The Velvet Underground and Nico - The Velvet Underground And Nico - Review
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critics' view

The Velvet Underground & Nico nudges as close to perfection as you could ever dare to hope for from an album. The disparate 5 – Lou, John, Sterling, Mo and Nico – contrast, complement and interact so well with each other that you get an album which is, at once, full of diversity yet emerges singularly as a coherent and immaculate masterwork. From the gorgeous opening pop simplicity of “Sunday Morning” to the nihilistic, demonic out there aural assault of “European Son” at the death, you’re taken on one hell of an amazing journey into territories hitherto unknown. Many critics label this as the most important album ever made. I’m with the critical majority and the commercial minority.

If ‘66 was pot and light spanking, ’67, whether fantasy or reality, was shooting H and indulging in hardcore bondage sessions. Bob Dylan sang “you shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you”. I don’t know about that; it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea when channeled through the Velvet Underground. As Lou Reed, the chief lyricist, would later remark: “That's the kind of stuff you might read. Why wouldn't you listen to it? You have the fun of reading that, and you get the fun of rock on top of it.” This was a boundary-pushing LP in so many ways; lyrically, musically and artistically.

At the time of release, the New York group lined up: Lou Reed (25, vocals, guitar); John Cale (25, electric viola, piano, bass guitar, backing vocals, celesta) Sterling Morrison (24, rhythm guitar, bass guitar) and Maureen Tucker (22, drums, percussion). Although she only sings on 4 of the tracks, Nico (28) gets co-billing status and, quite frankly, merits it unquestionably. You can chop a whole year off those ages for the date of recording. Unbelievably, almost the entirety of the album lay “in the can” for 11 months, the acetate having being rejected for distribution by Columbia, Atlantic and Elektra Records. Perhaps we music fans can be thankful; were it not for their bad decision making we might never have had the delicious opener “Sunday Morning”, an after-thought recording made in November ’66. The keys of John Cale open up the LP by virtue of a randomly-found Celesta in the studio. It’s the prettiest moment in pop since Buddy Holly’s “Everyday”, with a delicate vocal from Lou which belies the paranoia of the lyric: “Watch out, the world's behind you.” This theme is immediately continued in “I’m Waiting For The Man” which re-sets the musical tone as jittery and nervous, with a sense of danger as naïve buyer arranges to meet dealer: “Hey, white boy, what you doin' uptown? Hey, white boy, you chasin' our women around?” Watch out Lou, they’ve got knives. John Cale empathises, with a discordant hammered piano; the instrument has never been used so wildly since Jerry Lee was shakin’ and pumpin’ ten years ago. Calm is restored when Nico steps up for her first lead vocal on “Femme Fatale”, a less than flattering ode to their live show dancer, Edie Sedgwick, who’d die just 3½ years later from a drug overdose.

When “Venus In Furs” kicks-in, the emotional depth of the album is accentuated; we’ve had paranoia, fear, bitchiness and now we have a tale of sexual decadence unparalleled in popular music: “Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather. Shiny leather in the dark. Tongue of thongs, the belt that does await you. Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart”. The subliminal track is framed perfectly via John Cale’s electric viola which scratches and whips, as well as Lou Reed’s ostrich guitar, which shimmers in a state of unwavering anticipation [steady]. Taking a deep breath to recover, “Run Run Run” reverts back to convention of sorts with a mean and tough Proto-Punk beat which serves as the backdrop for a tale of life on the NYC streets, as seen through the eyes of the drop outs and the misfits. Lou draws on characters, real or imagined, such as Teenage Mary, Margarita Passion, Seasick Sarah, and Beardless Harry; all of whom are detailed using or seeking drugs.

Lou’s passion for using colourful characters from his everyday life is to the fore once again on “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, almost like a medieval dirge with a contemporary cast. Here, Lou observes the Warhol clique of ’66. According to him, the song is: “a very apt description of certain people at the Factory at the time. … I watched Andy. I watched Andy watching everybody. I would hear people say the most astonishing things, the craziest things, the funniest things, the saddest things.” In a 2006 interview John Cale stated: “The song was about a girl called Darryl, a beautiful petite blonde with three kids, two of whom were taken away from her.” Nico’s vocal is simply stunning. She sounds like she has lived emotionless since the dawn of time.

There is no let up on the challenging material as you flip over to side 2. Lou had written “Heroin” objectively whilst an 18 year-old student of Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University. What a strange kid. The song is a bona-fide Proto-Prog masterpiece; a glorious and hellish journey, as the user tries to “make the kingdom” and “feel like Jesus son”. With varying tempos designed to reflect the irregular heartbeats of the user, and cacophonic shrieks from Cale’s viola invoking some sort of rush, I feel the need to physically check my arm for track marks at the conclusion. Hardcore drug abuse and blasphemy all in one seven minute onslaught; surely one of the most confrontational songs ever committed to vinyl by 1967? Using the same trick as Side 1 did post-Venus, “There She Goes Again” serves as a breather, as we get back to some sort of recognisable normality, this time in the form of a stupendous folk-rocker existing on the outer fringes of the genre. Nico’s supreme contributions to the LP are underlined in the seminal “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, a title which was rooted in a throwaway comment she had made to Lou a couple of years earlier. Explaining the sheer perfection of this performance, Sterling Morrison later revealed: “She kept singing “I'll Be Your Mirror” in her strident voice. Dissatisfied, we kept making her do it over and over again until she broke down and burst into tears. At that point we said, “Oh, try it just one more time and then fuck it — if it doesn't work this time, we're not going to do the song.” Nico sat down and did it exactly right.” As I’ve said many times before – every moment of blood, sweat and tears in the studio is worth it in the end. The recording stands immortal. Piercing dissonance, loud bursts of feedback and detuned strings are the order of the day in “The Black Angel's Death Song” and “European Son” as the album closes fittingly in fuck off waves of avant-garde abandon. The final track begins in the discipline of Lou’s Berry-esque riffage before succumbing to John’s Cage-ist chaos.

No-one knew it at the time, but the disembowelment of Rock n Roll had been a successful operation, and was an artistic revelation. The shock waves would continue to reverberate down throughout the decades. Praise be to the Velvet Underground visionaries for this heroic work of art and, perhaps even more so, to the equally heroic 30,000 first-wave believers of 1967 who took the gospel forward, from the ripples of the Stooges to the waves of Suicide to the psunami of Sonic Youth and the Jesus and Mary Chain. The VU tributaries will weave and twist forever.

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