It makes perfect sense, when you think about it, that even in its expensive 6-disk repackaging, the 45th anniversary edition of The Velvet Underground & Nico arrived with snafus. We’re not talking about the delay in delivery to our home, as UPS dug its way out of the post-Sandy mess. (And we really are trying to stay away from thinking that there is a connection between the release of this most epochal document produced by New York’s Downtown and the tidal flooding and blackout conditions that hit there literally the day this box set was released…)
The problem is: this most snakebit of iconic albums — recorded quickly in a studio in a condemned building, its original release delayed over a critical 11-month period between ’66 and ’67, and then upon release withdrawn from circulation because the label wouldn’t pay up for the rights to a single photograph on the back cover — has now gotten the full’n'reverential treatment, costing as much ($81.00) as the rent Lou Reed and John Cale likely paid for their apartment on the Lower East Side when they made the bloody thing. And yet Polydor seems to have forgotten to register the songs with the Gracenote online database. Thus last night, when we dropped the first cd into our iMac, no song titles registered. Perfect. Its six discs now sit in our computer as unidentified files.
Recorded in April 1966 but unreleased until late winter ’67, it took years for the first Velvets album to reach its full effect, a sleeper cell that didn’t start doing real damage until nearly ten years later. The ur-document of ’70s punk rock, the album that earlier knocked Bowie’s trajectory wonderfully off kilter, from singing Anthony Newley-esque show tunes to ultimately becoming Ziggy Stardust… that inspired artists as disparate as Brian Eno and Jonathan Richmond… that provided the context in which thinking American punk bands like Pere Ubu could develop, The Velvet Underground & Nico was the counterculture to the counterculture, a harsh and black-clad concoction from Lower Manhattan served to a tiny sliver of the world while San Francisco, LA and London were sipping electric Kool-Aid and happily marveling at technicolor landscapes.
Of course it ended up being released the same week as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to which it served as some reverse image: apogee of darkened New York streets while the Beatles, living now on vast country estates, turned the world on to a dramatically rosier reality. The Velvet Underground & Nico was a monochromatic production out of step with what was bubbling up in rock music. Whether it had come out in ’66 or not, this album would have been out of step with its West Coast counterparts, making the seeming misalignment betweenTimothy Leary and Ken Kesey, previously dramatized as an East-West conflict, seem like just an ego trip. The Velvets weren’t just off the bus, as proper New Yorkers they didn’t even know how to drive.
Brian Eno once famously said that “only 30,000 people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but they all started bands.” According to the liner notes, he was a bit off on that — by 1969, it had sold nearly 60,000 copies — but he sure was right about its limited impact on the mass culture contrasted against its complete influence on a later generation of musicians. Without the Velvet Underground, there would have been no Modern Lovers, nor Talking Heads. So many of the bands we love — from the Brian Jonestown Massacre to Galaxie 500/Luna, from the Jesus and Mary Chain to the Feelies, from Roxy Music to Spiritualized, Spaceman 3 to Pere Ubu — were direct musical descendants of the VU, a completely logical claim can be made that, in terms of the influence they were to have, the Velvet Underground were every bit the equals of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Dylan. And it all started with this album.
How Lou Reed, a street-smart poet steeped in a Brill Building pop sensibility, could have combined forces with the suave and classically trained John Cale, and then been directed by Andy Warhol to install Nico, a model born in pre-war Cologne, as the band’s resident chanteuse, is one of those pop music myths rivaled only by stories of John meeting Paul, Mick running into Keith on the bus, and now Gonzalez’s records finding their way to South Africa.
