velcro to velvet: behind 'the velvet underground and nico'

“I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!"

-Brian Eno, Los Angeles Times, 1982
Velvet Underground and Nico album cover (1967).
VELCRO TO VELVET: THE IMPORTANCE OF TONE IN THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO

The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) is perhaps one of the most important albums in the history of rock and roll. At the get go, it seems to be a rather experimental album, with simple yet catchy songwriting, and just enough (at the time) taboo themes to be banned in a Catholic school.

 The album is, of course, the debut of legendary New York band, The Velvet Underground, and contains 11 tracks, three of which are sung by German singer, Nico. This is also the only album where the band was managed by artist, Andy Warhol, as the band decided they wanted to follow a less artistic, grittier path after the release. The Velvet Underground would go on to make three more albums (and of course, the Doug Yule solo project, Squeeze) making up an extremely varied, and overall essential discography.

 Now, onto why the album is so important; to be simply put, the album somehow produces extremely simple songs, but gives it an edge (which I might add, was much ahead of its time) by doing things most artists were scared to do: writing dirty songs about everything from BDSM to drug dealing, all while experimenting out of the comfort zone.
               
While then taboo material and musical experimentation were important aspects of the album, the guts of it all lies behind the way that the band uses instrumentation, and tone to create a fully audio-visual emulation, that the listener can feel and understand physically, and emotionally. It does this constantly throughout the album, and the tones vary greatly from track to track.

Disclaimer: this is not a review, or an analysis. This article is a commentary on the tone of the album, which to me, is why it has held so strongly. The aim of the article is to hopefully give the reader a greater appreciation for the album.

"Lou Reed is unimpressed by applause, and lives a life detached from custom. His stare cold and his romanticism is brutal. His songs are half-sung melodies of menace. He might drop dead any second, and is therefore the real thing. Examined ravenously like a museum exhibit, Lou Reed is evidently spiked to excess, and strangely lovable."

-Morrissey, Autobiography

Ro Bruta, Andy Warhol Presents: The Velvet Underground and Nico, c. 2010

                  
The first track, Sunday Morning is a pretty, happy song that gives the listener a (false) sense of security, right before they are taken into the confusing world on this LP. The song starts off with chiming bells, playing an aesthetically pleasing arpeggio, followed by John Cale’s rather jumpy bassline. A string section is then thrown into the background, to support the main melody. Finally, the track lets the simple clack and Lou Reed's soothing vocals enter the score.

As I stated before, this track is very superficial, as all calm from the song is lost as Sterling Morrison’s hot guitar riff, and the thumping drum line of "I'm Waiting for the Man" comes into play. The song talks about waiting for and meeting with a drug dealer. Although the lyrics seem calm, making it seem as if the narrator has no fear; the rush and lack of breathing space of the instrumentation suggests otherwise. It gives this feeling by inputting a constantly moving bass line, a rather fast beat, and a guitar line that would offend an old lady by bumping into her. The song ends with one of the Velvet Underground's iconic drone sections, allowing for a distorted guitar to chomp up any innocence the album had left.

 Just from these two first songs alone, you can already tell that the album will be constantly moving from one idea, to another; from one tone, to another tone. After I'm Waiting for the Man, the album introduces the beautiful voice of Nico for the very first time. As expected, the next song, Femme Fatale, is a complete change of pace from the previous track. As the name implies, the songs talks about a complete femme fatale. Using Nico's singing to portray the beautiful imperfection of this woman was the biggest strength of the song, giving a sense of danger and gossip. The vocals are supported by a sweet guitar and percussion score.

The last song I will talk about is the fourth song on the album, Venus in Furs. Venus in Furs is the first song on the entire album where Maureen Tucker truly shines with her unique, tribal like style of drumming; using minimum cymbals, and deep, loud, pounding drums. The song contains a very haunting string section, and a droning vocal line from Lou Reed, who sings of BDSM. The song's lyrics were inspired by a book of the same name, which draws heavily on themes of bondage and femdom. The song has an overall somber feeling to it: the type of feeling you feel when you realize you're going to be a sex slave for the rest of your life.
           
Though I've only gone through 4 songs, the albums varies so frequently that I'm sure most people wouldn't even believe all of the songs were off of the same album. The one aspect that is kept throughout the entire album is the aesthetic of each song, and how the band (mainly led by John Cale, in terms of experimentation) truly does strive to create a completely audio based experience, that is one can easily visualize in their mind. This all due to one thing: use of instrumentation to make uniquely heavy changes in tone, that represent physical and emotional feeling.

This single idea is why I personally believe the album wasn’t lost in the 60’s. Against all odds (and Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band), it has somehow survived till today, and still sticks in the hearts of millions of fans around the world.



BY RUVEN SAMARAWEERA


3 comments:

  1. Ahhh good job Sam! You're in a magazine! I thought I'd be bored but I was actually interested and that never happens so it had to be good! Congratulations! :)
    - Em/Bellion

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  2. Selena Rossetti7 March 2016 at 20:37

    nice article!! awesome that you've been featured :)

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  3. Jeremy D'silva8 March 2016 at 19:58

    Yess, This is really good!

    ReplyDelete