The Velvet Underground & Nico

Band: The Velvet Underground

Album: The Velvet Underground & Nico

Another important debut album in the annals of rock music, The Velvet Underground & Nico set the benchmark for the punk, glam rock, goth, and new wave bands that would follow.

Infused with Lou Reed’s rich lyrics of drug use, sex, and general hard living in Manhattan, the album was recorded during 1966 and produced by avant-garde pop art icon Andy Warhol, who came across the band during in a club in late 1965.

Warhol would incorporate the band into his mixed media and performance art show entitled The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, touring across the United States and Canada

Side A kicks off with the dreamy Sunday Morning, a soft counterpoint for what follows, including one of my favourite Velvet cuts, the gender-challenging I’m Waiting for the Man (which, in the song, is actually sung I’m waiting for my man).

The deeper you go into the album, the more tortured and darker the lyrics and discordant the music. Bassist John Cale pulls out the viola for On Venus in Furs, appearing to match musically to what he’s doing to the viola to Reed’s tale of leather and sadomasochism. He does the same again on Heroin, taking the listener musically through the mind-numbing journey that follows a hit (consider it the prequel to Neil Young’s The Needle and the Damage Done).

The album ends with European Son, a tune that climaxes with a frenetic wall of sound that rises like a wave and ultimately crashes down upon the listener.

This is the only album the group recorded with Nico, an enigmatic model/chanteuse from Europe who delivers lyrics in a husky, breathless voice that hovers between an alto and a tenor.

It was also the only album they would record with Warhol; the reaction from critics to Exploding Plastic Inevitable and The Velvet Underground was absolute with little room for grey: “brutal assemblage,” “dynamic exploration,” “a three-ring psychosis that assaults the senses,” “haunting in its uniqueness.”

The shrill viola and oddly-tuned guitars make it a difficult album to appreciate with a single listen; it’s certainly not something to be thrown onto the turntable as background music for a party. It’s an album that requires the listener to actively pay attention in order to capture the nuances of Reed’s lyrics, and the rhythm and beat of the music through what can only be best described as a jarring cacophony.

And indispensable in any collection.