The first album of the Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico, was released, after a long delay, 50 years ago today.
It’s hard to find words adequate to express what a landmark event this was, in popular music history. But that’s not to say anyone knew it, in 1967.
The joke about the Velvet Underground and Nico has long been that it only sold a few thousand copies, and all to people who started bands. It’s a way of saying that the album’s influence on music history vastly outstrips its sales at the time. This take originated with the great Brian Eno, who in 1982 said that the album only sold 30,000 copies, but “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band. In fact, some estimates say the album sold only a few thousand copies in its first five years, and there are very few reviews of the album published at the time. The Velvet Underground and Nico is the example par excellence of a popular music album famous for its quality, not its sales. Everyone who thinks popular music can be real and meaningful art should celebrate that.
Andy Warhol produced the album, although he had little influence over its content, outside of his imprimatur permitting artists Lou Reed and John Cale near total creative control. But the album famously had Warhol cover art — a yellow banana that, in the original pressing, was a sticker that could be peeled off. The record company, MGM, paid the extra cost associated with the sticker gimmick, thinking Warhol’s involvement would boost sales. (Later printings feature the banana as a flat image, not a sticker.) It’s become one of the most iconic album covers in history. Whatever one feels about Warhol, how awesome is it that this seminal artsy rock album featured original Warhol cover art? It may have been a gimmick, but if you’re looking for a single image that expresses the idea that popular music should be respected as an art form, it’s this cover.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about the album is how well it holds up. A lot of albums are celebrated for their influence, but really aren’t very listenable today except for a few tracks. Yet I carry with me almost every track of The Velvet Underground and Nico.
“I’ll be Your Mirror” is still one of the finest love songs ever recorded. It’s short, simple, and sweet, vaguely in the mold of a 1960s love song, but it’s focused on the pain and lack of self-worth in the beloved, arguing that relationships let us hold each other up. It’s melancholy, without sounding melancholy.
“Heroin” is still one of the best songs about drugs. At more than 7 minutes, it’s a swirling storm of guitars, echoing the rush of shooting up. Emotionally brutal lyrics mix with escapist but evocative poetry, as the song’s tempo speeds up and slows down in waves. But unlike most longer, experimental tracks, it’s actually good, minute by minute, and everything musical turn is wedded to its central theme to create a unified musical whole. Even the more self-indulgent, whimsical lyrics reflect the narrator’s thoughts while shooting up, and are characterized by wishes for a different, better life. There’s no Romanticism to this depiction of drug use, in which even the most Romantic lines are cast as fantasies and the narrator knows he’s heading for death. Despair mixes with a yearning to rediscover childlike wonder, and the song masterfully verges on chaos and discordance without ever going over that cliff into the self-indulgent and boring. It’s the landmark from which all longer, experimental tracks ought to be judged.
Then there’s the S&M and personal longing on “Venus in Furs,” a too often ignored classic (after the novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from which we get the term “masochism”). The idea of a song about bondage and domination on a 1967 album is revolutionary enough, but what’s even more remarkable is the avoidance of anything sensational or salacious. Instead, the emphasis is on the emotional fulfillment of S&M: “Strike, dear Mistress; cure his heart.” It’s not until 1983 that we get the Eurythmics singing “Sweet Dreams (are Made of This),” and even that’s a much more conventional, poppy song. The closest descendant to “Venus in Furs” is probably 1984′s “Master and Servant” by Depeche Mode, a clear inheritor of the Velves. But even Nine Inch Nail’s 1989 “Head like a Hole” owes more than a little to the Velves’ 1967 song.
And then there’s the pain and social awkwardness of “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Lou Reed said it was based on Warhol’s parties, and it’s worth remembering Warhol’s tremendous social anxiety, despite his love of such parties. It’s a song for everyone who’s ever felt alone in a room full of people, or who’s cried at home, unable to join the party. When has a rock song ever so lovingly painted such a picture?
And of course, there are other classics, like “Femme Fatale” and “There She Goes Again,” two more love songs that aren’t. (In the beautifully melancholy “Femme Fatale,” the narrator warns a man of emotional hurt at the onset of a prospective relationship.) And there’s the classic “Waiting for the Man,” about waiting for one’s drug dealer.
It’s revolutionary stuff. Later Velvet Underground albums are good too (of these, my own favorite is their third, 1969′s self-titled album). But there’s a special charm to Nico’s waify vocals, which evoke the delicate sound of French female singers of the era, even if her later solo efforts were less satisfying. She sung lead vocals on three tracks on the album (“Femme Fatale,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” and “I’ll be Your Mirror”) and sang back-up vocals on another track (“Sunday Morning”). Then there are the solo careers of Lou Reed and John Cale to consider (my favorite of which is Reed’s 1972 Transformer).
Discovering the Velvet Underground as a kid basically changed my life. I could hear how so much I loved in music was descended from it. There’s a direct line from the Velves to the alternative music movement of the 1980s and 1990s, and it’s a line that continues in the indie rock movement today. The Velves might have been ignored in 1967, but in the genealogy of popular music, their DNA is now in the vast majority of good popular music. In a way, the streets of New York City and the themes of drugs and sadomasochism couldn’t have been further from my own childhood. But as a melancholy, artsy kid growing up in the Midwest, the sound of the Velvet Underground enveloped me and let me know not only that I wasn’t alone, but there had long been people like me.
A few years back, I couldn’t escape remembrances of the 1964 appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, a key moment in the British Invasion and in the fad known as Beatlemania. But I’d argue the Velves dropping deserves far more celebration.