Music Review: The Velvet Underground and Nico - The Velvet Underground and Nico Super Deluxe Edition
Should we care about an album released 45 years ago? Specifically, should we care about The Velvet Underground and Nico, especially enough to buy a six CD set commemorating the forty-fifth anniversary of its release? Well the people at Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) feel the album warrants special attention as they are releasing The Velvet Underground & Nico: Super Deluxe Edition. Are they justified in their belief this album deserves this kind of treatment?
In 1967 the The Velvet Underground; Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker joined forces with husky voiced Nico for this, their debut album. With the infamous peel away plastic banana cover artwork (you could actually peel the yellow skin away to reveal a naked flesh coloured banana) by their mentor Andy Warhol and their association with his studio/workshop/performance space/ The Factory the band was assured a certain amount of hip cachet. However hipness is fleeting and doesn't necessarily signify the creation of something enduring nor is it any guarantee of artistic merit.
As the saying goes, "the proof is in the pudding", or in this case, in the listening. One only has to listen to the album once to understand not only how different it was from everything else being recorded at the time, but how good it is. I say is, because even listening to it now one can't help but be impressed by its inventiveness and originality. From the lyrics to the music it still sets a standard which very few albums, no matter when they were recorded, can measure up to. In fact when you consider the technological advances that have been made since it was recorded, most of what's being made today pales even more in comparison.
Musically The Velvet Underground And Nico is a mixture of pop and experimental/avant garde. In fact this rather strange mixture of the familiar and the jarring is very much the musical equivalent of what Warhol was doing with his "Pop Art". Taking familiar cultural images and then reproducing them in either oversized, life like detail (think his infamous rendering of a Campbell's Soup can) or distorting them with colour and repetition (think of his pictures of cultural icons like Elvis and Marylyn Monroe). In the case of the album this came across in both the music and the lyrics. Familiar popular music motifs were played just differently enough to make them sound unsettling while in other cases the band left pop music far behind and entered into the realm of the experimental.
Listen to the opening track on the album, "Sunday Morning". While it sounds like your typical pop song of the day there are some very noticeable differences right from the start. First of all is the fact the lead instrument sounds like a child's toy piano. It plinks along overtop the gentle sounding rhythm and gradually becomes more and more disturbing. While Nico originally performed the song live, Reed recorded the lead for the record. He gives the lyrics an almost Bob Dylan like inflection with the slightest suggestion of a German accent and sounding very feminine, making them sound like nothing you'd ever hear in any pop song. Of course the lyrics themselves aren't what you'd call pretty."Sunday morning/Brings the dawn in/It's just a restless feeling/By my side/Early dawning/Sunday morning/It's just the wasted years/So close behind/Watch out the world's behind you/There's always someone around you/Who will call/It's nothing at all/Sunday morning/And I'm falling/I've got a feeling/I don't want to know/Early dawning/Sunday morning/It's all the streets you crossed/Not so long ago." This isn't describing most people's idea of a Sunday morning. A hangover from Saturday night is one thing, but this sounds like a hangover of a life filled with regrets and failure - like the Sunday morning of somebody contemplating suicide.
While "Sunday Morning" is musically familiar the same can't be said for "Black Angel Death Song". It challenges listeners right from its opening notes. You're immediately hit with the sound of Cale's viola scraping across its strings playing the same few notes over and over again. Overtop of this comes the sound of Reed intoning/reciting, the lyrics to the song. "The myriad choices of his fate/Set themselves out upon a plate/for him to choose what had he to lose/Not a ghost-bloodied country all covered with sleep/Where the black angel did weep/Not an old city street in the east/Gone to choose".
Sounding more like free form poetry with atonal accompaniment, its nothing like any pop song heard at that time. In it you can hear foreshadowing of performers like Patti Smith and Jim Carrol who a decade latter would set their poetry to music. While this song isn't what anybody would call accessible or radio friendly, it's a brilliant piece of work showing pop music's potential to be more than just inconsequential disposable and forgettable songs. While other bands might have been singing about love and peace or playing long and boring instrumentals which went nowhere and calling it experimental, The Velvet Underground were producing songs which would alter people's perceptions of pop art's capacity to be meaningful. Is it any wonder that famed composer and producer Brian Eno has been quoted as saying "the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band."
The Velvet Underground And Nico Super Deluxe Edition gives you a chance to fully experience the band and the development of this very special record. Disc one of six is the original recording remastered plus the addition of alternate versions of four songs. Disc two is a copy of the original mono release that came out at the same time. While its mostly a novelty item, it is interesting to hear the release with the sound flattened and compressed into one channel. Disc three is a copy of Nico's Chelsea Girl which features all the members of The Velvets plus a seventeen year old Jackson Browne. You'll also notice that Browne wrote three of the tracks on the album while the others were written by members of either The Velvets or The Factory with one Bob Dylan cover, "I'll Keep It With Mine", rounding out the mix.
The material on disc four was recorded prior to the band making the record. The first nine songs are taken from tapes and acetate recordings made at Scepter Studios in April of 1966 while tracks 10 through 15 are from previously unreleased tapes of a rehearsal the band had at The Factory in January of 1966. While not all of the songs on this disc made it onto the album, it does give you an interesting perspective on the album's development over the course of the year prior to its release. Discs five and six were again recorded in 1966 and are taken from a live concert the band did at the Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus Ohio. Again this is an opportunity to hear the band finalizing the tunes and testing them out on a live audience. While they didn't do all of the song's from the final recording at this concert, and there are two which aren't on the album, "Melody Laughter" and "The Nothing Song", listening to how the band and the music evolved over the space of the year these two discs and disc four represent is fascinating.
The answer to the question of whether or not we should care about an album first produced forty-five years ago is obvious - it depends on the album. When it comes to The Velvet Underground And Nico the answer is yes. Not only was it one of the most innovative recordings of its time, it is far more imaginative and creatively challenging than most of what is being released in popular music today. Listen to it and be inspired, confused, irritated, angered and moved - for like all good art even if you don't necessarily like it, it will make you feel something.
(Article first published as Music Review: The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground and Nico. [Super Deluxe Edition] on Blogcritics.)