THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO: 50th ANNIVERSARY
In 1964 a young songwriter from Long Island named Lou Reed was working as a staff writer for an exploitation record label named Pickwick. Reed’s job was fairly simple, to write catchy pop tunes about “hip” subjects. Cars, surfing, girls, dancing were all fairly standard topics that he’d been using. So when he read an article on ostrich feathers that claimed they would be the next big fashion craze, Reed writes a seemingly throwaway garage song called “The Ostrich”, assembles studio musicians who perform under fictitious group the Primitives and quickly puts it to tape. Listening to the song now, it sounds like a bunch of drunken high school students playing a poor man’s version of the Crystal’s “Then He Kissed Me”. Of course ostrich feathers never caught on and neither did the song, but it was the roots of what would become the most influential band of all time.
Pickwick’s owner, Terry Phillips, was convinced that “The Ostrich” could be a hit and began looking for musicians to join Reed. During his search he came across two potential artists, Tony Conrad and John Cale. Neither Conrad or Cale had backgrounds in rock, instead both musicians were classically trained and had been studying drone music with Le Monte Young. Conrad and Cale, both music snobs, see the offer as a joke but decide to take it for kicks. Their opinions would change when they met Reed soon after. Both Conrad and Cale are shocked when Reed plays them the acoustic version of “The Ostrich” which uses a drone guitar tuning, later named after the song in which it inspired. Impressed with Reed’s knowledge of experimental music and free jazz, the classical duo decide to collaborate on more serious songwriting. The Primitives would go on to play several shows before disbanding.
From the ashes of the aborted Primitives would rise the friendship and musical partnership of Cale and Reed. The two musicians decide to form another group and begin passing ideas back and forth in Cale’s Lower East Side apartment in Manhattan. Both musicians were in awe of the other’s talent; Reed with Cale’s musical virtuosity and Cale with Reed’s dark and gritty lyricism. The two improvise tunes that would later become “Black Angel’s Death Song”, “I’m Waiting For the Man” and “Heroin”. The songs were recorded in July 1965, sounding very much like a Bob Dylan influenced Folk-Rock act.
Soon added to the group was an old college acquaintance of Reed’s, guitarist Sterling Morrison. Cale then calls upon his neighbor, Angus MacLise to be the drummer. The band started to play gigs in odd local dive bars including the Café Wha?
During one jam session Tony Conrad drops by carrying a copy of Michael Leigh’s sadomasochistic novel, The Velvet Underground. Reed liked the title and decided that the band should use it as their moniker.
Everything was going well until MacLise walked out on the band. A purist at heart, he felt uncomfortable with getting paid for live gigs and he wasn’t thrilled with playing songs with set times, preferring to play long extended drones for hours upon hours. This problem turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Reed and Morrison turned to their friend Jim Tucker, whose sister Maureen was a percussionist. Figuring they were getting a standard humdrum drummer, the band was delighted when they heard Tucker play. Not only did she stand up while playing, she refrained from using snares and played with mallets instead of sticks. Another piece of the puzzle that is the Velvet Underground sound had fallen into place.
Another key ingredient that was soon added was a Gretsch Country Gentleman electric guitar that was purchased by Reed. The front man left behind his acoustic and plugged into a cheap amplifier and began experimenting with various types of distortion, making the band sound like the screeching streets of the Lower East Side themselves. Add that to Reed’s revolutionary lyrics about smack and sadomasochism, the instantly became the most far out group in America. Now all they needed was a steady gig.
It came in December 1965 when the Velvets scored a two-week stint at a tourist bar called the Café Bizarre. It wasn’t ideal, particularly because of the mainstream crowd it attracted that would be dumbfounded after hearing the blistering sonic experimentation that the band had been cooking up. One minute into Cale’s viola solo on “Heroin” and they would have been covering their suburban ears for the rest of the night. Their sets consisted mainly of original compositions with a few Chuck Berry and R&B covers to kill time and please the audience.
One night at the Café Bizarre Paul Morrissey and Gerald Melanga were in attendance. Both men were close collaborators with pop artist, Andy Warhol and were frequent guests at his studio known as the Factory. Both Morrissey and Melanga were scouting out local bands would could perform a in Warhol’s upcoming multimedia showcase the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which would feature both Warhol’s art and his experimental cinema. As the Velvets closed out their set they were approached by the Warholite’s and offered a deal.
