Sunday, March 12, 2017

Today in Music (1967): The Velvet Underground released their debut album

Velvet Underground & Nico

Velvet Underground & Nico

Released: March 12, 1967

Charted: May 13, 1967

Peak: 129 US, 43 UK

Sales (in millions): 0.56 US, 0.3 UK, 0.96 world (includes US and UK)

Genre: proto-punk rock


(Click for codes to charts.)
  1. Sunday Morning (Cale/ Reed) [2:56] (12/66, 12 CO, 11 DF)
  2. I’m Waiting for the Man [4:39] (23 CL, 5 CO, 4 DF)
  3. Femme Fatale [2:38] (22 CO, 4 DF)
  4. Venus in Furs [5:12] (3/12/94, 24 CL, 9 CO, 71 UK, 7 DF)
  5. Run, Run, Run [4:22] (11 DF)
  6. All Tomorrow’s Parties [6:00] (7/66, 28 CL, 16 CO, 7 DF)
  7. Heroin [7:12] (5 CL, 6 CO, 2 DF)
  8. There She Goes Again [2:41] (45 CL, 38 CO, 14 DF)
  9. I’ll Be Your Mirror [2:14] (11 DF)
  10. The Black Angel’s Death Song (Cale/ Reed) [3:11]
  11. European Son (Cale/ Morrison/ Reed/ Tucker) [7:46] (26 CO)

Songs written by Lou Reed unless noted otherwise.

Total Running Time: 47:51

The Players:

  • Lou Reed (vocals, guitar)
  • John Cale (electric viola, piano, bass guitar)
  • Sterling Morrison (guitar)
  • Maureen “Moe” Tucker (drums, percussion)
  • Nico (vocals)

Spotify Podcast:

Check out Dave’s Music Database podcast: Covering Velvet Underground & Nico. It premieres September 28, 2021 at 7pm CST. Tune in every Tuesday at 7pm for a new episode based on the lists at Dave’s Music Database.


4.598 out of 5.00 (average of 35 ratings)


“Glam, punk, new wave, goth, noise, and nearly every other left-of-center rock movement owes an audible debt to this set.” - Mark Deming,


(Click on award to learn more).

About the Album:

“Brewed in New York's seedy alleys and Andy Warhol's wild Pop-art Factory scene, VU's lyrically unforgiving, sonically mesmerizing debut all but invented the concept of alternative music.” EW’12 Their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, only sold a few thousand copies in its first year, CS but producer Brian Eno famously said “everyone who bought one went out and started a band.” JD

One “could just as easily say that every song on their epochal 1967 debut…started a musical genre.” CM “”These 11 songs stretch so far that we now take them for granted.” CM The album “bristled with a kind of satanic glee, mixed with the droning ballads that typify an early morning drug haze mixed with post-cabaret desultoriness.” JSH “The record is explicit and rough, unflinching and chaotic as it held a mirror to life in New York City during the late ’60s.” CQ

The album was “so far ahead of its time that most people who came across the band or this release rejected them with explicit antagonism (radio stations banned it from the airwaves, magazines rejected ads for it, stores refused to stock it).” CM The Velvet Underground were “influential, hypnotically intense, misogynistic, and ruthlessly cool, they were scarier than the Rolling Stones and the Doors put together. Lou Reed introduced himself as the anti-Dylan, celebrating narcotic absorption and loveless sex with a brutal urban vision.” VB

Chapter One of Alternative Rock

Indeed, “one would be hard pressed to name a rock album whose influence has been as broad and pervasive as The Velvet Underground and Nico.” AM It was “simultaneously prepunk and postmodern.” CS In 1970, the New York Times said the Velvets were “playing experimental rock in 1965 when the Beatles just wanted to hold your hand and San Francisco was still the place where Tony Bennett left his heart.” CS

This is “chapter one of alternative rock” BL “with nearly every band emerging as part of that modern scene taking their cues from this record.” CQ “Glam, punk, new wave, goth, noise, and nearly every other left-of-center rock movement owes an audible debt to this set.” AM “Referring to their sway over the rock music of the ‘70s and ‘80s, critic Lester Bangs stated, ‘Modern music starts with the Velvets, and the implications and influence of what they did seem to go on forever.’” NRR

