March 16, 2012 by Johnathan Guest
The classic status of an album can be based as much on its influence to future generations as its own musical merit. That statement may sound unfair to you, but it’s true. The Beatles sure wrote fantastic songs their entire career, but their importance is greatly diminished if future bands were not inspired by them. At the same time, people are more likely to be inspired by bands that are more visible, which are likely more accessible. This trend was never more important than in the 1960s, when signing to a record label and getting radio airplay were undoubtedly the quickest paths to success. Therefore, the general thought 45 years ago was that the band with a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 should be celebrated while the band with a No. 171 album should be ignored and forgotten. “The Velvet Underground & Nico” is a unique exception, even though it took two decades to be considered classic.
The poor commercial showing of “The Velvet Underground & Nico” was mainly due to the fact that its subject matter was highly controversial. Radio stations refused to play the artists’ songs, and magazines refused to advertise the album because of many overt references to drug abuse, prostitution and other taboo topics. However, the recording process and album release were marred by delays — partly due to the production of the signature “Peel slowly and see” banana cover — and the band’s record label, Verve Records, hardly promoted the album. Finally, a controversy came from actor Eric Emerson, who threatened to sue over his unauthorized image on the back cover of the album. The distribution of the album stopped until his image could be removed, causing a five-month gap between weak Billboard 200 chartings.
In a way, the controversy and initial failure of “The Velvet Underground & Nico” neatly parallels the tumultuous path the band had taken to get there. The eventual quartet of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker begins with Reed, a staff-songwriter for little-known Pickwick Records, meeting viola player and experimental music aficionado Cale, who discovered their similar music tastes and began rehearsing together. After three name changes and two lineup changes — Morrison replaced Walter De Maria and Tucker replaced Angus MacLise, who quit when he thought the band’s first paid gig was a sellout — the famous Velvet Underground was finally formed. However legendary and influential the band is today, it is clear that they would have a tough time getting exposure due to their experimental music foundation. Luckily for them, artist Andy Warhol became the band’s manager in 1965, introduced them to German singer Nico and made them an integral part of his traveling pop art extravaganza “Exploding Plastic Inevitable.”
The Andy Warhol association was stifling when it came to promotion and presentation but incredibly freeing for The Velvet Underground’s music. Warhol was credited as producer of “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” yet he knew nothing about producing a record and did absolutely nothing while Tom Wilson handled most of the nitty-gritty recording work. As the public figurehead of the album’s creation, Warhol answered to any questions and criticism regarding the process while the band was able to craft songs completely in their unique vision. He was rewarding the band for its good work and supporting art for the sake of art. Meanwhile, Verve Records was not exactly waiting with bated breath for the album to be completed. No one’s financial well-being or artistic credibility was at stake on “The Velvet Underground & Nico” except The Velvet Underground, Nico and the music that they wanted to record. The only people Reed, Cale, Morrison, Tucker and Nico were trying to impress were themselves, which is music making in its purest form.
45 years after its tumultuous inception, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” stands as one of the greatest albums in history because its groundbreaking and influential nature far outweighs its initial obscurity, even among critics. The band released three subsequent albums that are now highly regarded before breaking up, and both Reed and Cale have their own respective solo masterpieces, but the first album that any of them made still stands alone as the best. The album’s songs are arguably the perfect balance between skillful songwriting and raw experimentalism that raises the bar for musical innovation even today. Songs such as mobile-lullaby opener “Sunday Morning” and the Nico-led “I’ll Be Your Mirror” are surprisingly wispy and tender and show a startling dynamic when put next to the volatile “European Son” and the exhilaratingly literal “Heroin.” Pretty much every aspect of the band’s sound, from Reed’s poetry-influenced lyrics and “ostrich” guitar tuning to Cale’s droning viola to Tucker’s drum set, were almost unheard of in rock ‘n’ roll. For all of its failure, it’s the music that matters most, and this album proves that it’s impossible to let great music be forgotten even under the worst circumstances.