The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico

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Part I: The Background

The Velvet Underground was formed by Lou Reed and John Cale in 1965; the pair had previously played together in a short-lived band called The Primitives. A residency in Greenwich Village’s Café Bizzare led to a fateful meeting with visual artist Andy Warhol. In addition to helping manage the band, Warhol suggested that they recruit a singer named Nico, who had previously worked with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones to record a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “I’m Not Sayin’”. While Warhol was credited as producer for the album, Cale was largely responsible for the album’s sound, while Lou Reed’s dark lyrical subject matter made the album one of one of the most influential albums of the 60s, even if it wasn’t a commercial hit. The album is steeply rooted in that raw, unpolished garage rock sound and serves as one of the precursors to the punk rock genre. I’m sure you’ve all heard the famous Brian Eno quote by now: “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”

 

Part II: The Music

Sunday Morning: Talk about a misleading opening track. The album kicks off with “Sunday Morning”, a mellow pop tune with a twinkling celesta. But it’s also one of those songs where the music contrasts the misery of the lyrics: “It’s just the wasted years so close behind.” The tranquility is juxtaposed with a sense of paranoia, which is reportedly what the “Watch out, the world’s behind you” line is getting at. Nowhere else on the album does Reed sing like this. The reverb on his voice gives the vocal a dreamy quality. It’s the opposite of a lullaby. A gentle nudging into wakefulness—that fleeting moment of peace when you’ve just woken up before the world catches up with you. RATING: 10/10

I’m Waiting For The Man: Now this is more along the lines of what you can expect from Reed and company: raw, messy, muddied-up garage rock. What really brings the basic rock and roll riff that serves as the song’s foundation to life is the murky texture of the heavily distorted guitars. Cale pounds away at the piano throughout. Oh, and did I mention it’s a song about a guy going to meet his drug dealer? Reed’s vocals here are much more conversational—he barely sings at all, and that contributes to the song’s rough aesthetic. It’s a rude awakening compared to the album opener. This song perfectly encapsulates the more boisterous, rebellious side of the rock and roll aesthetic, and as such, it’s an engaging listen despite the absence of melody. RATING: 8.5/10

Femme Fatale: Nico takes the lead vocal on this downbeat pop tune, built on top of a wistful guitar lick. The song’s about Edie Sedgwick, a model who featured in some of Warhol’s work. You get a lazy vibe listening to this one—the slow-moving rhythm lulls you into a bit of a haze. The track doesn’t stand out melodically, nor is there anything particularly outstanding about Nico’s singing here. Reed’s lyrics are simultaneously critical or the song’s titular maneater and of the foolish men who line up to have their hearts broken. RATING:8/10

Venus In Furs: Lou Reed could play the psychedelic game, and well. A strong Eastern influence sets this song apart—there’s a consistent drone throughout the bulk of the piece, which features Cale on electric viola. The lyrics touch on sadomasochism (“Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather / Whiplash girlchild in the dark”), but also have a bit of poetic depth to them (“I could sleep for a thousand years / A thousand dreams that would awake me”). The depth here comes from the aesthetic of the recording rather than the composition itself—of the two drone influenced tunes on the album, this is definitely the weaker. RATING: 7.5/10

Run Run Run: This one’s another garage rock tune and another drug song. I’ve got to give this one bonus points for the wildly disoriented guitar solo. Reed resumes his talk-singing here, though this time the song’s got a nicely harmonized hook. It’s songs like these that inspired legions of imitators; it’s hard-rocking, back-to-basics approach is awesome in its simplicity. RATING: 8.5/10

All Tomorrow’s Parties: One of the album’s best tracks. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” also features a psychedelic drone, accentuated by some haphazard, drug-hazed guitar work. The songs has a distinct piano sound that was achieved by placing paper clips between the strings. Nico nails the vocal here with her odd enunciation and sombre tone. I’ve seen a few different interpretations of Reed’s lyrics, and I’m not quite sure what to ultimately make of them, but they are evocative to say the least. They reference the Monday’s Child nursery rhyme, marrying childhood innocence with psychedelic indulgence and the fickleness of youth. RATING: 10/10

