Knowing nothing about a band before you buy their music is sometimes an amazing thing. I did it many times, but this one was different. I always had heard about The Velvet Underground and how important to rock music they were. I knew Lou Reed already, so I knew that it had to be cooler than I ever would be. When I finally decided to dive in, I dove in head first into the amazing Peel Slowly and See boxed set of CD's. Five discs. The four studio albums in full with a large amount of bonus tracks, a lot of live cuts and some various mixes of the songs as well as a disc of the early demo of their eponymous debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico. It was truly the way to do it as VU is very cumbersome at first. Especially someone who never really listened to anything as radical as this his entire life up to this point. And so, there I was with five discs of very different and interesting pop music. What to do? Where to start? Start at the beginning. And what a way to go. The familiar voices of Nico, who I only knew from The Royal Tenenbaums and Lou Reed of "Walk on the Wild Side" and "Perfect Day" (which, btw is probably my most treasured 45... A Side Wild Side, B-Side Perfect Day? SO GOOD!) Anyway, the musical journey began.
This album was probably the first album that made me realize something... I didn't really have much talent songwriting wise at all. I was in a band for almost three years when I got this disc and it kind of made me realize that anything I tried to write was just poor songwriting. Not because the songs on this record are anything super brilliant, but it showed me that I, a white suburban middle class kid had no life experience with anything worth rocking about. Not in the least. It was at this point that I knew I could never write a song again, at least lyrically. I still tinker here and there with my drum machine, but that's about all I can do. The Velvets really struck a chord in me that I wasn't meant to make music, but maybe write and talk about it nonstop. So that's what I did. I decided that I still enjoyed performing, but the thrill was really in the listening and appreciating and sharing of music. This is what The Velvet Underground and Nico did to me. It made me appreciate the art that music can be more than any other album had.
The thing that makes this album amazing is it's grit. Unlike anything else I can think of from 1967, it's just mind numbing that a band could see the future of so many sounds and styles at least ten or twenty years before these themes and sounds would come to more popularity. Without this, you don't get punk rock, noise rock, avant garde experimental music, glam rock or even grunge. To my mind, it was like finding the Garden of Eden of music. It was the life spring that so many things came from, and it was catchy as hell. The boogie piano behind the grungy guitars and tribal drums of "I'm Waiting For the Man" or the viola infused howl and drone of "Venus in Furs" are just two very stark and different songs that I had never heard the likes of before. I had heard hints of this in other styles of music, but not to this eclectic nature and sheer harrowing beauty. This is an album that bores a hole in your head and doesn't let you stop. It's not for everyone but it should be. It's like watching Citizen Cane. It's a daunting task, but it's so influential and brilliant that you have to at least appreciate if not enjoy it (I, for one, enjoy this album about 50 times more than I enjoy Citizen Cane.)
The Nico tracks on the album are the poppiest of the bunch, but her haunting German man voice is something so intense and beautiful on its own. "Femme Fatale" and "I'll Be Your Mirror" are two cutesy pop songs and "All Tomorrow's Parties" is a dirge-like pop music masterpiece. I wonder how different this album would be if Andy Warhol didn't force Nico into the fray. That's neither here nor there, really, but it is interesting to think about. The course of the album just goes into a wild frenzy by the end with "The Black Angel's Death Song" and "European Son." I never heard anything like it before and it wouldn't be until I dove head first into bands like Yo La Tengo or Sonic Youth that I would understand just how great this kind of noise rock could really be at times. It's music not fer everyday, but it's still something refreshing.
Needless to say, this was my first foray into more underground music. I stepped out of the slipstream of mainstream classic rock and found something that sounded futuristic, yet from the past. The other VU albums also are worthy of note. White Light/White Heat may be the coolest record ever made and definitely the first punk rock record. The Velvet Underground is so melancholy and filled to the brim with amazing songs that it gets shrouded by it's counterparts. Loaded is where the band finally let pop music have its way and they really should thank them for it as some of their best songs can be found here. But nothing makes the impact that The Velvet Underground and Nico does. It hits a home run of musical brilliance right into your ears.
It also lended me with the better of my two radio show names: Peel Slowly and See. This is the way I look at music. Peel back the things you know and you will see what else is under there.
1. The Who - Tommy
2. Beck - Odelay
3. Television - Marquee Moon
4. Weezer - Pinkerton
5. Brian Eno - Before & After Science
6. Wilco - A Ghost is Born
7. The Beatles - Rubber Soul
8. Grand Funk Railroad - Closer to Home
9. Foo Fighters - The Colour & The Shape
10. Elton John - Tumbleweed Connection
11. Interpol - Turn On the Bright Lights
12. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King
13. Jeff Buckley - Grace
14. Warren Zevon
15. Black Mountain - In The Future
16. XTC - Skylarking
17. Pavement - Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
18. Nick Drake - Pink Moon
19. Stone Temple Pilots - Purple
20. The Clash - London Calling
21. Arcade Fire - Funeral
22. The Velvet Underground and Nico
Up Next: The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots