The Velvet Underground & Nico has long been viewed as the anti-Sgt. Pepper, a dark counterpoint to the Summer Of Love belief that sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll would bring out the full potential of youth and help change the world. But it’s gradually revealed itself over the years as the anti-Revolver, an album that can be any number of things depending on what listeners are looking for. There are the amphetamine jags (“I’m Waiting For The Man,” “Run Run Run”), the woozy psychedelia for an acid-rock scene that wouldn’t have them (“Heroin,” “European Son”), the brilliantly misguided AM pop (“Sunday Morning,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “There She Goes Again”), and a towering, untouchable fortress of solitude still breathtaking after nearly half a century (“All Tomorrow’s Parties”). Something for everyone, in other words.
The record has also never been meant for casual listening, a fact implicitly acknowledged by the new 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition. With the stereo and mono versions of the album, single edits, alternate takes, rehearsal sessions, live tracks, and Nico’s chamber-goth Chelsea Girl in its entirety, the six CDs serve as a reminder that masterpieces don’t simply will themselves into being. Over and over, the Super Deluxe Edition captures the band chipping away at the songs until it gets them exactly right. In an alternate version of “Heroin,” the acceleration seems too tentative and the song doesn’t quite seem to know where it’s going (despite an altered opening line that claims the exact opposite). Even on the included Scepter Studios recordings—which provided the base for the released album—all the constituent parts are present, but the alchemy hasn’t quite happened yet.
The uniform inferiority of the non-album tracks would normally be a bummer to anyone looking for hidden treasure. Instead, it’s the entire raison d’être for the set, reinvigorating the myth of The Velvet Underground & Nico by exploding it. A flat, vocal-free mix of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” reveals how vital Nico was to that song’s sense of panoramic perfection and how even the purely instrumental sections of the final version carry the echoes of her earlier presence. Maureen Tucker gets a similar negative-space spotlight on alternate versions of “Waiting For The Man” and “European Son”; if she isn’t absent, her drums are low enough in the mix that she might as well be. The 1966 rehearsal session is built around a bunch of dead ends—from “Walk Alone,” a song that Lou Reed could barely be bothered to teach the band (and the band apparently couldn’t be bothered to learn), to the self-deconstructing garage rock of the 12-minute “Miss Joanie Lee”—that confirm how judicious the band’s internal editor was.
It’s ironic, then, that the best new track in the set pushes half an hour. “The Nothing Song,” from a 1966 show in Columbus, Ohio, is simple, interminable, and gorgeous. With Tucker setting an unwavering heartbeat, there’s plenty of space to waft through but also enough nettles—some screeching feedback, Nico’s wordless (or at least unintelligible) wailing—to grab onto. Even the shifting fidelity of the recording provides necessary movement. Despite its title, the song captures the ineffable somethingness that the band tapped into in the final shaping of the album. Even now, 45 years on, in a world where music has been irrevocably altered by The Velvet Underground & Nico, there’s still nothing else that sounds like it.