Monday, October 18, 2010

The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico

Release Dates: March 12, 1967

★★★★★ Tracks:

Almost all of them.

What’s your favorite song of all time? Tough right? A friend and I were discussing a date she was on recently where they would eventually exchange each other’s favorites. As a pop/rock fan my brain scans the last 50 years of music and comes up with far too wide of a selection to choose just one. Even on a date for the sake of conversation I’m afraid I wouldn’t have an honest answer. A “Top 5” might be do-able, but it'd be a stretch. But if this hypothetical date held a gun to my head and insisted on five songs, I have little doubt “I’m Waiting For the Man” would be included on that list.

I first got hooked on “I’m Waiting For the Man” about ten years ago, when I really sat down and listened to the lyrics. Although I’ve never gotten in to the hard stuff, there’s something I dig about the rebellious nature of drug references in music. When Velvet Underground & Nico was released in 1967, mega-groups the Beach Boys and the Beatles were just beginning to hint to psychedelics influencing their music, but “I’m Waiting For the Man” was overtly about drugs. And not that happy hippie psychedelic shit that was sweeping the nation, this was about Heroin, the hardest drug you can get your hands on. Because of its controversial subject matter the song was banned from airplay on most radio stations. As the percussion bangs persistently and the bluesy music shuffles along to Reed's descriptive lyrics I could see why people were up in arms; it all sounds so fucking cool he's inadvertently inviting you to try the stuff.

Over four years ago I made the monumental move to New York City. Since then, the song speaks to me in new and more interesting ways. Reed paints such a vivid picture of the city; heading up the Lexington subway line to 125th Street, where, once in Harlem, he’s told he’s chasing all their women around as he approaches the brownstone where he obtains his fix, I can’t help but be proud I know exactly what and where he is talking about. Another great New York track is “Run Run Run,” where city references are abundant. A character named Teenage Mary exclaims, “Gonna take a walk down to Union Square! You never know who you're gonna find there!” Although these days she would find little distinction from the regulars frequenting the area; women shopping for shoes at DSW and tourists. A character named Beardless Harry takes a trolley to 47th Street in the same song, where most likely not by coincidence, Andy Warhol’s famous studio, The Factory, was located during most of the 60’s.

“I’m Waiting For the Man” and “Run Run Run” aren’t the only thing going for the The Velvet Underground & Nico. It’s not considered one of the best albums of all time without reason. The harsh and controversial content sped up the process of uncensored lyricism in music. Lou Reed’s multifaceted guitar skills, with his meandering solos, beautiful guitar plucks, and experimental alternate tunings (he invented the Ostrich tuning) point to a very underrated musician. John Cale’s feedback laced viola is still something that hasn’t been replicated in modern music. Nico's inclusion on this record gives the Velvet Underground a variety they were unable to replicate, and her unique German voice suits a band from a city rooted in European immigration. New York artist Andy Warhol’s involvement adds intrigue, and it was at his request that Nico was added to the group (the band wasn't fond of the idea, hence the title of the record). After some time spent with the Velvet Underground it becomes apparent that they are not only the quintessential New York rock’n’roll band, they are one of the most important and influential bands in pop history.

The video below features Edie Sedgwick, one of Andy Warhol "superstars," that he requested a song be written about. Lou Reed agreed to it and came up with “Femme Fatale.” Nico sings the lead vocals.


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