1967: The Six Day War. Elvis marries Priscilla. Monterey. BBC2 goes colour. The Detroit race riots. Respect, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Hair, Are You Experienced? The Summer of Love.
January 1967: four musicians, an artist and a Brazilian chanteuse release one of the most influential, powerful, strange and revolutionary records of the century. Just imagine buying this record, peeling the banana, and letting it take over your life during such a cataclysmic year. Swirling guitars, distorted vocals at even the lowest volumes (possibly a result of Andy Warhol not having much idea as to how to produce a record), odd tunings and dissonant violas combined with nihilistic, druggy, decadent, hazy lyrics.
I bought this album in, of all places, a service station in the Israeli desert, when I was 15, and I was utterly astounded. Sunday Morning and Femme Fatale are fairly sedate pop tunes, albeit with quite interesting arrangements: the former’s xylophones, and the latter’s ghostly vocals, courtesy of Nico; I’m Waiting For The Man didn’t register at first as a song about drug dealing, although now it’s blatantly obvious – all I got was the sense of dissatisfaction and powerfully chunky music.
Musically, you wouldn’t get a lot freakier than Venus In Furs would get at the time. Dissonant, possibly atonal violins, and droning guitars complement a tribal thump from Mo Tucker, and Lou Reed, chief lyricist, guitarist, visionary and tortured genius sings of S&M, “shiny shiny shiny boots of leather” and powerful women, infuriating the parents, bewildering the broadsheet critics and exciting the avant-garde. The brief interlude of Run Run Run, thematically, provides some form of sonic respite, even if the more conventional songs still twist contemporary pop/rock inside out, satirise it and make it sound dark, scary and above all, arty.
All Tomorrow’s Parties is possibly my favourite Velvet Underground song, all epic beat, jangling guitars and multi-tracked Nico vocals. So important that a festival is named after it, it’s the perfect marriage of the weirdness of some of the more experimental cuts, and the pop of the rest of their output; truly, Reed excelled himself here. Providing the flipside is Heroin, a song which blew my mind the first time I heard it, and still offers new things every time I revisit it. Building up the tempo and dynamics as Reed declaims about his eponymous usage and addiction, this is surely Mo Tucker’s finest album. Deceptively uplifiting, I can hear a whole gamut of different bands taking inspiration from this, as disparate as Joy Division and Mogwai.
Rounding off the album are There She Goes Again, another pop gem which seems to me intentionally ridiculous after such a weighty seven minutes as Heroin, but it feels like the spiritual cousin to Femme Fatale, sung from the opposing gender perspective. I’ll Be Your Mirror is another reflective, pensive Nico showcase, with gentle guitars and bubbling bass, but nothing that would prepare you for the penultimate song, The Black Angel’s Death Song.
Another chance for John Cale to whip out his viola (no sniggering at the back!) this cut frankly frightened me on first listen – I was young, I hadn’t grown to appreciate dissonance as expression, and this was frankly more disturbing than even Venus In Furs. Following on, European Son takes the guitar as its focal point of destruction, with squalls of fast playing, feedback and heart-racing drums and drones finishing up the second side with strange noise, desperate crashes and a long, low bass note that fades off into a dark, needle strewn alley.
Collapsing after another couple of albums, with Reed exploring drugs and feedback, Cale becoming more avant-garde and the name Velvet Underground consigned to the canon, this represented one of the most startling, creative and avant-garde moments of the Sixties, yet was never promoted, or sold, in any meaningful manner, peaking in the low #170s on the US charts. Like much inspiration, it came from a closely guarded collecting elite, but now, available at all Middle Eastern truck stops, The Velvet Underground and Nico is ready to explode some synapses.
Key tracks: Sunday Morning/Venus In Furs/All Tomorrow’s Parties/Heroin/European Son