By Daniel Margrain
The music and the synthesis of ideas that the Velvet Underground represented broke new ground in the 1960s. The group didn’t produce ‘songs’ that were indicative of popular music of the time but rather they were Freudian expressions of a lust for deviant but seductive behaviour; they were exotic, decadent and perverse fantasies.
This was allied to a form of hyper-urban realism that emerged from a combination of traditions – Pop art, German Expressionism, French Existentialism and La Monte Young’s Minimilism. The group were about as far apart from their contemporaries as British Music Hall is to American Hardcore.
The groups debut, their supreme masterpiece, The Velvet Underground And Nico (1967), was recorded in two days in the spring of 1966 and released in January of the following year. Andy Warhol produced the album, managed the group and created the now iconic banana album cover artwork.
Lou Reed composed the melodies, wrote the lyrics and ‘drone strummed’ his rhythm guitar. John Cale arranged the sound and created the avant-garde atmospheres with his innovative use of a viola and keyboards interspersed with his bass playing. Maureen Tucker played the drums with an obsessive and frenzied, yet exotic, tribal repetitiveness and Stirling Morrison’s rhythm and blues or country-influenced guitar playing kept the sound grounded in the style of The Byrds.
All of this was embellished by the icy vocals of Nico who sang lead on three of the album’s tracks – the cold, spectral, autumnal odes of Femme Fatale, All Tomorrow’s Parties, I’ll Be Your Mirror – and back-up on Sunday Morning, all of them masterpieces.
But the songs Nico had no part in are equally, if not more mesmerizing – in particular, Black Angel’s Death Song, the percussive boogie of Waiting For My Man, the orgasmic chaos of Heroin, and the dissonant tribalism of European Son. If I had to pick a standout, it would be the Indian raga-imbued and decadent Venus In Furs which, in my view, is one of the masterpieces of all rock. Judge for yourselves:
But to single out one track for praise on an album where there is no weak link, is to do the album an injustice. The truth is, each individual piece on the album is a masterpiece in its own right culminating in a work that transcends the sum of its individual parts. All of the songs are immersed in an atmosphere that’s dark and oppressive but beguiling, epic and cool. It’s an album that fuses music and words in a manner that perfectly captures the tension of modernist metropolitan reality in all of its dark and decadent secrets. This manifests, as one critic puts it:
“in sexual fetishes and cathartic sadism, in latent orgasms and unnerving noises;and in the living contrast between the urban ways of Reed and the patrician ways of Nico, between Berlin in the 30s and the 60s in New York, between the subculture of crisis and that of the apocalypse. The seduction of the album is derived not only from the quantity of ideas in it, but from the fusion of so many strong artistic personalities, all directed by Lou Reed, who functions as catalyst.”
The overriding feeling one gets after listening to this album is of a group who set out to produce a creative work of art as opposed to a commercial product. In these less enlightening times, that’s a legacy worth preserving. Arguably, punk aesthetics, alternative art rock and indie rock were born the moment the Velvet Underground walked into a recording studio. The influence of the Velvet’s debut can be heard in almost everything interesting that followed – from the new wave movement of the late 1970s through to the post-punk and shoegazing movements of the 1980s and 1990s.
Emerging from the UK indie scene generation of this latter period were the bands signed to the seminal Postcard record label, many of whom would not have started a band if it were not for this album. That’s an illustration of how significant The Velvet Underground And Nico was to my generation. But this is not only true of my generation but subsequent generations. It was Brian Eno who famously stated that while The Velvet Underground & Nico initially only sold 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”