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The Velvet Underground & Nico at 50: Monumental album or just “fine”?

Photo: GAB Archive/Redferns
Photo: GAB Archive/Redferns

Welcome to the Music Roundtable, where music writers and fans discuss recent reissues, hot new releases, or just records we like. For this installment, on the 50th anniversary of The Velvet Underground’s debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, three of our writers—one devoted fan, one skeptic, and one neophyte—discuss the album’s importance and differing levels of impact.

Sean O’Neal: It’s been 50 years since the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico, a half-century’s passage that seems impossible, in both respects. In many ways, it feels like the 1967 album has been around forever—far longer than a mere 50 years, so embedded in the DNA of modern music as to seem innate. But in another way, 50 years doesn’t really gel with how vital it still sounds. You could put this album next to that of nearly any modern rock artist, and they’d be embarrassed by how middlebrow and ProTools fussed-over their work seems in comparison. It’s among the purest distillations of what a rock band is a capable of, even as it planted the seeds for a dozen different genres—punk, goth, shoegaze, indie-pop, drone—within the wild, unfettered fucking around of a group of proud fringe-dwellers who were too cool (or pilled-up) to care about being liked. Its influence is eternal and annually renewed. It’s one of the handful of albums that can be called truly timeless, rendering anniversary celebrations such as these redundant.

What it can’t be called any longer, I suspect, is surprising—especially the older and more entrenched it gets. Me, I remember that day in 1994 when I first listened to it as a sort of romanticized Cameron Crowe montage in which I emerge on the other side, noticeably wiser, cooler, and ever so slightly more dangerous. But even then, I was probably the one-millionth high school kid that year alone to finally take note that every alt-rock star from Michael Stipe to Kurt Cobain had name-checked The Velvet Underground, then pick up the ’95 box set Peel Slowly And See (which I think I still owe Columbia House $50 for. Sorry!) I also came to the Velvets in a decidedly uncool manner, having first heard “Heroin” on the soundtrack for Oliver Stone’s The Doors movie and—realizing its slow, simple churn made it one of the few songs suited to my then-rudimentary guitar skills—proceeded to wear it into the ground, until my dad finally burst into my bedroom, demanding to know whether I was ever going to change chords.

But while it was already nearly 30 years old by that point, the fact that it could still baffle and annoy my Beatles and Zeppelin-loving dad speaks to the album’s singularity, and I’d say time has not yet diminished that. Listening to VU & Nico now (which I probably do about once a month), even after so many bands who seemingly based their entire careers off just “Sunday Morning” or “I’m Waiting For The Man” alone, I’m still struck by what an extraordinarily weird album it is. Lou Reed’s droning eighth-note churns, John Cale’s yawing viola, Sterling Morrison’s nimble slide-runs, Mo Tucker’s caveman percussion, all topped by Nico’s funereal, foggy Marlene Dietrich voice—there’s no accounting for the strange, beautiful chemistry these discordant elements create when together. There’s no reason why a bunch of amphetamine-fueled garage rockers who were talked into backing a primping, partially deaf German fashion model—just because Andy Warhol thought it would be neat—should sound as good as it does.

Similarly, it’s simply incredible that the same group could create this many varieties of songs and moods—ranging from giddy junkie nihilism to sardonic scenester critiques to one of the most tender love ballads ever written—or put the gentle, trilling “Femme Fatale” right up against the seesawing S&M dirge of “Venus In Furs,” then follow it all with the ragged addict’s blues of “Run Run Run” and make the whole thing feel cohesive and right. In a year when The Beatles were being credited for completely rewriting rock music with the acid Tin Pan Alley excursions of Sgt. Pepper’s, The Velvet Underground was doing exactly the same, albeit with grimier drugs. And even today, bands are still playing catch up.

Of course, the experimental naturally fades into the “influential” and, finally, the conventional. Today, no one’s going to be shocked by the album’s dark undercurrents of sex and death the way tea-sipping hippies were when it debuted. And after decades of artists copying or one-upping its transgressiveness—not to mention endless critical reappraisals like this one—The Velvet Underground & Nico is no longer the dangerous outsider. But that hasn’t changed the fact that listening to it can still be a revelatory experience, even for the initiated. While it’s hard to say it’s my favorite Velvets record (which tends to be whichever one I’m listening to at the time), I wouldn’t hesitate to say it’s the most important—not for the way it changed music in its wake, which has been well-established, but for the way it changed me. It’s the album that forever colored my perception of what music could be—and in a broader sense, what is and isn’t “cool.” And it made The Velvet Underground the band by which all others must be judged. It is most definitively the album that, forgive the cliché, I don’t know who I would be without.

Which is why I was a little bit dismayed, David, when you told me you thought it was “fine.” Fine? Fine?! I get that we have slightly different tastes in music, and maybe there’s a generational gap at play here, but it’s surprising to me that—my personal prejudices aside—an artwork that’s had such historic, demonstrable impact can be shrugged at the same way we talk about the sandwich place around the corner. So tell me: Do you believe Velvet Underground & Nico doesn’t deserve all the praise I just heaped upon it? And what’s it like to listen to this record and just feel “fine”?

