This week, I’ve been listening to The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album “The Velvet Underground & Nico.” I first sought out the Velvet Underground when I was about 15, because they were managed by Andy Warhol who used them for his multimedia The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. I had seen the documentary “Superstar” about Warhol on PBS, which immediately inspired my creativity and perspective on life. The compilation “The Best of The Velvet Underground: Words and Music of Lou Reed” quickly became one of my most listened to cassettes. The far-out sound opened me up to possibilities I hadn’t even thought of at the time.
The beautiful chaos of the song “Heroin” blew my mind; I remember many times I would listen to the song loudly in headphones to become immersed in the driving rhythm and landscape of feedback. I love that the rhythm guitar and vocals keep going, hanging on to the train while the everything else flies off the tracks in a wild cacophony. This song really introduced me to the idea that a song can sonicly create an atmosphere that embodies what the lyrics describe. The sound is increasingly overwhelming and maddening, the chaos overpowers the structure. And yet, the opening of the song gives no impression of where it is headed. This is the 7th track, which originally opened side B. It may not be the most digestible song, but I think it is the most successful combination of elements that make this album unique. It has Lou Reed’s vocal and lyrics, basic rock structure, with electric violin, and crazy noise with experimentalism. And the last line of the song “And I guess, but I just don’t know” really speaks volumes, not just within the context of the song but also of the scene and time.
The album proper actually opens with “Sunday Morning”, which is possibly the most accessible song. It features viola and celesta, all played in a rather restrained manner. There’s also viola providing a lush bed for the other instruments to play in. It’s pretty and cool. The lyrics relay a sense of paranoia, but with the setting of an otherwise laid back Sunday morning.
In contrast, the next song “I’m Waiting For the Man” has probably the most “Velvet Underground” sound. Lou’s vocal delivery is stylistically cool, like a rock n roll beatnik. The rhythm section of drums, bass and piano play a constant repetitive rhythmic pattern. It’s incessant like a machine running in the background., but mixed low behind the forward vocals and lead guitar.
There’s other moments in the album that truly stand out. The feedbacked start of the guitar solo in “Run Run Run” is brilliant; unfortunately, it devolves into Dick Dale style picking seemingly leaving too much up to chance without enough happy accidents. And that’s what I feel is this album’s greatest source of weakness. Too often it feels like they just went at it, hoping it’ll turn out OK and it doesn’t. I love that attitude, which suits both the punk (before punk) rock and Warhol image, and when it works it really works. Still, I wish it didn’t create so many annoying bits. The song “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is wonderful except for much of the guitar parts, which are what I would expect to hear from a guitarist trying out different ideas before they hit ‘record’.
In addition to the daring qualities of the music, Lou Reed’s lyrics are what make the album. He has a beat knack for the poetic, weaving story-telling elements through each song. Often, these are just vignettes or scenes of a larger story; In some cases a collection of short vignettes to make up a larger story. He frequently tells stories through the voices of its characters, with “she said”‘s peppered throughout. The singer’s experience of listening frames the story. Lou Reed was guilty of lines obviously written for the rhyme, which particularly stands out because his lyrics are so strong otherwise. Lou is also a prime example of a great vocalist whose not a strong singer; and rock n roll is the perfect medium for that talent.