’65. ’66. ’67. ’68. The Civil Rights Movement. The Sexual Revolution. Political uprisings worldwide. An explosive time where change couldn’t come quick enough. And somewhere in a factory in New York the Exploding Plastic Inevitable was taking place. Warhol might have been on point about many things, but his choice of title for this particular project was not. On The Velvet Underground & Nico’s inception not many people bothered to look up; this record was more like a seed waiting to grow. It sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years, but in the words of Brian Eno: everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!
A young David Bowie crossed the Atlantic to witness the group’s live performance only to find his hero, Lou Reed, had already left the band. A boy named Jonathan Richman travelled down to New York from New England only to end up sleeping on the band manager’s couch having been informed that the group were no longer together. It was over before anyone realised it had begun. But by the late 70s with the rise of punk and into the 80s with the birth of indie, guitar bands worldwide were following the blueprint that the V.U had left behind.
What was recognised by and resonated with so many people worldwide could only have been born of New York; the cacophony of street noise, the struggle of so many ordinary people, and the dark underbelly that gave birth to this prodigious group.
Lou Reed’s cut-up narratives, unflinching in their tales of perversion and abuse, telling us of junkies running through the NY streets, the promise of a fix dancing in front of them, all the while punctuated by Sterling Morrison’s weaving and wild guitar lines as if they were the legs sprinting this city’s side streets before BANG! A gun shot and the scream that follows all heard through the violent electric vibrations firing out of the Vox speakers, just another weapon in Morrison’s arsenal.
This debut record is only one of only two times that John Cale features in The Velvet Underground’s discography. Cale is always remembered as the Welsh viola player looking to experiment and push the music forwards, providing an uneasy drone to Lou Reed’s laments. But what is often overlooked with this incredible musician is his bass playing here, supplying harmonic depth and leading us down melodic paths that give this record a rich dynamic, all the while keeping us on our toes and engaged but never settling for mundane pop expectations. Some credit him with instigating the unique sound of this album and credit him as being the real producer.
The band’s ethos is best understood through its drumming. The primitive thudding bass drums of Maureen Tucker are the spinal cord of this body of work. You could easily mistake them for drums of war, but these do not signify violence. Instead they are the sound of subway train wheels rolling down the track, footsteps on the sidewalk, the blood streaming through the veins of this metropolis, and when it eventually reaches the head a great serenity washes over you, you fall in with the music and the motion helps you forget everything else.
And Nico. The latter half to the title of this debut album. Another Andy Warhol creation? An agent for his art? Her raw, teutonic voice is both saccharine and dark in equal measures, and an immense source of beauty. Though she may only have achieved moderate success after this album in each of her subsequent outputs there is that mysterious magic that is so prominent here (Just listen to her live version of The Doors ‘The End’ from the Eno, Ayers, Cale & Nico album June, 1974). In ‘All Tomorrows Parties’ her voice carries a pain that reaches deep into her chest and clutches at the beauty that lies there. Whereas the rest of the record may seem radical and forward thinking, this song you are unable to place within the constraints of time and style like a prayer, a chant, like the voices of ancestors calling to you not to weep for lost time and never to wish for tomorrow. The hypnotic, rhythmic piano, reminiscent of Steve Reich’s compositions. The drums, with no relation to rock’n’roll, merely a meditation on the moment, in no hurry to get anywhere. The winding guitar parts, avoiding the popular blues scales and instead always searching without ever really needing to find a place, happy to always dance in the air in front of us. And of course Nico’s ethereal vocal calling over us, never quite to us, transcending like a choir of angels, like the horns that brought down the walls of Jericho, and as the dust settles from their collapse, so too does this magnum opus end.
On so many fronts this album is an amazing piece of work. From its cover sleeve that beckons us to peel slowly and see, to its amphetamine fuelled live shows that saw audience members given free narcotics to help create the right atmosphere for the music. But what is most amazing about it is the ability the music has to consistently shock people from the moment it was released. For some, wild feedback and songs about pimping just aren’t their idea of an enjoyable listen, but for a whole host of others this record still possesses the sound of something new and exciting almost 50 years after its initial release. What you really do when you partake in listening to this piece of music is confront yourself and the world for all the darkness and beauty that lies within.
Jake Willbourne’s band, The Black Tambourines, are celebrating the anniversary of the release of ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ with a special performance of the record on the 12th March at Art Is Hard’s Label Mates All-Dayer. The show kicks off at 15:30 at The Victoria in London.
Words: Jake Willbourne
Editoral: Josh Turner
Feature Image: Charlie Murphy