An argument can be made that it was really only after John Cale left that what today we recognize as “the Velvets sound” came into being. For arguably it was the Velvet Underground’s eponymous third album — without Cale, but with the guitar-dominant songs like “What Goes On” — that we hear echoed in our favorite bands. Much later, after the Velvets had been rediscovered by both British and New York punks, came the motherlode of accidentally rediscovered tapes, packaged and released in ’84 as VU. Among the bands we like, it was perhaps the most influential album of the 1980s, at least until the Pixies arrived, because it unearthed legendary songs that weirdly had the power of locking in a VU sound that studio albums only implied. The various live albums, crudely recorded as they were, offered tantalizing hints as to what the Velvets were really all about, but VU delivered, not so much rock as a Rosetta Stone. By then, apart for 15 years, Cale and Reed had guaranteed their status as masters, following a series of incredible solo albums, and in a way, we’d come to think of Velvets as mere antecedents to the more important oeuvre of the two founders. VU reflated the Velvets mythos with a set of jaw-droppingly great Lou Reed songs — from “I Can’t Stand It” to “Foggy Notion” — and every band I knew instantly wanted to sound like that.
There is no argument it was this first album that created the context for the band’s steady influence, still powerful 45 years on. It’s funny in a way, now that gay marriage is accepted by a majority of Americans, and a popular sitcom like Modern Family makes jokes about sadomasochism, to think about just how radical it was for a band to have recorded, in 1966, a song like “Venus In Furs,” with its whiff of the tawdry from dirty French novels.
There hasn’t been a concomitant acceptance of the album’s more shocking context, which was the elevation of heroin. It must have been so confusing to the audience at the rock ballroom in Ohio where, in 1966, the show included on Disks 5 and 6 was recorded, to hear not just “Waiting For The Man,” but “Heroin,” with Cale’s viola mimicking the feeling that Reed’s lyrics described. Most of the audience had probably just started smoking pot, a few of the more adventuresome having tried LSD. And here were these weirdos from New York singing about blood in the dropper before the heroin hits their veins. We’re grateful that sexual mores have changed since ’66, even as we wonder how many victims there were among those who took the signal from this album that it was darkly glamorous to try smack. The Velvet Underground & Nico was a far more revolutionary — and dangerous — document than anything that came out of San Francisco, London, or LA that year. And even as we praise it, and admire it for pushing musical boundaries, we’re glad that its glamorization of heroin had a more limited cultural impact.
The Velvets, to our knowledge, have shown up in fictionalized form in two movies. We see Andy Warhol’s Exploding Fantastic Inevitable in “I Shot Andy Warhol,” and we think we remember a scene where Jim Morrison sees the Velvets play during their stint at the Dom in Oliver Stone’s The Doors. The Doors may have been the only contemporary band to have truly embraced what these East Coast hipsters were up to in ’67. Theirs was a music of mystery and violence, with no rosy eyed hippie bullshit. And of course it makes sense, under the circumstances, that Jim Morrison died of a heroin overdose.
The Velvet Underground & Nico caught a band so far ahead of its time — so out of step with even the hippest quadrants of its moment — that it took more than a decade before New York bands like Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and the Talking Heads would consolidate the gains Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Mo Tucker made in a scuzzy studio in a two-day session. Rock music had no infrastructure to support the Velvet Underground. There was no Pitchfork keeping its ear to the ground and alerting the cognoscenti to the next big’n'obscure thing. There was no FM radio to make sure college towns heard what was happening in precincts far removed. Instead, there was AM radio in search of hits, and even as Lou Reed could churn songs out, few were the DJs or A&R men eager to play songs about shooting heroin or licking someone’s boot while the whip comes down.
Here we have the original album (Disk 1), its mono version (2), Nico’s Chelsea Girls in its entirety (3), rehearsal tapes and early recordings (4), and the aforementioned live sets. Yes, an expensive release for true obsessives. We deem it well justified, given how glorious this music is, how much it can still blow the mind. Now if the record label could only get the tracks entered into the proper data base, so our iMac would recognize them as not Xs and Os, but as the incendiary songs that they still are.
UPDATE: As of Friday, November 2nd, the database has updated, and all six CDs have been identified inside my iMac.