Some Historical Context
It feels like I’ve always loved The Velvet Underground but that can’t possibly be true. I think I actually discovered them about thirty years ago. I know that I saw Nico in concert in about 1982. And in about 1983/4 I had a flatmate who had everything they had ever recorded. The first definite memory I have of hearing this album was someone putting it on as I was waking up on a Sunday morning following a rather heavy house party. I think that was also around 1982/3.
But ever since I first heard them they have been one of my favourite bands. I was lucky enough to see them play twice when they briefly reformed in 1993 – one great gig at the Town and Country Club in Kentish Town and another gig at that year’s Glastonbury Festival.
The album is one that I know inside out and listen to a lot. It probably fades into the background most of the time. It’ll be interesting to really listen to it again.
The rest of this blog post will be written as I listen to the album.
1. Sunday Morning
This is about as close as you can get to a perfect song to open an album. Especially if, as I am right now, you’re listening to it on a sunny Sunday morning. Its fabulous lush sound draws you slowly into the album and leaves you longing to hear more.
2. I’m Waiting for the Man
After the complex production on Sunday Morning, this all comes as a bit of a shock. From a laid back song about the joys of summer we’re plunged into a discordant rock song about buying drugs in New York. This is our first real indication of what the VU are really about. Listen to that guitar. At times it sounds like Reed is just hitting random notes. But it’s great.
3. Femme Fatale
And we’re back with the laid back stuff. But while it sounds pretty, the lyrics tell a different story. This is the first song sung by Nico and she tells us all about a woman that you really don’t want to have anything to do with. It’s actually about Edie Sedgwick. It’s a lovely song.
4. Venus in Furs
It there’s one thing that this album is, it’s unpredictable. Just as you think you might have an idea where it is going the band throw a curve-ball like this at you. When this was first released in 1967 this was a sound that no-one had heard before. John Cale plays the viola on this song. Probably the most discordant viola ever heard on a rock record. But it’s a perfect sound for the lyrics. The song is about sadomasochism. Have you noticed that so far every track on the album has been an absolute classic?
5. Run Run Run
If there’s a filler song on the album then this is it. After a run of four classic songs, we come to one that is merely adequate. We’re back to the basic instrumentation of Waiting for the Man – the subject matter is similar too, but the song isn’t quite as interesting.
6. All Tomorrow’s Parties
We finish side one with one of the album’s high-points. Some of the strangest instrumentation we’ve heard so far and Nico singing (chanting, almost) about some very peculiar people. Some people may know this better from the cover version by Japan. This version is much better.
So we turn the album over (yes, I know no-one does that any more – indulge me) and suddenly things get much weirder. Lou Reed thinks that the best way to start side two is to spend seven minutes trying to describe what a heroin rush is like through the medium of music. Now, I’m certainly no expert, but I think he pretty much succeeds. If nothing else, it convinced me that I never want to try it!
8. There She Goes Again
Realising, no doubt, that we all need a bit of rest after Heroin, this is a far more traditional song. There is still the trademark VU instrumentation, but this is the kind of thing I can imagine being in the charts in the late 60s (of course neither of the actual singles from the album – Sunday Morning and a edited version of All Tomorrow’s Parties – never went anywhere near the charts).
9. I’ll Be Your Mirror
And we’re back in Femme Fatale territory as Nico provides a pretty vocal to this short and sweet love song. But don’t be fooled, they’re softening us up for the kill.
10. The Black Angel’s Death Song
This is the most discordant song on the album. They aren’t even pretending to have a plan. And yet somehow it still works.
11. European Son
If I’m honest, I don’t think that the album ends as strongly as it could. Side one is overloaded with complete classics and whilst there are certainly no stinkers on side two it sort of tails off towards the end. There’s nothing at all wrong with this song. On pretty much any other album it would be a stand-out track. But on this album it’s just ok.
I love this album. I don’t listen to it enough and I’m glad I had this push to listen to it again. The Velvet Underground are one of those touchstone bands – if you’re not a fan of the VU then there’s a strong chance that we won’t be good friends.
They’re certainly an influential band. If your taste in music is anything like mine then many of your favourite acts will cite the VU as a big influence. I can’t put it better than Brian Eno who once said “the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”