“Rock just means songs that are played w/ bass, guitar, drums and vocals w/ maybe a few exotic embellishments, so it ties in easily with the loft scene where artists tend to dwell…But it wasn’t always so—‘rock’ (or pop) music had to move into the galleries, and it was on the wings of this group.” JSH “The Velvets made rock & roll a dangerous place” BL and became “the poster children of the avant-garde.” TL

Radical Themes and Radical Music

“At the time of its release, it was art rock at its finest; however, that’s all it was. Topics such as prostitution, drug abuse, and living in the squalor of NYC were so isolating that no one really knew about it – or cared to, for that matter.” CQ They took their “band name from a book about S&M” TL and, at the time, “Lou Reed’s lyrical exploration of drugs and kinky sex” AM was “risky stuff in film and literature, let alone ‘teen music.’” AM

Even though the content “received the most press attention, …the music [they] played was as radical as the words they accompanied.” AM It “is amazingly complex and sophisticated, deserving of a place beside contemporary masterpieces such as Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” JD Such classic status is due in part to the VU’s “reputation for inspiring generations of noise rockers,” RV but also because they created an album that “has gentle melodies juxtaposed against the harsher tunes.” RV The music combined “crunchy rock, rhythm and blues, free jazz, and avant-garde experimentation.” CS While they have become known as “defiant anti-commercial revolutionaries, the Velvets were well aware of AM radio” JD and crafted songs to fit “demands at the time, though there is usually some twist to the standard formula.” JD

The Band Members

“Although they weren’t particularly adept at their instruments, they had a reputation as a fiery and dissonant live band” NO and “created some of the most innovative sounds anyone had ever heard.” NO Of course, Lou Reed, as the band’s lead singer and guitarist, has become an iconic figure, but this was hardly just a Reed & Co. affair.

Reed, “a rebellious Jewish kid from Long Island,” CM was a fan of Bob Dylan, “but most of his lyrical influences were writers and poets.” CM John Cale was “a Welsh prody who had arrived in New York City on a classical music scholarship.” CM He was “tutored by ambient composer John Cage” TL and “introduced the rock world to feedback through his shrieking” TL “hard-edged electric viola.” NRR

Reed and Cale met through Pickwick Records in 1964 where Reed worked as what he called “a poor man’s Carole King.” CM “Percussionist Maureen Tucker and guitarist Sterling Morrison make additional noteworthy contributions” NRR to what became the Velvets’ first album. Tucker notably “played primitive rhythms on a minimally sized kit while standing up.” CM Cale said, “We were trying to do a Phil Spector thing with as few instruments as possible.” CM


“Nico, the possibly German, possibly Hungarian model turned actress turned singer” TL was pushed on to the group by artist Andy Warhol, who would champion the band. “There’s a deceptive beauty to her contributions, a thorny languor.” CM Her “otherworldly vocals” NRR add “mystery to…[the] fragile and beautiful songs that she sings ‘in perfect mellow ovals, like a cello getting up in the morning,’ to quote critic Richard Goldstein” JD “While the significance of [her] contributions have been debated over the years, she meshes with the band’s outlook in that she hardly sounds like a typical rock vocalist.” AM She wasn’t “a conventionally beautiful singer by any means, her range was quite narrow, but she was very effective in getting emotions across.” AD

Andy Warhol

Warhol saw the Velevt Underground “as a musical extension of his creative philosophy of making people uncomfortable.” CM He tapped the group “as a traveling band for his Exploding Plastic Inevitable art exhibition. When he realized the brilliance of the Velvet’s music” he decided to back them in recording their first album. RV He “did little to earn his producer’s credit besides contributing the famous banana for the album cover;” JD he was more the “band’s benefactor and spiritual guru.” CS

Tom Wilson did the real heavy lifting when it came to recording and producing the album. He “had previously worked with Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa, so the strangeness of The Velvet Underground wasn’t too likely to freak him out.” AD However, even if Warhol’s “presence…was primarily a matter of signing the checks, his notoriety allowed The Velvet Underground to record their material without compromise, which would have been impossible under most other circumstances.” AM

Signing and Recording

Such a bizarre record had trouble finding a home. After getting rejected by “most of the era’s leading rock labels,” CM including Atlantic and Elektra the band were signed to the minor label Verve, which was owned by MGM. Tom Wilson, a new ly recruited staff producer from Columbia, oversaw the re-recording of three tracks and the addition of “”Sunday Morning” as a potential single. CM The album was then quietly released in March 1967.

