Sunday, March 12, 2017

50 years ago: The Velvet Underground released their debut album

Velvet Underground & Nico

Velvet Underground & Nico

Released: March 12, 1967

Charted: May 13, 1967

Peak: 171 US, 59 UK

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

Genre: proto-punk rock

Tracks: (Click for codes to singles charts.)

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

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.


4.716 out of 5.00 (average of 22 ratings)

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

Awards: (Click on award to learn more).

About the Album:

“While it reportedly took over a decade for the album’s sales to crack six figures,” AMG there’s a classic line from producer Brian Eno “that, although the group didn’t sell a lot of records in its lifetime, everyone who bought one went out and started a band of their own.” JD 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;” AMG this is “chapter one of alternative rock.” BL “Glam, punk, new wave, goth, noise, and nearly every other left-of-center rock movement owes an audible debt to this set.” AMG “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

“The Velvets made rock & roll a dangerous place” BL and became “the poster children of the avant-garde.” TL 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” AMG was “risky stuff in film and literature, let alone ‘teen music.’” AMG

Even though the content “received the most press attention, …the music [they] played was as radical as the words they accompanied.” AMG It “is amazingly complex and sophisticated, deserving of a place beside contemporary masterpieces such as Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club BandJD 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 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.

“John Cale, an imposing Welshman tutored by ambient composer John Cage, introduced the rock world to feedback through his shrieking” TL “hard-edged electric viola.” NRR “Percussionist Maureen Tucker and guitarist Sterling Morrison make additional noteworthy contributions.” NRR

“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. Her “otherworldly vocals” NRR add “mystery to Femme Fatale and I’ll Be Your Mirror, 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.” AMG 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

Initially Warhol 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 “to all intents and purposes it was recorded and produced by Tom Wilson…[who] 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.” AMG

“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” AMG 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” AMG 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

“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 On the latter, he “peered into the inner sanctum of a sado-masochistic couple as they made love.” JD 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 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 “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” AMG 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 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.” AMG 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 “‘Everybody assumes that mind and body are opposed,’ Bangs wrote in another of his many attempts to pen the ultimate eulogy/tribute for the band…‘The Velvet Underground were the greatest band that ever existed because they began to suggest that such was not so.’” JD


The deluxe edition fails to offer any previously unreleased material, even as it expands its length from one to two CDs. The key bonus is the inclusion of both the stereo and mono versions of the album, which fill up most of disc one and disc two, respectively. To fill out the program, disc one 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.” AMG

Review Sources:

  • AMG All Music Guide review by Mark Deming
  • AMG All Music Guide review by Richie Unterberger
  • BL Blender Magazine (October 2008). 100 Greatest American Albums
  • VB Victor Bockris (1994). Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story. Simon and Schuster: New York, NY.
  • AD Adrian Denning
  • JD Jim DeRogatis (3/24/2002). “The Great Albums
  • JH Joe Howard (2007). 33 1/3: The Velvet Underground and Nico. The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc.: New York, NY.
  • NRR National Recording Registry
  • NO review by Tim Hartin
  • RV The Review (October & November 2001; Vol. 128: numbers 12-23). “100 Greatest Albums of All Time” by Clarke Speicher
  • TL Time Magazine (11/13/2006). “All-TIME 100 Albums” by Josh Tyrangiel and Alan Light.

Other Related DMDB Pages:

First posted 3/23/2008; last updated 9/27/2021.

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