The Velvet Underground & Nico: The Ultimate Statement of Popular Art?

Guest post by Doug Thomas

I recently re-immersed myself in the works of The Velvet Underground — especially The Velvet Underground & Nico (TVU&N) — and self-flagellated myself for not having written anything about it before. The album, released in 1967, is The Ultimate Statement of Popular Art, and an incredibly accurate portrait of the Western (American) culture of the late 1960s.

As a music record, it is already a fascinating piece of work, and hugely influential; two decades after its release, Brian Eno stated that everyone who bought one of the initially 30,000 poorly-sold copies started a band. But what makes it greater is how it showcases art — through Andy Warhol,  feminism — through Nico,  and of course music from the lyrics of Lou Reed and the arrangements of John Cage.

Andy Warhol is probably the most influential artist of the 20th century. By placing his works in the position of consumables, he extended their reach to every individual, regardless of class and society. A multi-faceted artist, it is no surprise that in addition to filmmaking, he ventured in the world of music.

His most obvious participation in TVU&N is, of course, the controversial album cover featuring the print of a banana, inviting the owner to peel back the banana skin revealing a flesh-coloured fruit underneath. Both the front and the back cover were involved in lawsuits; one at the release of the album, and a second one in 2012.

"The Velvet Underground & Nico" Album Cover By Andy Warhol

But Warhol’s participation was not limited to designing the artwork for the album, as he eventually put himself in the position of producer. Not in the musical sense — that job was handled by Tom Wilson — but by giving artistic direction to the musicians; this results in the addition of Nico, the general aesthetics of the band and its members, the creative environment, The Factory, the drive for explorations, and even some of the themes developed in the lyrics of Lou Reed.

The German model Nico is an essential addition to TVU&N. Her participation is important enough to include her name in the album’s title. She sings lead on four of the album’s tracks: “Femme Fatale”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Sunday Morning”. Visually and aesthetically, Nico provides a contrast to the dark and austere appearance of The Velvet Underground. Against the darkness and roughness of the group, she appears innocent and delicate.

The Welsh musician John Cale is responsible for most of the avant-garde and experimental approach of TVU&N. He was influenced by the works of American composers La Monte Young and John Cage, as well as the artistic Fluxus movement. In addition to his distinctive viola technique, Cale brought experimental ideas such as alternative guitar tunings, drone and distortion. “Sunday Morning” features a celesta, “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs” an electric viola, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” both an Ostrich fretless electric guitar and prepared piano, while “The Black Angel’s Death Song” down-tuned electric guitars. Finally, “European Son” is a blend of 1950s rock’n’roll and feedbacking instrumental improvisation.

Additionally, the album was produced by Tom Wilson, one of the most important producer of the 1960-70s. Some of his most successful works include Sun Ra’s “The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra”, Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.” or The Mothers of Invention’s “Freak Out!”. His work on TVU&N not only reflects the sound of the times, but marks the transition to and development of a darker and more urban New York sound, predicting Punk and industrial music.

Lou Reed needs no introduction. And this is partially due to his work on TVU&N. In addition to reflecting on and narrating dark societal subjects such as drug abuse, prostitution or sexual deviancy — “Sunday Morning” is about paranoia, “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin” about drugs, “Venus in Furs” about sado-masochism, all themes somehow central to popular culture — Reed’s contribution involves a biographical depiction of Warhol’s artistic universe: “Femme Fatale” is about the superstar Edie Sedgwick and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” descriptive of Warhol’s Factory. Reed’s words in “Run Run Run” are a reflection of American (and New York) society of the 1960s. The avant-garde “The Black Angel’s Death Song” approaches absurdity with lyrics formed from words put together for the their sound rather than their meaning.

The Velvet Underground & Nico is the band’s debut album. And their most successful. And a statement of who they are and what they do; it is The Ultimate Statement of Popular Art. If it did sell poorly and was very much ignored at the time of its release, it is today one of the most influential albums in popular music. It is rough, provocative and deals with drug abuse, prostitution, sadism, masochism and sexual deviancy. It is avant-garde, and seamlessly integrates concepts of serious music in popular music. It is popular art.

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The Velvet Underground & Nico (photo Rolling Stone)

GetAttachmentThumbnailSince founding NOOX — or North of Oxford St., a record label, production company and recording studio — in 2014, Doug has released numerous solo projects — including Short Stories, Vol. 1&2, and the triptych Angles, Cassiopeia and Shapes. For Ballades, he has collaborated with Piano & Coffee Co. as well as pianists Marta Cascales Alimbau, Manos Milonakis, Marek Votruba and Muriël Bostdorp. The Seasons is a collaborative homage to the music of Tchaikovsky; it features twelve pianists from around the world — including Simeon Walker, Garreth Broke and Dominique Charpentier. For Grace, he has collaborated with Sonder House and pianist/cellist Jesse Brown. Portraits, is another homage to his inspirations — and has been released in collaboration with Lonely Swallow and Affan. Studia is the first volume of a collection of contemporary piano études — released with the Italian label Blue Spiral Records (BSR) and featuring Angelo Villari. His latest release with the same label, Anxiety/Serenity (featuring the harp of Mary Dunsford), is a response to the situation that the world experienced in this first quarter of 2020, through the spread of the COVID-19. 

As a writer Doug publishes articles, interviews and reviews, and is a contributor for Interlude as well as a regular guest writer on The Cross-Eyed Pianist and ArtMuseLondon. 

“Music allows me to express ideas and feelings in a unique way. Each piece I compose is an attempt in finding balance between interest and beauty, within the limits of my own language and experience. I like the idea that music can provide us with an alternative to our daily life, whether it completes it or helps us take some distance from it.”

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