From The Archive: Rock Albums that Changed the World: The Velvet Underground and Nico

Over time, there may be no other single work in rock that has influenced more musicians than this, the debut album of the audacious Velvet Underground. Brian Eno once famously quipped that, while it had only initially sold 30,000 copies, everyone who bought the album went on to start a band. And even with all of its spiritual children and grandchildren available to explore, the original item, The Velvet Underground and Nico continues to jostle young minds and awaken them from their naive slumber. It’s a daring, highly eclectic work that plumbs the human soul, shifting and undulating constantly between darkness and light. Recorded in 1966, it’s also a very early album in the rock timeline, so its risk-taking and iconoclasm are that much more impressive. That its newness is evergreen and, to this day, still resonates as unmistakably modern is quite an achievement for an album conceived in rock’s quaintly innocent pre-psychedelic age.

Any discussion of The Velvet Underground has to begin with Lou Reed, the band’s highly artistic songwriter and original lead singer (a debt owed here to Anthony DeCurtis’ recent book, Lou Reed — A Life for biographical material).

Born into the urban setting of Brooklyn and raised from age 8 in seemingly idyllic suburban Long Island, like the post-war contemporary literature he thrived on, the narrative of Reed’s early life and development resonated persistently with a “trouble in paradise” theme. America’s mid-50s exodus to suburbia was an escape from the harsh realities of city life and Reed’s parents, assimilated, non-observant Jews only wanted what every Eisenhower Era suburban American family aspired to, normalcy. That made them easy targets for their eldest son.

A born provocateur residing somewhere along the spectrum of human sexuality, young Lou Reed would play up his effeminate behavior and gestures for his conservative parents who wanted only to fly comfortably below the radar of American life. The Reed family home provided a handy workshop microcosm for the highly intelligent upstart that would later make a career of challenging the status quo. Drug use soon followed, as well as mild criminality, all echoes of the harsh city life the Reeds wanted to leave behind in their flight to the Long Island suburbs. All through his youth, Lou delighted in acting out, playing up any deviant behavior that would upset the calm of his family life, engaging in constant arguments with his father. But maybe there was more to it.

His parents eventually sought medical help, leading to a series of electroshock treatments his mother and father ok’d at age 17, which was the vanguard psychiatric therapy at the time. All accounts indicate that the Reeds loved their son and were only trying to help him overcome serious depression and other disorders such as panic attacks and suicidal tendencies, conditions sympathetically detailed by his sister Merrill in a recent article.

Surprisingly, the treatments seemed to help. Lou enrolled in Syracuse University, pursuing an English degree under the tutelage of firebrand writer, leader of the New York school of poetry, and contemporary of the beats so admired by Reed, Delmore Schwartz.

Brooklyn-born Schwartz, son of Hungarian Jews was a contemporary of the beat poets that Lou so admired, but with a very different style. Somber, focused, with an emphasis on authenticity, Delmore Schwartz at his peak displayed the same sinew and damaged heart that would later resonate in the best work of his prodigy, Lou Reed. By the time of his tenure at Syracuse, Schwartz was way past his artistic prime — erratic, alcoholic, rambling, gripped by paranoia — nevertheless, his charisma carried him as he would regale adoring students with sordid stories of their heroes of contemporary American literature, true stories and unfounded gossip, all rolled together, but the young writers ate it up, feeling like insiders, part of a world that they would one day inhabit too.

It was at Syracuse that Lou Reed had his great idea.

Already a gifted writer of poetry and short stories and already a somewhat accomplished rock and roll singer and guitarist, Reed decided to combine his aspirations, an original, revolutionary idea of his that actually predates the emergence of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Though Schwartz detested the inanity of rock and roll lyrics, Reed felt the transcendent emotion that made his favorite doo-wop songs soar plus he knew the inherent rebellious power of drums and amplified guitars — and in defying his mentor, set out to fuse his two great passions, literature and rock and roll. It turned out to be the guiding principle of Lou Reed’s entire artistic life.

Playing in R&B and rock and roll cover bands that were scoring lucrative gigs at frat parties, Reed’s subversive mind was always at work. When he wasn’t backing out of the gigs at the last minute, he was playing cover songs for money, slowly fomenting a musical alternative that would at once appall and enthrall the status quo American culture that played out before his eyes playing the hits of the day for the rich kids that attended Syracuse.