Heroin: This is the other contender for the best cut off the album. The song both lyrically and musically depicts the experience of getting high. The steady drum beat increases during the choruses to represent the sense of elevation achieved from the drug, while the verses drift lazily as the singer reflects the emptiness of modern life. Reed doesn’t denounce the drug; he simply paints a vivid picture of the altered state it induces, leaving the listener to draw their own conclusions. This is another one of those songs that’s beautiful in its simplicity—there are only a couple of alternating chords here. RATING: 10/10

There She Goes Again: Here’s a bit of a stylistic shift—this is the sort of R&B-influenced pop rock song you’d expect from a British invasion group. John Cale and Sterling Morison further emulate the style with their harmonized backing vocals. After the heaviness of the previous two tracks, it’s nice to get something a little more fun and lighthearted—the song allows for a bit a breather. And it’s not a bad tune either. RATING: 6.5/10

I’ll Be Your Mirror: Nico gently sings the vocals on this song, another mellow pop number and one of the few optimistic songs on the album. The singer assures her lover that she can see through to the goodness in him, even if he himself is unable to see it. The harmonies on the tag are a nice touch—the song is definitely accessible, though its melodies aren’t as memorable as some of the other pop tunes on the album. RATING: 7/10

The Black Angel’s Death Song: Psychedelic poetry set to a screeching electric viola. The jarring lack of anything tuneful means that the listener may grow weary of the song over the course of its three minutes—to get something out of this one, you’ve got to delve deep into the lyrics, a task that proves difficult consider Reed himself admitted that there isn’t any particular meaning to them (though there is an abundance of violent imagery, with references to cuts, sacrifices, and bleeding razors). This sort of artistic piece, I feel, is best appreciated from a distance. RATING: 5.5/10

European Son: The song concludes with its lengthiest track—this garage rock tune spans a full seven minutes. Reed rattles off the lyrics over the frantic beat until the one-minute mark. The song is then interrupted by the thunderous roar of a lion. This remainder of the song is an energetic, raucous instrumental jam that rarely settles on anything resembling melodic—the song’s 100% attitude. And while I appreciate the manner in which it encapsulates the carefree feel of rock and roll, I don’t know if I can bear a full seven minutes of it. RATING: 4/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: The aesthetic is what makes this album. The production has a raw, unpolished sound to it that presented a stark contrast to the excessive studio gimmickry of the mid sixties. This is essentially an eponymous album, so I can’t really dock points for the unimaginative title. And Andy Warhol was behind this, so of course the cover is as iconic as the album itself. SCORE: 5/5

Artistic Merit: This is one of the wildest, most out-of-place albums of the sixties. It’s no big surprise this wasn’t a smash hit at the time. Reed isn’t afraid to touch on taboo subjects with his lyrics nor is the rest of the band afraid to explore dissonance and cacophony with their music. SCORE: 5/5

Flow: The album alternates between bare-bones proto-punk garage rock, mellow, dreamy pop, and boisterous psychedelia. There is a consistent feel to the song writing, and Reed’s lyrics definitely tie the album together, even if the album isn’t all that cohesive a listen. The album is, however, a bit top-heavy—Side B doesn’t have much to offer in terms of standout tracks, and in fact, once I’ve heard Heroin I’m just about ready to call it a day. SCORE: 6/10

CLOSING REMARKS: The great thing about the progression of popular music is that the albums that are worthy of accolade tend to receive their due in time, even if they aren’t appreciated at their time of release. It’s clear why the album inspired so many of its listeners to pick up an instrument; the Velvet Underground convince you not only that you can do this music thing too, but that you can do it well. Even at its simplest, this album is an impressive piece of music, and therein lies its charm.

FINAL SCORE: 78

 

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