Wednesday, October 27, 2010
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
It's kind of a miracle that hip cachet has remained with this album after all this time; the knee-jerk reaction to it in 1967 seems like it would be identical today. What kind of wankers put out a record with a shitty conceptual "pop art" cover like this? And oh god, liner notes describing "happenings" and all that nonsense, photos of the band in these nonchalant poses with sunglasses. And they have a "chanteuse." How, one might wonder, is it any different from a thousand other low-tier psych-rock bands of the period?
But psych-rock is a red herring here, and so is 1967. This album was recorded and should have been released a year earlier, in which case it would be not just an alternative landmark but an earth-shakingly innovative effort. By '67, the rock world hadn't caught up, but it was inches closer. Not the band's fault. Still, there's that damned cover. Andy Warhol was a showman who doesn't seem suited for rock & roll; is it likely he was a supporter of the Velvets' aesthetic? The Velvet Underground's separation from the peers and the places where they stood by the late '60s was their dogged belief in rock & roll as originally conceived. Warhol probably saw the VU as a vehicle, a representation for his own notions of popular music, a channel for his ideas more than a sovereign entity? But luckily, they weren't having it, album cover aside. And without Warhol, they might have floundered as perpetual NYC garage secret for all eternity.
The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the event that gave rise to this infamous collaboration, is the best idea Warhol ever had. Commanding and unrelenting, loud and unforgiving and demonic, it shattered the audience by removing all familiarity and placing the room in an apocalyptic (and artless) state. The band and dancers played on a stage with Warhol's goofy, disorienting films playing behind them. Sometimes a woman would jump out into the audience and scream unsettling questions ("DOES HE EAT YOU OUT?") at random people. Of course much of the crowd would be annoyed by the whole business, a few people would actually be disturbed, and some would take it all in, hypnotized. That's one form of rock & roll, but the soul of the Velvets is prefaced most obviously by a man whose world seems thoroughly divorced from the surrealistic pretensions of the EPI: Chuck Berry.
Berry is the man who first fused literary ambitions, poetry and eloquence, with fuzzy, clanging guitar. The Velvet Underground simply plugged the idea in and kept pushing it until it exploded. Warhol wanted them to be pure "threat," and theirs were hardly the most inviting sound, but it hid nuance, sophistication, cleverness beyond what the Doors and the Airplane would be offering in the next four years. The screeching viola, the feedback, the ritualistic drums gave them their signatures and their eclecticism, but what made the Velvets a touchstone was their restlessness, their intelligence, their committment to the rawest, basest rock & roll, and most of all, the songs. The strongest sampler is this, their debut album; for all its flaws (it is the least satisfying of their four original LPs), it presents the ideal Velvet manifesto. Hear it in mono if you can. The stereo version isn't awful but is poorly engineered compared to the appealingly frayed sound of the mono mix, which is now widely available so there's no reason you can't reach it.
You can hear the entire album in one of its songs. "Heroin," more than likely the most potent anti-drug song to come from any rock performer, is violently manipulative and teasing, opening as a somber funeral march with desperate crooning of stunningly felt addiction-psychodrama lyrics by Lou Reed. Then the pounding picks up, the words' connection to reality blurs and weakens, the intensity builds and falls and builds and within seven minutes the whole foundation collapses and bursts. The fine, bluesy rockers of Side One had to come before "Heroin" or else they would seem inconsequential. As it stands, both are part of a prelude to a harrowing drama: Reed's streetwise confidence, so fragile and tattered on "Heroin," is in full swing on "I'm Waiting for the Man" (about scoring dope in Harlem) and "Run Run Run" (a fast-paced illustration and lament of alleyway oddballs from Seasick Sara to Beardless Harry).
Generally, the gentleness or abrasiveness is more focused than on "Heroin." At the core, the Velvet Underground is almost from the Phil Spector school of songwriting, paranoid documents like "Sunday Morning" swooning with melody. "There She Goes Again," copping its riff from Marvin Gaye's "Hitchhike," doesn't bother to hide the debut: it's a blatant girl group song, a compelling, harsh essay on boy/girl love, need, hate, and violence. Musically, the Velvets aim for the jugular, their antecedents obvious, but their obsession with going farther than is expected in the rock & roll framework is both their innovation and their portrait of where a more conscientious, artful base of mainstream performers may have taken the genre: the band's comprehension that the limits to their music exist for a specific reason, and limits to the subject matter and nature of their lyrics are baseless, is the reason they are considered pioneers. But they're impressive today because their focus was so easy to corrupt, their sound so formless and mutant; what's scary is that the softest songs are tied up in a feedback-ridden package that oozes with lust but also reels you in with hooks and choruses and guitars worthy of the Beatles or the Byrds. The Velvets are those bands plus the Who (times a thousand), the Stones, Berry, and Bo Diddley all rolled into one mammoth force. Sonically, there is no avoiding them. You hear them and it will affect you somehow.
