The research I’ve done indicates that The Velvet Underground & Nico was released 50 years ago today, on March 12, 1967. Which seems suspect, given that it was a Sunday then too, although it would fit right into the pattern of complete commercial disaster that attended everything the Velvets did.

It would be appropriate in a way, though, given that the first song on VU&N is the lovely “Sunday Morning.” So let’s put aside the question of accuracy and take the time afforded by this day of rest to talk a little about the Velvet Underground.

Brian Eno famously said that while The Velvet Underground & Nico didn’t sell many copies in its day (the number is sometimes given as 10,000, sometimes 30,000, though by now it’s sold more than half a million), every single person who bought one went on to start their own band. This was partly due to the sheer power of the music — which sounds like nothing else before or since — and partly because it had a raw simplicity that led people to believe that they, too, might be able to do this.

In this way the VU anticipated the punk rock of the 70s, but unlike most of those bands, they actually could play. John Cale was a classically trained musical polymath; Lou Reed also had substantial musical education and had been working as a for-hire songwriter for years; and Sterling Morrison was a gifted and precise guitarist. The band’s real X factor was drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker, whose approach to rhythm was instinctive and idiosyncratic. Anybody who knows two chords can play “Heroin,” more or less; but the push/pull dynamics and simmering tension of the Velvets’ original version reflect a high degree of mastery.

Heroin by The Velvet Underground from Omnes Productions on Vimeo.

And then there’s Nico, the icy German chanteuse Andy Warhol had forcibly united with the Velvets. She only “sings” three songs on the album, and I use that word advisedly; she more sort of intones them in a flat, emotionless voice that sometimes resembles a human autotune. It often sounds like she’s interpreting the words phonetically, though I’m pretty sure she spoke English. This works fairly well on the droning “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” less so on the gentle “Femme Fatale,” and not at all on “I’ll Be Your Mirror” — lyrically and musically one of the most gorgeous songs written by Lou Reed (and thus by anyone), but Nico’s vocal on it sounds jaded and insincere.

“I’ll Be Your Mirror” represents the other, less talked-about side of the Velvet Underground; the noise, drugs, and bondage get all the press, but they were capable of straightforward beauty as well. This side would come more to the forefront after Cale left the band/was fired, epitomized best by the the VU’s self-titled third album (known to aficionados as the Couch Album). It is said that Eno refuses to own a copy of this album, mortally afraid that he might overplay it and someday grow tired of it.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand: It’s unknown exactly how many bands The Velvet Underground & Nico spawned, but it was certainly a hugely influential album. I’m not sure if The Beatles paid any attention to it, though Brian Epstein certainly did, according to Richie Unterberger’s “Second Degrees of VU Separation”:

Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles, liked the Velvet Underground’s first album and was considering getting involved with them in some capacity in 1967. This might have entailed helping arrange for some VU gigs in Britain and Europe — something the Velvets had several opportunities to do while Lou Reed was in the band, but unfortunately something that never came to pass. VU manager Steve Sesnick also tried to interest Epstein in making a publishing deal for the Velvets’ songs. But the Velvet Underground decide to hang onto their publishing, and in any case Epstein died on August 27, 1967.

In a semicomic incident, Lou Reed himself met Brian Epstein around spring 1967 when, at publicist Danny Fields’s instigation, Reed finagled a cab ride with the Beatles manager in New York in the hopes that some interest in the VU’s affairs might be ignited. Evidently nothing came of it, however, other than Epstein sharing a joint with Reed and telling Lou how much he liked the banana album.

So had things gone a little differently, the Velvets might have ended up signed to Apple Records, and their records might have sold millions instead of thousands. The whole course of history would have changed and who knows what sort of madness might have ensued? It’s probably just as well things worked out the way they did.

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