Syracuse University

Through most of his college years, Lou Reed dated Shelley Albin, his first serious girlfriend. By all accounts stunning, sweet, highly intelligent, and an artist herself, she inspired a number of the best-loved Velvet Underground songs, some of them penned at Syracuse. Albin, a young Jewish debutante-type from the affluent north suburbs of Chicago was in ways the perfect innocent for Reed to corrupt, but their relationship was complex and the cultured, bright young Albin helped bring out the gentle, positive side that has become such an important yin to Reed’s subversive and aggressive yang. Though their romance fell prey to his destructive tendencies, Albin says of Reed at Syracuse that he was sweet, complex, and a deep intellect. Their conversations were never-ending. Lou Reed was the first person Albin knew who thought and spoke like an artist and she fell in love with his mind.

It was also at Syracuse that Reed eventually met guitarist Sterling Morrison, who was to become rhythm guitarist in the Velvet Underground. And from this and the following period emerged what would become the emotional core of the Velvet’s debut album, “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “I’m Waiting for the Man,” and “Heroin.”

After college in 1964, with a 1-Y medical classification that kept him out of the escalating Vietnam War, Lou moved to New York City and landed a staff songwriting position at the budget-label “song factory” Pickwick Records, taking stabs at the passing music styles that would each briefly dominate the teenage market. “Write me 10 surf songs.” “Write me 10 dance craze songs.” The demands on him were crassly commercial, but Lou was always up for a challenge and his love of pop music helped him suffer through.

Recording with the Pickwick house band, a Reed-penned song released on one of the many trend-chasing Pickwick albums released under fake band names met with a sliver of success and a live band was assembled to perform “The Ostrich” for a local TV show as The Primitives. Uneventful, but fortuitous because the bass player consigned into The Primitives happened to be none other than Welsh violist and composer, John Cale.

Cale at the time was in America after earning the Leonard Bernstein Scholarship to the prestigious Berkshire Music Program at Tanglewood (he interviewed with American composer Aaron Copland to secure the award), staying on after with a move to a New York City loft and scrounging around for gainful employment. He knew next to nothing about playing rock and roll but looked and sounded the part due to his long hair and Welsh accent (easily mistaken for English). After the Primitives gig, Reed and Cale remained friends and found that they shared some musical affinity, even though they spoke different languages. Cale’s was steeped in classical music and the avant-garde in particular, where Reed came up through doo-wop, into folk music and garage rock. But they hit it off and started collaborating after hours at the Pickwick Studio. Cale’s tenure in The Dream Syndicate, the drone-heavy live ensemble of minimalist American composer La Monte Young was particularly influential in what would become the sound of the Reed-Cale collaboration.

The two found themselves in the ultimate right place at the right time

In retrospect, the coming together of Lou Reed and John Cale in New York City in the mid-60s turns out to be one of the most momentous occasions in rock history, but it wasn’t musical love at first sight. Cale initially dismissed Reed’s music as folk songs, a genre of music that he found overly simplistic and uninteresting, but he soon made a new assessment when he listened to the lyrics which he found to be tough, literate, “novelistic impressions of life.” Cale soon found that Lou Reed’s ambitious songs fit right into his avant-garde approach to sound. “We were made for each other,” says Cale. With Reed’s naïveté about more sophisticated forms of music and Cale being a new arrival in Reed’s native land of New York, the two acted as mentors for each other. And with New York City in the mid-60s being the epicenter of a changing American culture, the two found themselves in the ultimate right place at the right time, rubbing shoulders with the great artists and intellectuals that were breaking new ground in literature, music, dance, film, and art.

Working on songs in Cale’s Lower East Side loft, the two musicians bonded over more than music, including the more sordid aspects of life including drugs, specifically heroin. Other musicians flowed in and out of their partnership, and a basic unit was formed as The Warlocks. Renamed after a paperback novel they found that detailed the world of deviant sex, by 1965, the Velvet Underground had formed with Lou Reed on lead guitar and vocals, Reed’s college friend Sterling Morrison on rhythm guitar, John Cale on bass but also doubling on electric viola and keyboards, and Cale’s roommate and fellow Dream Syndicate alum Angus MacLise drafted temporarily on drums (soon to be replaced by primitivist rocker, Maureen Tucker). The band started gigging around, playing anywhere that would have them, often only for meals, including loft parties and what we would today call multimedia presentations, playing along with films and performances and eventually taking up residency at the kitschy Greenwich Village Cafe Bizarre. Tapes of these live outings as well as a set of demos started circulating around New York and also in Europe. Reed even sent demos to Andrew Loog Oldham, the Stones producer and manager, in hopes of getting signed. His delusions of grandeur were not so delusional though, because the band soon garnered the attention of the biggest mover in mid-60s New York culture, postmodern pop artist Andy Warhol.

