All Tomorrow's Parties
What must it have been like hearing "All Tomorrow's Parties" in 1967? How could it have sounded? How would it've even been conceived? What reference points were there? What old forms were there to inform listening? What framework existed to make sense of it? Surely no one had ever sounded like this: the ghastly, ghostly, tuneless, Teutonic moan of Nico; John Cale's endless prepared-piano riff, circling into some lock-groove infinity; the guitars, stumbling in and out of the song, vaguely approximating Indian raga music; all pushed forward by Mo Tucker's percussion, so rudimentary that it seems like a heartbeat.
By the standards of the time, the Velvet Underground were a shambles; a ragged, haggard flophouse of deconstructed —perhaps malformed, even— rock'n'roll. They were, in their own way, the first-ever 'alternative' band, the first-ever musical 'other' definable only in its opposition to the status quo. There'd been 'underground' bands before; after all, that only really means 'unpopular'. But no band so completely exploded the normative musical models of the day like the Velvet Underground.
Listening to an album nearing half-of-century of age, it would be natural to assume a sense of distance; its dusty crackles, archaic fidelity, and natural anachronisms making you constantly aware of the time that separates you from the original moment, the long-ago sentiment, the sessions captured on tape. Yet, perhaps no record is blessed with that mythical, alchemical musical 'timelessness' than the debut album for the Velvet Underground; an LP that age has nary wearied.
Scrape and Decay
Volumes of Velvets lore have been penned on this album; from the mystical to the functional, the nostalgic to the iconoclastic. It can be hard listening to an album like this —one that so many have heard, have interpreted, before you— and feel that kind of instant, spontaneous frisson of pure reaction. But The Velvet Underground and Nico transcends its classic-rock status, feeling not like a museum piece, but a live, alive work.
In "Venus in Furs," the Velvet Underground sound as if they're playing, right now; Cale's screeching viola crumbling pinging off the walls; Sterling Morrison's guitar picking funereal patterns; the hiss of tambourine almost leaping out of the speakers. The decaying sound of the viola is one of the most 'alive' elements on this album; it sounding so utterly raw —the sound of every scrap audible— that it creates an unease. A song like "Heroin," seven minutes of stop-start rock'n'roll rambling, is kept forever on edge by the strident squalls of viola; never settling into a cosy groove, and, thereby, never settling into a place of familiar nostalgia.
Which is, if you think about it, as astonishing kind of musical transcendence; a trick of the ear that turns into a trick of the mind. Even when you know that this album was recorded half a century ago, you can still imagine —perhaps inspired by Andy Warhol's one-take film The Velvet Underground and Nico— that this band is playing these songs live in the present instant.
Oh, and it's important to note that they're playing these songs. Because this LP isn't just an amazingly realized, wholly individual sound, but a collection of killer cuts, most of which're known immediately by name —"Femme Fatale," "Sunday Morning," "I'm Waiting for the Man"— and deserving of their individual iconicism. These are not dull history lessons three minutes long, but glorious pop-songs that sparkle every spin.
Which encapsulates the point: The Velvet Underground and Nico isn't an enduring, defining, infinitely beloved album simply because it was first; because it was the seed that spawned a tree (that spawned an entire forest); because the VU begat seemingly billions of bands, even classic indie acts like Galaxie 500 being, when you boil it down, rote Velvets copyists. Rather, The Velvet Underground and Nico lives on, still sounding amazing and being dutifully praised, because it's a really, really great album.
Record Label: Verve
Release Date: March 12, 1967