The Songs

Here are thoughts on the album’s individual songs.

“Sunday Morning”
“Melodically, the songs can be divided between the short, catchy ‘pop’ tunes and the noisy, experimental ‘art’ songs.” JD Hence the Velvets “dipped their toes into dreamy pop” AM on “the calm and quiet” JD “Sunday Morning.” “The melody is childlike – baby in a cot being put to sleep in its simplicity.” AD

“The music calls to mind a sleepy, quiet Sunday so perfectly that you can listen to the song repeatedly before registering what it’s really about: paranoia and displacement.” JH-93 The lyric, which “raises a question about the excesses of Saturday night,” JD “may be the root of the family tree of songs like ‘Every Breath You Take’…whose pretty, lulling melodies mask their true thematic darkness.” JH-93

Reed and Cale actually wrote the song on a Sunday morning after an all-nighter. The song was written because producer Tom Wilson thought the album lacked a single. The intent was for Nico to sing it, but when the band arrived at the studio, Reed announced that he was going to sing it because it was his song. JH: 94-5 Victor Bockris, author of Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story, said, “Lou then proceded to sing the song in a voice so full of womanly qualities that on first hearing it you paused, wondering just who the hell was singing.” VB-135

“I’m Waiting for the Man”
The “tough garage rock” AM of “Man” “shows Reed at an aesthetic high point, and the band in an especially creative and committed period of its development.” JH-98 The song is “a masterpiece of reportorial skill.” JH-96 It is worth noting that “Reed was a songwriter educated as a journalist and trained in part by a poet.” JH-122

On songs like “Man” he “portrayed edgy characters and exotic scenes that many in the ‘straight’ world and even enlightened hippies had never experienced.” JD His “lyrics paint gritty portraits of life in the city as his characters cope with deviant sex acts, drugs, hangovers, love lost and love regained.” RV

The song is also important for how it reinvisions the guitar. “Listen to the scraping chords…for the absolute most malicious sounding warp of the whole Jimmy Reed guitar style, a chopping rhythmic hammer that predated Stooge-thrash and still sounded strangely jug-band ish in that whole sixties early-days-of-drugs approach.” JSH

“Femme Fatale”
Andy Warhol suggest that Reed write a song about Edie Sedgwick, an actress and model who was a mainstay at Warhol’s Factory art studio. “By the time of the Velvets’ association with Warhol, Edie was ticking through the final seconds of her fifteen minutes.” JH-101 She died of a drug overdose a few years later in 1971.

Reed’s song, which “plays like ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ set in hip Manhattan, except that in place of the voyeurism…Reed’s masterpiece tells a story of narcissism.” JH-99 Nico sang lead, whose “voice brought a Continental sophistication to the song that matched it subject.” JH-99

“Venus in Furs”
Reed infuses that song and “Venus in Furs” “with lower east side realism and boho style.” TL This song also “gets John Cale’s viola working within The Velvet Underground rock-framework. The drums pound and echo, the guitars play simple little melodies. It’s an extraordinary sound they create here, utterly distinctive.” AD

This was reportedly Sterling Morrison’s favorite VU song, because “they had achieved in it, like no other track, the sound they had in mind.” JH-102 The song showcases how John Cale worked his viola into the band’s “rock-framework. The drums pound and echo, the guitars play simple little melodies. It’s an extraordinary sound they create here, utterly distinctive.” AD

Lyrically, Reed “peered into the inner sanctum of a sado-masochistic couple as they made love.” JD Songs about S&M have never exactly been common, but in the mid-sixties “were truly bizarre.” JSH The song is “a fairly literal distillation of the 19th century romantic novel of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch,” JH-102 based in part on an incident in which he pledged himself as a slave for six months to writer Fanny Pistor, with the stiupation that she wore furs when disciplining him. JH-103

