Friday, May 10, 2019

An LP Mistakenly Called Andy Warhol

Edie Sedgwick and Gerard Malanga
The AM score for The Velvet Underground & Nico is a 10 (historically, one of the first). From a rubric standpoint, there are those who would reject such lofty praise, and there are indeed arguable realities: the musicianship (including Nico's vocals) is ofttimes amateurish (read that as the VU just couldn't play their instruments), and the production values and sound are sorely questionable; this isn't merely a garage sound, it verges on bootleg quality. Here, the rubric suffers in that the album is beyond reproach in terms of songwriting, influence and longevity. Retrospectively we (I speak for all of us) would change nothing. Still, no matter my opinions or the rubric's inadequacies, the album as reviewed in the Village Voice in 1967 more than questioned its value – and suggested that there was justification for the album selling a mere 30,000 copies by 1970:
Village Voice, April 13, 1967   The Velvet Underground is not an easy group to like. Some of the cuts on their album are blatant copies: I refer specifically to the progression lifted from the Rolling Stones "Hitchhike" in "There She Goes Again." The lead vocal on other songs sound distressingly like early Dylan. Some of the mterial [sic] is dull and repetitive. And the last two cuts, "Black Angel's Death Song" and "European Son" are pretentious to the point of misery.

But the Velvets are an important group, and this album has some major work behind that erect banana on the cover. "I'm Waiting for the Man" is an impressively understated vignette about scoring in Harlem. "Venus in Furs" is fine electronic mood-manifesting. "Femme Fatale" is an unearthly ballad subtly fuzzed-up to drive you mad fiddling with bass and treble switches. Nico's voice is harrowing in its pallor, but chic, very chic.

Most important is the recorded version of "Heroin," which is more compressed, more restrained than live performances I have seen. But it's also a more realized work. The tempo fluctuates wildly and finally breaks into a series of utterly terrifying squeals, like the death rattle of a suffocating violin. "Heroin" is seven minutes of genuine 12-tone rock 'n' roll.

- Richard Goldstein

Wow, really? – "pretentious to the point of misery." Wow. Here then, is the AM review:

The Velvet Underground and Nico (AM10)
Artist: Velvet Underground
Produced by:  Andy Warhol, Tim Wilson
Released: March 12, 1967
Length: 48:51
Tracks: 1) Sunday Morning (2:54); 2) I’m Waiting For the Man (4:39); 3) Femme Fatale (2:38); 4) Venus in Furs (5:12); 5) Run Run Run (4:22) 6) All Tomorrow’s Parties (6:00); 7) Heroin (7:12); 8) There She Goes Again (2:41); 9) I’ll Be Your Mirror (2:14) 10) The Black Angel’s Death Song (3:11) 11) European Son (7:46)
Players: Lou Reed – lead guitar, vocals; Sterling Morrison – guitars, bass; John Cale – bass, keyboards, guitar, electric viola, backing vocals, hissing; Maureen Tucker – percussion; Nico – Vocals

Abrasive, dark and beautiful, the crazy ole Velvet Underground is soft like no velvet anyone's ever touched. In their shiny boots of leather you find a mixed up comfort. In their harmonies, lyrics and driving rhythms there's a nexus between all the ways we want to be hip and great and loved, and the ways we never can.

As the story goes, March 12, 1967 inarguably represents the birth of punk. Nothing else in the era compares with the VU debut. This wasn't evolutionary. The Beatles and Brian Wilson used the studio as a catalyst for their growth and artistry. Elvis tamed the raunchy alleyways of the blues; peppered it with country. But The Velvet Underground and Nico was the equivalent of skipping all the Mercury and Gemeni nonsense and blasting off to the moon with a rocket strapped to your back.

The album is riddled with a kind of nightmarish heroin dream. Songs like "Waiting For The Man" and "All Tomorrow's Parties" drive us to sway or to dance because we can. They bring us as close to tasting the underbelly of mixed up chemical love as any art ever could. "Heroin" is a crazy, Red Shoes, grim reaper's dance: the droning strings, rhythmic feedback, and twisting drums whirling to an unbridled cadence. Imagine for a moment that you are hearing this album for the first time without ever having anything to color your perception of it. Let in the other-worldliness, the beauty, like the sound of a breaking heart, the angst like all humanity simultaneously screaming to God, the desperate search for meaning in the vastness of the cosmos. OK, nix that. The Velvet Underground and Nico is too real, too empty to be anything less than art beyond reproach or comparison. This isn’t MTV; it’s empty-V.