Sunday, March 27, 2016

My Back Pages, Vol. 10: The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico

Welcome to My Back Pages, a collaborative staff feature that will survey a landscape of renowned classics and unheralded gems alike, most of which no one around here ever writes a word about. The rules are simple and loose: we won’t cover anything from this millennium and we will avoid all or most favorites—though we might make an exception if something is nearing a milestone anniversary. Beyond that though, anything is fair game. So if you have an album, artist, or genre you would like to see discussed in this feature, feel free to throw us a few recs.

Today we take a look at the seminal debut from The Velvet Underground. Whether you know it for its iconic Andy Warhol-designed cover, its revolutionarily dark lyricism, or its astonishingly ahead-of-its-time protopunk sound,
The Velvet Underground & Nico is a veritable classic in every sense of the word. This piece also functions as a tribute to Mr. Lou Reed, ringleader of The Velvet Underground for four albums before embarking on a decades-long solo career. Reed died a little over a month ago. Listen along with our Rdio playlist, and please jump in and share your thoughts on this fantastic record.

Chris: On October 27th of this year Lou Reed passed away peacefully in his home on Long Island at the age of 71. The official cause of death was liver failure.

It was a Sunday morning.

Lou Reed made countless contributions to the legacy of popular music—as well as not-so-popular music—but he will be immortalized largely for the work he did on The Velvet Underground & Nico, the group's debut album. Recorded in 1966 and released in 1967, the record is the definition of "ahead of its time." Those two years were certainly incredibly fertile ones for rock 'n roll, but The Velvet Underground were going in a completely different direction than their innovative peers. VU started recording their debut the same month The Beach Boys wrapped up the sessions for Pet Sounds out in California, and a solid eight months before The Beatles went into the studio in London to begin recording Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

But unlike the sunny and intricately crafted psychedelic pop those two groups came up with, The Velvet Underground & Nico is a harsh, dark, bleak head trip of a record. And listen up kids of, because it is truly the first stone in the foundation of punk rock. Ten years before the likes of the Sex Pistols, The Clash and the Ramones would make a splash on both sides of the Atlantic, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground made a record that stripped rock 'n roll down to its leanest and meanest components and presented a menacing, sneering countenance that was quite the foil to the acid-wrought "we are all one" sentiments being peddled by the mainstream greats of rock 'n roll at the time. Sound familiar? It should.

I discovered The Velvet Underground in a most unusual fashion. In the liner notes for the Ramones compilation Loud Fast Ramones: Their Toughest Hits, which someone gave me as a fifteenth birthday present, it mentions that back in 1976 some boneheaded music critic referred to the Ramones as potentially "the greatest singles band since The Velvet Underground," which obviously is a really, really dumb thing to write as pretty much every single released by VU was a total commercial flop. But the statement caught my attention and I got my hands on a copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico. I didn't really understand the album then, and I don't really claim to now, but I have come to fall in love with its bizarre breed of magic, and in the wake of Reed's passing it's slowly gaining a new meaning for me.

The Velvet Underground & Nico is one of those records about which absolutely everything worth saying has already been said approximately forty-seven times, but bear with me momentarily while I gush. Reed said that his goal when he began writing songs was to write the "Great American Novel" in the form of an album and that's not too far off from what he did with VU's debut. I've never spent more than six hours in New York City and I certainly have no idea what it was like it all its unsanitized glory in the mid-60s, but the characters Reed depicts or inhabits on this album are so vivid and riveting that I feel like I have some understanding of the gritty city that birthed the record.

We've all heard it before but it bears repeating: lyrically what Reed did on this album was totally fucking revolutionary. I'm sorry to keep going back to the comparisons to The Beatles, but while John Lennon was writing couplets like "Picture yourself in a boat on a river / With tangerine trees and marmalade skies," Lou Reed was writing stuff like this: "Cause it makes me feel like I'm a man / When I put a spike into my vein / And I'll tell ya, things aren't quite the same / When I'm rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus' son." His straight-faced depictions of drug use, addiction, sexual deviancy and everything in between are arresting and haunting in the most perfect way, and backed with squalls of feedback such as on "Heroin" it sounds like something from the most captivating nightmare you've never had.

But the most haunting and visceral song on the record interestingly enough is also the most reserved. "Sunday Morning," the album's opening song, is quite simply the most beautiful ode to the painful "morning after" ever recorded. And lines like "Early dawning, sunday morning / It's just the wasted years so close behind" particularly send a chill down my spine in wake of Reed's death. I can't get over the fact that he actually passed away on a cold and somber Sunday morning just like the song. It just seems too perfect, like it was always fated to end that way.

