The Velvet Underground were a phenomenon whose contribution to music is inestimable. Influencing everyone from Kosokuya to The Kills, VU were the nexus between the NYC avant garde of the Theatre of Eternal Music and the doo wop infused Brill building ephemera where Lou Reed first cut his song writing teeth. Add to that the Modernist meditations of Delmore Schwartz and Hart Crane and the trash, flesh and heat of Manhattan’s Lower Eastside and you come someway to understanding their mutant DNA. And then there’s Nico.
Anyone who’s reading this magazine that Velvet Underground and Nico hasn’t sound tracked some gargantuan formative revelation or other was probably supposed to pick up Wired instead. But to listen again to Black Angel’s Death Song (apocryphally, the song that got VU fired from their first resident gig for playing one too many times) reconnects you to the uncanny thrill of first hearing it. The cry of John Cale’s viola eternally eating its own tail, Lou Reed singing about “the cosy brown snow of the East” and his sibilant hiss close up to the mic where a chorus should be, gave the song a ‘snuff’ quality that’s profoundly exhilarating. These were degenerates playing out their psychosis to a primitive beat, so you could visit it in the cosy confines of your headphones on the school bus.
This six disk set marks the 45th anniversary of Velvet Underground and Nico and is an opportunity to trot out ‘the mono edition’ and compare it to ‘the stereo edition’, which increasingly feels like a redundant tussle for audio supremacy between nerds and pedants now that most people listen to music in the ‘compressed, tinny computer speaker edition’. There is also a remastered version of Nico’s Chelsea Girl (it would have been truly interesting to hear Nico’s remix of the album), Factory rehearsal tapes and the famous Scepter Studio sessions transfered from acetate. One thing that is clear is that this is a monolithic achievement whose licentious thrill is undiminished by the passing decades.
The rehearsal tapes are a revelation, akin to Lucciano Emmer’s profiles of Picasso in the studio. To eavesdrop on the VU aesthetic emerging fully formed from the centre of Reed’s skull, like Zeus giving birth to Athena- leather-clad, uptight and pneumatic- is an unspeakable privilege. “Now, the idea of this is constant repetition” he chides during “Walk Alone” and the idea grows from a stone to a statue as Sterling Morrison picks up on the riff and Moe Tucker finds the major artery. Elsewhere, stentorian classics like “Venus in Furs” are demystified with hilarious results as Reed impatiently dictates the lyrics to a befuddled Nico (“STRIKE. DEAR. MISTRESS…. CURE. HIS. HEART”….”Vot?!”). What is most striking about these rehearsal goofs is the force of Cale’s bass playing. The frequency range and the arbitrary positioning of the microphone can privilege traditionally non-hierachical instruments like the bass in these informal situations. He steers that inimitable VU engine with a style that is both melodic and menacing but always intensely musical. Occasionally he will slide down the neck, hitting a run of notes that overload the recording, as if the Factory walls are caving in. Elsewhere, his palindromic riff at the end of “European Son”, is interrupted by breaking glass that feels like the “smash here for emergency” panel for Rock music as we knew it.
Disk five features a previously unavailable live concert from 1966 in the Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus, Ohio. They open with “Melody Laughter”- a 28 minute instrumental of torrential feedback, shamanistic drumming and squalling viola that shaves the top layer of jelly from the brain. This gloriously encapsulates many VU themes- sensory deranging durations, melding immersive atonality with classic R&B licks, monomaniacal drumming that acts as a launch pad for Lou Reed to frenzy in a style that reconciles Ike Turner and Henry Flynt. When Nico starts improvising wordless vocals after 18 minutes the whole room starts to levitate. The lack of audience response makes you think it must be recorded directly from the mixing desk, until a couple more songs pass and you can hear a drizzle of applause as the students try to scrape themselves off the ballroom wall. Its tantalizing to imagine Dylan and Ayler marauding across Europe in the same year that VU discover what the sound of one hand clapping is in the Midwest, as the goal posts of possibility shatter around the ears of unprepared audiences. But those were different times.
Though subsequent tensions created irrepairable fissures in the band, this anniversary boxset is a timely reconnection to an epochal creation by five individuals whom the world would never see the like of again.