“The Velvet Underground and Nico” turns 50

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The avant-rocking “Velvet Underground and Nico,” was a flop?

Given its artistic content, the band had a tough time finding a record label to release the album. When they did, radio stations wouldn’t play it, and it was banned from record stores because of its illicit content. Magazines wouldn’t advertise it, and very few publications reviewed it. All of which contributed to its absence from the late ’60’s commercial/pop lexicon.

It took 10 years for the album to gain the acclaim it deserved, which is a reminder that critical and commercial recognition have no bearing on quality music.

In addition, Andy Warhol’s producer credit on the album was a way for the band to separate themselves from the record label. Allowing the band to do what they wanted creatively was Warhol’s most significant contribution, musically speaking.

In retrospect, Lou Reed’s post-Velvet reputation often paints him as a driving creative force of the band. However, it was a real collaboration. John Cale and Sterling Morrison made significant contributions to song compositions, as well as lyrics. And Maureen Tucker’s unique percussion style is crucial to the band’s sound. Although there is no official credit, Cale and Tom Wilson acted as the album’s producers.

Literary Influence

The album’s influence reaches outside the world of music, inspiring (arguably) the best short-story collection in modern literature, Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son”. As Johnson borrowed a Lou Reed lyric from “Heroin” for his title and epigraph.

“When I’m rushing on my run/And I feel just like Jesus’ son.”

The comparison is powerful enough to be an image at the center of a collection that operates on sparse, incredibly concise imagery, further highlighting the virtuosity of Reed.

“He doesn’t have much left apart from a desire to score; spiritually he’s bereft, but he thinks if he can get his fix, life will become better,” multi-instrumentalist John Cale explained in 2006.

William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Raymond Chandler, and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, are all prominent influences on the album. Essentially, the album amounts to a musical counterpart to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

“There’s a huge amount of compassion, I think, involved in the record — and the compassion is real,” Reed said in an interview, “A lot of the feelings for outsiders, people from outside the system.”

“Howl” is about these people. Those pushed into the margins by ‘mainstream’ society. The poem is gritty, shocking, confrontational, yet contains considerable compassion and beauty. Much like “The Velvet Underground and Nico.”

Similarly, “Venus in Furs” is inspired by the Sacher-Masoch novella of the same name, which contains themes of female dominance, and was one of the works behind the term sadomasochism (S&M).

Michael Leigh’s mass produced paperback about the underground sexual culture in the 1960’s, “The Velvet Underground,” was the source of their name.

Avant-Rock

The Velvet Underground’s treatment of their instruments is what gives the album its unique, loose, jangly, harrowing sound.

Reed tuned his guitar to a single note (ostrich tuning) for “Venus in Furs” and “All Tomorrows Parties.” Cale strung his viola with mandolin and guitar strings (the drone and the incessant screeching in “Heroin”). For “European Son,” they dragged a chair across the floor over aluminum. On “I’m Waiting for the Man,” Cale smashed on the keys of his piano, and “hissed” on “Black Angel Death Song.”

“We wanted to break the rules, so we broke every [expletive] rule we could,” explained Cale.

Now, Rolling Stone has The Velvet Underground on its Greatest Artists of All Time list at No.19. “The Velvet Underground and Nico” is No.13 on their albums list, and The Library of Congress has added it to the National Recording Registry. An interesting trajectory for a once-controversial album.

 

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