Sunday, November 11, 2007

Rock 'N' Roll Revisited, Vol. III

As appears in Tuesday's issue of The New School's newspaper, the New School Free Press. This article was co-written with Kyle McGovern.

There are some great debut albums out there—Marquee Moon, The Clash, My Aim is True—but none as good as The Velvet Underground and Nico.

The first song, "Sunday Morning," was the last song recorded for the album, which gives it a sort of hindsight. Lead vocalist Lou Reed sighs more than he sings: "Early dawning, Sunday morning/ It's just the wasted years, so close behind." "Sunday" captures the strange partnership between feeling elated about what you did last night and fearing the consequences.

The Velvets never dressed anything up, and with "I'm Waiting for the Man" and "Venus in Furs," they're leaving everything in plain sight. "Twenty-six dollars in my hand /Up to Lexington, 1–2–5/ Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive." The piano's percussive shuffle on "Waiting" lends to the sense of urgency and paranoia that can't help but be felt when waiting for your man.

One of the most impressive aspects of the album is the way the VU could go from scenes of grime and desperation in "Run, Run, Run," (allegedly written on the back of an envelope on the way to a gig) to hiding the seduction of "There She Goes Again" behind a hook that could have been written by the Beatles.

German singer/model Nico, forced upon the VU by Andy Warhol, lends her ghostly voice for lead vocals on three songs, "Femme Fatale," "All Tomorrow's Parties" and "I'll Be Your Mirror." "Fatale" reveals itself to be a heartbreaking pop song; its cold delivery is just a ruse. The last twenty seconds, when Nico simply sings, "Oh oh, oh, oh," exposes her vulnerability.

It's not often that a song can scare the shit out of you, but try listening to "Heroin" in the dark, and not feel like John Cale's screeching viola is piercing your skin while Moe Tucker's drumming is following the heartbeat of someone on the title drug.

The final two songs, "The Black Angel's Death Song" and "European Son" end the album on a disappointing note. Both feel a bit thrown together, and rely more on making noise than being a good song—something that would be rectified on their second album, White Light/White Heat.

There's a saying that although only 100 people bought this album, those 100 went on to form their own band. This is the kind of influence that the VU had on music, and with albums like The Velvet Underground and Nico, it's easy to see why.

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