“Run, Run, Run”
“On this album, only ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ rocks as hard.” JH-106 The song “screeches and drives on skittish bluesy riffs.” CQ “Here, Sterling Morrison’s musical importance to the group is evident.” JH-107 He is “a floating center, in the songs and in the politics of the group…guiding musical and political energies using guitar riffs…affecting every aspect of the music…[He is] an indispensable glue for everything going on.” JH-107

The song explores four protagonists…of New York’s drug underworld.” JH-106 Reed wrote the song en route to a gig at the CafĂ© Bizarre when the band realized they were a little short on material. He scribbled words on the back of an envelope, finishing the song by the time the car reached its destination. JH-105

“All Tomorrow’s Parties”
This song about “the decadent world of the rich and jaded” JD was reportedly Warhol’s favorite VU song, which isn’t surprising since Reed was inspired by “studing the regulars in Warhol’s clique.” JH-108 Reed considers it “a very apt description of certain people at the Factory at the time.” JH-108 He depicted the scene “with a degree of objectivity, if not outright sympathy, and with a poet’s ear for the perfectly chosen and most evocative language.” JD

“John Cale shines on this song. Finding a simple…chord that could be cycle repeatedly despite changes in the underlying chord progression would become a signature component of his style.” JH-109 “The hammered piano bears an unmistakable aura of novelty and excitement.” JH-109

Cale and Reed’s styles often clashed. Cale said “I was trying to get something big and grand and Lou was fighting against that; he wanted pretty songs. I said ‘Let’s make them grand, pretty songs then.” JH-110 “If there ever was a grand, pretty song ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is it.” JH-110

Sterling Morrison has said this is “possibly Reed’s greatest song” JH-111 and it is “often cited as…the band’s single greatest achievement in song form.” JH-111 It is “one of the most profoundly moving and disturbing songs, period.” JH-115 It is “rock’s first (and probably best) undisguised drug song.” JH-111 The band used it to “batter down the walls helming in rock lyricists.” JH-113 “and gave songwriters the freedom to write about real life.” JH-112

The song “addresses the drug experience in language that is crystal clear while surging waves of sound evoke the opiate high.” AD “Reed gives the listener a musical experience comparable to the rush a junky feels upon finding a register, pushing home the plunger and feeling the ecstatic, nirvana-inducing, consciousness-obliterating heroin rush.” RV “When Reed proclaims, ‘Heroin, be the death of me / Heroin, it’s my wife and it's my life,’ the effect is nothing less than chilling.” RV “Many people continue to wonder why someone would be drawn to a drug that can only ruin your life, but Reed understood its allure all too well. ‘When I’m rushing on my run, then I feel just like Jesus’ son,’ he sang.” JD

“The music matches the lyrical content perfectly…It builds up into squealing noises but underneath the squeals the drums are beating and pounding…However, much noise is layered on the top, the drums and guitar hold the piece together.” AD “Ultimately, ‘Heroin’ is the microcosmic essence of everything that happens musically on The Velvet Underground and Nico – the tumultuous crush of guitar holocaust and viola screech, the skeletal-lullaby melody, the bold, punctuating shifts in rhythmic time and temper.” RV

While some saw the song as advocating heroin use, Reed explained that the song “is very close to the feeling you get from smack…It’s deceptive. You think you’re enjoying it. But by the time it hits you, it’s too late…It comes at you harder and faster and keeps on coming. The song is everything that the real thing is doing to you.” VB-71

“There She Goes Again”
The VU explored “stripped-down R&B” AM on “There She Goes Again,” which, “on the surface…is a simple rock rewrite of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Hitch Hike,’ but Reed portrays a brutal misogynist whose response to his lover’s actions is ‘better hit her!’” JD The song sports “beautiful and slightly daft harmonies, [as well as] a superlative Lou Reed vocal with superb stretching of words. Very Dylan influenced.” AD

