My journey to The Velvet Underground began with The Beatles, oddly enough. Firstly, I’m not a fan. I appreciate what they did and have a lot of respect for them but they’re not for me. My older brother was obsessed with them when he first discovered music, they were his first love. He played all of their albums so much that I probably know more lyrics to their songs than some avid fans. He could never understand why I didn’t adore them as much as he did, as we did like most of the same things growing up together, but there was just something about them that never sat right with me.
It seems like everyone was constantly telling me they were the best band ever, whether it was my brother or music magazines or TV. I thought I must be missing something, or maybe I’ll grow to like them… but I never did. Then I made a connection with an English teacher at school in my early teens, as we figured out that we have the same taste. I’d just started getting into music properly and going to my first gigs. When he used to call us up individually to check our essays, he’d say: “Nevermind about that, have you listened to so-and-so’s new album?”
Anyway, one day he asked if I’d heard The Velvet Underground and I replied I hadn’t. He said I need to check them out immediately and I went and found their debut album in my local shopping mall. I even remember the exact store as it would be an important moment for me. I knew of Lou Reed and Andy Warhol, so hearing of their involvement piqued my interest before I’d even listened to the music. Their name was provocative and the album cover, even more so. The simple genius of using a prolific artist’s phallic work to match their band name is a strong start indeed. When I first heard Reed’s voice come in on “Sunday Morning,” I fell instantly in love. This was my Beatles, this is the band I’d been waiting for.
Good music was always playing around the house courtesy of my Dad. David Bowie’s “Starman” was the first song I ever remember hearing and Talking Heads’ “Sugar on My Tongue” followed soon after. As artists like these were always around, I took them for granted and it wasn’t until later that I’d appreciate them fully. The point is, everyone needs to discover someone by themselves in their formative years. Someone who can feel like they’re all yours, like your secret romance. Coming from a big family where I’m the middle child of three boys, I feel this was even more important.
There’s a great line in the film Almost Famous, where the protagonist’s older sister bequeaths her record collection to him when she leaves home and tells him that if he plays The Who’s Tommy and stares at a candle, he’ll see his future. That’s how I felt when I listened to The Velvet Underground and Nico. Recorded in ‘66 in a derelict studio which would later become the infamous Studio 54, the album perfectly captured the New York counterculture of the time. “Sunday Morning” is one of the greatest-ever album openers, and even though I was yet to experience a heavy Saturday night at the time, it still stirred the emotions of waking up hungover and dazed the next day.
This was further amplified by Warhol’s favourite from the album “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” a promise to the young of all the events that are yet to come. The best part was, I didn’t know at the time that this was just one facet of The Velvet Underground’s sound. The album is a treasure trove full of gems just waiting to be discovered. The bright, hazy, ethereal beauty of “Sunday Morning” is followed by the bounding opening riff of “I’m Waiting for the Man,” a track that I don’t think anyone that’s familiar with cannot think of when scoring. It perfectly captures the excitement of a big night out on the town, with its relentless pace, “barrel-house”-style piano and lyrics. “Run Run Run” also follows in a similar, über-cool vein later in the album.
The Velvet Underground and Nico also has its softer, sweeter moments with “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” The former is a dreamy track written about Edie Sedgewick and the latter is a tender love song inspired by the beautiful Nico with some of the most moving lyrics you can find. The album is remarkably well-balanced and yet explored all the taboo subject matter you can think of, including prostitution in “There She Goes Again,” heroin abuse in the aptly titled “Heroin” and sadomasochism in “Venus in Furs.” How many other albums can stake this claim? This taking the themes of sex, drugs, and rock and roll to another level and pushing boundaries about what songs can convey. If there’s one thing to know about The Velvet Underground, it’s that they don’t do things by half.
They demonstrated this when they played the experimental album track “The Black Angel’s Death Song” at a residency the band had at a club called Café Bizarre. They were growing weary of playing there and the owner told them if they played it again, they were fired. They opened the very next set with it. That’s the attitude of the band in a nutshell—they couldn’t have cared less what anyone else thought and that was awesome. It’s important to bear in mind when this was all happening as well, in ‘66-‘67 at the start of the Summer of Love and the hippie movement. The other bands of the era were singing about peace and love, whilst sporting a distinctly ‘60s look—stylish in its own way but instantly recognisable as being from that time when you see it.
