❉ We celebrate the debut of the band who accidentally invented modern alternative rock music.
There are, if one is truly honest about it, two types of important record; the “defines the sound/the time/the generation” type and the “hugely influential/changed the way we think about music/started a musical revolution” kind. Whilst the former tends to be one spoken of in revered tones from the day of its release, the latter is usually the kind that’s discovered when people start trying to trace backwards to find where it all began. 1967 was one of those years which produced a fair share of era defining albums but the first one to celebrate its 50th anniversary was, in spite their patron and a major distributor, a commercial disaster whose importance wasn’t fully realised for almost 15 years.
In fact, one could argue, nothing about this band or its music should have given anyone cause for surprise. After all, let’s consider this:
- The guitarist had spent the previous year recording surf inspired music for a budget record label in a desperate search for success.
- The viola player (seriously, who hires a viola player for a rock band, a string quartet maybe, but a solitary viola?) hadn’t ever played rock before the age of 22, having studied under an avant-garde classical composer – still he could at least play bass, so that’s something. Oh, and he was Welsh, at a time when the principality’s contribution to pop was limited to Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey and running off to New York to join drug-fuelled art-rock combos simply wasn’t the done thing for boys from the valleys.
- The singer – a pretty German ingenue with a rather limited vocal range – was there because the band’s mentor thought a pretty girl would add to the band’s aesthetic. At least in this case it did wind up with a record company deal primarily because they wanted to sign her.
- The drummer who had only played drums for four weeks before joining the band but was hired primarily because she had a car and an amplifier – both of which the band lacked at the time.
- The other guitarist. Most famously remembered for being “the other guitarist” throughout the entire life of the band – even when he was the only remaining original member.
- The songs were mostly about either drugs, getting drugs, kinky sex, death, prostitution, or fashion.
- They were based in New York although originally they were from Long Island – except the Welsh one, of course – whilst all the exciting music was being made on the opposite side of America in California.
Yet today you know them as Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, Mo Tucker, and er, Sterling Morrison; or better still, The Velvet Underground: the band who accidentally invented modern alternative rock music.
The album, actually recorded a year before its release but delayed for a number of reasons, was probably the most un-1967 record you could possibly image. Whilst most of the music of the time was all about peace, love and living in a happier, higher, state of consciousness full of bright expansive sounds, The Velvet Underground & Nico was everything that wasn’t. Despite having been recruited by Andy Warhol, a mere month after their first gig, to act as the musical part of his Exploding Plastic Inevitable events which mixed light shows, dancing, visual projections – in a similar way to events such as The Merry Pranksters in California and the UFO club in London – there is something very dark about The Velvet Underground.
From the subject matter to their image, darkness is something which resonates strongly. If you think of the band visually, it’s hard not to think of them in black & white. The music has a stark edge to it and the subject matter brings to mind leather and sadomasochistic sex, and not the gentle caress of a West Coast love-in. It is heroin or amphetamine, shot up with needles and not LSD and flying off to higher planes – this is music which could literally get under your skin. This is a seedy world, told as it is with music which is both beautiful and uncompromisingly raw – sometimes at the same time – something which could probably have only come from New York. A world of freaks and weirdos but not the kind who’d have found a welcome in sunny California; their kicks are stranger, their tastes too extreme, a world of art and not spirituality, darkness not light, altogether too queer.
Hindsight tells us that this is an album which, because of what it has inspired both directly and indirectly, is ahead of its time yet it is, in many ways, very much of its time. Songs such as I’m Waiting For The Man, Run Run Run, and There She Goes Again are, on the surface, following the familiar format of dozens of similar garage rock bands around at the time only here the subject matter is more direct and speaks of experiences most of the boys in provincial American towns would never have come across. Strip away the discordant strings of John Cale, and The Black Angel’s Death Song sounds not unlike one of Bob Dylan’s Woody Guthrie inspired talking blues songs albeit with lyrics not from 30’s southern dustbowls but the absinthe addled minds of Verlaine or Rimbaud. Whilst All Tomorrow’s Parties opens with a wall of sound reminiscent of Phil Spector in spite of its lyrics sounding like they could only have been written by someone who’d spent far too much time hanging out with Andy Warhol and the cast of characters frequenting The Factory.
Yet at its heart, and despite all its dissonant edges, there lies a pop album. The majority of the songs from Sunday Morning to Femme Fatale, from I’ll Be Your Mirror to There She Goes Again, and even the majestic All Tomorrow’s Parties are built around very simple chord structures. They are easy to learn and play. In that sense it fits the Warhol aesthetic perfectly. The Velvet Underground & Nico is simply constructed music which is given a freedom to exist and go to the extreme, taking itself out of context pop music, the ultimate expression of the popular in the late 20th Century, it can become Pop Art.
Imagine finding this album in a bargain bin in the early ’70s. Music had reached a point of excess with technical virtuosity and bombast becoming the norm. All goblins and elves/angels and devils, endless solos, groupies and indulgence. Here was a record which came from the gutter, rejected all those rockist aesthetics with songs that could be mastered quite easily by people who were still learning how to play a guitar. The weird improvised sections are, when listened to closely, not complex structures born out of technical virtuosity; they are simple, noisy, and achievable. For many, from Bowie and onwards through the punks and beyond, this made being a musician in a band seem possible and that is why it has attained its stature.
What makes this record so important? All of the above and one other thing, if it were released today it would still shock people. Its sound, its lyrical content have lost none of their potency or potential to cause outrage or make someone scream, “take it off!” at some point in its near 48 minutes. 50 years on that, if nothing else, is an incredible achievement.
❉ Check out our Velvet Underground playlist of deep cuts!
❉ ‘The Velvet Underground And Nico’ has been reissued in a bewildering variety of formats and special editions, but the best place to start with is Polydor’s 1996 remaster.