The band's musical prowess is a part of this feat -- Reed and Sterling Morrison's maverick guitar work, John Cale's wild bass playing and wilder viola stabs, and more than anything Maureen Tucker's crazed, precise but manic drumming. When Tucker is behind the kit you don't know whether to dance, run away, march, or fire your rifle -- but the biggest credit goes to Lou as a songwriter. He was and remains a remarkable creature, for certain one of the all-time best and most cerebral lyricists in rock music. The S&M fantasy in "Venus in Furs," the bizarre imagery of "The Black Angel's Death Song," and particularly the bracing complexity of "Heroin" and equally bracing simplicity of "Femme Fatale," skirt clichés with glee and aplomb, and Reed -- an underrated, masterful rock vocalist -- sings most of them with a palpable joy that he's doing his best, and failing, to hide behind the shades.
Hidden beneath the menacing aural stomp of "Venus in Furs" is a song of delicate beauty and undeniably sexual power. Restraint never being the band's strong suit, the production pushes it beyond subtlety into a universe where the viola is a symbol of evil. Remove either the dirty but ornate production or the sensual melody and you'd have something nice, but it would not be the Velevt Underground. And of course the aforementioned "Sunday Morning," "I'm Waiting for the Man," "Run Run Run," "There She Goes Again" -- all seeming like the closest the '60s offered to the primal pleasures and raw emotion of Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, met with a forward-thinking ambition and crucial false ambivalence. That's called "attitude." The Velvets were the heirs to rock & roll, not to "art rock," a fact which may have made their cutting of ties with Warhol inevitable.
Warhol had time to slap his name on this album and force the band to take in a German chanteuse he fancied, Nico, famous for her modeling and a walk-on in La Dolce Vita -- everything but her voice. Whatever the band's feelings about her, her legend was forever fused with theirs by this record and its preceding singles, both of which featured her prominently on the A-side. Nico was foisted on the VU and was not the ideal method of expression for some of Lou's songs, at least "Femme Fatale," on which she reportedly wanted to sound "like Baab Dee-lan" but never quite came off, but there is a strange, baroque perfection to her involvement here. (And her accidental music career would prove fruitful in the years following her departure from the Velvets' camp.) The creeping, smirking classic "All Tomorrow's Parties" -- a distinctly '60s masterpiece if ever there was one -- is impossible to imagine without her.
The other two Nico songs are more of the instantaneous standards Reed was capable of churning out with startling speed. "Femme Fatale" is a song that could only have been written out of immense hatred and bitterness, "I'll Be Your Mirror" a love song that could not possibly come from the mind of a man who didn't mean it. These are two of the most sincere testaments in pop music history, the latter among the most beautiful love songs of the rock era; when Reed sings them on Live at Max's and other stage recordings, you feel his attachment to the words and melodies. Nico sounds appreciably sincere on "Mirror" but botches "Fatale," and yet the songs are so strong it scarcely matters.
As a statement of purpose, The Velvet Underground & Nico tries a bit too hard to be different, but this was a point worth pursuing to establish a foothold in the then-highly competitive rock marketplace. They didn't make it, but in the hearts of those who discovered them in time, the Velvet Underground reignited the garage band as the American ideal; by crafting literate, unrestrained, maxed-out rock & roll, they by default became the greatest in their field. And they'd only get better after this, freed from the limits of the Warhol camp.
To boot, they would learn more about themselves. The loud, repetitive, long closing track "European Son" is manufactured insanity, with a great riff but a sense of tight, canned routine in its attempted wild shapelessness. As an avant garde experiment, it's not nearly as shocking as intended, as Cale himself would later point out -- just tame and contrived. One doesn't doubt that the band could infuse these creative urges with the same conviction that lighted the hummable pop tunes of this LP, and of course they'd prove it soon enough across three of the most wildly wonderful and smart albums in rock & roll. But every extremity is explored in some sense here, and it's unbeatable as a starting point in an appreciation of one of the maverick forces in U.S. rock.
[Editorial Note: This is a revision and expansion of a review I wrote and posted on my old website in 2003.]