Year released: 1967
Tracklist: Sunday Morning, I'm Waiting for the Man, Femme Fatale, Venus in Furs, Run Run Run, All Tomorrow's Parties, Heroin, There She Goes Again, I'll Be Your Mirror, Black Angel's Death Song, European Son
There's an old joke about The Velvet Underground + Nico that goes something like this: "only a hundred people bought it, but ninety-nine of them started bands." The joke is meant to both tweak the album's lack of commercial success and laud its influence simultaneously. More than one hundred people bought it back in 1967 and the years since, but not millions more; ninety-nine percent of them didn't start bands, of course, but the weight of this record's influence on subsequent generations of musicians is obvious on almost every track. There's a reason that Rolling Stone magazine called it "the most prophetic album of all time."
Never mind not getting it: I didn't even hear VU + Nico until earlier this year. One day, I started to fully realize the generally sorry state of my rock n' roll classics resume - plenty of Pink Floyd, sure, and I know great chunks of discography from Zeppelin and the Beatles, the Stones and Who, but it's all piecemeal: I hadn't really heard the albums. I'd never really sat down with some of the true classics of rock and listened to them end to end, I'd just taken what radio was giving me. And there's a lot out there that's untouched, untapped, preserved, just waiting to be discovered - whole worlds of music, really, and a lot of them can be heard on this album.
In a lot of ways, it's album about masks, about deceptive appearances. It also may be the most New York rock album ever made. Some of The Velvet Underground + Nico is pretty straightforward stuff--the Berryesque blues stomp of "Run Run Run," for instance--but throughout most of the album's other tracks, lyrics hide under cover of rhythms and melodies that suggest something completely different. "There She Goes" could be any up-tempo 1960's pop-rocker about a girl, but it could also be about a hooker with a drug problem.
Off the bat, the lulling, idyllic "Sunday Morning" seems to promise an album of calm, sunny pop--after all, what's more peaceful and inviting and calm than a Sunday morning? But there's already something underneath, the restless feeling described upfront in the lyrics, the hints of wasted opportunity, the feeling of suspicion and paranoia ("Watch out, the world's behind you"). It may be the most gorgeous despair on record.
That prettiness gives way the surging urban grit of "I'm Waiting for the Man," the first of two songs to directly address heroin addiction, a vividly seedy ballad of a junkie going for his score, bedecked with gallows humor. I don't know where 125 Lexington is, but after hearing this song, I felt like I did--and it's not a nice place at all.
The campy, vampy Nico makes her first appearance on the third track, making the word clown sound like clan on "Femme Fatale," a beautifully strange little ditty that hints at some of Lou Reed's doo-wop influences in its chorus. Nico is a bit sunnier later on in "I'll Be Your Mirror" and "All Tomorrow's Parties," but there's still a cold imperiousness to her delivery that's really fascinating--it sounds more like she's giving orders to subordinates than actually singing. It's just another example of the record's genius--in context, you can see how inspired Andy Warhol's pairing of the singer with the band actually was.
Song four, "Venus in Furs" is a groundbreaking paean to S&M that's so truly unsettling in its suggestive lyrics and off-kilter instrumentation that I was originally hesitant to listen to it twice. But now it feels just like a bad habit, something that you know you shouldn't enjoy but that you can't stop loving anyway. Almost as unnerving is the perilous psychofolk of "Black Angel's Death Song," in which Lou Reed's delivery may be parody or tribute or both, accented with screaming viola and instrumental flourishes that sound like a hospital respirator, suggesting a life in crisis, on medical support.
The crown jewel of The Velvet Underground + Nico is "Heroin," the epic, seven-minute ode that's the greatest drug song of all time. Reed is said to have patterned the song, with its crests and breaks, after the ups and downs of a heroin rush. Many have tried, but no song before or since has so eloquently portrayed the junkie's plight, so evocatively painted the abandon and surrender, the self-loathing and self-delusion, the push-pull of addiction.
The Velvet Underground. They were weird, hip art-pop operators that foresaw punk and grunge and noise rock, that forefathered all manner of alternative avenues, many of which are still being explored today. Most of the ninety-nine bands that were first spawned by this album never made it out of the garage, and those that may have are long defunct. But the record's still there, waiting to shine its black light in the corners that rock radio doesn't often show you. There's dirt in there, and some scary stuff, but there's also some incredible possibilities, as big as the city that spawned the album. The Velvet Underground + Nico will change your perception, if you let it.