The Rewind Button # 13 – The Velvet Underground and Nico, The Velvet Undergroundby LefebvreDave on Jun 7, 2012 • 3:02 pm No Comments
(The Rewind Button is a group blogging project. Every Thursday, we review an album from Rolling Stone’s Greatest Albums list.) I want to start this post off by thanking the blogger who came up with the brilliant idea of listening to the 40 greatest albums on Rolling Stone’s list. Rachel Tynan writes a blog called Betty Livin out of Lethbridge, Alberta. She made a new year’s resolution to take this musical journey and has been kind enough to share it with us all.
I also want to thank Reb Stevenson for gathering together a group of bloggers to join Rachel in this experiment. Together, we are The Rewind Button. It’s been such a great experience so far and I can’t wait to see where this list will take us. 2012 has been a glorious retro record road trip for me. We’re always welcoming new members, so don’t hesitate to join us on this journey.
Now for this week’s post – The Velvet Underground and Nico’s The Velvet Underground (1967).
A gardener steps into a plot of rich, fertile soil in 1967. In his hands he sprinkles a handful of seeds, each with a different characteristic, each with the ability to grow into a distinct plant.
What happens is left to chance. The result is a rare moment in music history where even laymen can discern the exact moment of inception for sounds that became musical movements.
Under the nominal producing of Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and John Cale formed The Velvet Underground. With Warhol’s insistence, virtually the only guidance he provided, they included German singer Nico on their first album. Together they created an album that’s been called prophetic, though I’ll argue against this later. Grandly influential there is no doubt, but prophetic may be a tad indulgent.
The fact is that when I listen to this album I feel cool. Yes, I know it’s not cool to talk about being cool, but listening to this album is like being part of something that you know inherently exhibits all of the characteristics of cool.
What the hippie love children of the 60’s dismissed as nihilistic is precisely what makes this album cool. It has the confidence and self-interest to make the personal public, and do so by treading down unexplored avenues uncertain if others will understand or follow. Well, follow they did.
It’s been said: “the first Velvet Underground album sold only 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” Is imitation not an indication of cool?
As I listen to Lou Reed sing about plunging a needle into his arm in Heroin, I hear Trent Reznor do the same in Hurt:
LR: Cause it makes me feel like a man
When I put a spike into my vein
TR: The needle tears a hole
That old familiar sting
In the eleventh and final song, European Son, the crashing guitar is clearly the seed for 90’s grunge. In Heroin you hear the fast shifting tempo that would define Kurt Cobain’s guitar style. You also hear the scratching guitar, searching for an itch that can’t be reached and becoming more frantic with every moment. It is as a raw a sound as you’ll find while maintaining musicality.
In other songs you hear Dylan’s detached nasal drone, and through such variety The Velvet Underground planted the seeds for music’s evolution, influencing a wide array of bands from REM to Sonic Youth and even David Bowie.
Still this album wasn’t ahead of its time or “prophetic” as so many have said. It was born in its time. Others simply chose to imitate or build upon its musical styles.
The band drew its name from a 60’s pulp paperback, tipping a hat to the sexual subculture that was brewing at this time. Venus in Furs similarly draws from the written word; it was first a book dealing with the theme of masochism.
Warhol’s stamp on this album can be seen on the cover, his own design. Bearing the double entendre “Peel and See”, those that dared peel the yellow banana found a peeled banana lying beneath – only this one was pink. One can assume that peel and see also refers to the many layers of music that can be peeled back every time you listen to the album. The art of packaging an album with clever devices seems long gone. With most albums now being sold as mp3s, have we lost something along the way or was this merely distraction to the music?
Of all of the albums reviewed so far on The Rewind Button, this one is by far the most diverse. It is mostly raw and gritty, but exhibits polish in moments as with Femme Fatale. These moments don’t last very long and are quickly usurped by jarring juxtaposition like Venus in Furs.
When The Velvet Underground planted the seeds of what was to grow into so many genres of music, it wasn’t acting as a prophet but as a gardener. Together, this group (and I include Warhol here, though his only influence was the inclusion of Nico, because he helped nurture the growth of this band by having them play in his studio and at his shows the Exploding Plastic Inevitable) sowed so much depth into today’s music without ever realizing that’s what they were doing at the time.
Of all the albums we’ve covered so far, I listened to this one the most, including four times straight as I researched and wrote this post. I did so wearing heavy earphones that isolated me from any noises in my apartment. Every time the album ended there was no question in my mind that I wanted to listen to it again. It is as addictive as it’s subject matter.
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To read what others participating in the Rewind Button thought of this album, click on the links below – I’ll update them as they post their reviews.