The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground and Nico
Released March 12th, 1967 on Verve Records
In 1967 very few people cared at all about a rock band of misfits and New York scenesters named The Velvet Underground. Fifty years later they are revered as the jumping off point for rock ‘n’ roll’s Great Weird Journey, through punk rock, New Wave, art-damaged shoegazer, weird gothic rock, and the explosion of blog-fueled indie artistic abandon. Look at the fine users of Rate Your Music: they’ve voted the album the third greatest album in existence. BEA’s users have it in the number ten slot. This is an album that sold nothing upon it’s original release (relatively nothing, anyway). The influence that it has had on music since it’s release is difficult to overstate, which is all the more fascinating considering it’s ignominious beginnings.
The Velvet Underground were not superstars by any stretch of the imagination. When I say that no one cared about them upon the release of The Velvet Underground And Nico, I mean that; outside of some Bohemian art circles in New York City, the reaction to them could be characterized as “extreme indifference”. Even the hippies thought they were garbage, if they thought about them at all. Their 45 singles were utter failures, and the album sold an abysmally small number of copies. 1967 was the Summer of Love – the year of Sgt. Peppers, the year of “Incense and Peppermints.” No one seemed to want a group of artsy weirdos singing about bondage and heroin. Those that did pick up the album, however, were listening intently. In 1982, ambient pioneer Brian Eno said that the band may have only sold 30,000 copies, but each one of those 30,000 people went out and started a band. Punk rock, especially, took an obvious cue from The Velvet Underground; the fashion, the obsession with squalor, and the drugs were all cribbed from the VU’s squalid-Bohemian existence.
They were not psychedelic trend-chasers and they were not radio-friendly record label creations. The Velvet Underground were first and foremost Andy Warhol’s house band. Some of the songs on The Velvet Underground and Nico are about the NYC art scene; some are about specific members of that scene. Lou Reed, the band’s principal songwriter, came from a troubled background (including some therapy that Vice President Mike Pence would be a big fan of) and spent the early part of the 1960s as a songwriter for Pickwick Records, where he eventually penned a parody of ‘dance craze’ music called “The Ostrich.” For some unknown reason the people of Pickwick decided that the bizarre dance tune had some radio potential and enlisted a full band to record a slick version of it. One of the band members was John Cale, who struck up a friendship with Reed; they formed a band and invited Reed’s friend from college Sterling Morrison and Cale’s neighbour, Angus MacLise, to join. MacLise was out before the first gig, since he objected to accepting money to perform art; he was replaced by Maureen Tucker and the lineup that would record the first album was set. They caught the attention of Warhol, who folded them into his art collective and then introduced them to stylish German singer Nico. Reed was unsure about Nico at first, but Warhol was paying, and she ended up gracing four of the album’s key songs: “Femme Fatale”, “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, and their first, and possibly best, song, “Sunday Morning”.
In an interview with Guitar World, Reed once claimed that there was only one rule in the Velvet Underground: “No blues riffs”. This marks the album out from virtually everything else that came out in 1967. Like another great album we’ll discuss later this year, it stands staunchly opposed to the sound of the Summer of Love. John Cale, who would later make his name as a postmodern composer, put a great deal of viola on the record, but it was a viola that was strung with banjo and guitar strings; Lou Reed played around with non-standard tunings for his guitar, including a tuning that he’d used originally on “The Ostrich” that had each string tuned to the same note. Many songs were composed out of gentle, avant-folk balladry or odd, stretched-out taffy droning, or both; it is quite unlike anything else that was popular at the time and as such it’s not particularly surprising that the record failed to sell well. Again, however, it’s not the number of people that were listening, it was who was listening; a number of proto-punk rockers took the album as a rallying cry to be weird, and this extended out beyond the Iron Curtain as well.
The record would play a particularly important role in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia. It was purchased by Vaclav Havel, a philosopher and writer who would eventually become President of post-Soviet Czechoslovakia. Havel smuggled the record back into Prague, where it was copied innumerable times and passed around the city’s art community. As the saying goes, whoever listened to it started a band; a number of avant-garde artists in the Czech capitol were inspired by it to stage their own cutting-edge art shows. The 1968 invasion by the Soviet Union to crush market socialism drove them all underground, but the avant shows continued in secret. Importantly, The Plastic People Of The Universe incorporated a number of Velvet Underground songs into their repertoire, which they used to battle repression at a series of illicit shows during the early 1970s. Along with a number of other dissident artists, the Plastic People Of The Universe were arrested in 1976, an act that lead to the Charter 77 movement, a group of dissidents that sought to protect human rights from Soviet oppression. Charter 77 was led by Havel, and by 1989 they leveraged the disintegration of Muscovite hegemony into the destruction of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party and Havel into the Presidency.
The Velvet Underground And Nico helped bring freedom to oppressed people. There aren’t many million-sellers that can claim the same.