Every bit as ambitious and iconoclastic as Lou Reed, Andy Warhol looked at the nihilistic splatter art of Jackson Pollack and the abstract expressionism which was gripping the art world of the late 1950s and found a way to go even further to skewer the intellectuals of his day. Going beyond the Renaissance “canvas as a window” concept, beyond the modernists’ vision, and even beyond the abstract expressionists’ obsession with the canvas itself, the art of master ironist Andy Warhol occurred away from the canvas, in the mind of the viewer. His Campbell’s soup cans and “advertising can be art” concept deftly deconstructed the lofty airs of the art snobs and reduced the whole art world to a kind of cosmic joke. And even more significant to his postmodern times than his irreverent artwork, Warhol was a virtuoso manipulator of the media, continually finding new ways to land himself in the papers, either in the fine arts section, the society pages, the newly forming underground press, or even the gossip columns. This is where The Velvet Underground came in.

Surrounding himself with artists, filmmakers, actors, and the freaky denizens of the New York scene, Warhol’s fascination with celebrities of all kinds drew him to the rapidly developing 60s world of music. Meetings were arranged with luminary rock artists Bob Dylan and Brian Jones at The Factory, his infamous workspace east of Midtown Manhattan. Soon, Warhol and his partner, director Paul Morrissey were seeking out a house band for their ventures which would now include music, landing them at the Cafe Bizarre to check out The Velvet Underground. Morrissey proposed that The Velvets be managed by Warhol and Reed put aside his misgivings and quickly accepted based on the Warhol connections and media presence alone.

Warhol’s involvement would quickly prove to be a double-edged sword. A great provider in many ways but also a clumsy advisor, forcing unwanted ideas on the band, that they lacked visuals and needed a lead singer and iconic face of the band the the guise of Factory fixture, German-born model-turned-singer, Nico.

To Warhol and Morrissey, the Teutonic blonde with the stunning expressionless face was the missing piece to The Velvet Underground, but Reed and Cale were conceptualists on their own and saw the inclusion of Nico as a gimmick, one that they would fight against and downplay every step of the way. Nevertheless, Warhol made The Velvets the centerpiece of his “happenings” that traveled around the city and later across America as The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, drug-fueled multimedia shows featuring film, light shows, dancing and performances by regulars of The Factory, and at the center, The Velvet Underground played their spooky, primitive version of rock and roll and drone-inspired guitar/viola jams to the stoned glitterati of New York and beyond.

Spring of 1966 saw The Velvet Underground enter the inexpensive Scepter Studio (mostly known for being the home of the Dionne Warwick string of hits written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David). With Warhol paying for the sessions along with CBS sales executive Norman Dolph (who hoped to get The Velvets signed to his company), the band was well rehearsed from their live shows and set about recording all but a few of the songs that ended up on the album. Having successfully bucked Warhol and Morrissey’s desire to have Nico singing all of the songs, the chanteuse ended up on lead vocals on only three key songs where her aloof monotone delivery actually enhances the irony and feeling of dread. In the end, the band were able to present the band as The Velvet Underground and Nico, further reducing her importance, now to what would be in effect a cameo appearance. With engineer John Licata at the board and the Warhol contingent not in attendance (even though Andy Warhol is credited as producer in the album artwork), the band set about to charm and shock the status quo with a blunt-edged panache that has been the model for so many bands and artists to follow.

Mixdowns of the sessions were submitted by Norman Dolph to Columbia Records, but were rejected, as they also were by Elektra Records who objected to the references to drug use. But within a month, The Velvets were signed to MGM-owned Verve Records by newly-hired staff producer, Tom Wilson (who at that time signed to MGM/Verve another iconoclastic band, Frank Zappa and The Mothers to the label). Wilson soon had The Velvets back in the studio recording new songs, re-recording tracks and refining the original cuts. John Cale provided all of the musical arrangements and acted as creative producer but Tom Wilson, legendary record producer (Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” as well as Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”), was at the helm from the point of his involvement despite being uncredited. The album was completed in the late spring of 1966 but the label, for various reasons, sat on it for almost a year before releasing it just before the Summer of Love in March of 1967 (part of the delay was attributed to the elaborate Warhol-designed artwork which included the iconic banana sticker that peeled off to reveal a phallus-pink oblong fruit beneath).

