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The Velvet Underground’s Best Album: The Velvet Underground & Nico

The Velvet Underground and Nico

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 Velvet Underground and Nico

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

White Light White Heat The Velvet Underground

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.

Key Tracks

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.

Heroin

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.

Read More:
– The Velvet Underground Album Reviews
– The Best Album By…

17 thoughts on “The Velvet Underground’s Best Album: The Velvet Underground & Nico Leave a comment

  1. I haven’t got to the other 2 on the 1001 list yet – I’d like to revisit this one too. I think my expectations were too high (and I listened to it just after Marvin Gaye’s terrific What’s Going On, which probably didn’t help either!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am very familiar with their entire discography, since they are one of my favorite bands, and, even though that’s the boring choice, their debut is indeed the best of the bunch. It’s a creative and unexpected mixture of rock and roll and insane experimentation, and it never loses sight of the value of a hook.

    It’s an album that took me a while to get into, but when it clicked… oh, boy. Venus In Furs is just magnificent.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One of my all-time favourite albums! Completely changed my world when I heard it for the first time as an eleven year old. John Cale’s viola work on it, and how he completely redefines the boundaries of string instruments, has always been really inspiring to me as a violinist!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed it is!! I had a lot of exposure to intense things in early adolescence: I think I started watching ‘Mad Men’ when I was 10, I saw ‘Sid and Nancy’ and was listening to Patti Smith at 12, I watched ‘Twin Peaks’, read ‘On The Road’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’, and was listening to pretty experimental noise/no wave music when I was 13, and I’d seen most of David Lynch’s filmography and had read Bret Easton Ellis by my 15th birthday… People are often shocked when I mention this — whilst I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for it, it really set my interest in culture in stone and allowed me to absorb it in a different manner, and it hasn’t had any adverse effects (so far)!

        So true about Lou Reed! I think that’s why he appealed to my younger self so much, and one of the reasons why he’s still one of my greatest inspirations; he effortlessly mixes a universal sense of nihilistic angst with alluring intellectual curiosity! (Same with David Bowie.)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not sure “Best Album” is appropriate for this record. Maybe “Most Groundbreaking”? Or “Most Well-Rounded”? If I had to pick one album for my desert isle it would be this one, but there are times when I’m in the mood for the sonic blast of White Light/White Heat, a total descent into urban realism where the band pulls out all stops.

    Also, I love Nico’s voice on those three songs, a perfect counterpoint to Reed’s tough-guy vocals that accentuates the overall weirdness of the VU. And “European Son” might be my favorite song on the LP. But it’s an “acquired taste,” as they say, and it’s taken me 30-plus years of regular listening.

    Liked by 1 person

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