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(Credit: Polydor)


Cover to Cover: Every song on 'The Velvet Underground and Nico' covered


We’ve all heard the Brian Eno quote about The Velvet Underground and Nico: even though the album only sold around 30,000 copies initially, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” That exact number is hard to quantify in the real world, but there’s actually a much simpler way to track the immense impact of The Velvet Underground‘s debut – just look at all the covers.

First and foremost, there are numerous full-album covers that have been taken on over the years. Beck did a track-by-track re-imagining of the album back in 2009, with everyone from Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to actor/Beck’s former brother-in-law Giovanni Ribisi guesting on it. There was the I’ll Be Your Mirror compilation released last year, which had Michael Stipe, Courtney Barnett, and St. Vincent all contributing to the tracklist. There was even an Argentinian cover album completed shortly after Beck’s own covers album.

But there have also been large smatterings of covers done outside of a full group project. R.E.M. were one of the major propagators of The Velvet Underground’s legacy throughout the 1980s, and they’ve notched quite a few covers of the band, including opening a number of their early shows with ‘Pale Blue Eyes’. David Bowie was another famous fan, bringing Lou Reed into his orbit while the singer was aiming for a solo career throughout the ’70s. From Eddie Vedder to The White Stripes to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, you’d be hard-pressed to find an alternative artist who hasn’t paid tribute to the Velvets at some point.

We’ve assembled some of the best covers from across the now-five and a half decades since The Velvet Underground and Nico‘s release to assemble an ultimate tribute to the album’s legacy. The seismic shift that was caused by the record wasn’t immediately felt in 1967, but as the years continued to pass, the recognition towards the album continued to grow as its impact became undeniable.

Here are some of the best covers that continue to show the massive influence that The Velvet Underground and Nico has had on the world of music.

‘Sunday Morning’ – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

The impact of The Velvet Underground and Nico began to transcend genre as the album passed its 20th anniversary. By the 1990s, it was a right of passage to proclaim your allegiance to the record’s genius, no matter how far away your style might have been from the ragged and raw origins of The Velvet Underground.

The softer songs on the album were perfect for more synth-heavy groups like Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark to take hold of and make their own. Andy McCluskey’s lush take on the record’s opening track is the perfect evocation of Lou Reed’s softer, more inviting side.

‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ – David Bowie

The most high-profile fan of The Velvet Underground just after their breakup was David Bowie, who managed to get turned onto the band before their first album even came out. ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ was an early part of Bowie’s concert repertoire, and he continued to play the song well into his Ziggy Stardust days and beyond.

During the ’70s, Bowie became a crucial ally for Reed, who was struggling to get his solo career off the ground. As a direct result of the Bowie association, Reed would be able to make Transformer and establish himself as the voice of a generation. Any number of great Bowie performances of ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ could be placed here, but his live version from Santa Monica in 1972 has just the right amount of glammed-out swagger.

‘Femme Fatale’ – Big Star

Nico was an essential part of making The Velvet Underground and Nico such a distinct record. With her thick German accent and wavering tonality, Nico was unlike any voice that had ever appeared on a pop record before, and her influence stretched into the realms of art pop, goth, and even folk.

Her first appearance on the album has become one of the most frequently covered Velvet Underground songs, with everyone from R.E.M., Elvis Costello, Aloe Black and King Princess taking on the song. But Big Star undoubtably has one of the most heartbreaking versions, with Alex Chilton intoning one of the most vulnerable and pristine vocal performances ever put to tape.

‘Venus in Furs’ – The Melvins

The first truly perverse moment on The Velvet Underground and Nico comes on ‘Venus in Furs’ as the listener gets transported to the sex dungeon of bondage that makes up the song’s eerie setting. With clattering guitars and hypnotic rhythms, ‘Venus in Furs’ is the first time on the album that the Velvets aren’t sending up genres of the past and are instead creating their own unsettling new sonic world.

Who better to pick up the baton as deviant boundary-pushers than sludge gods The Melvins. On their succinct take on ‘Venus in Furs’, the obstinate mindset of the original track is preserved as the group completely obliterate the song’s arrangement in a tornado of noise and distortion. The Velvets’ fascination with abrasive sounds wound up being one of their most revolutionary aspects, and no cover does justice to that abrasiveness quite like The Melvins’ version of ‘Venus in Furs’.

