So, last week I talked about a world-famous band that I think DJs the world over ought to banish from the airwaves. This week, though, I’m going to go in a different direction to tell you all about a band that went unloved and underrated for its entire career, despite being one of the most important groups in the history of rock music. I’m talking, of course, about The Velvet Underground and their first, Andy Warhol-produced LP, The Velvet Underground & Nico.
In April of 1966, the little known band, based out of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and comprised of future stars John Cale and Lou Reed, among others, entered the studio with pop art icon Andy Warhol and European model/singer Nico. What emerged from those sessions would push the boundaries of rock and roll as the band’s debut record, released the next year on Verve Records.
Upon the record’s release, critics found its subject matter too dark and music too experimental. The Velvet Underground & Nico earned a strong underground following, however, and over the years, the record found acclaim in the wake of Lou Reed and John Cale’s successful solo efforts. As art rock legend Brian Eno once wrote, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
One of The Velvet Underground & Nico’s most stunning features is its often striking minimalism. Released at the height of 1967’s “summer of love,” the album bore little resemblance to the psychedelic albums that were tearing up the rock charts of the time. Rather than attempting to emulate the sonic landscapes of records like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Are You Experienced?, the band pioneered their own unique sound based in many ways on 1950s beat poetry, featuring droning guitars and understated drums.
“Heroin,” for instance, features no bass guitar, minimal drums, and is based around only two simple guitar cords. And yet, in spite of that, “Heroin” is such a good song that it almost makes me wish I had a dehabilitating junk habit. It’s a stark, powerful piece of art that never seems to wear out its 7 and a half minute runtime.
Similarly, “Venus in Furs” is based largely on Lou Reed’s droning guitar (the famous “Ostrich guitar,” with every string tuned to D) and John Cale’s haunting viola. It manages to create a uniquely trancendental atmosphere with its relatively restrained instrumentation. For all the aesthetic minimalism, the record is also highly experimental at its core, playing with audiences expectations of what a rock album can be. One could make a serious argument that The Velvet Underground created the first art rock album of all time.
Honestly, anyone that claims to be a well-educated music buff needs to hear this record at least once in their life. Despite going largely unnoticed in its day, The Velvet Underground & Nico is a tremendously influential record that paved the way for the art rock scene of the 1970s and 80s and the indie rock of today. It’s a supremely important album that can’t be overlooked by anyone.
And now Lou Reed, one of the architects of this amazing, influential record, has just released a 90 minute collaboration with Metallica that may, perhaps be the worst record of the last ten years. I’m not mad, Lou. I’m just disappointed.
Classic or catastrophe: Classic