Essential Rock Music – The Velvet Underground & Nico

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The Velvet Underground’s debut album is not only the epitome of lo-fi and an experimental noise classic, it has stood the test of time, collecting more than a handful of experimental noise and drone masterpieces.
Recorded 46 years ago and released 45 years ago, in the spring of 1967, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” is probably the epitome of lo-fi rock. Brian Eno is often quoted as having stated that “only a few thousand people bought that record, but all of them formed a band of their own.” The album is not merely rock ’n’ roll (although it features heavily on “Run Run Run” and "There She Goes Again”) but makes heavy use of dissonance and features experimental forms of music and drones that would become influential for garage rock and noise rock, especially the likewise New York City-based noise band Sonic Youth. The lo-fi sound of the rock music characterized by noise and dissonance led to  the band’s understandable categorization as protopunk.

John Cale’s experimental tendencies and decidedly non-rock musical arrangements and instrumentation ensure that “The Velvet Underground & Nico” is more than the mere rock ’n’ roll of other contemporary bands. Aided by Lou Reed’s controversial lyrics, which convey a bohemian beatnik atmosphere, this album was something else even in the exploratory sixties. Subject matter such as drugs (acquisition on “Waiting for the Man” and the experience in “Heroin”) or the masochistic fetish (“Venus in Furs”) were not usually dealt with in rock music but rather in literature. The experimental, noisy drones of “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin” remain as spellbinding and awesome today as they must have appeared in 1967. The raw sound of the recording makes for an authentic directness that was lacking from more refined pop and rock recordings. Especially Cale’s viola contributes something new, something different, to The Velvet Underground’s sound, an element of non-rock instrumentation that would be taken up by the progressive rock and krautrock of the seventies.

The band’s debut album also features one of Andy Warhol’s muses, the German singer Nico, who contributed vocals to three of the songs and backing vocals for the opener, “Sunday Morning.” Nico’s singing has always been something of a challenge for me, and to this day it remains almost impossible for me to listen to “Femme Fatale” ... I mean, c’mon, let’s try another take, maybe she’ll hit at least one correct note this time through? (Likewise, her wobbly voice on “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is not very alluring.) But that aside, the album features a stunning collection of noisy classics, from “Waiting for the Man” to the hypnotic “Venus in Furs,” the mesmerizing “Heroin” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and the overkill noisefest “European Son” (that also, in a way, prefigures Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music”). Opener “Sunday Morning,” however, is a bit of sweet lullaby pop, rather untypical of the partly harsh noise rock songs that follow. It was added as an afterthought, when the remaining ten tracks had already been recorded, and may signal the direction into which The Velvet Underground developed later on. Vastly influential on numerous bands, and wrapped in the iconic Warhol cover featuring the distinctive banana, this noisy experimental classic has stood the test of time. This album alone justifies The Velvet Underground’s legendary status.
Published: Aug 13, 2012
by Klaas Ilse (artistxite)
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