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The Velvet Underground & Nico's: 25 Facts About Their Hedonistic Debut Album


THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO ALBUM COVER

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO'S SELF-TITLED DEBUT ALBUM IS WAXX LYRICAL'S RECORD OF THE MONTH FOR JULY 2024. CLICK HERE TO BECOME A MEMBER.


 

Very few records can claim to be as revered and influential as The Velvet Underground & Nico. A disastrous commercial flop upon release, the album would go on to become one of the most influential and critically acclaimed albums, the very definition iconic. The band's legendary debut was infamously produced by Andy Warhol, and his cover art would offer the self-titled record its colloquially known nickname of "the banana album," while the songs themselves broke more barriers than nearly any album before or since. It's eerie and arty, rooted in a unique countercultural NYC, unearthing an awareness of the new, what was suddenly possible, and a darker-edged alternative and independence to the top 40 decorum on offer. Together, the exotic vocal contributions of Nico, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker declared their gritty, innovative, and self-possessed work the new modern. In many ways, they offered the first rock album that truly seemed to invite the designation of "alternative." Fifty-seven years on, it remains stunningly original, providing a blueprint for everything from lo-fi punk to the highbrow and avant-garde and everything in between.

Artist : The Velvet Underground & Nico

Album : The Velvet Underground & Nico

Released : 17 March 1967

Label : Verve

Producer : Andy Warhol / Tom Wilson


"... an album that spawned entire genres, influenced countless bands and altered the course of rock ’n’ roll history has taken its deserved place in the hall of fame. But its guitar-fuelled soundscape still sounds just as avant-garde and dangerous over 50 years on from its release."

The Velvet Underground & Nico

Most music fans know the band was closely associated with pop art icon, American visual artist, film director and producer Andy Warhol and his offbeat ways and that the album has influenced generations upon generations of musicians. But did you know that when it came out, it was a total flop? Or that Warhol didn't really produce the album? With the benefit of hindsight along with the legendary and debaucerous reputation that precedes it, we've gathered 20 fascinating facts to accompany our Record Of The Month:


1. Warhol first introduced the band to German actress, model and chanteuse Nico, whose inimitable vocal style is an essential part of the record.


2. The album was one of the first to mix guitar rock with the drones, distortion and feedback of avant-garde and free jazz. "I'd been listening to Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman," remembered frontman Lou Reed in an interview years later. "Of course I was not trained to play like them. I couldn't read and write music. I couldn't even begin to think of having technique like that. But I certainly had the energy—and a good ear."


3. An early LP cover design featured a banana sticker that you could peel, and required a special machine to manufacture.


4. Most of the songs were recorded over four days in mid-April, 1966, at a decrepit recording studio in Manhattan called Scepter Studios. Estimates of the cost range from $1,500 to $3,000. The musicians on the album were Reed (guitar and vocals), John Cale (electric viola, piano, bass, vocals, hissing, sound effects, more), Sterling Morrison (guitar, bass, vocals), Tucker (drums and percussion) and Nico (vocals).


5. The album was one of the first to mix guitar rock with the drones, distortion and feedback of avant-garde and free jazz. “I couldn't read and write music,” Lou Reed confessed later. “I couldn't even begin to think of having technique like that. But I certainly had the energy—and a good ear."


6. The band's name came from the title of a paperback about deviant sex and Lou Reed wrote majority of the album’s lyrics. He claimed he was writing with a lot of “compassion for outsiders, people from outside the system" and he didn’t intend to shock. While lyrics from others at the time were calling for “peace and love”, he tackled such topics as drug abuse, prostitution, sadism and masochism and sexy deviancy. He was a fan of gritty poetry and saw no reason the content of them could not translate into rock and roll.


7. Several labels rejected the album, with Atlantic reportedly citing concerns over its elicit subject material and John Cale's viola. Verve Records accepted, and once the label was onboard, the band re-recorded 'I'm Waiting for the Man,' 'Venus in Furs' and 'Heroin' over two days in a Hollywood studio.


8. Drummer Marueen "Moe" Tucker began playing drums at 19, and was self-taught. She grew up in a Catholic family in small hamlet called Levittown, N.Y., and got introduced to the Velvet Underground through a friend of her sister's. At the time she was working for IBM as a keypunch operator. "Sterling Morrison's wife and I were friends and very often we would just kind of look at each other, like, 'What are we doing here?'" remembered Tucker in an interview. "I won't say it was culture shock, but certainly very different from my life in Levittown."


9. The original acetate recording of the Scepter Studios material, which includes several recordings that weren't included on the album, resurfaced at a New York flea market. Montreal collector Warren Hill reportedly bought it for 75 cents; it was later sold for over $25,000. In 2012, the acetate was officially released as part of an anniversary box set.


10. When it was released, the album was a flop. Because of its controversial content, it was banned from many record stores, and radio stations reportedly refused to play it. Magazines also refused to carry ads for the album. "What does Willy Loman say in Death of a Salesman? He's just a ship looking for a safe harbour? We put a ship in the water — and it turned out to be a turbo engine sub," joked Reed in a 1993 interview. "It just took a while for it to land wherever it landed. But I feel we're in an interesting situation where we're all alive to see history validate it."


