In 1966, pop artist Andy Warhol debuted his groundbreaking multimedia show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.These shows contained screenings of his films, dancing by Warhol Superstars, and riveting music performances by The Velvet Underground and Nico backed by psychedelic lights.Thus, The Velvet Underground, one of the most influential and pioneering bands of all time, arose from the eclectic New York art scene.
The Velvet Underground began when singer, songwriter, and guitarist Lou Reed met experimental composer, violist, bassist, and pianist John Cale in New York City.Reed, who had a B.A. in English from Syracuse University, aimed to make music as moving and sensitive as the greatest works of literature.His lyrics were heavily influenced by his college mentor, the philosophical poet Delmore Schwartz, as well as Beat Generation writers, such as William Burroughs, and comedians, like the caustic Lenny Bruce.Meanwhile, Cale was influenced by his classical music training on the viola and piano in the United Kingdom.
After arriving in New York City, he joined the Theatre of Eternal Music, an experimental music group that focused on drone music, which is a minimalistic music style of repetitive notes or chords.Reed and Cale would become the main creative forces behind the Velvet’s debut album The Velvet Underground and Nico.
Soon, the duo recruited guitarist and Reed’s classmate at Syracuse University, Sterling Morrison.The group officially became The Velvet Underground after being introduced to Michael Leigh’s book of the same name, which simultaneously explored and condemned the rise of sexual deviation.The Velvets’ early attraction to traditionally taboo topics such as paraphilia, prostitution, and drug abuse would later manifest itself in the themes of their debut album The Velvet Underground and Nico.In the meantime, however, Maureen “Moe” Tucker, the younger sister of one of Morrison’s friends, joined the band as the drummer, completing the band’s original lineup.
The band quickly caught the attention of New York artist and socialite Andy Warhol, who became The Velvet Underground’s manager, financier, and credited producer (although there is some debate over the extent to which he played a role in the album’s production).Thus, The Velvet Underground became a staple at Warhol’s famous parties at his Factory studio, observing and mingling with Warhol’s clique and other artistic intellectuals of the 60s.Warhol introduced the band to Nico, a German singer with deep, rich, and somber vocals.Despite tensions over the addition of Nico, she was given three songs, ”Femme Fatale”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, on The Velvet Underground and Nico to sing.
The Velvet Underground and Nico, with its iconic cover art of a banana done by Andy Warhol himself, was a revolutionary album.It pushed the limits of rock and roll with droning guitars, a screeching viola, and deadpan vocals.Almost fifty years later, the eleven-track album still seems fresh, avant-garde, and radically different from any other music of the time.The album begins with the deceptively light song “Sunday Morning”.The song is lent its sweet and innocent tone by John Cale’s use of the celesta, an instrument similar to a piano that produces softer notes.Lead singer Lou Reed softly croons on this track, adding to the overall pleasant ambience created by the instruments.However, do not be misled by the song’s sweet tone.Andy Warhol once suggested that Reed write a song about paranoia, and this song certainly embodies that advice with the haunting line, “Watch out, the world’s behind you.”
In sharp contrast to the soft style of “Sunday Morning”, the second track, “I’m Waiting For The Man”, begins with a jarring, fast-paced beat on drums by Moe Tucker.On this track, Lou Reed debuts his sarcastic snarl, resulting in a much more aggressive and rough song.Reed’s lyrics tell of a drug deal from the perspective of a buyer, who is waiting in Harlem for the dealer to show up.Not only does Reed address drug addiction in this song, but he also briefly mentions the alienation and unofficial segregation between neighborhoods of different races with his typical frank humor.In the song, Reed recounts his exchange with a local in Harlem, a traditionally African American neighborhood:“’Hey, white boy, what you doin’ uptown? Hey, white boy, you chasin’ our women around?’ ‘Oh pardon me, sir, it’s the furthest from my mind. I’m just lookin’ for a dear, dear friend of mine.’”Likewise, the song does not romanticize addiction or drug use, but instead it tackles the issue with a wry understanding of self-destruction.For example, towards the end of the song, Reed sings, “I’m feeling good, I’m feeling oh so fine until tomorrow, but that’s just some other time.”
“Venus in Furs”, the fourth track on the album, was one of the first songs that Lou Reed wrote for The Velvet Underground.Cale’s rhythmic screeching electric viola, Morrison’s steady bass, Tucker’s tambourine and bass drum, and Reed’s ostrich guitar create a stark sound that is rather reminiscent of classic Middle Eastern instrumental music.Reed’s voice declares the lyrics with a metrical steadiness, barely singing but somehow weaving his voice into the melody.The song was inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella of the same name.Sacher-Masoch was a nineteenth century Austrian writer and thinker, from whose name the word ‘masochism’ is derived.His novella, Venus in Furs revolves around a man, Severin, who is so in love with a woman, Wanda, that he begs to be her slave.The lyrics describe the relationship between Severin and his ‘mistress’ with dark and vaguely ominous imagery, such as the line, “Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather. Whiplash girl-child in the dark.”
Track seven on The Velvet Underground and Nico, “Heroin”, was originally written by Lou Reed during his time as a songwriter at Pickwick Records prior to joining the Velvets.However, Pickwick Records rejected the song, claiming that it was too controversial, as it described but did not condemn drug usage.The song, which is a lengthy seven minute ballad, begins slowly with deliberate drumming by Tucker, gentle guitar playing by Reed and Morrison, and the low droning of Cale’s electric viola.Over time, the song gradually dissolves into a frantic and grating cacophony of sound, perhaps intended to mirror a heroin user’s descent into addiction.While Reed starts out with slow deadpan vocals, by the end of the song he is forced to shout the lyrics to be heard over the din.Like “I’m Waiting For The Man”, “Heroin” is marked by a kind of resigned self-awareness in its lyrics that makes it especially compelling.At the end of the line, “Heroin, it’s my wife, and it’s my life”, Reed lets out a sardonic laugh, apparently amused by his own poetic and loving words about the drug that, in the previous line, he had conflictingly referred to as “the death of me”.
“I’ll Be Your Mirror” is the surprisingly tender ninth track on the album.Unlike the previously mentioned songs, it is sung by Nico, instead of Lou Reed.Reed supposedly got the inspiration for the lyrics after Nico approached him after a 1965 live show and said, “Oh Lou, I’ll be your mirror.”Similar to “Sunday Morning” in its light and airy sound, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” has a simple melody that is much easier to listen to than the cacophonous “Heroin”.Tucker provides its methodical beat on the tambourine, while Reed and Morrison play guitars, and Cale plays bass.Nico sings in a low but delicate voice with a thick German accent, which would later be imitated by Reed after she left the band.The only love song on the album, “I’ll be Your Mirror” is remarkably sensitive and showcases the versatility of the band.In a brief song barely over two minutes, Reed provides unforgettably touching lyrics:“When you think the night has seen your mind, that inside you’re twisted and unkind, let me stand to show that you are blind. Please put down your hands, ’cause I see you. I’ll be your mirror.”
Released in 1967, The Velvet Underground and Nico is one of the most interesting, innovative, and influential albums of all time.Each song is very different from the next, yet they all have captivating lyrics and pioneering musical arrangements.Although at times The Velvet Underground and Nico can be unforgiving with gritty lyrics and grating music, it reels the listener back in with gentler and more digestible songs.And even in the midst of the sometimes unbearably rough song, there is something so raw and primordially emotional in the music that it is hard to stop listening.The Velvet Underground and Nico is not an album that can be listened to as background music; the album demands full attention as it plunges the listener into the dodgy and strangely beautiful world of New York’s underbelly.