50 Years Ago: The Velvet Underground Release Their Influential Debut, ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’
The Velvet Underground sounded like nothing else that came out in 1967.
It was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s all-time greatest and influential years — with landmark projects released by the Beatles, the Doors, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Love and Pink Floyd, to name just a few — but no work was greater or more influential than the Velvet Underground’s debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico.
Few people heard the record when it was released in March 1967. It would take years before anyone really paid attention to it, really. It had its pockets of fans, for sure, but its legend grew over time. As Brian Eno famously noted in a 1982 interview, The Velvet Underground & Nico sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years, but “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
It’s easy to hear why. Unlike so many other classic albums that came out that year, the Velvet Underground’s debut sounded like something anyone could make at home. You didn’t need a studio, eight tracks or even much musical skill to create the noise heard on the record. All you really needed was a sense of adventure and the ingenuity to take music — rock ‘n’ roll, pop or whatever frontman Lou Reed called the songs he wrote for The Velvet Underground & Nico — in directions it had never gone before.
Nobody had done what the Velvet Underground — singer and guitarist Reed, multi-instrumentalist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker — did on their first album. With some help from artist Andy Warhol, a huge supporter of the band during its formative years, and Nico, a German-born singer pushed into the group by Warhol, they crafted an album of dissonance, fear and taboo-breaking subject matter.
The Velvet Underground & Nico contained songs about buying drugs (“I’m Waiting for the Man”), using drugs (“Heroin”), prostitution (“There She Goes Again”) and kinky sex (“Venus in Furs”). It sure was a long way from “To Sir With Love,” the biggest single that year. Not even Jim Morrison‘s garbled howl at “The End”‘s climatic finale came close to this.
The album was recorded in 1966, while the band took part in Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, shows based around the artist’s experimental films along with dancing and other artsy endeavors by his collective. The Velvet Underground were the house band for the project; Warhol took them under his wing, mentored them and gave himself production credit for The Velvet Underground & Nico, though, in all likelihood, the sessions were produced by Tom Wilson and some of the engineers who worked on the album. (Warhol and Nico were fired from the band’s circle before the group’s second album, White Light/White Heat, was released in early 1968.)
Nico sang three of the songs: “Femme Fatale,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” all written by Reed, who sang the rest of the tracks. While Reed was given the majority of songwriting credit on the album, Cale’s contribution to its sound is monumental. His screeching viola, for starters, were just as revolutionary as Reed’s street-level themes.
Cale built the architectural structures that helped define the Velvet Underground. (Just compare the music found on the band’s first two LPs with that on their third album, which was made after he left the band.) Cale’s abrasive approach provides the backbone of so many of The Velvet Underground & Nico‘s cuts.
Not so surprisingly, the album bombed. The music, coupled with the subject matter — as well as the original cover art, a banana painted by Warhol that peeled back to reveal a flesh-colored piece of fruit whose phallic connotations were far from subtle — pretty much guaranteed that. It managed to reach No. 171 on the charts, after a series of ups and downs for nine months, but its legacy wouldn’t be sealed for a number of years, after Reed’s solo career was in full swing.
Since its release, The Velvet Underground & Nico has become one of the ’60s’ most important and influential records. It’s inspired tons of artists from the punk, New Wave and indie-rock genres over the years. The mainstream really never caught up to it. In a way, so much modern music is still playing catch-up. It was a seismic album 50 years ago. All these years later, it still sounds like a groundbreaking work ahead of its time.
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