March 2023 – Alain Dupuis
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico
Another month, another album to select, and friends, this one has been a long time coming! I’m honestly shocked we haven’t already covered the Velvet Underground yet. If you are unacquainted with the Velvet Underground, they are highly regarded as one of the most influential bands of all time, particularly in part to their debut album and the one we’re reviewing this month, the rather redundantly titled “The Velvet Underground & Nico”.
It has been described as the original art-rock record, and was a major influence on basically all the emergent subgenres of rock and alternative music. Punk, post-punk, goth, indie, shoegaze, garage… All of them owe a debt of gratitude to the Velvets. Brian Eno, who you may recall was the subject of our October 2021 pick, once famously said “while the album only sold approximately 30,000 copies in its first five years, everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
Alright, time for a (very) brief history lesson. The foundations for what would eventually emerge as the Velvet Underground took root in New York City in 1964 when Singer-Songwriter and guitarist Lou Reed hooked up with John Cale, a musician who moved to the United States from Wales. He took on the role of bass guitar, keyboards and viola. The pair bonded over their mutual love of musical experimentation. Some time after that, they recruited Sterling Morrison, who also played the guitar. A few other musicians would come and go, but Maureen “Moe” Tucker would eventually land the role as drummer. The ensemble earned themselves a regular paying gig and would eventually catch the attention of Andy Warhol in 1965. Warhol became the band’s manager and they served as the house band at his studio, the Factory, as well as his traveling multimedia show, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
Warhol is formally credited as the band’s producer, though he had little influence beyond paying for the recording sessions. He can also be credited for the iconic album art for The Velvet Underground & Nico, which features a yellow banana. In early copies of the album, the banana was actually a sticker that invited the owner to “Peel slowly and see”. Peeling back the banana skin revealed a flesh-colored banana underneath.
At this point, you might be wondering who or what Nico is… At Warhol’s insistence, Nico, a German singer, songwriter, actress and friend of Andy sang on three songs on the Velvet Underground’s debut album. Warhol thought it prudent to include a feminine voice in the mix, an idea to which the band consented, reluctantly, for both personal and musical reasons. That arrangement didn’t last long.
Today, this album is held high on a pedestal. The Velvet Underground & Nico has been inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it number 13 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Yet ironically, at the time of its release in 1966, the album was a flop by all metrics. A financial failure that their label, Verve Records, failed to promote or distribute the album with anything but modest attention. It may not have mattered anyway, as many radio stations and record stores outright banned The Velvet Underground & Nico due to the controversial contents…
Obviously as time would tell, the album would go on to greater acclaim, though that didn’t really begin to happen until almost a decade after its release, by which point the band had all but imploded on itself, with most of the original members having departed.
So friends, let’s dive in to this classic album and see what all the fuss is, shall we? Is the content shocking by modern standards? Does it even sound good, or are we just riding the hype train? Join us at the end of March when we reconvene to discuss how we felt about The Velvet Underground & Nico. And if you are listening too, why not leave your comments and let us know what you think of this one.