Monday, March 12, 2012

The World's Behind You: The Velvet Underground & Nico at 45

 The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico
The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground & Nico
Rating: **** 1/2 or *****

While the British Invasion had taken up most of the early 1960’s, the next half of the decade would see the emergence of more American rock bands. Over in New York, it was in 1965 when a band called the Velvet Underground was formed. On March 12, 1967 the band released their debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico. The album was considered a flop back in the day but 45 years later, the album has been considered as one of the greatest albums ever made. Some music critics think that the album was one of the early examples of what would later become punk rock music. For me, The Velvet Underground & Nico ranks at #14 in my list of favorite albums.
            The Velvet Underground were formed in 1965 in New York. The band consisted of guitarist/singer/songwriter Lou Reed, Welsh multi-instrumentalist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and drummer Angus MacLise. The band played their first gig at Summit High School in New Jersey but now too long after, MacLise left the band. MacLise was replaced by drummer Maureen “Mo” Tucker. Besides being the only woman in the band, Tucker was also an interesting drummer: she used trash can lids as her cymbals and would stand up while drumming. The Velvet Underground were able to make a name for themselves around New York until they caught the attention of renowned artist Andy Warhol “discovered” them. Warhol offered to be the band’s manager and helped them get a record deal with MGM’s Verve Records. He also suggested to the band to add German singer, Nico, to the band. The band was reluctant to add Nico. At first, Warhol suggested that Nico be the lead singer for the band which they turned down. Instead, Nico did join the band and would end up singing lead vocals for three songs that Reed had written for her to sing. The band also became a part of Warhol’s multimedia road show, Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The album was recorded from April 1966 to November 1966 in various locations with Tom Wilson and Warhol as producer.
            “Sunday Morning” serves as the first track off the album. It’s unlike many of the other songs from the album as it is somewhat pop friendly while still being psychedelic. Reed found some inspiration for the song from Warhol: the line of “Watch out/The world’s behind you” was inspired by Warhol’s suggestion for Reed to “get paranoid”. The song has a very melodic feel and it is indeed a highlight from the album. Next up is the drug-dealing tale of “I’m Waiting for the Man”, a grim look at the street life in New York. “I’m waiting for my man” sings Reed. “Twenty six dollars in my hand”. Reed mentions the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street, where the drug deal is taking. The sound of the song would fall along the line of garage rock, as the guitar and bass hum loudly in this track. It’s easily one of the band’s best known songs, as it has been covered by dozens of artists in later years. “Femme Fatale” is the first of three songs that features Nico on lead vocals. Although sung by Nico, it was confirmed years later that Reed wrote the song about Warhol star Edie Sedgwick (a request made by Warhol). Nico’s vocals are very unique and in some ways, it makes the song darker. Things get trippy during “Venus in Furs”, a song that touches upon the topic of sadomasochism. “Shiny, shiny/Shiny boots of leather” sings Reed to the screeching sounds of Cale’s viola. The hypnotic sound of Cale’s viola, the sound of Reed’s Ostrich guitar, and the lyrics make this my personal favorite song from the album. “Run, Run, Run" continues the experimental sound of the album in the form of standard rock and roll. According to one site, Reed wrote the song on the back of an envelope when the band were on their way to play at the Café Bizarre. This might see the beginning of Reed using characters in his songs (Seasick Sarah, Teenage Mary, Margarita Passion, Beardless Harry). Side one ends with “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, the second song to feature Nico on lead vocals. The sound of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is quite astonishing: not only is Reed playing an ostrich guitar again but Cale is playing tone clusters on a prepared piano, with a chain of paper clips intertwined with the piano strings. Nico’s vocals were original recorded as one track but for the final mix, her vocals are double tracked. With Nico’s vocals double tracked, it gives the song a more psychedelic feeling.
            Side two begins with what might be the Velvet Underground’s most praised song: “Heroin”. The song’s structure is very clever as it starts off slow before it picks up pace, making it sound like what it feels like when someone takes the drug. “When I put a spike into my vein/I tell you that things aren’t quite the same” sings Reed. Towards the end, the song gets very frantic as Cale is at it again with his screeching viola. The somewhat soul infused “There She Goes Again” follows. Reed is accompanied by backing vocals of Cale and Morrison, giving the song a kind of a 1950’s rock and roll sound to it. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is the last of the three songs to feature Nico on lead vocals. According to Sterling Morrison in an interview, it took a while for the band to get Nico to sing the song the way the band wanted it to sound. It came to the point when Nico burst into tears but she gave it another try and this is what you here. Probably out of all the Nico songs, her vocal performance on this song is the best. “The Black Angel’s Death Song” is another experimental sounding track. Reed sings to the sound of Cale’s viola playing. There is audio feedback throughout the entire song. The breaks in which you here the “hissing” sounds is actually Cale hissing into the microphone. The album ends with the protopunk sounds of “European Son”. While it may be punk rock sounding, it is also very experimental (probably as experimental as the album gets). The song starts off normal for a minute until a loud crash is heard. The loud crash was actually created by Cale, by hitting a stack of plates with a metal chair. The rest of the song is improvised and uses feedback and distortion as much as it can.
            When released in March 1967, The Velvet Underground & Nico barely even charted. It debuted on the charts in May at #199. The album peaked at #171 in December before falling out of the charts in January 1968.  The album barely received any feedback from the critics (though the reviews that were published were positive). All of this was most likely due to the lack of promotion from Verve Records. By the end of the year, a fall out between the Velvet Underground and Warhol resulted in the end of their partnership. When Warhol stopped managing the band, Nico left with him. In January 1968, the band released their second album White Light/White Heat. Musically, White Light/White Heat was a heavier album and much louder than the debut. Still, the album didn’t do anything. Cale left the band later that year after a creative dispute between him and Reed. He was replaced by guitarist Doug Yule. With Reed’s direction, the band released a self titled album in 1969. It was a departure from the first albums as it was mellower and more acoustically driven. Verve dropped the band in 1970 and Atlantic Records took the band under their wing. Atlantic Records, however, asked for the band to make their next album “loaded with hits”. The resulting album, Loaded, was release in the fall of 1970. By that time, Reed had left the band. It came to the point where Yule was the only member left. Yule continued using the Velvet Underground name until 1973 when the band split.
            A decade or two later, the Velvet Underground finally managed to scratch the surface long after the band had split. Today, the band’s music is seen as influential and a precursor to punk rock music. The Velvet Underground & Nico album is now seen by almost every major music magazine as one of the greatest and most important album ever made in rock music. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it at #13 in their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 2006, the Library of Congress added it to their National Recording Registry. I have The Velvet Underground & Nico ranked at #14 on my list of favorite albums. It’s just an amazing album that was certainly ahead of its time. I first listened to it around November 2006 and I loved it. It was different and strange, which made me like it almost instantly. 

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