50 years of art-rock: celebrating the anniversary of “The Velvet Underground & Nico”

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You can’t say an album is the greatest of all time; grandiose statements are just dogmatic and bravado doesn’t make for interesting music journalism. What is way more indisputable is the pivotal stature that has been procured by The Velvet Underground’s premiere album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” released March 12, 1967. Another art-rock icon, Brian Eno, once pointedly remarked that “VU & Nico only sold 30,000 copies of that album, but I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

From left: Nico, Andy Warhol, Moe Tucker, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and John Cale (seated).

From its blueprints “The Velvet Underground & Nico” was an eclectic project. Andy Warhol, who had been acting as the band’s manager, wanted to produce the album on the condition of the inclusion of one his so-called superstars, Nico, a German actress and model. Nico, who was partially deaf, often sang slightly off-key and in a rather droll voice and occasionally pitch perfect beauty. The other vocals on the album were provided by Lou Reed, whose voice is also quite jarring at times.

The album’s sound, while supposedly led by Warhol, was mostly construed by Reed and John Cale, arguably the virtuoso of the group, in the way Lennon/McCartney dominated the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s” album, which was released around the same time.

The songs are legendary. In the album’s 49 minutes, its 11 songs do so much more sonically than most bands achieve in their entire careers. While the album is mostly regarded for its eclectic quality and variety, it has a lot to offer in the traditional scale as well.

The exploratory guitar work on “The Black Angel’s Death Song” is phenomenal, especially when paired with Cale’s piercing electric viola.

“Heroin” is another superb experimental song, where the tempo of the track intentionally increases gradually attempting to mimic an actual opioid high, before reaching its frantic crescendo peak, which is subsequently punctuated by more viola and strumming.

Adversely, Nico’s song is quiet, simple and sugary sweet. “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” are worlds away from roaring erraticism of “Black Angel” or “Venus in Furs”. Reed has one radio friendly hit on the album as well, with the seminal “Sunday Morning” which opens the album beautifully.

As iconic as the album itself is, it’s unmistakably identifiable album art, the phallic yellow banana, was created by Warhol for the album. On the original renditions of the LP, the banana on the front was removable, coming with the instructions to “Peel slowly and see.” If the album’s buyer peeled their peel off, they would see a flesh-colored banana underneath it. Later copies were not removable, though the original has been recreated in many subsequent versions of the record.

After the album was recorded, its release was fraught with controversy. The record label Verve didn’t know what to do with it. Its lyrical content was beyond explicit—romanticizing tales of sadomasochism and smack addiction. They also were unsure about all of the sonic experimentation on the album and Warhol’s erratic involvements. Because of this, they delayed the release almost a year, and upon its eventual arrival, did not promote or distribute the album almost at all.

Consequentially, the album was a financial disaster, selling few copies at its release.  Because of this, tensions arose between the group, which led to the firing of Andy Warhol as both producer and manager, followed shortly by the dismissal of Nico.

The Velvet Underground would record three more excellent records “White Light/White Heat”, “The Velvet Underground” and “Loaded”. After “Loaded,” all four of the band’s original members, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, would no longer be a part of the group. Doug Yule, who joined the band during the recording of their self-titled album in 1968, would use the moniker to record a final VU album “Squeeze.” Essentially a Yule solo project, it was panned both critically and commercially and for all extensive purposes, vanished from the history books.

It took more than a decade for critics to begin reevaluating the enormous influence of “The Velvet Underground & Nico.” It is now considered almost prophetic in nature, and extremely sonically uncanny for all of the art and electronic rock bands that would follow its traditions.  The album was certified Platinum in the UK, having sold over 300,000 copies.

On the 50th anniversary of its release, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” sounds as sharp as ever. While comparable albums from 1967 can feel worn and dated, VU and Nico still comes off as cutting edge, and will continue to span the horizon with possibilities, inspiring future bands of all genres to challenge sonic norms and create and innovate on new albums.