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‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ Turns 50

| Monday, April 3, 2017

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The Andy Warhol Album. The cult classic. The Banana Album. “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” the legendary debut album of pioneering American rock group The Velvet Underground, stands out in musical history for many different reasons. The record comes with countless fun facts: For instance, the album originally achieved only modest sales, peaking at a pitiful 171 on the “Billboard” chart in 1967. Pop culture icon Andy Warhol served as the album’s producer, cover artist and band manager. Over the years, critics eventually turned their rebukes into unmitigated praise for The Velvets’ debut.

Here’s a new fun fact: “The Velvet Underground & Nico” is now 50 years old. The Banana Album is no less compelling today than it was in 1967 or 1977, and rest assured, it was compelling back then, too.

The 1960s had already been a hotbed for musical experimentation. The Beatles’ “Revolver” and The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” impressed audiences with brazen experimentation, but the content of these albums would not shock and appall listeners in the same way that “The Velvet Underground & Nico” did. Front man Lou Reed’s writing subjects of choice went essentially untouched in the late 1960s, and for good reason: The album’s paltry 1967 sales would vindicate record companies’ beliefs that an album about hard-drug culture, sexual perversions and low-life criminals could not move units. In retrospect, the saccharine, pure pop tracks on the 1967 album — think “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Sunday Morning” — come across as offsetting qualifiers, possibly intended to give the bold album a chance with image-conscious record companies.

At some points on the album, it seems incredible to listeners that the Velvets’ debut didn’t immediately take off in 1967. At other moments, it seems amazing this record ever re-emerged into the light of day. The delicate sound of the celesta opens the record beautifully, but even the most tolerant music fans will struggle with the electric viola solo on “Heroin.” Despite its grating moments, John Cale’s breathtaking musical experimentation astounds on this album. The droning of an electric viola on “The Black Angel’s Death Song” manages to go from irritating to mildly catchy after multiple listens. Even the album’s most difficult track, “European Son,” manages to captivate listeners with endlessly fascinating creativity.

The most admirable feat of this album is its constant balancing act. In some songs, including “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” unadventurous concepts take on new life in the Velvets’ unique sound. Other songs, including “Sunday Morning” and “I’m Waiting For The Man,” are subversive but disguised as perfect pop. Songs like “Heroin” and “European Son” provide unadulterated experimentation and provocation. One might easily forget how much artists’ creative freedom has improved since 1967, but “The Velvet Underground & Nico” serves as a powerful reminder: By teaming up with Andy Warhol and making just enough compromises, The Velvet Underground managed to deliver their revolutionary sound to the public and set themselves up to release their excellent subsequent albums.

The eventual commercial success of “The Velvet Underground & Nico” proves that listeners did not reject music simply because of gritty, grotesque or disturbing content. “The Velvet Underground & Nico” certainly gave way to the punk attitude of the late ’70s and early ’80s, but it also empowered music’s future alternative voices beyond punk. The Velvets gave people an enticing glance into the grimy, mysterious subculture of their time — exploring topics like drug use and criminality without celebrating them.

John Cale’s spirit of uncomfortable musical experimentation lives on in artists like Bon Iver, Death Grips and Flying Lotus. We can even see parallels to The Banana Album’s straightforward documentation-without-judgment approach in Vince Staples’ “Summertime ’06.” “The Velvet Underground & Nico” was an inventive success by outsiders who snuck their way into the system. Even in the confusing and unpredictable year of 2017, this brilliant album from 1967 still manages to challenge its listeners and to sound bold and new.

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