INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Record Collector NOVEMBER 2012 - by Oregano Rathbone
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO: THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO / NICO: THE END
if ever an album warranted every superheated epithet applied to it, The Velvet Underground & Nico is your culprit. It reconfigured the topography of rock, exposing an appropriately subterranean world, and broke more ground than the 1906 San Francisco quake. Where to start? The pitiless camera-eye of Lou Reed's downbeat, decadent compositions? The audio verité anti-production anti-techniques? The coolly unglamorous Mo Tucker, a female drummer - hey, just like The Honeycombs - who used no cymbals and played no fills? A frontline viola player, John Cale, who eschewed consonance and counterpoint in favour of neuralgic minimalist drones? The stoical clang of Sterling Morrison's rhythm guitar? Begrudged vocalist Nico's glacial, no-fun baritone? Band mentor Andy Warhol's art-on-his-sleeve, peel-off banana motif?
Universal's forty-fifth anniversary six-disc box-set proffers mono and stereo versions of this most dauntless and deathless of debut albums, with a thicket of rehearsals, alternate takes and mixes, plus a fractious 1966 live set from the Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus, Ohio. Disc Three, meanwhile, is given over to Nico's roughly contemporaneous 1967 Chelsea Girl album.
Somehow, The Velvet Underground & Nico retains its shocking potency despite its "classic album" overfamiliarity. The mellifluous Sunday Morning, suspended in its twinkling cavern of Spectorian reverb, is a wrong-footing curtain-raiser: thereafter, it's bitterly strong meat all the way. The offhand drug deal reportage and radical, backbeat-free throb of I'm Waiting For The Man; the awful thrall, uttering arterial pulse and jet-scream viola of Heroin; and the grinding, heavy-lidded eroticism of Venus In Furs: all are among the first and nest monuments on the alt.rock freeway. The uneasy lo-fi grumble of Run Run Run and European Son - a strum-und-drang Brillo pad of furiously scrubbed guitars and whistling feedback - are the birth pangs of Jesus & Mary Chain and Sonic Youth. Even the comparatively straight There She Goes Again, liberating the stop-time riff from Marvin Gaye's Hitch Hike, is plain wrong: "You better hit her." Eh?
The generally excellent Valleydale Ballroom tracks, received by the audience with uncomprehending listlessness, reveal that, in 1966, the Velvets live already sounded just like the record. Elsewhere, some alternate takes are illuminating: despite the album's take-us-as-we-are reputation, someone must have been making production decisions. Both Venus In Furs and Heroin are attempted in a lower, less dynamic key. On the latter, a stridently theatrical Reed sings, "I know just where l'm going." We even hear, in rehearsal, Nico blithely attempting There She Goes Again.
Nico, appended to The Velvet Underground at Andy Warhol's behest, ended up singing three of the album's most cherished touchstones: Femme Fatale, All Tomorrow's Parties and the exquisite I'll Be Your Mirror. Matter-of-factly sidelined thereafter, the German actress and model recorded Chelsea Girl, a sweet sigh of fingerpicked folk-pop guitar and sympathetic strings. A small masterpiece of wintry and indulgent melancholy, it was too decorous for Nico's liking: but the musique concrete tendencies of It Was A Pleasure Then prefigured subsequent solo outings such as 1974's obsidian The End, freshly reissued with bonus radio session and live tracks. One imperious woman and a bronchial harmonium, attended by storm-borne, restless and despairing phantasms: it's a gothic gemstone.