The Velvet Underground are enigmatic, illustrious and groundbreakingly influential. What many may not know, is that their debut record did not sell well whatsoever upon its initial release. In fact, when the album first came out on March 12th in 1967, only 1000 copies were sold. While this is the case, those who bought the album, all started a band – or so the tale goes.
The first time album hit the Billboard Charts, it stayed at the bottom, and not only this but many radio stations had banned the record; meanwhile, the band had already secured their ban from multiple venues earlier on. As Richie Unterberger, writing for Allmusic, said: “The music was simply too daring to fit onto commercial radio; ‘underground’ rock radio was barely getting started at this point, and in any case may well have overlooked the record at a time when psychedelic music was approaching its peak.”
Lou Reed had stated later on after the band broke up that the only reason why they got a record contract, to begin with, was that the label knew that Andy Warhol was doing the album’s cover. I highly doubt if the band even cared whether they would become successful. All the signs would say otherwise; they were repeatedly getting kicked out of local NYC clubs and joints and would refuse to compromise their live sound. The Velvet Underground were clad in black, featuring Lou Reed’s conversational, underwhelming, deadpan voice with simple yet unconventional lyrics and guitar tunings; minimal drums from Maureen Tucker; bright but piercing guitar chiming from Sterling Morrison; and the best of all, was John Cale emanating drones from his slightly detuned viola; the band was a cacophony of art. They represented the underworld; the seedy lifestyles of New York City; I highly doubt if The Velvet Underground were going for numbers of sales.
Ultimately, the joke would be on the masters of conventions – the thing is, Velvet Underground & Nico aged really well. Following in the coming years, every band wanted to be like The Velvet Underground.
By way of compromise, The Velvet Underground picked up the stoic, German model as another singer for the group. She had an icy look about her; an austere, deadly, emancipating demeanour but was absolutely drop-dead gorgeous and offered a new level to the band’s sound.
Their other secret was Andy Warhol, the famous pop artist. He ran a headquarters for the freaks, the outcasts and the losers-turned-cool, called The Factory. Here, BDSM took place, films were shot, parties were thrown, and a lot of drugs were taken. The Velvet Underground operated out of this place; the band was more than just an avant-garde rock n’ roll band – they were apart of a higher conscious collective – they were snobbish, sure, but they were so beaten down and they deserved a place as well. The Velvet Underground sang for the literate, the clowns, the drug addicts, the acutely aware, and the bored.
The Velvet Underground & Nico is the band’s debut album and still remains not only their greatest record but rock n’ roll’s greatest record.
The Velvet Underground’s debut album’s songs ranked from worst to best:
11. ‘European Son’
While it’s going to be nearly impossible to rank these songs from worst to best (they should all be at number one) this song is probably the weakest of them all. To say the worst about it; it is self-indulgent, it goes on for way too long but yet it is an accurate representation of what The Velvet Underground used to do at their early show: go off on an experimental foray into chaos.
This song has been described as a precursor to their follow up record, White Light/White Heat; it has a similar vibe to the songs found on their next album. Although, it definitely has a place on this album. The song is Lou Reed’s ode to his Poetry mentor at Syracuse University in New York (where he went to school) Delmore Schwartz. The reason for why there is a minimal amount of vocals and therefore lyrics: Schwartz despite rock lyrics. Probably not Lou Reed’s though.
10. ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’
As is the case with ‘European Son’ if anything, it sounds like a filler song. While it still possesses the quintessential VU sound and aesthetic, as far as ‘songs’ are concerned, there are far better ones found on this record. The song is written by both Lou Reed and John Cale. In the footnotes of the song, Reed wrote “The idea here was to string words together for the sheer fun of their sound, not any particular meaning.”
When the Velvets performed at the Cafe Bizarre in New York City, the manager of the place asked them to not play this song or anything like it ever again. In response, the Velvets played it again, and with a vengeance. The lyrics of the song are less directed than Reed’s usual style of writing; they are more cryptic, in other words. The track is a great example of John Cale’s use of the avant-garde that he picked up from La Monte Young.
9. ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror‘
The song was written by Lou Reed for Nico, who sings the track. Reed based it on something Nico said to him once, “Oh Lou, I’ll be your mirror.” The song is one of their more delicate ones from the album, and it shows the other side of The Velvets that exists; The Velvet Underground were also somewhat of a soft pop band with minimal instrumentation with nothing but a bass drum, tambourine, snare, bass guitar, and a simple guitar part.
According to the guitar player, Sterling Morrison, Nico had a hard time recording the vocals on this track, She kept singing “I’ll Be Your Mirror” in her strident voice. Dissatisfied, we kept making her do it over and over again until she broke down and burst into tears. At that point we said, “Oh, try it just one more time and then fuck it — if it doesn’t work this time, we’re not going to do the song.” It is a beautiful song but placed against the other tracks on the album, it is one of their weaker ones.
