“Beauty was a curse for Nico”: Maxine Peake on playing the iconic avant garde singer at Manchester International Festival

Maxine Peake has recently been playing Nico in a new production she's co-created about the star. NME caught up with her to hear her thoughts on Nico, The Velvet Underground and why Nico's treatment in the male-dominated music industry of the 1960s is still mirrored today.

“People think of beauty as a blessing, but I think for Nico it was definitely a curse,” Maxine Peake says, a few weeks before she’s due to start rehearsals for a play she’s co-created about the German musician, model and muse.

The Nico Project, which is currently showing at Manchester’s International Festival, focuses on Nico’s solo work as a musician. Whereas previous narratives on the enigmatic star have explored her work only in relation to her beauty or the men around her, Peake says The Nico Project intends to change all that.

“Andy Warhol created his Factory. He plucked Nico out and said: ‘This is what the Velvet Underground needs, we need someone who looks like you in the band.’ It wasn’t because of talent, it was because of beauty and it was a very cynical sort of reason,” Peake argues. “The Velvet Underground didn’t welcome her with open arms because she was being thrust upon them as some sort of marketing tool.”

Andy Warhol (centre) with The Velvet Underground, Nico (bottom left), Paul Morrissey (far right) and Gerard Malanga (bottom right) around 1966.

“The Velvet Underground didn’t welcome her with open arms because she was being thrust upon them as some sort of marketing tool”
Maxine Peake

The play focusses on Nico’s post-Velvet Underground work in the shape of her haunting 1968 album, ‘The Marble Index’ – a work she produced largely in isolation at a castle in LA and one in which beauty was replaced with brutalism. After spending months researching the late musician, Peake believes the album was Nico’s attempt at taking control of her artistic identity – something that had been previously suffocated by the male-dominated industry of which she was a part.

“Nico felt that she wasn’t able to express herself because people were only interested in the aesthetic, the outside,” Peake says. “She decided to move away and start allegiances with people who she felt were more interested with her mind. Always being gazed at, always being objectified: how must that make a person feel? Initially, we did think about doing a Nico biopic,” Peake reveals, “but it became very dominated by the men in the story. We felt we needed to wrestle her story back from a male stranglehold.”

“People assume that because she changes her story, she was lying. But from the research I’ve done with people who suffered trauma, from exploring people’s reactions to trauma and abuse, the re-telling is not always constant”
–Maxine Peake

Working out just exactly what Nico’s story was proved challenging, Peake says, describing the truth with Nico as “slippery.” There are conflicting reports about Nico’s year and place of birth as well as her accounts of growing up in war-torn Berlin. Similarly, the death of her father and her alleged attack at the hands of an American soldier as a teenager have differing accounts throughout her life. For Peake, Nico’s complicated relationship with the truth hints of a greater trauma.

“People assume that because she changes her story, she was lying. But from the research I’ve done with people who suffered trauma, from exploring people’s reactions to trauma and abuse, the re-telling is not always constant,” she says. Peake thinks there are clear parallels with the music industry’s treatment of women today with those Nico would have experienced in the ’60s.

Nico and Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground perform on stage in New York, 1966.

“I’m sure she must have been a victim to some pretty interesting behaviour from men. We are [starting to] talk about what women go through at the hands of men in creative industries now… but there’s been too much navel-gazing for far too long,” Peake says. “To get on at that time as a model or as an artist, there was a constant pressure and leering from men, people stepping over the line… you can only imagine what Nico went through.”

“We are [starting to] talk about what women go through at the hands of men in creative industries now…but there’s been too much navel-gazing for far too long”
– Maxine Peake

The Nico Project has an all-female creative team, something accidental but one that Peake says “felt right” for clawing back Nico’s complex narrative. “It’s an interesting juxtaposition because Nico didn’t have a lot of female friends herself,” Peake explains. “You do the research and she didn’t particularly like female company. I love working with men as well, but I just feel there’s something usually 99 percent of the time when working with an all-female creative team which just always seems to be a lot more connected. There’s a lot more room for everybody’s voice.”

The Velvet Underground & Nico – ‘Heroin’.

Lou Reed and Nico

For Peake, ‘The Marble Index’ highlighted Nico at the very top of her creative powers. While a commercial flop, it was a critical success: famed music critic Lester Bangs describing it as the “greatest piece of ‘Avant Garde’ classical’, ‘serious’ music of the last half of the 20th century.” Her Velvet Underground band mate and album collaborator John Cale said it was “a contribution to European classical music”.

It also stands in stark contrast to the work on her previous solo album, ‘Chelsea Girl’, a work Nico loathed because she frequently had to relinquish artistic control to her male counterparts – or it would be viewed only through her relationships with other male artists such as Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Jim Morrison and Lou Reed. “She used to be celebrated from a male point of view as a muse, a lover, but as a woman she was suffocated in it all,” Peake says.

Nico; Lou Reed

Nico and Lou Reed

“I chose ‘The Marble Index’ for the play,” Peake continues, “because it was the one Nico was most pleased with artistically. It was the one [she felt] most represented her as an artist, much more so than ‘Chelsea Girl’ which she hated.” On hearing the record, Nico reportedly cried because the post-production had “destroyed” everything that she set out to achieve.

‘The Marble Index’ was groundbreaking for both its modernism and its haunting gothic undertones at a time when the genre wasn’t yet established. Doom-filled vocals, a sparse harmonium and unsettling arrangements all make it a difficult listen. Peake explains that she wants people to realise through her portrayal of the character just how much of an innovator the artist was, an influence she still feels is seen today. “She’s left a huge legacy,” Peake begins. “I’ve met a lot of male and female artists and you can hear Nico’s influence because she was a huge forerunner for so many.”

