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Far more imaginative and creatively challenging than most of what's being released today - like all good art, it will make you feel something.

Music Review: The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground and Nico [Super Deluxe Edition]

Should we care about an album released 45 years ago? Specifically, should we care about The Velvet Underground and Nico, especially enough to buy a six-CD set commemorating the 45th anniversary of its release? Well the people at Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) feel the album warrants special attention, as they are releasing The Velvet Underground and Nico [Super Deluxe Edition]. Are they justified in their belief this album deserves this kind of treatment?

In 1967 the The Velvet UndergroundLou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker – joined forces with husky voiced Nico for this, their debut album. With the infamous peel away plastic banana cover artwork – you could actually peel the yellow skin away to reveal a naked flesh coloured banana – by their mentor Andy Warhol and their association with his studio/workshop/performance space The Factory, the band was assured a certain amount of hip cachet. However, hipness is fleeting and doesn’t necessarily signify the creation of something enduring, nor is it any guarantee of artistic merit.

As the saying goes, “the proof is in the pudding”, or in this case, in the listening. One only has to listen to the album once to understand not only how different it was from everything else being recorded at the time, but how good it is. I say is, because even listening to it now one can’t help but be impressed by its inventiveness and originality. From the lyrics to the music it still sets a standard which very few albums, no matter when they were recorded, can measure up to.

Musically The Velvet Underground and Nico was a mixture of pop and experimental/avant garde. In fact this rather strange mixture of the familiar and the jarring is very much the musical equivalent of what Warhol was doing with his “Pop Art”. Taking familiar cultural images and then reproducing them in either oversized, life like detail – think his infamous rendering of a Campbell’s Soup can – or distorting them with colour and repetition – think of his pictures of cultural icons like Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. In the case of the album, this came across in both the music and the lyrics.

Familiar popular music motifs were played just differently enough to make them sound unsettling, while in other cases the band left pop music far behind and entered into the realm of the experimental. Listen to the opening track on the album, “Sunday Morning”. While it sounds like your typical pop song of the day, there are some very noticeable differences right from the start.

First of all is the fact the lead instrument sounds like a child’s toy piano. It plinks along overtop the gentle sounding rhythm and gradually becomes more and more disturbing. Then there’s Reed’s singing voice. He gives the lyrics an almost Bob Dylan-like inflection, making them sound like nothing you’d ever hear in any pop song. Of course the lyrics themselves aren’t what you’d call pretty: “Sunday morning/Brings the dawn in/It’s just a restless feeling/By my side/Early dawning/Sunday morning/It’s just the wasted years”.

This doesn’t describe most people’s idea of a Sunday morning. A hangover from Saturday night is one thing, but this sounds like a hangover of a life filled with regrets and failure – like the Sunday morning of somebody contemplating suicide.

While “Sunday Morning” is musically familiar, the same can’t be said for “Black Angel Death Song”. It challenges listeners right from its opening notes. You’re immediately hit with the sound of Cale’s viola scraping across its strings playing the same few notes over and over again.

Overtop of this comes the sound of Reed intoning/reciting, the lyrics to the song: “The myriad choices of his fate/Set themselves out upon a plate/For him to choose what had he to lose”. Sounding more like free form poetry with atonal accompaniment, it is nothing like any pop song heard at that time. In it you can hear foreshadowing of performers like Patti Smith and Jim Carroll, who a decade latter would set their poetry to music.

While this song isn’t what anybody would call accessible or radio friendly, it’s a brilliant piece of work showing pop music’s potential to be more than just inconsequential disposable and forgettable songs. The Velvet Underground produced songs which would alter people’s perceptions of pop art’s capacity to be meaningful. Is it any wonder that famed composer and producer Brian Eno has been quoted as saying “the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

The new edition of The Velvet Underground and Nico gives you a chance to fully experience the band and the development of this very special record. Disc one of six is the original recording remastered plus the addition of alternate versions of four songs. Disc two is a copy of the original mono release that came out at the same time. While it is mostly a novelty item, it is interesting to hear the release with the sound flattened and compressed into one channel.

Disc three is a copy of Nico’s Chelsea Girl which features all the members of The Velvets plus a 17-year-old Jackson Browne. You’ll also notice that Browne wrote three of the tracks on the album while the others were written by members of either The Velvets or The Factory, with one Bob Dylan cover, “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, rounding out the mix.

The material on discs four, five and six were recorded prior to the band making the record. Disc four is divided up between nine songs taken from tapes and acetate recordings made at Scepter Studios in April of 1966 and five from previously unreleased tapes of a rehearsal the band had at The Factory in January of 1966. While not all of the songs on this disc made it onto the album, it does give you an interesting perspective on the album’s development over the course of the year prior to its release.

Discs five and six were also recorded in 1966 and are taken from a live concert the band did at the Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus, Ohio. Again this is an opportunity to hear the band finalizing the tunes and testing them out on a live audience. While they didn’t do all of the songs from the final recording at this concert – and there are two which aren’t on the album, “Melody Laughter” and “The Nothing Song” – listening to how the band and the music evolved over the space of the year on these last three discs is fascinating.

The answer to the question of whether or not we should care about an album first produced 45 years ago is obvious: it depends on the album. When it comes to The Velvet Underground and Nico, the answer is yes. Not only was it one of the most innovative recordings of its time, it is far more imaginative and creatively challenging than most of what is being released in popular music today. Listen to it and be inspired, confused, irritated, angered and moved. For like all good art, even if you don’t necessarily like it, it will make you feel something.

Last updated 11/1/12 at 3:27 p.m. EST

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of three books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion" and "Introduction to Greek Mythology For Kids". Aside from Blogcritics he contributes to and his work has appeared in the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and has been translated into numerous languages in multiple publications.

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