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Artistic Vision and Raw Power,
This review is from: The Velvet Underground & Nico (Audio CD)
Recorded in two days in March 1967 - the culmination of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable show - The Velvet Underground's avant-garde debut is unlike any other 60s record, and it changed the face of mainstream rock music forever. For proof of this, you need only scan the average music enthusiast's collection: The Stooges, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Brian Eno and Television, to name just a few.
In the past, most songwriters wrote about controversial subjects ambiguously: The Rolling Stones' `Satisfaction' (about sex, or the lack of it); The Byrds' `Eight Miles High' and `5D' (about hallucinatory drugs); The Beatles' `Happiness is a Warm Gun' (about heroin). By contrast, the Velvets are very direct; indeed, the seventh track on this album is called `Heroin': the fact that they were an underground act undoubtedly gave them the freedom to do this. The infamous banana on the front cover, which peels away to reveal a pink phallic fruit, is sexually explicit per se, not to mention funny.
This directness is one contributing factor to the freshness of the album today; the other is artistic integrity. Here are brief analyses of some of my favourite tracks, which hopefully demonstrate this:
`Sunday Morning' - the twinkling xylophone makes the track sounds like a baby's lullaby which belies the dark theme of drug addiction. The line, "There's always someone around you who will call/It's nothing at all", sounds like spent enthusiasm, the words of a man now helplessly addicted.
`Waiting for the Man' - the staccato rhythm conveys the almost unbearable intensity of total need, not to mention nervousness and paranoia.
`Femme Fatale' - Nico's sweet, bland voice seems rather sinister at times. Never has an obscure talent been so well utilised.
`Venus in Furs' - John Cale's swiping of the violin puts you straight into a harsh, remote world.
`There She Goes Again' - contains explicit lyrics which are equally as unsettling as The Crystals' `He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)'. Stream of consciousness from the mind of a warped individual, which still shocks today; also funny in a dark way.
All these songs convey a mood; they are not the simple, sing-along pop songs produced by Phil Spector, Elvis Presley or the early Beatles. And as much as I love Lou Reed's Transformer, his second solo album, it seems rather twee by comparison; even `Perfect Day' has mutated into a sweet love song (thanks mainly to the horrendous 90s charity-song rendition); and the more recent album has not aged as well as this one.
If you've got a reasonable amount of money to spend and you don't own any VU albums, Peel Slowly and See can be bought for just over £20 on Amazon. This is a box set containing the first four albums (i.e. the best ones) and bits from their later ones, and is well worth owning. However, for the poorer or more cowardly customer, The Velvet Underground and Nico is the band's defining moment. They are not as insanely gifted as, say, Frank Zappa or The Jimi Hendrix Experience, but the point of this record is that the musical talent need merely be sufficient when you have artistic vision and raw power.