In his 33 1/3 book about the album, Joe Howard says this is the song “that has always amazed me the least,” JH-121 but also acknowledges that “the band sounds tight as hell on it.” JH-121 Considering “the thematic clarity sparkling through on the rest of these songs, and with the avant-garde edginess of the more obscure numbers…this one seems neither here nor there.” JH-122 The song has a detatchment that he finds unsettling and that it is difficult to figure out what is going on. “Street prostitution? Domestic violence? Women’s liberation versus male misogyny?” JH-122

“I’ll Be Your Mirror”
There is speculation that Reed wrote this “baroque melody that echoes its gentle lyrics” RV for “his one great love, Shelly Albin, [but] there’s not doubt that the lyrical impetus for the song came from Nico.” JH-126 The pair were in a relationship which Cale described as “both consummated and constipated.” JH-126

When she sings on it, she “truly made the song her own.” JH-128 She is “almost half speaking rather than singing. She is singing of course, coldly, seemingly emotionless, but the emotion comes through so crystal clear. Her voice is clearly an acquired taste, not for everyone.” AD

She had a “combination of intelligence and empathy for Lou Reed’s lyrics.” JH-128 As Reed said, “when I gave Nico a song…she would totally understand what was being said and perform it from that standpoint.” JH-128

“Black Angel’s Death Song”
Of course, the Velvets weren’t just about Reed’s way with words. They “often experimented with alternate tunings” JH-129 and this was one of several songs “in which the guitars are downtuned a full step, creating a heavier sound.” JH-129 The song “skitters and snarls on the edge of electric eruption without ever quite getting there.” CM

Cale restrung his viola with guiar and mandolin strings to create what he described as the sound of “a jet engine.” JH-130 “Cale and his electric viola go absolutely everywhere, most enjoyably…Nothing immediately approachable, although dig deeper, concentrate and listen, and what is that John Cale is playing? Melodies! Well, of sorts, anyway.” AD His contribution to the VU’s sound was “arguably greater than that of any other member.” JH-130

The more avant-garde noise experimentation wasn’t always well received. Sterling Morrison recalls the band getting fired for playing the song. When they performed it at their first gig, the owner told them at break to never play it again. The band opened the next set with it because, as Morrison said, “We just wanted to do whatever we wanted to do.” JH-131

“European Son”
This song offered “an indication to some extent of the way the group’s next album would go.” JD Because of its “lyrical sparseness” JH-132 Cale had “plenty of space…to apply some of the techniques of the avant-garde Fluxus movement which had originally drawn him to New York.” JH-133 “Among these was the idea that spontaneous noises, such as a passing car, were a natural part of the listening experience, hence part of the song.” JH-136 During recording, Cale scraped a chair across the floor and shattered a glass in front of a microphone. JD

Reed and Morrison rose to the occasion with some inspired guitar chaos.” JH-133 “The waves of feedback and explosions of noise in” JD “the bracing discord of ‘European Son’” JD “convey the sheer exhilaration of unbridled destruction.” JD Cale said “the magic…was in the way the four musicians spontaneously interacted.” JD 33 1/3 author Joe Harvard refers to it as “‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’ as a football chant for warrior droids of the future.” JH-135

Final Thoughts

“While Reed and Cale have both produced incredible bodies of work as solo artists, neither has ever topped the level of intensity that they reached while working together.” JD “Few rock albums are as important as The Velvet Underground and Nico, and fewer still have lost so little of their power to surprise and intrigue more than 30 years after first hitting the racks.” AM The album strikes “a balance between the polished beauty of great art and the raw spontaneity of great rock ‘n’ roll” JD “It was hipness on vinyl, but with an abiding narcotic beauty.” TL

“The Velvet Underground broke the rules of pop music as rock’s most visionary performers. They plumbed the depths of chaos and noise and proved that rock, too, can be art.” RV


The deluxe edition includes the stereo and mono versions over two CDs but doesn’t offer any previously unreleased material. The first disc also “includes the five songs from Nico's first album, 1967's Chelsea Girl in which Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Nico were involved in the songwriting; disc two adds the 45 rpm single versions of “All Tomorrow's Parties,” “I'll Be Your Mirror,” “Sunday Morning,” and “Femme Fatale.” AM

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First posted 3/23/2008; last updated 7/13/2024.

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