‘Run Run Run’ – Julian Casablancas

As far as modern-day Lou Reed devotees go, you won’t find anyone more ardent and more unapologetic in his swiping of Reed’s entire persona than Julian Casablancas. It’s not like he’s hiding it either: Casablancas has freely talked about the Velvets’ influence on his vocal style and the kind of music he wanted to play in The Strokes. He’s also covered Reed’s work frequently, notching covers of ‘White Light/White Heat’ and ‘Venus in Furs’ for HBO’s doomed series Vinyl.

For the same soundtrack, Casablancas also laid down a version of ‘Run Run Run’ that retains the harried and frantic nature of the original. Casablancas sounds almost imperceptibly like Reed, right down the weirdly detached bemusement that both vocalists seem to revel in. Although it might seem like a cheap imitation to some, Casablancas is probably doing more to keep Reed’s legacy alive in the modern-day than anyone else in the music industry.

‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Oddly enough, ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ just might be the hardest song to pick a cover from. That’s because numerous artists have great versions of the Nico-sung track: Siouxsie and the Banshees’ live version shows the clear connection between Nico and Siouxsie Sioux, Japan created a great new wave version of the song, while Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ version from Kicking Against the Pricks shows off an aggressive post-punk legacy for the track.

But it’s Bryan Ferry’s slinky and noir-tinged synth-pop take on the track that remains most fascinating today. Smooth as silk and filled with moody late ’80s production, Ferry completely reimagines the track while retaining the original’s haunting and shadowy atmosphere. While loads of acts are eager to replicate the raggedness of the Velvets, Ferry finds the pristine beauty that was also essential to their sound.

‘Heroin’ – Roky Erickson

Easily The Velvet Underground’s most unsettling number, ‘Heroin’ is neither an endorsement nor a rebuke of the titular drug. Rather, it’s a first-person narrative of the madness that can take over a person’s mindset when they reach for the needle. It’s a song about desperation and breakdowns, so who better to bring that to life than a man who has lived through plenty of ups and downs himself.

That strange part about Roky Erickson’s take on ‘Heroin’ is that it sounds equally joyous and frazzled. Erickson screeches like he only has minutes to live, but the band behind churns out a steady rhythm for him to rock out to. With the drug abuse and mental illness that coloured his life, Erickson sings from one of the rawest and most personal perspectives that, quite sadly, does the song justice.

‘There She Goes Again’ – R.E.M.

R.E.M. became one of the major propagators of The Velvet Underground during the ’80s, reimagining the band’s songs into their own signature alt-rock style. Whether it was taking on ‘Femme Fatale’ or opening concerts with ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, the Athens boys had quite a fondness for Lou Reed and the Velvets.

No album is a better testament to the obsession R.E.M. had with the Velvets than the compilation Dead Letter Office, which features not one, not two, but three Velvet Underground covers on it. ‘There She Goes Again’ is the most straightforward, but also the clearest example of just how indebted R.E.M. were to The Velvet Underground.

‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ – The Primitives

At their very core, The Velvet Underground were still writing pop songs. They have been set in the seedy underbelly of 1960s New York and populated with perverse characters and rampant drug use, but Lou Reed still had an unmatched ear for melody and hooks. When the Velvets decided to lighten up, like on the Nico-lead ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, those pop inclinations start to become much more clear.

So when you hear a band like ’80s new wavers The Primitives taking on ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, the clearness of the Velvets’ massive cross-genre appeal starts to stand out. Even though they made lo-fi odes to the darker sides of life, The Velvet Underground still included plenty of sugar-coated pop on the surface. The Primitives don’t even have to do that much on their version: they just play it straight for the pure pop song that it is.

‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ – Clock DVA

A surprising amount of electronica-indebted artists have taken inspiration from The Velvet Underground. Despite never having used electronics themselves, the Velvets were early pioneers for idiosyncratic tones and sounds to come to the forefront of music, whether it was through the shrieking high notes of John Cale’s viola or the ecstatic buzz from the band’s guitars.

Industrial music can trace a pretty clear line back to the Velvets’ more metallic tones, and Clocks DVA paid tribute to this connection through their cover of ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’. Even though Fontaines D.C. have a great modern version of the track, Clocks DVA made it pretty hard to top all the way back in 1983.

‘European Son’ – Thurston Moore

The cacophonous conclusion to The Velvet Underground and Nico come with ‘European Son’, the largely improvised piece that closes the album on a calamitous note. The Velvet Underground were pioneers in bringing experimental ideas to the realm of rock music, utilizing feedback and distortion to create otherworldly tones.

It feels appropriate, then, to hand off the final cover to noise rock god Thurston Moore and his own ecstatic breakdown of music. The video credits Sonic Youth with cover, but it was actually recorded by Moore alone as part of his contribution to the 1988 compilation The End of Music As We Know It.