The Velvet Underground began as a collaboration between frustrated songwriter Lou Reed and classically trained John Cale. Cale had worked with experimental composers John Cage and LaMonte Young, and Reed’s interest in alternative guitar tunings and drone notes provided common ground. The pair recruited guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Moe Tucker and The Velvet Underground was formed.
The band were introduced to artist Andy Warhol, who negotiated a recording contract and showcased them in his multimedia road shows, which combined his films with the band’s music. He also introduced the band to German vocalist Nico, who sang three songs on the debut record. The Velvet Underground’s debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, was largely recorded in April and May 1966. ‘Sunday Morning’ was added in November 1966, and the album was released in early 1967. Warhol provided the famous cover – early editions of the LP offered a peelable banana.
Despite the association with Warhol, The Velvet Underground & Nico made little impact at the time of release. It peaked at #195 in the US charts and was largely ignored critically. In hindsight the record made a huge impact, and it’s one of the most influential albums in the history of popular music. In 1982 Brian Eno made the famous statement that even though the album only initially sold 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band”.
The album introduced a plethora of innovations. Lou Reed’s subject matter was darker than anything in rock music prior, discussing drug use and BDSM. John Cale’s background in avant-garde classical, and his use of the viola, flavoured songs like ‘Venus in Furs’ and ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’. Reed coined the term “ostrich guitar”, where all of his guitar strings were tuned to D, and this was used on several songs. The presence of a female instrumentalist in a male band was also unusual – Tucker’s playing was idiosyncratic – she played standing up, and rarely used cymbals.
Why The Velvet Underground & Nico is The Velvet Underground’s Best Album
I heard most of their other studio albums before The Velvet Underground & Nico, and I was bemused by The Velvet Underground’s pioneering reputation. 1968’s White Light/White Heat focused on noise-rock, while 1969’s The Velvet Underground, recorded after Cale left the band, showcased a mellow set of songs.
Conversely, The Velvet Underground & Nico is brimming with ideas – the album opens with the mild chamber pop of ‘Sunday Morning’, featuring John Cale’s celesta and backing vocals from Nico. There’s garage-rock like ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ and ‘Run Run Run’, traces of folk-rock on ‘There She Goes Again’, droning meditations like ‘Heroin’, and flat-out experimentation on closer ‘European Son’.
Despite its many innovations and moments of brilliance, The Velvet Underground & Nico is not a flawless record. Nico’s glassy and emotionless vocals are distracting on the three songs that she fronts, while ‘European Son’ is a tough listen. But there’s some absolutely phenomenal music, and it’s an essential release for anyone interested in the history of rock. A 2017 study of AllMusic’s catalogue found that The Velvet Underground were the fifth most-cited influence.
The band continued for 1970’s Loaded and 1973’s Squeeze. Loaded features essential Reed songs, like ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘Who Loves The Sun’, but lacks the excitement of their earlier records, while Squeeze was recorded without any of the band’s original members. The band also released two albums of outtakes in the mid-1980s.
I’m Waiting For The Man
The raw garage-rock of ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ is one of the many angles this creative band explored on their debut. John Cale plays piano as well as bass. The song is about a drug deal on a street corner in Harlem, and inspired David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’.
Venus In Furs
The drone of John Cale’s viola underpins ‘Venus In Furs’. The song title was taken from the novella Venus In Furs, written by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The term sado-masochism was derived from Sacher-Masoch’s name, giving a good indication of the song’s subject matter.
In a 1972 radio interview, Reed claimed that he wrote the lyrics for ‘Heroin’ while working for a record company.
I was working for a record company as a songwriter, where they’d lock me in a room and they’d say write ten surfing songs, ya know, and I wrote “Heroin” and I said “Hey I got something for ya.” They said, “Never gonna happen, never gonna happen.”
The seven minute song alternates through two chords, while Reed dispassionately discusses the sensations of drug use. It’s full of memorable lyrics – Reed opens with “I don’t know just where I’m going/But I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can.” There’s a debt to Bob Dylan in Reed’s lyrics and vocal delivery, but the band’s delivery is revolutionary, with Cale’s viola and the swells in intensity.
Do The Experts Agree?
The Velvet Underground & Nico received little critical attention at the time of release but was later entrenched as a classic. Pitchfork named it as the best album of the 1960s in a 2017 list.
On the website Rate Your Music, The Velvet Underground & Nico is ranked as the best Velvet Underground album. It’s also the #5 ranked album of all time, and the highest ranked album of the 1960s.
On the website Acclaimed Music, The Velvet Underground & Nico is ranked as the best Velvet Underground album. It’s also the #4 ranked album of all time, and the #3 ranked album of the 1960s.
The first three Velvet Underground albums are included in the original edition of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.