11. There were few print reviews of the album, but in 1967, a small rock music magazine published a mostly positive review, calling the music "a full-fledged attack on the ears and on the brain." It wasn't until a decade later that it began winning widespread recognition.


12. The actor who appeared in the projection on the back cover sued for unauthorised use of his image and demanded to be paid. Instead, MGM recalled the album.


THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO BACK ALBUM COVER

13. While Warhol is credited as the album's producer, he had little to do with the actual music; Cale handled most of the arrangements and Tom Wilson produced most of the tracks. Still, Reed maintained that Warhol's lack of interference was in itself a form of production. "Of course he didn't know anything about record production—but he didn't have to," remembered Reed. "He just sat there and said 'Oooh, that's fantastic.'"


14. Inspired by poets including William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Raymond Chandler, Reed wanted to transform the same gritty subject material into rock. "I had a B.A. in English. So why wouldn't I? It seemed so obvious," he remembered in an interview. "There was a huge uncharted world there. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do. That's the kind of stuff that you might read. Why wouldn't you listen to it, too?"


15. Reed used what he called the "ostrich" guitar tuning, where he tuned all of the guitar strings to the same note. This tuning can be found on songs including 'Venus in Furs' and 'All Tomorrow's Parties.'


16. In 1967, the year the album was released, was also the year that Reed fired Warhol as the band's manager.


17. Nico says she told Reed, 'I'll Be Your Mirror,' which became one of her signature songs on the album. "I fell in love with him. He was so beautiful, and very tough. Tough like a statue." Reed, however, saw the song as about Warholism, and the act of reflecting more than just a mirror image. "It's sometimes reflecting back to them what they should see and don't know. It takes a certain kind of arrogance to say that. But the whole philosophy, for me, of the writing is summed up in 'I'll Be Your Mirror. " But it's also 'I'll be the wind, the rain, the sunset.' It's very compassionate, very nice, very loving."


18. Some of the drones on 'Heroin' are from Cale's viola, which he strung using mandolin and guitar strings. "We used cheapish guitars," he later remembered in an interview. "Lou had the Gretsch Country Gentleman; I used a classical viola with mandolin and guitar strings that were eaten into with clips and pick-ups — really scarred, but it got better as time went on."


19. 'Sunday Morning' was the last recording for the album, and was recorded at New York's Mayfair Studios in November 1966. "The song captures a mood and a specific event," remembered Cale in an interview. "Lou and I had been up all night on crank, as usual, so we decided to visit one of his old Syracuse college pals. Unfortunately, this guy's upper-middle-class wife didn't appreciate visits from old college pals high on amphetamines, at 3 a.m., who wanted to play music. He had a guitar which Lou picked up and the evening inspired him to write the song."



20. For the closing track, 'European Son,' the band used some unusual instrumentation. "For the LP, we dragged a chair across a floor over some aluminum studio plates. We didn't know what we were doing but it sounded funny. It sounded like a plate glass window being smashed," said Cale. "We wanted to break the rules, so we broke every fucking rule we could."


21. After the limited success of The Velvet Underground and Nico, the band severed their relationship with Andy Warhol. "[Warhol asked] do you want to just keep playing museums from now on, and the art festivals? Or do you want to start moving into other areas?" Reed once recalled. “I thought about it, and I fired him. […] I never saw Andy mad, but I did that day. He was really mad, called me a rat. It was the worst thing he could think of." Their departure from Warhol marked Nico’s split from the band, too, and in September 1967 they began recording White Light/White Heat without her – a heavily conceptual record which was more about volume, brash sounds and extended improvisation than the melodic pop records that had gone before.


22. By the late 1960s, the absence of positive critical reception and a difference of opinion between Reed and Cale was beginning to show. Finally, Reed called a band meeting, without having told Cale, and informed his fellow members that either they kicked Cale out, or the Velvet Underground would come to an end altogether. He played his final gig with the band shortly afterwards, to be replaced by Doug Yule, who brought in a softer, more folky style, and the new assemble continued to play until May 1973.


23. For their bravery in taking on dark and controversial topics and placing them in such sonically progressive landscapes, the original Velvet Underground and Nico was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Their remarkable debut album was named to the National Registry in 2006


24. All these tracks have emerged as classics of rock. Allmusic.com summarises the album succinctly when they state that “glam, punk, new wave, goth, noise, and nearly every other left-of-center rock movement owes an audible debt to this set.” Rolling Stone has repeatedly celebrated the album as one of the greatest rock and roll works in history. And The Rough Guide to Rock calls the album “The most essential purchase of them all.” When listened to today, every track from the album sounds distinctly modern and fresh to the ear.


25. Today, over 55 years after its release, it is still cited by musicians as a seminal work. The imprint and influence of the band can be heard in the work of David Bowie, Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, U2, the Cars and innumerable others.

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