Whereas The Velvet Underground were sporting a look that’s still considered trendy today, over 50 years later, all dressed in black with wraparound sunglasses. Their look, sound and themes all stood in stark contrast to the zeitgeist of the period, wrapped up in a bold and innovative ethos. It was this philosophy that makes it one of the, if not the most influential albums ever. The music was experimental and avant-garde, thanks mainly to Welshman John Cale’s electric viola and classical sensibilities. Reed also brought his ostrich guitar and poetic lyrics to the table, making the pair dark doppelgängers of Lennon and McCartney. Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker also brought in fresh ways of playing guitar and drums, respectively, with Nico’s unique vocals added for good measure at Warhol’s request.
The forward-thinking attitude of their work was the start of a path through music history, with many artists that followed citing them directly as an inspiration. These acts include the likes of Bowie, Roxy Music, Joy Division, Talking Heads, The Smiths, Suede, The Strokes, Interpol, etc. The list goes on. The Velvet Underground and Nico has even been credited as inspiring the punk movement. Experimental tracks such as the aforementioned “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and “European Son” act as a statement that you don’t have to stay in the confines of the current scene and can fiercely oppose it. Everyone credits bands like The Beatles as being the most influential but all they really did was lay the groundwork for modern pop music. Likewise, The Velvet Underground could be credited with the entire alternative music scene, with each track of their debut being a jumping-off point for numerous sub-genres.
Much in the same way that Kraftwerk (RIP Florian Schneider, who sadly just passed away) can be credited with the entire electronic music scene. These are the bands that really shaped modern music, that were light years ahead of their time. When you play The Beatles, it sounds very of its time and quaint in comparison, but you could release The Velvet Underground and Nico now and no one would notice, as it hasn’t aged a day and sounds as fresh as ever. It’s almost impossible to measure the true influence of a band or artist, but Brian Eno put it best when he said of the small amount of people who obtained it upon its release: “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” It was all the result of the genius of Cale, Reed and Warhol together.
Cale provided the majority of the arrangements and the innovative, timeless, provocative sound. It unified the album as a whole and included drones, distortion and tuning all the guitars down a whole step, to produce a lower, richer tone. It oozed sexuality and complemented Nico’s cello-like, sultry voice. Reed was a slick frontman and adapted the gritty subject matter and street culture of his favourite literary icons that added sophistication to their work. Warhol was credited as a producer but had no knowledge of the technicalities of making an album; his role was more to finance the project with his artwork, add legitimacy and shield the band from any interference. This made him akin to a film producer (a medium he was no stranger to) and it was approached like one as well, with the aim of creating a piece of art that had sustainability and they certainly achieved it.
It’s no surprise that the band came to Warhol’s attention; it was a match made in heaven. Many have stated that he did very little whereas Morrison has said, in retrospect, he gave them exactly what they needed. Reed also backed this up by saying “Without him… where would it have gone?” Warhol provided them with the freedom to do their own thing and kept their work in its purest form, which could be argued was the most important element. He made The Velvet Underground part of his Factory scene, including them in his infamous Exploding Plastic Inevitable show tour. No other band in history can say that they had the full support of an artist as iconic as Warhol, and it makes them achingly cool.
The album artwork bore his signature and the original vinyl even had a peelable banana sticker with the small message “Peel slowly and see” that encouraged one to remove it to reveal a pink, flesh-coloured banana underneath. I mean come on, it just seems unfair from an artistic point of view; how could any other album cover compare? The Velvet Underground and Nico caused so much controversy on its release. It was banned from record stores, radio stations refused to play it, and magazines wouldn’t advertise it. So it goes without saying that the album wasn’t commercially successful. However, when it was rediscovered in the late ’70s, people were more prepared for it and the album found new life, continuing to be rediscovered by one generation after the next all the way up to the present.
The Velvet Underground and Nico is an album for anyone who doesn’t accept the status quo, anyone who’s left field. It’s the perfect album to discover in your teens, especially if you were someone like me who grew up in a mundane village in the middle of nowhere and needed saving. It’s gone on to top countless lists of the best and most influential albums of all time and has finally received the full recognition it deserves over the past few decades. This culminated for me when I got to see my favourite band member (Cale) perform the whole album with guests from Wild Beasts, The Kills and Fat White Family a few years ago; all on a suitable industrial estate in Liverpool (ironic as it’s The Beatles hometown).
It was a once-in-a-lifetime event that I’ll never forget and brought me back full circle to appreciate this work of genius with like-minded fans who were full of passion. Your teenage years are for exploration, I went to so many gigs on a weekly basis and was avidly on the lookout for the next great band. This can help you find your feet and inspire you to become the person you want to be, reinvent yourself or steer your life in a new direction. This was the album that helped give me the confidence to do all these things and whether it’s this album or another, I encourage anyone to keep on searching until they find it.