'The Velvet Underground & Nico' Turns 50: Classic Track-by-Track Review
For the budding music nerd, The Velvet Underground & Nico, released 50 years ago today (March 12, 1967), is like a musical wormhole to a 1967 loft party at Andy Warhol’s infamous studio/never-ending bacchanal, The Factory. Picture one of his multi-media, drug-fueled Plastic Exploding Inevitable parties: There’s flashing red, green, and blue lights, lingering smoke, dirty shag carpets, candy-colored mini-skirts and knee-high leather go-go boots, and an industrial elevator-as-revolving door of musicians, artists, beats, writers, and various downtown scenesters. The cocktails and Dexedrine are a-flowin’ and Warhol is buzzing about with a Polaroid camera, as Bob Dylan casually leans against a wall and Edie Sedgwick, on his arm, chatters and cackles and grinds her jaw and drags on a cigarette. Onstage, a band wears black leather and sunglasses, playing melodic, experimental music, sung by the tragic ice queen Nico and the artsy badass Lou Reed. It’s the party you want to be at. It’s also perhaps the greatest advertisement for living in New York City, ever.
Blah, blah, blah The Velvet Underground & Nico is blah, blah blah the most influential album ever, blah, blah, blah. It’s true, though. This album laid the foundation for all alternative music, from goth and industrial to grunge, shoegaze and indie rock. But for those of us that didn’t form U2, R.E.M., The Smiths, Joy Division, The Cure, My Bloody Valentine, Sex Pistols, Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Pavement, Nirvana or countless other wildly-important rock bands, The Velvet Underground & Nico was the rocket that launched a musical curiosity into outer space, opening eyes and ears to so many new sounds and ideas.
When you first discover The Velvet Underground & Nico -- often in a dorm room somewhere -- it’s mesmerizing. It’s weird. It’s beautiful. It’s grating. It’s experimental. It’s catchy. It’s a bit confusing. It takes a minute to wrap your head around it. But, above all, you know it’s so fucking cool. It’s that party, full of interesting characters, and that’s what you want to be.
As music lore goes, Brian Eno once said everyone who bought this album went on to start a band. Sure. But many others just ravenously listened to more and more and more of ‘em -- and dove head first into the culture of the Velvet Underground.
1. “Sunday Morning”
It’s just so pretty. Twinkling chimes, a gooey-warm bass line, piano overdubs, viola, and a celesta -- which noisemaking genius John Cale noticed in the corner of the studio and began tinkering with -- give this timeless song a glowing aura. Written by Reed and Cale on an actual Sunday morning, the tune was to showcase Nico, but Reed ultimately took the lead vocal. His breathy whisper-singing hints at deep paranoia (“Watch out, the world’s behind you,” he coos), but otherwise, “Sunday Morning” is the beautiful pole of the wide musical spectrum explored across the album.
2. “I’m Waiting for the Man”
The hippie dream was alive and well in 1967, but Reed was too high or dope sick to care. It’s his rockin’ drug jam -- a gritty and propulsive track about buying amid the constant struggle of addiction -- about the need, the high, the waiting for “The Man.” “Hey white boy, what you doing uptown?” Reed sings with snide attitude, quoting another passing NYC character in his quest to score. Then, at last, he does: “I’m feeling good, I’m feeling so fine, until tomorrow but that’s just some other time.” If hippies saw drugs as a gateway to a higher plane, Reed's first-person narration yanks that utopian dream back to reality.
3. “Femme Fatale”
What an introduction. It’s the German singer-actress-model’s first limelight leading appearance on the LP, and it’s a tender, memorable moment. Like “Sunday Morning,” it’s a twinkling-star-like tune, but with Nico’s hushed vamp. The tall, blonde Nico -- who had, by ‘67, already acted in several films, including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Warhol’s Chelsea Girls -- nails the tragic chanteuse shtick: “She's going to break your heart in two,” she sings. Hearts break every time this song is played.
4. “Venus in Furs”
Venus in Furs, the 1870 novel by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, is about the fictional Severin von Kusiemski, a sadomasochist who becomes a slave to his lover, Wanda. It’s a Greek tragedy that ends with Severin abandoning his submissive desires when Wanda shacks up with another dude. The Velvet Underground gives this tale an eerie soundtrack that, for its time, was both groundbreaking and deeply weird: “Severin, down on your bended knee,” Reed sings. “Taste the whip, in love not given lightly.” It basically invented drone rock: Cale’s shrieking electric voila collides with Reed’s clanging, deadpan guitar, which has all its strings tuned to the same note (called “Ostrich Tuning”). Its sound is a little frightening -- just imagine it being played live at Warhol’s Plastic Exploding Inevitable party.
