If The Velvet Underground & Nico wasnt the first punk rock album ever made, it serves as the stone tablets — the Dead Sea Scrolls — from which many punk and eclectic bands drew inspiration. Can you imagine an album whose highest spot on the Billboard chart was 199 would wield so much influence on so many artists over 40 years since its release?
Lou Reed brought the songwriting. John Cale brought the classically trained avant-garde. Sterling Morrison brought the steady hand on guitar that allowed Reed and Cale to take the music into the New York subways, lower East Side shooting galleries, and demi-monde that served as the flip side of the Summer of Love. Maureen Tucker brought a simple bass drum, snare, and minimalist yet essential sense of what each tune needed to be successfully goosed along. And on three of the classic LPs 11 songs, German chanteuse Nico brought her ice-cold precision and ethereal vocal presence.
And Andy Warhol brought the stage (as well as the much-debated banana-peel album cover). Originally just the sonic part of Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a multimedia extravaganza of lights, dancing, and his stable of superstars, the Velvets quickly carved out their own space in the darkness. But their music stunned and shocked in many other ways, too. Beauty, cacophony, controlled substances, feedback, violence, classical scholarship, literary allusions, kink youll find em all.
The Velvet Underground — The Velvet Underground & Nico: Track-by-track review
1. “Sunday Morning”
It begins with Cale’s sweet tinkling piano and Reed’s airy semi-falsetto on a tune originally intended for Nico. It sounds like innocent pop, more suited for New York contemporaries Simon and Garfunkel, until the dark tone of Reed’s playing on the guitar break gives us the first sign something else is going on below the shiny, glossy surface.
2. “I’m Waiting For The Man”
The blueslike shuffling piano beat powers this tale of waiting for your friendly neighborhood drug dealer (that $26 in Reed’s hand might buy one or two pills today). The illicit thrill of finding a hidden corner to get a taste of the product and exchange coin of the realm pull us a little deeper into the world the LP is slowly weaving.
3. “Femme Fatale”
Only half-kidding. She stepped out of body to sing this cabaret tune about the girl you knew in high school and/or college and worshipped from afar, but knew you couldn’t have (or who would’ve torn your head off if you tried). Nico is not just a little tease who does a few things to please, but a force of nature that could kill you. Fear the beautiful porcelain sculpture.
4. “Venus In Furs”
Mention the word “sadomasochism” today, and the first thing coming to mind won’t be whips or chains. It will probably be Cale’s electric viola, which along with Reed’s sitar-like playing creates the dungeon-like atmosphere on this track.
This is one of the most creepy songs ever recorded, yet it possesses a unique beauty and delicacy. You may be tired, weary and feel like you could sleep for a thousand years, but you won’t walk away. Tucker’s subtle thump and the shredding guitar at the end could make a lesser song memorable. Here, it’s part of an unforgettable tapestry. The sexiness and allure of “Venus” have only grown over the years.
5. “Run Run Run”
The prototype for Reed’s character studies of people drawn to the drug experience that became a staple of his seventies solo albums. His squalls of guitar against the pummeling rhythm sound like an unsuccessful effort to fight the overwhelming power of addiction.
6. “All Tomorrow’s Parties”
The band’s first single didn’t get over in the marketplace, but cutting it in half to little more than two minutes for the 45 might’ve had something to do with that.
If Boris Karloff were a woman, he’d have sounded like Nico as she weighs in the costs of the hard-partying, drug-addled abyss she eventually fell into. Sneaking around and through Cale’s stately piano are Reed’s lead, sounding notes of imminent danger.
Think of the intro as Reed loading up the syringe, then slowly injecting the smack into his arm. The warm buzz of the first verse gives way to the chaos of the first chorus. Repeat, only a little more intensely. Repeat again, until this train’s flying so rapidly and out of control that hopping off will kill you even quicker than the mind-numbing Chinese rock coursing through your veins.
Those of us who’ve never used heroin can only imagine this kind of a trip, soft and easy at first before the pace picks up. While the guitars simulate the head spinning and swimming, and Tucker offers the alternately sped-up and slowed-down heartbeat, Cale’s screeching viola is the monster unleashed throughout our body — we’ve introduced it; we can’t expel it from our bodies now.
Some critics have claimed this song glorifies heroin use, but it’s probably scared many more people from ever touching it. This may be one of the most intimidating songs ever recorded, but you can’t turn it off, can you?
8. “There She Goes Again”
We take another unexpected turn, into doo-wop rock. As a crank-’em-out songwriter in his pre-Velvet days for Pickwick Records, a musical grindhouse, and doo-wop enthusiast, Reed could bring a pop sensibility into the most seemingly anti-pop environment, such as this album. He gets away with it, too.
9. “I’ll Be Your Mirror”
The third and last Nico number, she lends lovely voice to another Reed walk on the romantic side. This little pop gem would not be out of place on a Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett set list, and the playing is pretty enough to win friends along Tin Pan Alley, too. It’s as if the band is lulling us into a false sense of ease before whacking us with the last two tracks.
10. “The Black Angel’s Death Song”
A true contender in the 1967 poetry slam season. The Reed/Cale free verse gets pretty bizarre and pretty graphic, dissolving into near-gibberish by song’s end over a tune you might hear Satan belting out on hurdy-gurdy at the Carnival from Hell.
11. “European Son”
Ostensibly Reed’s homage to poet and professor Delmore Schwarz, his writing mentor at Syracuse University.
At 13 minutes-plus, with only 10 lines of lyrics, the jam’s really the thing here. Reed and Morrison trade licks with enough variety to keep the piece from getting stagnant, and Cale and Tucker keep shoving the rhythmic coal into the boiler. Eventually, all four ease up on the throttle, the roller coaster reaches the air brakes, and the album slowly and orderly winds down to a close. You leave the ride, and you have trouble keeping your balance, stumbling down the stairs back to reality.
The Velvet Underground & Nico by The Velvet Underground
“I’m Waiting For The Man”
“Venus In Furs”
“Run Run Run”
“All Tomorrow’s Parties”
“There She Goes Again”
“I’ll Be Your Mirror”
“The Black Angel’s Death Song”