Lou Reed gave us something truly special with The Velvet Underground & Nico, and while it may seem unfair for me to not have mentioned John Cale or Nico at all in this piece, Reed is the one who cast the longest shadow onto the history books of rock 'n roll. Even if he had never recorded another note after VU's debut his influence would still be immense. As Brian Eno said about the record, it may not have sold very well when it was initially released, but it seems like everyone who bought a copy of the album started a band. One doesn't have to venture too far into any sector of the rock 'n roll world since 1967 to verify the veracity of that statement: The Velvet Underground didn't start something with this album so much as they started everything.

Craig: When Rolling Stone ranked The Velvet Underground & Nico as the thirteenth greatest record of all time in 2003, the publication called it "the most prophetic rock album ever made." Say what you want about the publication (I certainly have), but I’ve always loved that description. Very often when people talk about this record, they (like Chris) bring up Reed’s gritty lyrics, decadent and depraved novellas of drug abuse ("Heroin"), prostitution ("Femme Fatale"), and sadomasochism ("Venus in Furs”) inspired by the equally hard-hitting poetry of Allen Ginsberg and other literary figures whom Reed admired during his time as an English major. For me, though, this album has always been more remarkable for its seemingly limitless ability to distill the trends of the past 50 years of rock 'n roll into 50 minutes of music.

Today, an album coming out and capturing the last 50 years of music would be remarkable in and of itself, simply considering just how many genres and sounds have risen and fallen in that time. For an album that came out in 1967 to still sound this vital and current and retroactively referential—even of sounds that hadn’t been invented on the rock music landscape when it was released—well...that shouldn’t be possible, right? And yet, orchestrator John Cale, singer/songwriter Lou Reed, German vocalist Nico, and the rest of the Velvet Underground team, they somehow did it on their first fucking record.

Indeed, if one were to listen to The Velvet Underground & Nico with no reference point, no knowledge of the band, and no idea who Lou Reed or John Cale or Nico even were or are, I would imagine they would have a difficult time placing it in a musical context. Sure, there are some clear 1960s sounds here—Reed and Cale sound like they are directly referencing Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited on bluesier numbers like "I’m Waiting For My Man" or "Run Run Run," while Nico’s feminine vocals and the way they lilt on psychedelic pop offerings like "All Tomorrow’s Parties" absolutely sound like something out of the Woodstock age. There’s also "There She Goes," which was very likely built from the template of the catchiest numbers from the first Beatles record, from "I Saw Her Standing There" to "Twist and Shout."

But there’s so much else going on here, too. The dirty (and dirt cheap) production style and the spontaneous nature of the orchestrations—the jarring tempo shifts and thrilling crescendos of the album’s definitive track, "Heroin," or the seemingly improvised electric guitar work of "All Tomorrow’s Parties"—feel like forebears of a 1980s punk sound; Nico’s "Femme Fatale" sounds like the androgynous glam-pop or goth rock of the 1980s. "Heroin" could also be seen as an early prototype for math rock, while the cacophony of album closer, "European Son," gave plenty of bands the license they needed to employ noise and scuzz for an entirely different form of expression. Cue grunge, noise rock, punk (again), avante garde guitar styles, and probably every other genre where musicians realized they didn’t have to make pleasant, harmonious sounds in order to gain respect. Elsewhere, Reed’s jangly guitar sounds and cryptic lyrics presaged the ingredients that R.E.M. would use to single-handedly found indie rock a decade and a half later (on similarly timeless albums like Murmur and Reckoning), while some of R.E.M.’s later, darker material can even be traced back to the horror film thrum of "Venus in Furs."

Put simply, there’s an awful lot to digest here, and in the wake of Lou Reed’s passing, I’ve found myself returning to this record with renewed vigor and attention to detail. This album has been in my collection for years, and I’ve always respected it. The music is so dynamic and ferocious and fascinating; the Warhol cover is an all-time favorite; when my brother has played this record on vinyl, it’s made me want to be a die-hard Velvet Underground fan. Until recently though, I don’t think I quite had the palette to appreciate the vast number of sounds going on here. That’s a shame, considering the fact that I’m now part of a camp that has only really come to appreciate Lou Reed posthumously. But judging from how many artists who have so obviously built their own art from Reed’s template—so perfectly realized on his first time at-bat—it’s safe to say that the man’s legacy will never fade from the rock 'n roll tapestry.

No comments:

Post a Comment