When listeners got to hear the debut of The Velvet Underground, they were left to navigate the shifts between statements of hope and desperation, and in the sunny context of the hippie-dominated culture of 1967, the irony was jarring.

After the album’s charming opening ode to the lazy beauty of “Sunday Morning” (although, infused with a curious “restless feeling by my side”), we are vaulted directly into the panic of Reed’s desperate quest for drugs in “I’m Waiting for the Man,” and the shift from the wistful pastoral quality of Cale’s piano, celeste, and viola to the urban primitivism of the full band’s pounding throb amounts to a bit of a sick joke, but we are along for the ride up to Harlem to score. “Hey white boy, whatcha doin’ uptown?” — the immediacy is real. We are in uncharted territory and there is no turning back.

The next track is our introduction to Nico in the softer “Femme Fatale” which owes a small debt to the misogynistic vignettes portrayed by the Rolling Stones on Aftermath. With the detachment of Nico’s vocal style singing with contempt about the “false colored eyes” of this “little tease,” it’s possible that Nico is singing about herself, although it’s unclear. With the gently folk-rocking beat and sunny guitars backing the semi-catatonic alto with a pronounced German accent, we seem to be drifting through an irony-drenched netherworld, on some nefarious adventure.

In “Venus in Furs,” we are plunged back into the darkness. With an arrangement steeped in the textures and musical language of the avant-garde — Cale’s droning viola plus the relentless throbbing of repeated low notes of the guitars — we are definitely through the looking glass at this point. Not only has no one committed a song explicitly about sex to vinyl without the aid of metaphor or double entendre, here is a song explicitly about “deviant” sex, an ode to the curative properties of sadomasochism. A song to the damaged, Reed pleads with the shiny-booted dominatrix, “strike dear mistress and cure his heart.” Even at his darkest moments, Reed shows his tender side.

Next, we are treated to the desperate moves of the seedy New York City characters of “Run, Run, Run.” Teenage Mary, Margarita Passion, Seasick Sarah, and Beardless Harry, all of them out to score drugs, or in the process of actually doing heroin, one getting sick, another turning blue, a few others not able to score. The street poetry here mixes drug use with religious imagery and, along with direct references to areas of New York City and a debt to Chuck Berry, this is clearly a Dylan circa-1965 influenced number, but with the subject matter and Reed’s out there, feedback-laden soloing we are firmly in the land of The Velvets.

Side A ends strong with the impressive “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Cale’s droning viola notes support a two-fisted prepared piano pounding out a mechanical pattern of open-5ths while Nico flatly bellows Reed’s mythic lyric about the forlorned girl who wears costumes on the weekend to disguise her sadness, but she always turns back into Sunday’s clown. With Moe Tucker’s steady kick drum and tambourine figure pounding out a simple pulse, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” plays like a stately droning medieval funeral march, processing slowly to the end of the album side, fading out slowly into the run-out groove.

Side B begins much like Side A, with the dawning of a new day and here at the midpoint, we come to the centerpiece of the album. The intro of “Heroin,” with its two alternating guitar chords — relaxed and quite beautiful, their basic triads supplemented with pleasant added 6ths and 9ths — forms a musical feeling of well-being and calm. Morning music. It’s always been one of Lou Reed’s strengths, to contrast the idyllic beauty within his music with stark realism in his lyrics and “Heroin” serves as the prototype, at least at the outset. The literal depiction of the heroin experience is perhaps a little off (Reed’s experience with drugs was reportedly limited to pot and amphetamines when Heroin was written at Syracuse), but the ambition he states up front, to “try for the kingdom if I can” sets up the song as a noble, timeworn quest of mythic proportions. A big issue some have with the artistry of Lou Reed is whether he tends to glamorize hard drug use and other morally questionable behavior and I think it has a lot to do with how “Heroin” sets up the drug experience in this heroic way (in contrast to his more typically ambivalent lyrics). Later comes the desire to “sail the darkened seas,” with parallels to Odysseus. The music undulates, accelerating and settling back into calm, mimicking the motion of the sea and even with it’s direct reference to injecting hard drugs, these extreme variations in tempo are perhaps the most iconoclastic aspect of “Heroin.” Until that point, rock and roll’s abiding quality was its good beat and here was a song that no one could dance to, not in any recognizable way.

