The Velvet Underground & Nico
The attention that Lou Reed’s death generated surprised me because he was never a big-selling artist, although he was well known particularly around his native New York City. Rolling Stone Magazine put him on its cover last month and its publisher, Jann Wenner, doesn’t do that for just any performer.
I have to confess that I wasn’t familiar with most of Reed’s work with the exception of his gritty 1973 single about his years of hanging around Andy Warhol and his crowd, the hypnotically jazzy “Walk On The Wild Side,” whose R-rated lyrics managed to get by Top 40 radio station programmers at the time including WABC’s legendary Rick Sklar.
Last year UME Records reissued 1967’s “The Velvet Underground & Nico.” The Velvet Underground was Reed’s first band and it was backed financially by Warhol whose cache immediately gave them hip cult status. Reed served as the Underground’s chief songwriter and lead singer while JJ Cale, who would achieve fame in his own right, handled the lead guitar riffs. Christa Paffgen whose nickname was Nico, was one of the many starlets and models Warhol was able to attract to his posse would occasionally handle the singing chores.
Lou Reed, like Bob Dylan, seemed more interested in speaking his lyrics accompanied by music instead of singing in a traditional style. Under his aegis, the Velvet Underground went for a softer, easier-on-the ears sound, than the psychedelic acid rock that was popular both in San Francisco and in the United Kingdom as exemplified by “Sunday Morning” and “There She Goes Again.” Reed would experiment with more cacophonous sounds as well. “Venus In Furs” and “European Son” were clearly avant-garde and it’s still just unlistenable noise to me all these years later.
The catchiest song here is “Femme Fatale” in which Nico, with her heavily accented lyrics, sings Reed’s words about Warhol’s most famous ingenue, the flirtatious Edie Sedgwick. She also nicely handles the leads to another song on the album, “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”
One major drawback to the music industry getting away from physical product in favor of a downloading digital consumer is the loss of album artwork. Andy Warhol designed the cover of the Velvet Underground’s debut album, a simple banana.