8. ‘Run Run Run’
The theme of heroin and general drug use permeates throughout the entire album and especially in this track. This was part of the nature of The Velvets that made them groundbreaking; no one up this point, especially in 1967, had spoken so honestly about drug use, at least in the way they did.
The song was written on the back of an envelope while on their way to a gig. The song features characters that Lou based on real people in the city, as well as on himself. People such as ‘Teenage Mary’, ‘Margarita Passion’, ‘Seasick Sarah’, all had somewhat of a dark cartoonish quality that made them real but yet larger than life. ‘Run Run Run’ is heavily based in the blues but of course, done in the typical Velvets fashion. They have better songs on the record.
7. ‘Sunday Morning’
The song is the opening track on the album and was written when producer, Tom Wilson thought they needed another song with Nico on vocals that could serve well as a single. According to Lou Reed, the song was written on a Sunday morning with John Cale, with Nico’s vocals in mind: “Why don’t you just make it a song about paranoia?’ I thought that was great so I came up with ‘Watch out, the world’s behind you, there’s always someone watching you,’ which I feel is the ultimate paranoid statement in that the world cares enough to watch you.”
6. ‘There She Goes Again’
The song was directly inspired by Marvin Gaye’s ‘Hitch Hike’. Sterling Morrison said about the track: “Metronomically, we were a pretty accurate band. If we were speeding up or slowing down, it was by design. If you listen to the solo break on ‘There She Goes Again’, it slows down—slower and slower and slower. And then when it comes back into the “bye-bye-byes” it’s double the original tempo, a tremendous leap to twice the speed.”
R.E.M, another American band who was greatly inspired by the Velvets, covered this track as well as another later Velvet’s number, ‘Pale Blue Eyes.’ As we get closer to the top of the barrel, it’s becoming very difficult to rank the best songs from the album; the song is good, but there are better to come.
5. ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’
Supposedly, this is Andy Warhol’s favourite track off the record. John Cale has said that “the song was about a girl called Darryl, a beautiful petite blonde with three kids, two of whom were taken away from her.”
However, Lou Reed has said that it wasn’t exactly about one person in particular, but instead, about all of Andy’s gang at The Factory, saying: “It’s a very apt description of certain people at the Factory at the time. I watched Andy. I watched Andy watching everybody. I would hear people say the most astonishing things, the craziest things, the funniest things, the saddest things.” Nico sings this one, it’s a classic song and timeless.
4. ‘Femme Fatale’
“Oh, don’t you think she’s a femme fatale, Lou?” Andy Warhol said to Lou Reed when he asked what he should write about if he were to write a song about The Factory’s star actress, Edie Sedgwick. So, Reed would immortalise those words in one of the greatest pop songs ever written, when Warhol asked him to write a song about Sedgwick.
Sterling Morrison noted saying, “‘Femme Fatale’—she [Nico] always hated that. Nico, whose native language is minority French, would say ‘The name of this song is ‘Fahm Fatahl”. Lou and I would sing it our way. Nico hated that. I said, ‘Nico, hey, it’s my title, I’ll pronounce it my way’.”
3. ‘Venus in Furs’
‘Venus in Furs’ was kind of the anthem for BDSM happenings in The Factory. The song was named after a book of the same name, which was very much about bondage, sadomasochism, and submission – written by Leopold Van Sachar-Masoch.
The track is rather legendary as it captures the essence of sexual liberation that The Velvets, Andy Warhol and The Factory were associated with. The track was released as a single.
2. ‘I’m Waiting For My Man’
Once again, a tale about seedy drug deals and ‘chasing the dragon’. The narrator of the song is waiting on a street corner in New York City (Lexington Ave and 125th Street), for 26 dollars worth of junk, which is now worth 211 dollars.
The sound of the song is instantaneously recognisable; it jolts the listener into that time and place of wherever they heard the song for the first time. When hearing the track, you can truly envision the scenario of what is going on in the song.
One of the most controversial songs ever written, the song was too much for 1967, and probably is still too much. The quintessential drug song, of which only the likes of Lou Reed could write, the imagery is potent, daring and dangerous. It has the kind of mystery that can corrupt the youth with curiosity; it invites you to the world of seeding underworlds, literature, punk, rock, painting, and honesty.
While all the tracks on The Velvet Underground & Nico are truly breathtaking in their pop-formatted scope – all little snapshots within autobiographical and fictional worlds – however, small the medium is, the subject matters and the sounds are massive. ‘Heroin’ from all the choices – however abysmal and dark the subject matter is – is the most alluring and beautifully poignant.