The group quit the Café Bizarre that night and accepted the incredible offer. To be mentioned in the same breath as Andy Warhol in the mid-1960s was bound to get the band some publicity even though their music was not quite what the public was listening to. There was a catch, however to this seemingly too good to be true deal. After meeting with the pop art icon, the Velvets were asked to take on model/actress/groupie/Warholite, Nico as a additional member to the band. Her role wouldn’t be much, serving strictly as a chanteuse to sing on a few songs here and there. The band, hesitant at first, eventually warms up to the idea when thinking about the long-term exposure from having Warhol as their new manager.
The publicity that they got from Warhol, mainly from New York hipsters, was initially exciting, but would later prove to be somewhat of a curse when they would finally release their debut LP. Some critics figured they were just another publicity stunt of Warhol’s.
The Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows, initially starting in Manhattan, are met with mixed reviews. Some critics praised Warhol for his collection of media while other’s bashed the artist and in particular the Velvet Underground.
“Warhol’s brutal assemblange – non-stop horror show,” wrote Michaelo Williams of the Chicago Daily News. “Eventually the reverberations in your ears stop. But what do you do with what you still hear in your brain? The flowers of full evil are in bloom with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.”
After saving up enough cash from his multimedia discoteque, Warhol rented out Scepter Recording Studio on West 54th street in April 1966. Over the course of four days, the Velvets laid down what would be the bulk of their debut album. The engineers didn’t quite know what to make of it, nor did they know how to control the sound of Cale’s wailing viola or Reed’s ear piercing feedback on “European Son”. Warhol, who oversaw the recording, wasn’t much of a producer despite getting credited as such. The outcome nevertheless was a revelation. The lack of perfection in these recordings is what set them apart from other groups. It was Proto-punk in its earliest days.
“The advantage to having Andy Warhol as a producer was because he was Andy Warhol, they (record executives) left everything in its pure state,” said Reed. “So right at the very beginning we experienced what it was like to be in the studio and record things our way and have, essentially total freedom.”
This Do-It-Yourself method of recording music would become a staple that the band later became renowned for.
Almost immediately after the recording session, the Velvets departed for Los Angeles after the sessions. While touring California the band recorded several other tracks in Hollywood at T.T.G Studios. In Hollywood the band met producer Tom Wilson, best known for his work with Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel. Wilson was in the process of leaving Columbia Records for the small jazz label Verve. Impressed with the Velvets, he promised them a contract. Unknown to the band, the record deal would take nearly a year to fall through.
Before the album was to be released, Wilson felt they needed a commercial single and discussed with Reed the possibility of Nico singing it. Having a beautiful blonde singing a glossy pop song would help them reach the public at a faster pace. Reed agreed to write a pop song, but he insisted on singing it. “Sunday Morning”, the final song to be recorded is also the most uncharacteristic of the band. Its dream pop sound would be more appropriate perhaps if it were sung by someone like Linda Scott perhaps. But the band makes it work, specifically Reed who gives arguably the best vocal performance of his career. In retrospect it’s hard to imagine Nico singing this in her monotone German accent and pulling it off the way Reed does.
Now that the album was finished recording, the Velvets were waiting on Warhol who was designing the album art, which had become an excessively complicated process . The final product was simply a peelable banana sticker on a white background. It seemed innocent enough and most record label executives probably thought nothing of it, but if you looked closer it had a deeper context. For one, the writing beside the banana says “Peel slowly and see”, daring the record buy to uncover the mystery that lay beneath, a possible metaphor for the music within the sleeve. When you peel the sticker though, all that lies under is a pink banana unpeeled, but the phallic implications are quite obvious. How many of us wondered if a giant penis lay underneath the sticker? Warhol’s design may be the most iconic album cover ever made.
1967 was the year of the hippie. It was the year of LSD and peace and love, so when The Velvet Underground & Nico was released March 12 of that year, it’s no wonder it didn’t sell. It debuted on the Billboard Top 200 at 199 and would peak at 171 in December . It was clear that they public was not ready for them. The people wanted the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.
“All in all, for what it is trying to express, this is a good album,” wrote Timothy Jacobs in the underground rag Vibrations. “Not for those who desire to hear usual pop music, but for those who desire to hear a very unusual, perhaps even experimental type of music.”