David Anthony: To start, my assessment that The Velvet Underground & Nico is “fine” is one that I know isn’t popular, but I also don’t think it’s as derisive as you’re making it out to be. I think that all the adulation it’s received over the years is totally warranted; as you said, it’s a pivotal record in the evolution of rock music. I would never try to take an ahistorical perspective on it, as I know for a fact that many bands I love can be traced back to the Velvets, in one way or another.

That being said, context is everything. There’s the old saw that The Velvet Underground & Nico only sold 30,000 copies, but everyone who bought one started a band. And while that’s clearly a hyperbolic statement, I’ll make a similar one: Hearing those 30,000 groups before I heard the Velvets didn’t do them any favors. I don’t think VU & Nico is a bad record, but for it me it wasn’t some soul-shaking revelation when I’d already heard so many other bands build on the Velvets’ foundation before ever seeing the blueprints. It’s a record that, when I hear it, I can understand how powerful it was in 1967, kickstarting several dozen different musical revolutions. But it’s never been that record for me.

More personally speaking, there are key elements of the Velvets that have never been what I look for in music. As you said, the band epitomized the concept of “cool,” and that’s just something that’s never interested me all that much. That’s not meant as a self-deprecating jab. It’s merely a fact: I’m a loser. I have always been, and I always will be. I’m also totally fine with that. The drugged-out, New York City cool that The Velvet Underground embodies is something I couldn’t relate to as a teenager, much less something I wanted to work toward. I can attribute much of my disinterest in that kind of coolness—and by proxy, The Velvet Underground—to my upbringing. Growing up in a family packed full of addicts, I was forced to watch their lives slowly unravel due to drugs. Hearing that romanticized in songs like “Heroin” and “Waiting For The Man” felt completely alien to me. In my neighborhood, I watched people dealing and turning tricks, making songs like “There She Goes Again” ring false—like privileged art kids romanticizing a life that isn’t all that fun to be on the opposite end of, especially when you didn’t have much of a choice in ending up there.

These critiques are largely based in my own personal bias, but those things influence the music we end up loving (or hating). When The Velvets come on, I don’t feel any negativity toward them. I can nod along to their poppier songs, and I find plenty of their experimental stuff just as stimulating. It’s just not something I’d ever choose to put on—it’s music that I think is totally fine. It casts a mighty long shadow, so it’d be downright insane to say it’s not a major record, or that it isn’t important to a whole lot of people. I just don’t happen to be one of them.

Baraka, you’ve never listened to VU & Nico before (though surely you’ve heard a stray song here and there). Now that we asked you to do so, did you like it? Was it what you expected going into it? Is it something you’d go back to again? And most importantly, am I totally wrong?

Baraka Kaseko: Hearing both of you reflect on this album reminds me of the way people talk about films like Scarface. Like The Velvet Underground & Nico, it was largely panned and criticized for romanticizing its violent subject matter, but it’s also a movie whose images influenced a generation of filmmakers and and rappers. (I don’t know if that’s a perfect analogy, but it’s the one that came to mind.)

I’m glad both of you reflected on how your personal experiences shaped your understanding and appreciation. That’s something I kept coming back to while listening. I grew up as a first-generation American; both of my parents are from Tanzania. My mom and dad, like many immigrant parents, were wary of the effect American culture would have on me and my brothers. As a result, I spent the majority of my childhood listening to safe-for-work artists like Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and Top 40 hits from the ’90s. (Also a ton of Tanzanian music, on every road trip.) But as many of us did, I eventually rebelled and expanded my musical reach in high school, which for me meant hip-hop and R&B.

Admittedly, I’d never heard of The Velvet Underground until a month ago, when you guys brought this up. I didn’t listen to rock or alternative music in a serious manner while I was growing up, so I think it’s safe to say I don’t have the full understanding of the genre to appreciate the historical significance. So while listening for the first time, I actually did so from—as you say, David—an “ahistorical perspective.” And I say this all to prepare Sean for what is sure to be a devastating blow: I thought it was fine as well.

I didn’t really have any expectations going in and coming out. I’m sad to say that my life remains largely unchanged. A few songs stood out to me; “Waiting For The Man” and “Run Run Run” are my favorites. It was also refreshingly minimalist. The little rock music I’ve listened to recently feels overly produced, like most modern music, so I definitely see where you’re coming from there, Sean. And considering the apparent cultural impact of VU & Nico, I can understand why it’s so highly regarded.

That being said, it’s hard for me to take that into consideration in my own listening experience. In my opinion, David said it perfectly: It’s hard for me to have any kind of revelation listening to this record, especially when I feel that so much of its impact has to do with its time. To me, it really is just fine.

Sean O’Neal: All right, fair enough. I appreciate you both indulging me in an argument I haven’t had with anyone since high school. And perhaps I’ll see you both back here in 2018 for the 50th anniversary of White Light/White Heat. Maybe that’s the one that will really blow Baraka’s mind?