see bands like Death Grips today? If there weren’t those playful, soft acoustic moments would artists like Belle & Sebastian be around playing twee pop? Without Belle & Sebastian, would we have Alvvays and Mac Demarco? If Reed wasn’t brave enough to sing about topics like depression and drugs, would David Bowie have been able to do the same thing, only a handful of years later?
It’s impressive that one album could have such a wide influence. Furthermore, these influential artists went on to be mentors to others. Patti Smith (who also helped create punk rock) was directly assisted by members of The Velvet Underground and so were several other artists.
This record is amazing all on its own, but the most amazing thing about it is its influence on music today.