Back on dry land, this highly eclectic first Velvet Underground album shifts again to the catchy, driving R&B-styled vignette, “There She Goes Again” with it’s direct lift of the intro riff from Marvin Gaye’s 1962 song, “Hitch Hike” before settling into the emotional centerpiece of the album, the beautiful ballad, “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”

The origin of the song is somewhat disputed, some attributing its inspiration to something Nico once said, but Shelley Albin claims, “A song like ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror — that’s a conversation we had, word for word… I know when he wrote it. I think it was my junior year in college.” The song itself achieves that pinnacle of songwriting, sweetness without a hint of saccharine (Nico’s stark reading helping in this regard). A song about providing for your sweetheart a reflection of themselves, a context for understanding, both challenges (“the wind, the rain, and the sunset”), and comfort, (a “light on your door to show that you are home”). “I find it hard to believe/The beauty you are/But if you don’t know, let me be your eyes/A hand to your darkness, so you won’t be afraid.” Coming so soon after “Heroin” on side B, the elemental, essential humanity of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” helps to lift The Velvet Underground and Nico into the stratosphere, and the simple accompanying music features chiming, clean electric guitars with an elegant touch of rhythmic pushes in occasional breaks. The background vocal choir provides a “reflect what you are” counterpoint to Nico as the beauty of the song fades into the final two cacophonous statements on the album.

With “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” written by Cale and Reed, the band returns to the droning viola avant-garde landscape of “Venus in Furs.” This time however, the tempo races along in a 6/8 gallop while Reed blurts out a mostly nonsensical lyric about the tension between the “myriad choices” one makes and fate. The main goal of the song was to string together words for the sheer fun of their sound and not for any particular meaning, according to Reed.

The contribution that this song makes is mostly in terms of tempo and musical texture but it’s an essential one before the band makes its one final statement, a thoughtful and scathing homage to Reed’s mentor, the extended screeching jam, written by all four Velvets and named “European Son for Delmore Schwartz” in the album credits. An uptempo garage rocker with a killer bassline, the song opens with just bass and a rhythm guitar. After the opening verses choruses, the band explodes with a huge crash, and then a long noise solo by Reed backed by the throbbing din of Moe Tucker’s primitivist tom-toms and Morrison’s fast scraping rhythm guitar. The tempo is blinding, so the 6-minute freak-out jam seems interminable and works as a precursor to the band’s next album, the much noisier White Light/White Heat. By the time the band’s amorphous ramble crests and resolves into its final chord, we are left breathless and wondering what just happened.

Once the album was completed and mixed, it was seemingly under a curse in terms of finding commercial success, not that it would have mattered much given the content. A number of factors delayed its initial release and then it was pulled from the shelves due to a lawsuit forced by Eric Emerson, a Warhol actor whose upside-down projected image from an Exploding Plastic Inevitable show was depicted in the back cover artwork. Rather than pay Emerson for the use of his likeness, MGM/Verve opted instead to face off in court (they subsequently lost). Upon its re-release months later (with new back cover artwork), The Velvet Underground and Nico foundered at the bottom of the Billboard Top 200 albums, peaking at 171 and quickly disappearing. The label did nothing to promote the album and radio stations and retailers across 1967 America refused to have anything to do with The Velvets and their songs about hard drug use and other deviant behavior.

It wasn’t until many years later that the work was recognized for its boldness and unique sense of purpose. Despite Reed’s emergence as a successful solo artist in 1972 with the Bowie-produced Transformer album and hit single, “Walk on the Wild Side,” The Velvets’ debut has only started gaining wide notoriety as a groundbreaking album since the late 70s and now it is generally heralded as a landmark achievement and a fearless work of immense originality, commitment, and poetry. It’s power to inspire artists and bands has only multiplied through the decades since its initial release.

The Velvets’ contribution to rock is immeasurable. Not only did they provide the prototype for every punk and alternative band that followed them, they pretty much established the very concept of a mainstream by intentionally subverting it. As Anthony DeCurtis observed recently, rock music in the mid-60s was an arena where “you either had hits or you went home.” Rather than join the fray, The Velvet Underground dared to play their own game, and in doing so quite literally invented, not a new genre, but something bigger — a new intention, a new purpose for rock music and youth culture. With the release of The Velvet Underground and Nico, the band presented a different path that rock artists could follow, an alternative to purely financial success. Rather than going for radio hits, the band set out to plant their flag — a commonplace notion today, seeking an alternative to mainstream success, but in that early place in rock’s timeline, the act was nothing short of revolutionary.

Photo credits
Subway: Photo by Jiarong Deng
Poetry Books: Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels
Syracuse University: public domain
New York City: Photo by Chandrakanth Elancheran from Pexels
Banana: Photo by Andreea Ch from Pexels