As I finish writing this piece, The Velvet Underground & Nico is turning 50, a respectable age for a rock record by any standard. Of course, it’s crucial to remember that 1967 wasn’t just any year – it represented the apex of a decade which transformed political, social, and cultural issues into a unifying whole, conjuring up images of the hippie movement, the Summer of Love, and of unbound hope for the future of humanity.
Among the great albums of the era, The Velvet Underground & Nico is sometimes given only a brief mention; either because of the insane creative explosion which defined 1967 (Sgt. Pepper, The Doors, Are You Experienced?, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn), or due to the fundamentally alien nature of The Velvet Underground’s music in that particular context. Going against the general optimism of the Summer of Love, this debut seemed painfully unusual: abrasive, noisy, nihilistic, guided by avant-garde, dealing with subjects which were considered taboo at that time: drug consumption, sexual deviance, prostitution, death, dark fantasies, and the degeneration of urban life. If anything, it’s closer in spirit to the ‘accursed poets’ of nineteenth century France: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, or Mallarmé. The world of Lou Reed and John Cale’s songs is populated by the ‘scum of the earth’, the undesirables, people who live at the fringes of society, struggling with marginalization, addiction, or social stigma.
Reed’s gritty urban realism, combined with a celebratory, bohemian stance on decadence and hedonism, is as fresh and as enlightening as it was five decades ago. In the garage stomp of ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’, we have the story of a New York heroin user trying to find his dealer for a hit, sung by Reed in a dispassionate voice, as if it was the most normal thing one could do or see inside a large city. On the epic ‘Heroin’, speaking to us once again from a first-person perspective, he decides not to take any sides, leaving it up to us to judge the moral implications of consuming hard drugs. Perhaps the addict is, after all, as guilty as anyone else; a reflection of the faults and sins of normative society. He is aware of his problems but is unwilling or unable to give them much thought…
Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life
‘Cause when the smack begins to flow
And I really don’t care anymore
And I guess I just don’t know
Oh, and I guess I just don’t know
‘Venus in Furs’, a delightfully perverse tale of sadomasochism based on the eponymous novella, is a singular experience, the first instance of a song explicitly about BDSM, and one of the band’s defining moments. Structured around a relentless tribal rhythm and Cale’s Eastern-tinged, droning viola, it describes an affair between a weak-willed man named Severin and a domineering female, identified only by the metaphor of Venus as the incarnation of physical pleasure and seduction. Of rare poetic quality, the lyrics depict reversed power relationships, emasculation, and debauchery with impressive vitality:
Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather
Whiplash girl child in the dark
Comes in bells, your servant, don’t forsake him
Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart!
Severin, Severin, speak so slightly
Severin, down on your bended knee
Taste the whip, in love not given lightly
Taste the whip, now bleed for me!
The Velvets never managed to have a major commercial breakthrough – in fact, this record is their highest charting studio release, and it barely cracked the Billboard 200. Arguably, the wider public was simply not ready for these audacious explorations into the human psyche, or the chaos that they unleashed. However, their immense influence cannot be measured by sales, but by their uncompromising attitude, their artistic integrity, the literary character of their compositions and their perfect blend of emotion and intellectual refinement. Today, it is difficult to imagine what rock would have sounded like without them, and their innovations are watersheds for every radical branch of the genre that followed, from left-wing punk to extreme forms of experimental rock. At the risk of repeating what has been said so many times, it’s necessary to emphasize their position with the following aphorism: of the few people who originally bought The Velvet Underground & Nico, every one of them started a band of their own. Over the years, their cult grew, slowly but surely, and they became more of a myth than an actual musical entity.
Without the patronage and assistance of Andy Warhol, it’s likely that the Velvets would have remained a footnote in rock history, relegated to playing in bars in front of extremely small audiences. Yet Warhol discovered them and had complete faith in their abilities as musicians and songwriters, financing the production of The Velvet Underground & Nico and even designing the now-famous banana cover. With the addition of German chanteuse Nico as a guest member, the band complemented its fiery examinations into forbidden pleasures with an icy, nearly frigid detachment (‘Femme Fatale’, ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’). After falling out with both Warhol and Nico, The Velvet Underground carved out a brilliant and diverse career, from noise freak-outs and spoken word (White Light/White Heat) to more conventional folk rock and garage rock (The Velvet Underground, Loaded). Each one of those records is a fantastic addition to any collection, but they never again reached the same dizzying heights as they did here – it is the starting point for any understanding of rock as an exceptionally confrontational mode of expression.
Naturally, times have changed. In a society in which discussions about sexuality and drugs are no longer as controversial, some would cast doubt on the current relevance of this record. The Velvet Underground & Nico, for all its excesses, is actually quite approachable; but like fine wine, it only gets better with age, thanks to the universality of its topics and the dramatic performances. By treating important and difficult issues without providing definitive answers, the Velvets placed themselves ahead of their time, crushing the flowers of the hippie revolution and offering a glimpse into the darkness of the soul, into a profane and deeply disturbing universe. Their music endures unaffected, bursting with cerebral energy and emotional intensity in equal measure. The recent, unfortunate passing of Lou Reed coincides with a period of renewed and well-deserved attention given to their discography, and this LP certainly is the jewel in the crown. File under ‘essential listening’ and don’t forget to ‘Peel Slowly and See’.
- Sunday Morning
- I’m Waiting for the Man
- Femme Fatale
- Venus in Furs
- Run Run Run
- All Tomorrow’s Parties
- There She Goes Again
- I’ll Be Your Mirror
- The Black Angel’s Death Song
- European Son
Text by Vlad Nicu
Picture research by Donna Darafshian; featured image taken from fatbeats.com.