Since we past the fifty year mark last year of Elvis' appearance on the Ed Sullivan show it seems like there will be an endless number popular culture anniversaries that can be celebrated. One that I didn't want to let pass was the fortieth anniversary of what I consider to be the most important album released in that watershed year of 1967.
The number of influential and mind bending albums released during 67 is staggering with just a few of the most notable being The Beatles SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, Pink Floyd's PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN, Jefferson Airplane's SURREALISTIC PILLOW, The Kinks SOMETHING ELSE and I could go on and on. None of these, admittedly brilliant albums, compare though to my ears to one poor selling album that would have been gathering dust in the V section of your favorite local record store 40 years ago.
Released in March 1967, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO was an album unlike anything ever heard before. Although it barely scraped the bottom half of the top 200 in the spring of 67, for the people who bought it became a watershed moment. It is ground zero for modern music and I would argue the most influential album ever made.
With the financial and artistic support of Andy Warhol (credited as producer although Dylan producer Tom Wilson actually handled it) The Velvet Underground at this point was made up of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and a tall German model and actress named Nico.
New Yorker Reed had met Welshman Cale a few years before while they were both employed at a knockoff songwriting and recording company. Reed's astonishing street wise poetry and feedback drenched guitar stylings and Cale's classical avant-garde training would soon collide into the most searing sounds rock had ever heard.
The story of how The Velvets formed and met up with Warhol has been repeated so many times that I won't go into it here so I will flash forward to the album itself and my thoughts on it.
The thing that continues to give THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO so much power after 40 years is that it simply sounds like nothing else in popular music. No matter how many thousands of bands that have attempted to copy it's sound or Reed's words, the album is still its own separate universe. It is also one of the few recordings that doesn't have a clear starting point. With Elvis you could hear many of the blues artists and pop singers that he had heard growing up and with pretty much everyone after him you can hear Elvis, but songs like VENUS IN FURS or THE BLACK ANGELS DEATH SONG don't seem to have any starting point. They still sound like a clear beginning, some sort of musical big bang that hadn't been dealt with in rock before.
I would never slight the contributions of Maureen Tucker's primal revolutionary drumming style, the crystal purity of Sterling Morrison on guitar or the haunting vocals of Nico but it is hard to deny that THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO's main elements are Lou Reed and John Cale.
I have heard the studio take of HEROIN probably over a thousand time and I have dozens upon dozens of live recordings of it but there is still a moment in its original VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO take that still gives me chills and causes me to stop whatever other thought processes I might be having. It's the section that features Reed singing one of the most brilliant and chilling passages in rock history,
"When the smack begins to flow
Then I really don't care anymore
About all the jim-jims in this town
And everybody putting everybody else down
And all of the politicians makin' crazy sounds
All the dead bodies piled up in mounds"
and then Cale's Viola literally sounds like it is taking off into a completely uncharted splintered universe. The sound of Cale's viola along with Tucker's rapid heartbeat like drumming has still been unmatched for all out intensity in rock. You'd have to pull out an Ornette Coleman-Don Cherry collaboration or one of Albert Ayler's wilder moments to sonically come even close to what The Velvet's are doing on this album, and it all falls into place that moment when it feels like Lou Reed and John Cale come face to face with the most impending of all darkness and the darkness retreats screaming.
Much has been made of Lou's lyrics on this album and it is all justified. No one before or since has managed to capture urban angst or the frustrations of addiction, depression and ultimately redemption better than Lou Reed. The journey that he began in these grooves with tracks like HEROIN continues to this day. Much more than being rock's dark prince Lou Reed has reminded us for forty years now that there is indeed light at the end of the longest and blackest tunnel.
Equally compelling is John Cale. Like Reed, Cale has had one of the most ferocious and compelling careers of the past four decades, consistently releasing as many masterpieces as any of his peers, including Lou. The sound captured on THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO is these two warriors stepping into the ring for the first time battling off every conceived notion that a serious music fan might have of rock music, and the final bell still hasn't sounded on them.
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO is perfect in every respect beyond the most obviously brilliant tracks like HEROIN, WAITING FOR THE MAN and VENUS IN FURS. It contains some of the most startling ballads in Reed's catalogue like SUNDAY MORNING, FEMME FATALE and I'll BE YOUR MIRROR. These songs, with all of their doubt and vulnerability, still rank among the finest songs of lost love and yearning ever written. The album is also filled with a handful of perfect rock songs like THERE SHE GOES AGAIN, RUN RUN RUN and EUROPEAN SON that chronicle both Reed's and Cale's love for rock at it's purest. It was no coincidence when Cale turned Elvis Preseley's HEARTBREAK HOTEL into one of his greatest tracks as a solo artist or that Reed would cite Presley's THAT'S ALL RIGHT as the creation of rock music. For all of their avant-garde leanings, these guys really loved the basic foundation of rock and roll and that comes through clearly on this album, it just so happened that no one had ever played it quite like them before.
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO was of course a major failure upon release and it is hard to cite the exact moment of when it began to become the legend it is. You can hear the rumblings of it when David Bowie began to cover I'M WAITING FOR THE MAN in the late sixties but the exact moment is near impossible to place. It just feels like the album wasn't there and then it was...the moment of its release is rock music's point of B.C and A.D.
Brian Eno has that famous quote about how only a few hundred people bought the first Velvet Underground album but they all started bands. That's one of the most accurate thoughts in rock history and starting with the first Roxy Music album you can began to see the creative string that THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO album had dangled for other artists to grab onto. After Roxy Music, a virtual catalogue of the greatest albums of the last thirties years sprang directly from the bruising sonic masterpiece of The Velvet's first lp. Album's like Pere Ubu's DUB HOUSING, PiL's METAL BOX, Jesus and Mary Chain's PSYCHOCANDY and My Bloody Valentine's LOVELESS all the way up to the upcoming White Stripes record would be unthinkable without the Velvets. Thousands of others ranging far and wide between Joy Division to Vanessa Paradis or Television to The Birthday Party have continually paid tribute to The Velvet's and the extraordinary legacy they left.
Nico would never record with the full unit again although she would work with Lou and Cale at different points in her audacious and always brilliant solo career. My favorite Velvet Underground album remains the follow up to THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO, the chaotic and pulverising WHITE LIGHT WHITE HEAT. That would be the only record with just the four core group members and to me it is their ultimate work. The third album and LOADED are also masterpieces and it is hard to think of another group that has such a perfect, if small, studio catalogue. Start at track one on THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO and go to the final track on LOADED and you have one of the most seamless and extraordinary bodies of artistic expression in music history.
I was 15 when I got my first copy of THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO. It was on vinyl and there was a small scratch on the record that caused a rhythmic popping sound during FEMME FATALE. I often thought that little pop was my own little secret version of the album and it's that sound and the music on this remarkable album that have stuck with me now for nearly twenty years of my life. I have no doubt that it will be something that I will have with me when I take my own eventual exit into the great unknown Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and Nico travelled to forty astonishing years ago.