Classic Album: The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico

"the original art-rock record"
The Velvet Underground & Nico
In 1966, Andy Warhol, pop-art superstar, hooked up with mysterious group The Velvet Underground. Together they created pioneering multimedia art in a series of shows in New York that revolutionised the worlds of music and performance, before their eighteen-month partnership soured with the bungled release of the original art-rock record ‘The Velvet Underground And Nico’, leaving the outfit to disappear into a foggy enigma.

These multimedia spectacles featured freaks from Warhol’s Factory performing as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The artist’s films were projected onto walls over which psychedelic lights flirted, while on stage The Velvet Underground played avant-garde rock, sending dancer Gerard Malanga into head-swirling gyrations on the floor. Warhol hoped working with the band would make cash for his unprofitable films; even he could never have predicted the legacy this partnership would create.

Lou Reed and John Cale were the Velvets’ driving force. At a time when The Beatles were singing about ‘love’, and western counterculture was falling under the spell of psychedelia, the Velvets were crafting a cerebral juxtaposition of social commentary and experimental art, telling sleazy tales of drugs and degradation.

Cale, the band’s viola player, was a classically trained musician who was heavily influenced by the avant-garde electronica of John Cage. He was struggling between the discipline of classical music and the liberation of the avantgarde when he met Lou Reed, a middle-class Brooklyn kid who had recently dropped out of Syracuse University. As the Velvets’ chief songwriter, Reed embodied the group’s spirit. Delivering his words in a diffident mumble, the singer documented the underbelly of the city he loved; although the subject matter was dark and depraved, a romanticised hope sliced through. However, the band remained unknown outside their circle until Warhol acolyte Paul Morrissey appeared.

The Velvets and Warhol met in 1965 when Andy was looking for a group for his club night. After meeting the band, he knew he had found his way into the music industry - a move he had planned for some time. Warhol was doubtful Reed was frontman material. In support, Morrissey drafted in Warhol muse Nico as co-singer, saying the group needed “something beautiful to counteract the ugliness”. Blonde, willowy and shockingly thin, Nico was the perfect foil for Reed’s lyrics - her ethereal, icy looks contrasted sharply with the subversive musicians, adding a captivating allure to the band’s aesthetic.

The ensuing debut record dealt with controversial themes of drug abuse and prostitution, and eventually achieved huge critical acclaim for its experimental instrumentation and recording techniques. Cale is credited with creating the album’s sound, utilising his background in classical and the avant-garde to develop innovative recording techniques on tracks such as ‘Venus In Furs’ and ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’.

In bringing The Velvet Underground to the public eye, Warhol’s input was crucial; it was his idea to revolutionise the way music was consumed, pulling together the separate mediums of music, film and dance to create a complete product. On record, however, where visuals are non-existent, there was little for the artist to do. Warhol, however, was not a businessman, and with no business brains behind the band things went drastically wrong. Ironically, the very subject matter which made the album so relevant to the underground scene became a noose around their neck. Banned by New York radio stations for its content, the record received no airplay at all, and as the songs were not being aired, advertising also drew a blank.

There were more problems to come: Eric Emerson, whose face appears upside-down on the back cover, refused to allow the use of his photograph, causing the album to be removed from the shelves while he was airbrushed out.

The failure spread like cancer and the band themselves soon lost interest in playing gigs to promote the album, leaving MGM to abandon the expensively-packaged record and pump money elsewhere.

After this the band severed their relationship with Andy Warhol and the album disappeared eerily from view until decades later when rock critics began fervently discussing the work, and its subsequent mythology, celebrating how influential the record was on modern music and cementing its place in the ‘greatest album ever’ lists of the modern age.

WORDS BY SHANE GLADSTONE

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The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico
Released: March 12th 1967
Producer: Andy Warhol/Tom Wilson

TRACKLIST

01. Sunday Morning
02. I’m Waiting For The Man
03. Femme Fatale
04. Venus In Furs
05. Run Run Run
06. All Tomorrow’s Parties
07. Heroin
08. There She Goes Again
09. I’ll Be Your Mirror
10. The Black Angel’s Death Song
11. European Son

MUSICIANS
Lou Reed: guitars, vocals
John Cale: electric viola, piano, bass guitar,
backing vocals
Sterling Morrison: lead/rhythm guitar,
bass guitar, backing vocals
Maureen Tucker: percussion
Nico: vocals

1967: IN THE NEWS
• JFK’s body is moved permanently to
Arlington National Cemetery.
1967: IN THE NEWS
• Elvis Presley marries Priscilla Beaulieu
in Las Vegas.
• The Monterey Pop Festival is held.
• Kurt Cobain is born.

1967: THE ALBUMS
The Monkees ‘Headquarters’
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
‘Are You Experienced?’
The Doors ‘Strange Days’
Bob Dylan ‘John Wesley Harding’
Love ‘Forever Changes’

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