“She used to be celebrated from a male point of view as a muse, a lover, but as a woman she was suffocated in it all”
–Maxine Peake

“We often push Avant Garde artists back into the shadows. You look at Cosi Fanni Tutti – people should be shouting about this woman from the rooftops; she was one of the forerunners of industrial music with Throbbing Gristle. But women who take [artistic risks] are pushed away; if it were a man, they’d be in every musical conversation. There are more sacrifices for women because of the standards that are put on us. There is so much more for us to lose.”

Nico in performance, 1980

Another issue, Peake says, is how the industry labels female artists who try to do something different as “difficult” or “problematic”. In the play, Peake fleets between her portrayal of Nico with her own self as the two undergo an imaginary conversation about creativity. Peake draws parallels between her own industry and that of Nico’s.

“I see it in my industry a lot. If a male actor is difficult, he is a genius. I still think there is a lot of hot air that goes around about what people perceive as talent [being an excuse for] bad behaviour. If a woman behaves like that, she’s difficult and that will always affect the way people see her work. It’s in society full stop… I get a lot of feedback from production companies and they say: ‘Oh, the female lead is not particularly likeable.’ What does that mean? With Nico, you get asked, ‘Why was she like that?’ but if it’s a man, it’s a given.”

“I’ve always been drawn to [portraying] women like Nico that people think aren’t very likeable. Why wasn’t she likeable? Because she didn’t conform, she didn’t tick the boxes of what your idea of femininity was, of how females were supposed to behave…I love the idea of the women who stick two fingers up and who say I don’t care whether or not you like me…I’m not playing who you want me to be. Nico broke free from all of that and expressed herself through her own art and what you got was some extraordinary lyrics and music.”

Nico was born Christa Päffgen in either 1938 or 1943, depending on various accounts from Nico herself. Like most people, Peake first heard of Nico via her work with the Velvet Underground’s self-titled, Andy Warhol-produced debut on which she appeared. Prior to this, Nico had worked as a model for Chanel and an actress in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. She arrived in New York from her native Germany via Paris and London, picking up a small recording deal on the way which saw her release a single, ‘I’m Not Saying’, with Brian Jones and Jimmy Page on guitar. The track caught the attention of Warhol who teamed her with the Velvet Underground.

“Why wasn’t she likeable? Because she didn’t conform, she didn’t tick the boxes of what your idea of femininity was, of how females were supposed to behave.”

–Maxine Peake

Nico’s background is ambiguous. Of the certainties, we know that Nico grew up in Nazi Germany and that she saw war-torn sights which haunted her well into her later years. The loss of her father affected her deeply although nobody knows exactly how he died. She alleges she was raped at the hands of an American soldier aged 13 and did everything she could to escape from the brutal war-ravaged environment around her. She claims she wasn’t racist but was dropped by Island Records for allegedly making racist remarks. While The Nico Project doesn’t attempt to explore the biography of Nico’s background, it does focus on some of contextual factors that may have played a part in ‘The Marble Index.’

Peake explains: “When you look at her career, she was always really bright and business-like. She used to hang around a department store in Berlin where there was a famous photographer who used to talent spot models; she wound up in Ibiza with Chet Baker and the jazz scene. She always put herself in these creative words where it was all happening. Eventually, Warhol picked her up too…[but] there were a lot of exterior influences having a big influence on her too. And we don’t shy away from the negative ones either.”

Nico and Brian Eno

“The trouble with Nico is that she is so enigmatic, instead of trying to understand her [people] label her as ‘complicated genius’ or ‘heroin addict.'” In her 40s, Nico moved to Manchester where she surrounded herself in another creative world and another Factory scene – this time, the one of Tony Wilson’s Hacienda where during performances, she would famously tell noisy audiences to “shut up” before silencing the venue with a breath-taking performance. Yet surrounded by temptation, Nico fell deeper into a debilitating heroin addiction and struggled to create. Nico died in Ibiza in 1988 after a heart attack; she was 49-years-old.

“When you speak to people in Manchester, everyone has a Nico story,” Peake says. “It’s told through their eyes…and she becomes a myth and her story very much needs wrestling back from those myths. Nico the icon is seen as the member of Warhol’s factory, this great beauty, this film star who ends up in Manchester on heroin. For some reason, this always seems to be the most important part of her story, not that she had this extraordinary musical and artistic talent.”

“The trouble with Nico is that she is so enigmatic, instead of trying to understand her [people] label her as ‘complicated genius’ or ‘heroin addict.'”

–Maxine Peake

“There are no scenes with me getting a needle in my arm or trying to find a vein. This production is about what it means to be a woman [and an] artist. We hint at some of the events in Nico’s life [that might have influenced] her art, but it is about her art.Her output should be able to stand for itself. With women artists especially, you have to explain every minutiae of your work.” Peake says The Nico Project avoids this and lets the art stand for itself.

Nico

“When I first heard ‘The Marble Index’ as a teenager…I remember feeling very wobbly afterwards. I remember it staying with me and it’s evolved with my life as I’ve evolved. I knew of her through The Velvet Underground and I’m a big Velvet fan, but my whole thing was with her as a solo artist and just how astonishing, ethereal and brave she was – she was especially dark and complex…there was a lot of vulnerability too… and she allowed it to expose itself [on this album].”

In letting the art stand for itself, Peake says Nico’s story as an artist becomes clearer. Beauty is stripped away and art, not looks, becomes Nico’s narrative. “To get to a point where nobody is taking you seriously, nobody is interested in your interior as Nico did, made this. She was just currency, someone passed around…but she was strong and had drive and vision. The album was a feeling of her needing self-expression and eventually getting it.”

The Nico Project is on at The Manchester International Festival Now