Friday, January 16, 2009

The Velvet Underground and Nice - Andy Warhol

The Velvets’ connections with Andy Warhol have been well documented and was a mixed blessing for the band. While his name gave them publicity and got them this initial recording contract, his influence also locked them into certain preconceived notions and probably contributed to the eventual dissolution.

In any case, this debut combines some of their pure aural madness with true beauty and delicateness. An example of the later is the opening cut, “Sunday Morning”. This is a lovely ballad that if it had been recorded by a cleaner, less demented group, and with a more traditional singer than Lou, would most likely have been a hit. But, between the Warhol connection and lyrics about drug dealing and shooting up, the song and album was tainted by association.

New York’s brownstone tenements are the backdrop for “Waiting for the Man”, a tough tale of scoring drugs (though rumor has it that at one time Reed tried to convince people that it was about gay hustlers). This is two chord garage punk on dope – scary, dark and hyponotic!

Nico makes her first appearance on another beautiful ballad, “Femme Fatale”, a wonderfully crafted tune that actually has a catchy chorus – not something that Lou did often at this time! Using vaguely Eastern tones, drones and Cale’s viola, the group creates a whole texture with “Venus in Furs”. This is rather unstructured, but still terrific, with the slashing viola providing a rhythm and themes of S&M explored. It is truly boggling just how advanced this group was, considering that this was released in ’66 or so and no band has yet to compare with this, regardless of their many impersonators.

They lighten up a little for “Run Run Run”, a fairly basic rocker until it gets to the insane, screeching guitar solo that is simply sick! Love it! Nico is back for “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, which is a nice, drone-y showcase for her with more staccato, fractured guitar playing.

The most overtly controversial song was, of course, the blatantly titled “Heroin”. The country was barely adopting the idea that their kids were smoking pot or maybe occasionally taking a hit of acid and here comes Lou, with all the hip-ness of a spade jazz player, talking about the decision to stick a needle in his arm. There are no double entendres here – he comes right out and states it! It’s hard to marginalize just how ground breaking this was. And really, other than underground/punk bands, how many singers have been this literal about their drug use since? And to top it off, it’s a great song! Slow, droney and appropriately drug-like, there are dreamy lyrics among the tawdy realism and the song builds and releases its tension live waves. This is a true classic!

On a much lighter side, Reed steals from the r’n’b hit “Hitchhike” for the hook for “There She Goes Again”. The woman in question sounds like a hooker, but I guess the words could be taken in different ways. To my ears, though, it sounds like someone is enthralled with a prostitute in this simple and catchy r’n’r tune.

Again, Nico is given a pretty ballad with “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, with some excellent lyrics and a really nice call and answer at the end. Back to the dissonance and psychotic viola-playing in “The Black Angel’s Death Song”. I won’t pretend to understand what this is supposed to be about, but it is another wonderfully twisted aural statement.

Ending with “European Son”, an up beat number that seems relatively sane until a huge crash/growl/I-dunno-what explodes and Lou screeches into another solo that sounds like he is destroying his guitar instead of playing it! Magnificent!

Still far ahead of its time to this day, this literally mind-boggling debut showed all the aspects of the band that would appear throughout its career – the soft and the manic, the pretty and the cacophonous. Not for the weak of heart or those who like their rock packaged up nice and neat, but for those of us who love music that teeters on the edge of madness, this is a must have!