Can you change the history of music in 2 years? Normally not. Unless you’re Lou Reed, your rock band is called The Velvet Underground and your producer is Andy Warhol.
Like most masterpieces, The Velvet Underground & Nico received full recognition only many decades later. The first release was in 1967 and, back in the days, only a few people bought it. And they are the ones that led to the famous Brian Eno sentence: “The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band.”
When you listen to it, you realise its grandeur and majesty right away. Each song has its own narration, both in the text and in the harmony, and basically every song has made the history of music.
Personally, I’ve been particularly lucky: I have a father who loves Lou Reed and Velvet since they were born, so the first songs I have memory of are their own. Even the first concert of my life was theirs. Without Nico, of course, but everyone else was still alive and I could enjoy this moment that, you want it or not, would change the way I perceive and live music. This is just to tell you that what you are reading is not a mere journalistic exercise: we are talking about an emotional bond that does not have many other equals.
Unlike what we would normally think, The Velvet Underground & Nico had a complicated birth, especially because of Lou Reed’s self-centered personality, which just didn’t want Nico around. The one who insisted on his presence was in fact Andy Warhol, although years later John Cale would diminish the Warhol’s intrusions in the album; even Reed has always seen the founder of the Factory as a film producer instead of a musical one, eventually declaring that his involvement was mainly on the cover, the negotiations with Columbia Records and the advertising. The hidden message was that the real music producer was Tom Wilson, who has always left full freedom for the band.
Even trusting what the band says, nobody can deny that Lou Reed was hard to be conditioned or surmounted. That’s why the voice in Sunday Morning is so soft, almost a whisper, with a voice that seems feminine. According to Warhol, the song was supposed to be interpreted by Nico and in his explicit vision the tone of a woman was more appropriate. Lou Reed just refused, then he recorded it and proved that his voice could be sweet, profound and suave too.
Leaving out stories and legends of the production, what remains is an album full of sounds, experimentations, suburban and industrial traits, an album full of uncomfortable stories both for that time and for our days. Stories of drugs, heroin, gays, transsexuals and street life, stories that, as Reed presents them, can make us sick and can give us a complete view of what was New York in the ’60 and ’70. Maybe still today.
America wasn’t ready for something like that. Indeed, even though it was praised by criticism, people didn’t appreciate all this experimental fervor. What else do you expect from a band that takes its name from a book about sadomasochism (topics also touched in Venus in Furs)? There are also love songs, of course. One is Heroin: a song of visceral love. For drugs. For Lou Reed, heroin was a wife and a life.
If you want to find out how was the daily activity at the Factory, you just have to listen to All Tomorrow Parties, whereas if you wish to figure out how is to wait for the dealer in a dark alley in NY, with 26 bucks in your hand, Waiting for a Man is your song. Run run run is a perfect excerpt of New York addicted, Femme fatale is misogynist and There She Goes Again is about an impossible and polluted love. Just to mention a couple of examples on what the topics were about.
Alternatively, we could say it in a much more unpopular way: if this album doesn’t make you want to “get high”, no one will. Which obviously does not mean that it is the only possible way to appreciate its qualities. A masterpiece is still a masterpiece, and this is also a faithful representation of an entire scene, which existed in a precise time, in a precise place. When many of us were not there. When musical revolutions were still possible.