The Album Collection #18: 1967, The Velvet Underground and Nico, The Velvet Underground & Nico

by Jackie_South on October 28, 2013

File:Velvet Underground and Nico.jpgLast week, NME published its Top 500 albums of all time, and on Friday we tried to come up with our own list. The Velvet Underground & Nico appeared prominently in both. Then yesterday, we had the shocking and awful news of Lou Reed’s death.

‘Groundbreaking’ is a much-overused term, but it is one that clearly applies to The Velvet Underground & Nico: released in March 1967, it came out two months after the first Doors album and the Stones’ Between the Buttons, a month after Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, two months before the first Hendrix album and three months before Sergeant Pepper. Yet it feels as if it must have been much later than the Summer of Love. Even more shockingly, much of it was recorded almost a year before its release. This was not the youthful idealistic rebellion of the hippies, this was a dark, doomed, masochistic, self-destructive work that seemed to come from nowhere, telling tales of drugs, S&M and Warhol’s Factory.

So of course, few people bought it at the time. But its influence on what came after is arguably unparalleled.

***

The album is known simply as The Velvet Underground & Nico, although sometimes variously referred to as ‘The Warhol album’ or ‘Peel Slowly and See’ after its cover. Or, as I discovered on Friday, as ‘Banana’ by Ray North (and no-one else, except apparently his mate ‘Terry’. Anyone ever met Terry? Thought not).

So before exploring the album, let’s have a look again at Ray and Terry’s full top 20:

1. Bob Dylan – The Speckly Album
2. Neil Young – The Dog and The Tree
3. The Clash – Simonen Smashes His Bass (at least Ray no longer thinks it’s Strummer)
4. The Beatles – That one with Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da on it
5. The Smiths – That one with the Black and White photo
6. Rolling Stones – Cake
7. Stone Roses – Paint
8. Nick Drake – The Green Album
9. Arctic Monkeys – Smokey Blokey
10. Velvet Underground And Nico – Banana
11. Echo And The Bunnymen – Night Wood
12. Neil Young – Big Mike
13. The Libertines – Riot Cops
14. Radiohead – Flowery Baby
15. The Jam – Three Soldiers
16. Soft Cell – Marc Hides His Packet
17. The Sex Pistols – The DayGlo Album
18. Fleet Foxes – Breughel
19. The Wedding Present – Some Man United Player
20. The Undertones – Looking Up

OK, enough taking the piss. The album…

***

I think I’m right in saying that no album has featured more on our regular Songs To Learn and Sing: four songs to date. The opening Sunday Morning is deceptively mellow, from its music box opening and falsetto lyrics floating over. But despite the gentle melody, the lyrics have a sense of unease about them: “Watch out, the world’s behind you”, “I’ve got a feeling I don’t want to know”. Like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, there’s an uneasy trepidation before you fall through the rabbit hole.

Then bam! The heavy percussive piano blows of I’m Waiting for the Man kick in – that hazy, dreamy Sunday morning dissolves into the squalor and danger of scoring smack in a dodgy neighbourhood. All with an under-current of gay sex 13 years before it was fully legal in New York and at a time when it was still considered as an illness by the American medical profession.

Then Nico makes her first showing, vamping up the Femme Fatale of Reed and Warhol’s caustic musings on Factory starlet Edie Sedgwick. Is our junkie from the previous song trying to deaden the pain of a tortured heart? Or is this the first signs on the album of a masochistic streak?

The masochistic streak is a mile wide on the next track, Venus in Furs. Taking chunks out of the original von Sacher –Masoch book, where the narrator tells his friend Severin about his sadistic love. The first time I listened to it as a teenager I couldn’t believe that a record company would allow this to even be recorded – far more rebellious in many ways than punk a decade later. “Taste the whip, now bleed for her” is hardly a hidden meaning.

And then we are back to the heroin: Run Run Run is Reed in story-telling mode – the tales of four desperate junkies, treating their addictions like religion: souls to be saved, screaming angels and trying to get to heaven.

And then we move from the needles and whips back to Warhol’s Factory: All Tomorrow’s Parties seems a jaundiced look at the world around Warhol, with John Cale’s weirdly mournful piano.

Flip the record and the second side starts with Heroin, posted by Ray yesterday in tribute. For me, this is a truly terrifying insight into what it must be like to shoot up: the slow build up in music before the burst of adrenaline in a way that feels completely beyond control followed by an almost orgasmic relaxation. Reed is documenting here to explain the thrill, and for me it does so vicariously whilst also making sure that the teenage Jackie was never going to do anything as stupid as dabble with something that powerful.

To recover, we hit what feels like the most Sixties pop track on the album, There She Goes Again, with its “bye-bye-byes”, before Nico’s third song, “I’ll be Your Mirror”.

If by this point you are lulled into this now having returned to being relatively straight-forward songs, you are then thrown into the atonal violins and weird steam-hissing noises of The Black Angel’s Death Song. It hits you like a bucketful of freezing water. Even now, it is one of those great “what the fuck was that?” songs. Back in 1967, it must have been totally bewildering, disorientating, disturbing.

Perhaps more disturbing still is the final track, European Son, Reed’s ‘tribute’ to Delmore Schwartz, his pre-Warhol mentor-figure. The mentally ill and reclusive Schwartz died in 1966, just after Reed first wrote it. Seven minutes long but with stripped down vocals, it drips with scorn for his erstwhile hero.

Savage, depraved, twisted to the last, but with a whip-crack whit, intelligence and insight, it is an album you can’t ignore. You can see why it didn’t catch on at first, but why it has remained so influential since.

Reed did much else that was truly brilliant, but the twisted genius behind his first outing is truly remarkable and astonishing even now, 46 years on.

Lou Reed RIP.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Ray_North October 29, 2013 at 6:54 am

Jackie – you’ve been inside my head! Did you like what you saw?

Reply

George_East October 29, 2013 at 7:48 am

I think The Queen Is Dead also has had 4 songs:

1. There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
2. The Queen Is Dead
3. I Know It’s Over
4. Cemetery Gates

Reply

Jackie_South October 29, 2013 at 8:55 am

Ta – I was fairly sure that no album had more songs appear. London Calling must be close too.

Reply

Charlie_East_West October 29, 2013 at 9:13 am

London Calling? I thought it was called “Man Prepares to Smash a Guitar” album.

Reply

George_East October 29, 2013 at 10:39 am

London Calling has had 3:

1. London Calling
2. The Right Profile
3. Clampdown

But also:

1. Vince Taylor’s original Brand New Cadillac
2. Dwight Yoakham’s cover of Train In Vain

Reply

Jackie_South October 29, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Ah, that’s why it seems like more!

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: