Cult Classics Album Breakdown 13

The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

Lou Reed has never quite settled well with me. I’ve got to be blatantly honest. When he was alive I just didn’t get him. Yes, ok, Walk On The Wild Side is a great track, as is Perfect Day. I was certainly roused by Coney Island Baby. However, I found the man incredibly pretentious and unnecessarily volatile. At times it was like he was out to rile his own fans, even. His gross unpredictability during his life, in my eyes, was all too often mistaken as interesting.

I mean, I guess I’m just going the long way round – the guy was a bit of a twat.

The one record, however, that Lou Reed was instrumental on that really gripped me was The Velvet Underground & Nico. It was the first record Reed was involved making, along with John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and Nico. And it has become a staple cult classic album – especially since this art-house, experimental trip through drug abuse, prostitution, sadomasochism and sexual deviancy was so heavily associated with artist, Andy Warhol. Hence the album cover.

It’s very strange, of course, how the music industry pulls its punches. It’s not strange that the major critics are usually failed musicians themselves. Upon release, this album was a flop. A commercial and financial failure that was largely ignored. Controversies surrounding the thematic content of the record led to the record being banned from record stores and radio airplay alike. But there’s no such publicity like bad publicity, is there?

Over forty years later The Velvet Underground & Nico is one of the most revered and critically acclaimed records on the planet, reaching #13 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’. It was also added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2006 to commemorate its cultural impact. In other words, the fortune of this unique masterpiece turned on its head tenfold. In fact, it’s considered so profoundly influential that, without it, Punk Rock, Glam Rock, and Kraut Rock may never have happened.

The Velvet’s blurring of Pop music sensibilities with avant-garde, edgy, often disturbing subject matter and eerie instrumentation inspired the likes of David Bowie, Roxy Music, Nirvana, REM and The Stooges, to name but a few. Would there have been Ziggy without the Velvets, for example? Bowie would have been a brave man.

Heroin, one of the most remarkably manic cuts of avant-garde experimental bluster you’re ever likely to hear, is a definite highlight on an unpredictable record. The 60’s inspired There She Goes steals from Dylan’s jagged sincerity, but also nods to the classic R&B sound of The Yardbirds and The Troggs. I’ll Be Your Mirror, sang by the strikingly idiosyncratic Nico, echoes something distinctly Mama’s and Papa’s – just a little darker. The Black Angel’s Death Song is a rather deranged, frenetic experiment akin to something on Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and European Son a funky groove that takes the album spiralling off somewhere else entirely. There’s just enough maudlin, just enough experiment in equal measure.

Sunday Morning is an airy, spacious pop ballad, yet still with those semi-sinister undertones that epitomise the record. I’m Waiting For The Man, a garage-rock satire on prostitution, is delivered with typical (somewhat tuneless) Lou Reed detachment. And yet, it works! I try hard not to like him, but on this record it’s just impossible.

Femme Fatale is a sparse opiate; a recording depicting a tragic story. Nico’s mysterious accent underpins the song with subtle power, before the seriously hot-blooded Venus In Furs scuffles through its mournful, lachrymose lament. Run Run Run is bluesy – a nod to The Doors in their Roadhouse-era glory, and All Tomorrow’s Parties a feverish rumbling anchored by a repetitive piano hook. A very unique listening experience.

It’s all rather bewitching to say the least, and evidence that these guys either had fabulous imaginations or a penchant for severe over-indulgence. Either way, it’s a highly original album. Producer and musician extraordinaire, Brian Eno, famously said that despite very few people buying The Velvet Underground & Nico upon its release in 1967, those that did went on to form famous bands of their own. It really was that influential.

Andy Warhol, who was credited with producing the album, and paid for the studio time to record the album, was clearly influential. That whole ‘Factory’ scene, and Warhols futuristic approach to life and art, permeated The Velvet Underground & Nico. It was a scene so unique – so one-off – that this fascinating musical project will be forever shrouded in mystique and legend. 

The Velvet Underground & Nico is a piece of art in itself, not just a record. A remarkable, revolutionary piece of work.



© Cornell University – Division of Rare Manuscript Collections

Top track trio:

I’m Waiting For The Man


The Black Angel’s Death Song

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