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Fifty years of The Velvet Underground

4 May 2017

Fifty years ago this spring, the debut record by a little-known band went on sale in the USA. It contained 11 songs that veered between melodic perfection and abrasive white noise, and came packaged in an elaborate sleeve designed by its producer – a certain Andy Warhol. But whatever hopes its creators and distributors may have harboured, it tanked. Reaching the dizzying heights of 171 on the Billboard charts and selling very few copies, it should by rights have been consigned to history as one of Warhol’s less successful spinoff projects. Instead, it went on to become one of the most celebrated rock’n’roll releases in history. That record is, of course, The Velvet Underground & Nico.

Listening to the album now, it’s no wonder it failed to sell. At a time when the record-buying public was high on the whimsical escapism of peace, love and hippie platitudes, The Velvet Underground’s distinctly malevolent songs about rough sex, drug abuse and dependency couldn’t have been less timely. Pop was about innocence, and even the most game-changing of contemporary releases – the Beatles winsome Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for example – didn’t dare to venture onto the sordid ground on which The Velvet Underground had pitched camp. Indeed, so transgressive were its songs that many record stores in the US simply refused to stock it.

Had it not been for Warhol’s involvement, The Velvet Underground & Nico might never have been recorded. By 1966, the commercial designer turned artist was already approaching household name status. Chancing upon Lou Reed and Welsh-born viola player John Cale through experimental filmmaker Barbara Rubin – who had filmed much of her notoriously explicit film Christmas on Earth at the latter’s apartment – he had signed them up to play live soundtracks to a multimedia spectacle he dubbed the ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitable’. For him, the obvious next step was to turn The Velvet Underground, a group who had named themselves after a book on ‘the sexual corruption of our age’, into his very own Pop (or rather, rock’n’roll) sensation. He had already made ‘superstars’ out of various hangers-on at his Factory. He knew rock stars – Dylan was one of his many visitors there – so why couldn’t he create his own?

The task might have been easier had he not picked a band of such headstrong personalities. Reed was a stubborn – many would say wilfully perverse – New Yorker who had studied literature under the poet Delmore Schwartz. He underwent electroconvulsive therapy as a troubled teenager and since leaving college, had cultivated an impressive drug habit while working as a production line songwriter composing novelty songs. It was during the recording of one of these that he met Cale, an equally single-minded talent who had moved to New York from Britain on a music scholarship before being taken under the wing of avant-garde composer LaMonte Young. Almost accidentally, the pair’s respective backgrounds led to a new form of music that blended Reed’s instincts for disposable pop with Cale’s academic and experimental training. The resulting songs – the discordant Black Angels Death Song, the clattering S&M drama Venus in Furs, the performative first-hand drug use account Heroin – occupied a place somewhere between performance art and pop music, and sounded like nothing attempted before.

But Reed and Cale simply didn’t look like stars, and Warhol wanted to be associated with a hit. To achieve this, he somehow persuaded them to let his acolyte, the beautiful German actress and model Nico, front the band, heedless as to the fact that she was essentially tone deaf (as Cale later put it). Reed, it’s fair to say, was far from happy about this, but coupled with Warhol’s clout, the glamour that Nico brought to the table ultimately led to a record deal.

Despite his credit as a producer, Warhol had next to no involvement with the album’s recording. Instead, he played the part of svengali, getting the band (largely scathing) publicity and designing the sleeve – a screen print of a bruised banana skin on an adhesive label, accompanied by a small tab inviting the viewer to ‘peel slowly and see’. Paring back the sticker revealed a pink and startlingly phallic rendering of the fruit’s flesh. The band’s name was nowhere to be seen, the only other text on the cover being the artist’s trademark italicised signature.

The design has become a classic – if you’re in the market for an original copy, it will set you back hundreds of dollars. However, the complicated process required to produce the sticker format caused delays that have since been cited as a factor behind the record’s commercial failure. Furthermore, the fact that Warhol’s name took pride of place on the cover may well have scared off potential buyers: he may have been the world’s most famous Pop artist, but that counted for little among a wider music-loving audience used to the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

Worse, no sooner had the album hit the shops than Verve, the band’s record label, was hit by a lawsuit from Eric Emerson, an artist and actor who had appeared in some of Warhol’s films. Emerson objected to the use an image of him at an Exploding Plastic Inevitable event on the record’s back cover. The label recalled all copies of the album in order to airbrush out the offending picture. By the time The Velvet Underground & Nico returned to circulation, any momentum it had picked up on release was lost.

The low sales did little for The Velvet Underground’s morale. Depending on whose account you believe, Nico either left or got fired by Lou Reed, who was reportedly still smarting at being replaced on lead vocals. Warhol was not immune to the songwriter’s displeasure, and was dismissed acrimoniously as manager that year. In 1968, after the band had completed the recording of their second album, Cale also got the sack, leaving only Reed, drummer Maureen Tucker and guitarist Sterling Morrison.

It may have ended badly, but Warhol’s collaboration with The Velvet Underground produced what I would call the single best pop cultural achievement of the 1960s. Other 1967 releases – such as the aforementioned Sgt Pepper or Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn, both of which are being celebrated with exhibitions this year – are regularly cited for their cultural importance. But both are deeply in hock to the fashions of their time, whereas The Velvet Underground & Nico still sounds startling, pairing beautiful, crystalline melodies or rollicking riffs with lyrics involving domestic abuse (There She Goes Again), paranoia (Sunday Morning) and the routine of waiting for one’s drug dealer to turn up (I’m Waiting for the Man). Years after its release, the album was rediscovered and deservedly reappraised as a classic.

The Velvet Underground & Nico also occupies a singular place in Warhol’s career. The year after the album was released, Warhol narrowly survived an assassination attempt by disgruntled Factory acolyte Valerie Solanas. The shooting caused him to close off from the world, marking the end of a staggeringly creative phase of his career of which the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and The Velvet Underground & Nico were perhaps the zenith.

Beyond its music, the album’s lasting legacy is that it represented a high point of 1960s genre-bending. Here, for the first time, pop and the avant-garde had combined to create something truly extraordinary. The jewel case of my copy (the third I’ve owned in the last 20 years) is cracked, the CD scratched to the point where it’s a wonder it still plays. But All Tomorrow’s Parties keeps thrumming away in the background as I type to its rhythm, Nico’s cumbersome deadpan jarring against the music like a spade hitting a wall. The Velvet Underground never made a better record. Nor, for that matter, did anybody else.

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