March 12th, 2017 is a very special date for any music enthusiast, for it marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the seminal The Velvet Underground and Nico album, produced by Andy Warhol, officially debuting the band of the same name. I, for one, will probably spend a good chunk of the day listening to favorite tracks and outtakes off the record, still listening in awe on how the the band was able to be so innovative with just one record. It still takes back listeners today with its sound, and the fact that it was recorded in the mid-sixties makes it that more impressive. But the question is why should something that is this ancient still matter? Why should we still be taking notes from bands like The Velvet Underground when there are fresh, up-and-coming artists being played everyday?
Because while flower-power reigned supreme and the wishful thinking of sixties altruism permeated the airwaves, a scruby, nihilistic little group from New York City decided to sing a new tune, and document both the grime of the streets and the intellect of the novel for a Rock audience. In a way, it was the other side of the world trying to ground people back to reality, and in doing so, created some of the most innovative music that has ever been recorded.
The Velvet Underground was a band straight from the wrong side of town with a book of poems held in hand. Founder and principal songwriter, Lou Reed, had studied literature at Syracuse University, and had worked as a songwriter before forming his own band. Frustrated with the state of current pop music, Lou became increasingly interested in making popular music that featured lyrics commenting on mature subject matters. “[I] wanted to write the great American novel,” he said in a 1987 interview, “but I also loved rock and roll.” Along with fellow student and guitarist, Sterling Morrison, violist John Cale, and drummer Angus MacLise, (later replaced by Maureen Tucker,) the radical group was formed in 1965.
The Velvet Underground and Nico wasn’t necessarily the first Alternative Rock album. Mid-sixties bands were already experimenting with new sounds in albums such as Pet Sounds and Revolver, but they were the ones that invented what modern Alternative music would sound like. Take the arpeggios of a song like I’ll Be Your Mirror, for example. The clean sound and folk-like plucking of the strings is an ancestor of the guitar playing heard in songs like Radiohead’s Let Down, or Imagine Dragon’s Radioactive. They all revolve around the same concept of letting the notes “shimmer,” one which arguably started with this and other songs of the album.
But the influence doesn’t end there. Throughout the record, we are given an almost foretelling glimpse of what Rock music would eventually evolve into within the following ten years or so. The roaring power chords on Run, Run, Run and I’m Waiting For The Man create an aura of muckraked street-life and hysteria that would become the trademark of the British punk scene starting with bands like the Sex Pistols and MC5. The ambient ring on Venus in Furs and All Tomorrow’s Parties helped change music production in general, with John Cale providing the viola and prepared piano respectively to help create the noise. It was almost like a rock n’ roll version of Spector’s wall of sound, but in my opinion, John Cale was more important than Spector as he was able to fill rooms with sounds that perfectly complimented the power of Lou’s songwriting. He was the genesis of popularizing the ambient, and bands like The Cure, U2 and Coldplay have a lot to thank from him.They all made the band sound so huge; creating something that seemed both bigger than themselves and larger than life.
However, all this would have meant nothing if it weren’t for the solidity of the songwriting. Lou Reed was a true iconoclast for his time, and wrote songs that even Jagger and Richards couldn’t touch as far as depravity goes. Songs about street drugs, transvestites, prostitution, and hedonism were written all so incredibly frank that it solidified the band’s brazen attitude. No other band has had such a provocative debut, and because of it, opened the floodgates as to what could be said in a song. The brilliant part of it all was that they were so singable. Deconstruct a song like Heroin to its basic chords, and you’ll find that past all the noise and drone that anyone could sing along to something like this. It’s essentially just another campfire song. Thisway, the songs were instantly playable by novice musicians and could be easily covered, thus expanding the influence. Really, the only other band at that time that pushed the envelope that far were the Rolling Stones, and most of the time, their messages were more subdued while the Velvets gave it straight.
Most importantly, the The Velvet Underground and Nico was the album that started multiple bands. Music Producer, Brian Eno, once said of the album, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” While not literal, it accurately captures the influence produced by the group. So much of what we take for granted in modern lyrics andsound – not just in Alternative music but in all music are because of their innovations made with this and their four other albums. Modern artists such as the Strokes, Arctic Monkeys, Regina Spektor, Beck, and many others were influenced by them. All I can say is listen. It may surprise or even startle you, but is important to recognise a true classic and the blueprint for the Alternative wave.
Picture Credits: Fan Art & Orion Lenz