The Cover Uncovered: The story behind Velvet Underground and the most famous banana in the world
The Velvet Underground & Nico is undeniably one of the great seminal albums of all time. However, when it was released in 1967, it remarkably had little to no cultural effect on the world despite ushering in a breadth new sounds. All great albums have iconic cover art yet few in the world of music are as eye-catching as Andy Warhol’s famous banana, one which has perhaps become even more celebrated than the record itself.
Warhol created a deliberately provocative design for the self-titled debut record by The Velvet Underground & Nico and the banana would become symbiotic with the group even some 50 years later. Early copies of the album even invited the owner to ‘peel slowly and see’ and, when peeling back the banana skin, revealed a flesh-coloured banana underneath which didn’t leave much to the imagination. A special machine was then needed to manufacture the covers, a decision which led to the album release being considerably delayed. However, the connection to Warhol was viewed by their label as a major key to their success. The plans were earmarked as an investment by the record company who happily obliged to pay for the extra costs, believing that the tie to the iconic artist would boost sales of the album tenfold. Warhol’s artistic director, Ronnie Cutrone, would later explain the delay: “Someone had to sit there with piles of albums, peel off the yellow banana skin stickers and place them over the pink fruit by hand,” he painstakingly admitted.
However, despite its success as an artistic project, the album cover did end up landing the band in a spot of legal trouble upon its first issue because of a cover photo featured on the back. The picture in question was taken at a performance of Warhol’s event Exploding Plastic Inevitable and contained an image of actor Eric Emerson projected upside-down on the wall behind the band. This came at a tough time for Emerson and, rather than be honoured to feature as art on the cover of such an outstanding record, he instead deciphered a plan to sue the band. The actor, who had recently been arrested for drug possession, was desperate for money and he saw this as an opportunity to get paid — but this would be something he’d come to regret.
The label had other ideas, however, and rather than pay Emerson they instead recalled copies of the album and decided that they wouldn’t print any more copies of The Velvet Underground & Nico until the image of Emerson had been removed from the photo on subsequent pressings. The copies that were already printed were sold with a large black sticker covering Emerson’s image, a result which was not the ending that the actor had envisaged and left him significantly out of pocket.
“The banana actually made it into an erotic art show,” Lou Reed once noted about the cover art. Most reissued vinyl editions of the album do not feature the peel-off sticker and original copies of the album with the peel-sticker feature are now rare collector’s items which are sold for a ridiculous amount of money. A Japanese re-issue LP in the early 1980s was the only re-issue version to include the banana sticker for many years.
Despite the controversial cover, The Velvet Underground & Nico didn’t fly off the shelves and the manner in which it sensationally flopped led to tensions growing between the band — a problem from which they would never quite recover. Frustrated by the album’s year-long delay and unsuccessful release, Lou Reed’s relationship with Andy Warhol worsened and the singer then spectacularly fired Warhol. On top of that, Nico was forced out of the group and would release her debut solo album, Chelsea Girl, later in 1967.
Even if the cover would harm the growth of the band in 1967, forcing a delayed and ultimate tensions, the group never quite got to reap the rewards of their affiliation with Warhol during the peak of their powers. In the years that would follow, The Velvet Underground would finally gain the recognition they deserved and this album would be viewed as being a pivotal moment in the history of music — even if the band had already moved on to pastures new.