5. “Run Run Run”
It’s a wild musical tour of the late-‘60s New York City smack scene, from Union Square up to 47th Street. Meet the cast: There’s Teenage Mary, Uncle Dave, Gypsy Death, Margarita Passion, Seasick Sarah, and Beardless Harry. Passion sells her soul for heroin and Sarah overdoses and turns blue. Musically, it has a marshal beat and some of Reed’s more unhinged guitar playing with a loose, blues-y twang solo. It’s easy to image Reed as he “run, run, run, run”s and “takes a drag or two” during his travails in the drug underworld.
6. “All Tomorrow’s Parties”
Here, we welcome Nico back to the party for a tune mocking the culture and characters that had engulfed Warhol and his Factory. “And what costume shall the poor girl wear / To all tomorrow's parties,” Nico coos. “A hand-me-down dress from who knows where / To all tomorrow's parties.” Reed, back in his flat, all-strings-one-note “Ostrich” tuning, plays a manic riff that sounds Sitar-like, over drummer Maureen Tucker’s tambourine and spare kick drum. Cale plucks a looping motif on a piano with its strings altered to create an otherworldly sound. Mission accomplished.
Its name says it all. And like opiates, “Heroin” -- one of Reed’s earliest VU compositions, written back in ’64 -- makes you feel really warm and fuzzy and heavenly, then sick and crazy. It’s a musical reinterpretation of this manic cycle: Its dreamy, melodic opening (“When I put a spike into my vein / I feel just like Jesus’ son,” Reed sings) slowly builds to Tucker’s increasingly chaotic drumming and Morrison’s shrieking guitar until it reaches a crescendo of grinding noise. “Heroin, be the death of me,” he sings. It’s one of the band’s most celebrated tracks for good reason -- it’s the song that launched a thousand bands.
8. “There She Goes Again”
For all VU’s experimental, out-there sounds, Reed certainly had classic pop songwriting chops -- he worked as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records, penning teen dance tunes (including “The Ostrich,” which, executives thought, would be a charting hit -- the band they assembled to promote it included Cale and led to VU forming. Thanks Pickwick!). “There She Goes Again” flaunts many of the tricks in that toolbox. Structured around dunh-dunh-dunh staccato breaks (taken from Marvin Gaye's 1962 hit "Hitch Hike"), the tune paints a picture of a nameless, downtown type: “She's out on the streets again,” Reed sings. “She's down on her knees, my friend. But you know she'll never ask you please again.” The call-and-response backing vocals and “Ba-ba-ba-ba-baby”s show that pop side of the band, which then turn up the tempo for a rollicking closing section.
9. “I’ll Be Your Mirror”
If by now you still haven’t fallen for Nico, this is the song that’ll do it. It’s her moment. In the vein of “Sunday Morning” and “Femme Fatale” before it, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is tender and twinkly with celesta and a guitar riff that sparkles like sun on mountain lake. The sentiment is genuinely touching, too: “I'll be your mirror,” she sings. “Reflect what you are, in case you don't know / When you think the night has seen your mind / That inside you're twisted and unkind / Let me stand to show that you are blind.” At just over two minutes, the song is criminally short -- and Warhol agreed. He apparently wanted the album to have a built-in scratch so Nico’s final fading “I’ll be your mirrorrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr” would repeat and repeat and repeat until the listener moved the needle. For this listener, that needle would probably never move again.
10. “The Black Angel’s Death Song”
For anyone wondering about Bob Dylan’s influence on the Velvet Underground, well, here ya go. Over Cale’s nefariously dissonant viola, you essentially have Reed as Goth Dylan, strumming an acoustic guitar Greenwich Village folk style, and threading seemingly meaningless sentences, a la William S. Burroughs’ cut-up poetry, but repeating variants of the word “choose.” “Infused with the choice of the mind,” Reed breathlessly rambles. “On ice skates scraping chunks… Choose to choose… Choose to choose, choose to go.” But it’s Cale’s droning sounds, influenced by John Cage, that sets it apart. In addition to the electric viola, Cale blows into the mic, sounding like a storm is engulfing the listener. That’s right: Lou Reed, blowin’ in the wind.
11. “European Son”
Reed was deeply influenced by poet, author, and philosopher-critic Delmore Schwartz, who taught Reed at Syracuse University, and Reed wanted to dedicate a song to him. So he did just that with “European Son” -- seven and a half minutes of experimental noise. This album closer is, at first, a basic rock riff with a few barked lyrics: “You'd better say so long,” Reed closes with. “Your clown's bid you goodbye.” Then crash -- Cale smashes a stack of plates with a chair and all hell breaks loose. Reed and Morrison bang noise from their guitars, as Cale plays roiling bass fuzz to Tucker’s pounding drums.
The Velvet Underground & Nico is the sound of pop culture exploding wide open. Without it, we wouldn't just have fewer albums in our record collections, but fewer ideas in our minds.