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Monday, June 26, 2017

The Velvet Underground and Nico

Was 1967 the greatest year for popular music? The argument can certainly be made--it was the year of Sgt. Pepper (and the Magical Mystery Tour), Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow, and albums by The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Moody Blues, Cream, the Byrds, The Animals, Love, and The Monkees. It was, of course, the year of the Summer of Love, and psychedelic music was the trend.

But I don't think it can be disputed that 1967 saw the greatest collection of debut albums in history. David Bowie, The Doors, Traffic, Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Procul Harum, The Electric Prunes, and Moby Grape, all first put out discs in 1967. Some groups didn't last long, some are still around, but they all made a lasting impression on the music scene.

One of the most, if not the most, influential debut that year was by The Velvet Underground. The band had been kicking around since 1964, with Lou Reed and John Cale forming a few different bands. Joined by Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker, they were "discovered" by Andy Warhol, who was their manager and the nominal producer of the record (although he gave the group free reign). He did add German model Nico as a vocalist.

The album went nowhere, topping out at 171 on the charts. But, as Brian Eno said, "Only 30,000 records were sold, but everyone who bought one started their own band." The Velvet Underground were way ahead of their time, prefiguring punk, new wave, and alternative music.

Cale and Reed were both very experimental, and it was Cale who brought with him the droning sound of the guitars. I bought his record in vinyl about thirty years ago, played it once, and didn't like it. I think it was the droning--to me, droning is not music. I decided to give it another shot for its fiftieth anniversary and I was pleasantly surprised. The songs, for the most part, are much more melodic that I remembered.

The band almost sets the listener up as a fool with the first song, the cheerful "Sunday Morning," which almost sounds like a music box tune. Then things get darker, with the hard-driving "I'm Waiting for the Man," which is clearly about buying drugs:

"I'm waiting for my man
Twenty-six dollars in my hand
Up to Lexington, 125
Feeling sick and dirty,
more dead than alive
I'm waiting for my man"

Many groups had songs that were possibly about drugs, though it was denied, like the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" and the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." The Velvet Underground didn't hide it. Reed also sings the song "Heroin:"

"Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it's my wife and it's my life, haha
Because a mainline into my vein
Leads to a center in my head
And then I'm better off than dead
Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don't care anymore"

But that wasn't the most controversial song on the record. "Venus in Furs," taken from the novel by Leopold Sacher-Masoch, is about S&M, with a cool Indian raga guitar sound:

"Severin, Severin, speak so slightly
Severin, down on your bended knee
Taste the whip, in love not given lightly
Taste the whip, now bleed for me."

But there are also straight-ahead garage rock songs like "Run Run Run" and "There She Goes Again," and Reed's beautiful "I'll Be Your Mirror." The album ends with "European Son," which is okay until it breaks down into about four minutes of feedback, which I don't find interesting or pleasurable.

I feel like I've turned a corner. I've listened to and read so many rock critics who sing the praises of the Velvet Underground and especially this album, and now I think I finally get it.

Over the rest of the year I hope to add more remembrances of albums of 1967, beyond the ones I've already written about (Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Who Sell Out, for example).

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