Sacred Cows is an occasional series in which NME writers question the critical consensus around revered albums. Here, Henry Yates wonders if The Velvet Underground’s debut deserves its hallowed status
At this precise moment, somewhere in the Latin Quarter of Paris, a young man is smoking a filterless Gitane and wittering about ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’. He will be using terms like ‘seminal’, ‘trailblazing’ and ‘fearless’, and loftily implying that anyone who doesn’t own the original ’67 vinyl pressing is a lobotomised barbarian who probably listens to the Stereophonics while frotting in their own filth. If you are within earshot of this man, take this opportunity to ignite his little beard. Do it. Do it now.
Needless to say, the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut is achingly cool. So cool that it makes The Strokes look like Def Leppard. So cool that even though you still haven’t removed the cellophane, you sense that just owning it might transform your Luton bedsit into an illicit demi-monde of sunken Manhattan glamour, leather-clad dwarves and trackmarked hermaphrodites. So cool that nobody fucking bought it.
Despite this, I’ve never fallen for Lou Reed’s opening shot. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for cool as a side-effect. The trouble with ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ is that it feels like the raison d’être. You can almost imagine Reed ticking off bohemian-friendly criteria as the nascent band primed their first effort. “The seedy buzz of after-hours New York – check! Songs about hookers, masochism and the minutiae of an intravenous drug habit – check! An esoteric German chanteuse who sounds like a condescending sat-nav – check! A female drummer who plays standing up – double-check! Here, Andy, are you still OK to knock out a subversive item of fruit for the sleeve…?”
Look at my mugshot. I’m not a burnt-out ’60s hipster. I’m a modern man with a larger-than-average forehead. I know nothing of sprawling beneath the tin-foil ceiling of The Factory while a runaway child ties me off and ‘Venus In Furs’ throbs decadently on a distant stereo. As such, I can’t place this music in context, or say for sure whether it truly ‘changed everything’, as whiskery men keep telling me on dick-suck C4 nostalgia programmes. All I can give is my 2011 perspective: this album is decent, not dazzling.
It’s also seriously patchy. There’s the benign opening run that your grandparents would enjoy, taking in the cot-mobile jingle of ‘Sunday Morning’ and Nico’s glazed vocal on ‘Femme Fatale’. There’s the jutting grooves of ‘Waiting For The Man’, which sounds like Lou is power-walking to the dealer. It’s a great start. But then, as if the Velvets have suddenly remembered they’re meant to be all avant-garde and stuff, they drop ‘Venus In Furs’: essentially a Brooklyn catarrh-sufferer freestyling over the ‘Psycho’ shower scene.
With the exception of ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ and ‘Heroin’, the album never recovers. ‘Run Run Run’ as pointless as a hamster on a wheel. ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ is pure forgettable ’60s slop. And then it’s the grin-and-pretend-you’re-enjoying-it finale, as ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ treats us to the sound of a child receiving its first viola lesson. As for ‘European Son’… God help us. There aren’t enough drugs in the world.
There’s an old Brian Eno quote that’s trotted out whenever that banana looms into view. “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies,” Bri calculates, “but everyone who bought it formed a band”. I’d question Eno’s numbers there. Of those 10,000, I estimate that half sawed off their ears, a third drowned in their own vomit, and the rest became creative directors at deeply pretentious ad agencies. Me, I buried my copy at the dusty end of my CD collection. And I haven’t touched a banana since…