The Great Albums

The Velvet Underground & Nico

March 24, 2002



The band's influence has been cited so many times that it seems to be part of the name: the "Seminal" Velvet Underground. Producer Brian Eno famously noted that, although the group didn't sell a lot of records in its lifetime, everyone who bought one went out and started a band of their own.

In his typically hyperbolic fashion, the late rock critic Lester Bangs went even further. "Modern music begins with the Velvets," he wrote, "and the implications and influence of what they did seem to go on forever."

If you doubt this statement, just listen to current buzz bands such as Clinic, the Strokes, Elbow, Radiohead or the Beta Band--to name but a few of the hundreds of groups that continue to draw inspiration from the Velvets' debut some 35 years later.

The Velvets' best work resulted from the collision of two radically different sensibilities. Guitarist-vocalist Lou Reed grew up in a middle-class family on Long Island. Concerned about his obsession with the devil's music and his homosexual tendencies, his parents subjected him to electroshock therapy at age 17. Still a bit dazed, he went on to attend Syracuse University, where he studied poetry, imitated the excessive ways of his mentor, Delmore Schwartz, and cultivated a snotty punk persona.

Bassist, organist and viola player John Cale was born in Wales and became a child prodigy on the piano. He studied music in London in the early '60s, but instead of the blues that captivated so many of his peers, he was fascinated by the electronic experiments of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. In 1963, he moved to New York to work with Cage and wound up playing with Tony Conrad and La Monte Young in the Dream Syndicate, a group whose use of long, trance-inducing Indian drones predated those of the Beatles.

Reed met Cale and Conrad at a party and he recruited them to play a few gigs as the Primitives, the "nom de rock" for a group of session musicians that recorded a quickie garage-rock single called "The Ostrich." The single flopped, but a friendship grew. "It seemed like a very powerful encounter in a sense, each of them moving in a direction which was daring and audacious for the other as well as themselves," Conrad recalled.

The group slowly came together in an apartment on the Lower East Side. Sterling Morrison was a guitarist that Reed knew from Syracuse. Original drummer Angus MacLise brought Eastern percussion into the mix, but he disliked the rigors of performing in a rock band and was eventually replaced by Maureen Tucker, the sister of another Syracuse buddy. One of the first female instrumentalists in rock, her powerful backbeat became a key element in the sound, and she played standing up, with a tom-heavy approach derived from Bo Diddley and the African drummer Olatunji.

The band's name was borrowed from the title of a paperback book about sado-masochistic sex, and the Velvet Underground was already playing much of what would become its first album when it linked up with Andy Warhol. The Pop artist was at the height of his popularity in 1965, and expanding into music seemed like a natural move.

"The Pop idea, after all, was that anybody could do anything, so naturally we were all trying to do it all," Warhol said. He convinced the band to add an additional member from his crowd of Superstars, the icy blonde chanteuse Nico, and this quintet began to perform as part of a multimedia extravaganza featuring lights, films, and dancing by other Factory Superstars such as Edie Sedgwick and Mary Woronov.

The show went on tour as Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a swirling psychedelic circus much like Ken Kesey's acid tests or the disorienting shows that were held in the San Francisco ballrooms. But where the West Coast bands produced cheerfully transcendent psychedelia, the Velvets specialized in bad-trip rock, reveling in the grit and grime of the New York streets--an approach and an attitude that was distinctly out of step during the Day-Glo Summer of Love.

Taking a journalistic approach, Reed portrayed edgy characters and exotic scenes that many in the "straight" world and even enlightened hippies had never experienced. He visited a drug dealer in Harlem ("I'm Waiting for the Man"), peered into the inner sanctum of a sado-masochistic couple as they made love ("Venus in Furs"), rode the crime-ridden New York subway ("Run Run Run"), and toured the decadent world of the rich and jaded ("All Tomorrow's Parties"). All of these situations were depicted with a degree of objectivity, if not outright sympathy, and with a poet's ear for the perfectly chosen and most evocative language.

Although the basic tracks were recorded in one day (and Warhol did little to earn his producer's credit besides contributing the famous banana for the album cover), the music on "The Velvet Underground & Nico" is amazingly complex and sophisticated, deserving of a place beside contemporary masterpieces such as "Pet Sounds" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Melodically, the songs can be divided between the short, catchy "pop" tunes and the noisy, experimental "art" songs.

Contrary to their current image as defiant anti-commercial revolutionaries, the Velvets were well aware of AM radio, and the pop songs fit its demands at the time, though there is usually some twist to the standard formula. The calm and quiet of "Sunday Morning" raises a question about the excesses of Saturday night. Nico's heavily accented Germanic vocals add mystery to "Femme Fatale" and "I'll Be Your Mirror," fragile and beautiful songs that she sings "in perfect mellow ovals, like a cello getting up in the morning," to quote critic Richard Goldstein. On the surface, "There She Goes Again" is a simple rock rewrite of Marvin Gaye's "Hitchhike," but Reed portrays a brutal misogynist whose response to his lover's actions is "better hit her!"

The art songs are even more explicit in their depictions of the dark side. Upping the ante on psychedelic visionaries such as the Byrds and the 13th Floor Elevators, "Heroin" addresses the drug experience in language that is crystal clear while surging waves of sound evoke the opiate high. Many people continue to wonder why someone would be drawn to a drug that can only ruin your life, but Reed understood its allure all too well. "When I'm rushing on my run, then I feel just like Jesus' son," he sang.

Punctuated by Cale's droning viola, "The Black Angel's Death Song" is a powerful evocation of the ultimate bad trip, while the waves of feedback and explosions of noise in "European Son" convey the sheer exhilaration of unbridled destruction. At one point, Cale scraped a chair across the studio floor and shattered a glass in front of the microphone to create the aural cataclysm captured on tape. The magic, he said, was in the way the four musicians spontaneously interacted.

"What you're hearing is four people who really don't know quite which direction they're going in and they're all lashing out and going in whatever direction they feel they can go," Cale recalled while looking back at the Velvets' first album in 2000.

In retrospect, "The Velvet Underground & Nico" contains the roots of all of the band's future innovations: The art/noise experiments are furthered on "White Light/White Heat"; the more beautiful material is extended on the self-titled third album, and "Loaded" stands as the band's pop masterpiece. Similarly, while Reed and Cale have both produced incredible bodies of work as solo artists, neither has ever topped the level of intensity that they reached while working together.

The album's biggest accomplishment is striking a balance between the polished beauty of great art and the raw spontaneity of great rock 'n' roll--between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. "Everybody assumes that mind and body are opposed," Bangs wrote in another of his many attempts to pen the ultimate eulogy/tribute for the band. "The trog vs. the cerebrite. How boring. But we still buy it, all of us. The Velvet Underground were the greatest band that ever existed because they began to suggest that such was not so."