The album was indeed unusual and most critics couldn’t place it into any defined category. Cale’s pulsing electric viola that dominates the S&M anthem “Venus in Furs” was like nothing ever heard in Rock music before. In addition Reed’s Ostrich guitar and Tucker’s séance-like drumming it is to this day one of the most disturbing songs ever recorded. Of course, the other key ingredient to the unconventional sound is their secret weapon, Nico. While her spot in the band has often been scorned by Velvet Underground purists it is undeniable that she plays a big role in the way the album sounds. Her vocals on “All Tomorrow’s Parties” combined with Cale’s prepared piano and Reed’s Middle Eastern choppy guitar parts, come together to forge an elegant, but haunting track.
The albums dark grittiness is furthered by references to narcotics, firstly with “I’m Waiting For the Man” which paints a sordid image of a drug deal in New York City, while the appropriately titled “Heroin” tells us exactly what it is like to take the drug. The latter, even building the song tempo to match the drug effects. It begins with Reed’s jangly guitar intro and Cale’s purring viola, so soft and elegant, but with each verse becomes more intense, until they climax into a frenzied sheet of white noise along with Tucker’s heart beating drums. In a time when most Rock band were ranting about mushrooms and LSD, this was revelation.
“For some reason putting it on record was very, very shocking,” said Reed modestly when discussing the song in the early 1990s. “If this was a book, you wouldn’t consider this shocking. What is so shocking about it? I’m still not so sure. It wasn’t pro or con. It was just about taking heroin from the point of view of someone taking it.”
Nevertheless many record stores in the U.S. banned the album as did most radio stations due to the lyrical content.
The Velvet Underground & Nico isn’t all sex and drugs though. Part of what makes the album so special is its diversity. “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, sung beautifully by Nico accompanied by Reed’s chimey guitar is simply a beautiful pop song.
Shortly after the release of their debut LP, the Velvets severed their ties with Andy Warhol and Nico, taking up with manager Steve Sesnick. The new management, however was not received warmly throughout the band. John Cale, in particular was quite hostile toward Sesnick, who he felt was pushing Reed into the role of the frontman. A rift had now begun in the group between its two leaders and their manager.
The band was still up to making another album and once again asked Tom Wilson to produce. The goal for was to record a darker, trashier, harsher record that would capture the band in its pure state. The result was White Light/White Heat, released on January 30, 1968. The album, which is dominated by Proto-Punk racket, is to purists the quintessential Velvet Underground release. It was evident from the violent music held in the grooves the album that the Cale/Reed partnership was coming to an end. The battle for control within the band is best represented on “Sister Ray”, a 17 minute noise-rock jam, between Reed’s smashing guitar chords and Cale’s distorted Vox electric organ. Cale departed from the band nine months after the release of the album.
When he was replaced by 19-year old Doug Yule, the band lost a part of its experimental edge. Sesnick finally had his way, Reed now held the rains of artistic control. He took the Velvets through their next two LPs playing softer folk-rock. Despite writing more commercial songs like “Pale Blue Eyes”, “Rock N’ Roll” and “Sweet Jane”, the band still remained appropriately underground.
After the release of Loaded in 1970 Lou Reed left the band. Tucker had taken maternity leave a year prior and Sterling Morrison departed after Reed. Doug Yule made one more LP under the bands moniker, but the album, Squeeze, is widely ignored today by critics and fans.
Despite the three albums the band would make following their debut, none have been as widely praised as The Velvet Underground & Nico. Perhaps the reason the album is most associate the group is because it represents the best of the band and is essentially a vast collection of the musical ideas they would explore deeper in the future. The blistering noise-rock of “European Son” would further be exploited on White Light/White Heat. The gentle “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” would fit in perfectly on their self-titled third album and “There She Goes Again” is a bare-bones Rock tune that could be found on Loaded.
While the album sold poorly upon its initial release, it has now gone on to become one of the most influential collections of music ever put to tape. Not only has it inspired artists like David Bowie, Patti Smith and Sonic Youth, it is considered to be the starting point for Punk Rock, New Wave and Indie.
In 2003 The Velvet Underground & Nico was ranked 13th on Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. Three years later The Observer ranked it first on their list of “50 Albums That Changed Music”.
The reason why The Velvet Underground & Nico, still to this day is such an important piece of music is because it is such an uncompromising statement. It’s sometimes ugly and uncomfortable, but through all its nastiness, there is beauty and if your musical palate is strong enough, there’s lots of it.