Velvet Underground & Nico turns 45 today
"The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought one formed a band." This quote has been attributed to both Brian Eno and Peter Buck (of REM) -- no one is completely certain who said it first, but that's not the point. The fact remains that The Velvet Underground & Nico stands today as a testament to one of the greatest truths in rock and roll: What the populace hates today, quite possibly will become the sound of tomorrow.
From The Ramones to Radiohead's Kid A, the highway of rock music is littered with examples of a certain sound causing listeners of its day to cover their ears and grit their teeth, only to hear the same sound be repeated ad-nauseam by every other band five or ten years later.
When John Cale first met Lou Reed in 1964, the British Invasion was just beginning to popularize rock music on a mass scale. While Cale had moved from Wales to New York on a scholarship to study classical music, he soon drifted toward rock and the burgeoning Fluxus art scene with its avant-guard sounds. Reed was already an established rock veteran, having learned to play guitar along to the radio at a young age and eventually becoming employed as a songwriter for Pickwick Records -- "a poor man's Carol King," Reed would later describe himself.
Both Cale and Reed were interested in odd sounds, taking music in directions that would send most running for the exit with their hands over their ears. In their band, The Primitives, Reed invented "ostrich guitar tunings," where all the strings are tuned to the same pitch -- a sound Cale described as "sexy." This technique would come into practice on later songs "Venus in Furs," and "All Tomorrows Parties."
Influenced by the Fluxus art movement, Cale was enthusiastic about altering the traditions of how music was played, turning his viola into a droning, sustained single note sound that he often likened to the high pitch of an airplane engine. When Maureen "Mo" Tucker was recruited on drums, Cale encouraged her to change the drum kit setup, leading her to turn the bass drum on its side, getting rid of the cymbals and trading in drumsticks for mallets. This provided the thunderous stomping sound that keeps the beat of "All Tomorrows Parties."
Taking its name from a pulp novel about a sexual subculture, the Velvet Underground began performing its odd blend of rock and roll, avant guard and Reed's subversive lyrics about junkies and prostitutes around the clubs of New York City. The band caught the attention of burgeoning pop artist, Andy Warhol, who quickly made them the house band of his Factory studio.
Much has been made about Warhol's influence and participation with the Velvet Underground, some thinking him the godfather that birthed the band's career, while others would call him a charlatan that took all the credit while doing none of the work (he would receive this charge for more than just his dealings with the Velvet Underground). Though two facts about Warhol's interaction with VU cannot be downplayed: 1.) He delivered Nico -- the German singer with the voice like a dying goddess -- to the band, and 2.) He took the band on the road as the feature in his Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the multimedia art show that brought the band to audiences outside the New York art scene.
Warhol would be credited as producer of VU's debut album (in fact, first pressings of the album featured only his name on the cover) but looking back it seems that the soft-spoken wig-wearer contributed very little to the album outside of his name and presence. Which, according to Lou Reed, was enough.
"He just made it possible for us to be ourselves and go right ahead with it because he was Andy Warhol. In a sense, he really did produce it, because he was this umbrella that absorbed all the attacks when we weren't large enough to be attacked... and as a consequence of him being the producer, we'd just walk in and set up and do what we always did and no one would stop it because Andy was the producer. Of course he didn't know anything about record production -- but he didn't have to. He just sat there and said 'Oooh, that's fantastic,' and the engineer would say, 'Oh yeah! Right! It is fantastic, isn't it?'"
According to John Cale (who is sometimes credited himself as the album's producer) the real man behind the recording was Tom Wilson, best known for producing Bob Dylan's Brining It All Back Home and Frank Zappa's Freak Out! "The band never again had as good a producer as Tom Wilson", Cale remembers in the Velvet Underground Story. "Andy Warhol didn't do anything."
Lovers for a short time, Lou Reed wrote "I'll Be Your Mirror" for Nico
The Velvet Underground & Nico was a commercial failure for its time, partly due to Verve Records' lack of promotion, though many point to Reed's song's controversial subject matter -- largely influenced by the dark literary works by William S. Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr. -- as the cause of poor sales, primarily due to bans from record stores and radio stations.
Due to a year-long delay in the album's release, Reed fired Warhol as the band's manager; Nico got the boot along with him, later recording a decent solo album with several songs penned by Reed and Cale. After their second album, John Cale was also nudged out of the Velvet Underground, followed by Reed's voluntary departure a few years later -- both of them achieving reasonably successful solo careers.
By that time glam rock icons like David Bowie and Bryan Ferry were singing the praises of the Velvets, covering the act's songs and talking about it in interviews. By the late '70s, the New York art scene had congealed around the bowery club, CBGB -- producing a sound largely based on Lou Reeds three chord minimalism and John Cale's droning feedback.
From My Bloody Valentine and Pavement to the Strokes and the White Stripes, the sound developed on The Velvet Underground & Nico has continued to influence generation after generation. In 2009, Beck (whose grandfather, Al Hansen, helped form the Fluxus art movement, and whose mother, Bibbe Hanson, was a one-time go-go dancer for VU) recorded the entire The Velvet Underground & Nico album from start to finish, paying tribute to a band that earned so little yet influenced so much.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.