Back in 1967, when The Velvet Underground’s debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, first came out, it was—not to mince words—a flop. For the record company Verve (which is actually a big jazz label), it was a financial failure. But years later, and long after the band had ceased to exist, it became one of the most influential albums in rock’s history. Its cover art—a distinctive print of a yellow banana by Andy Warhol (who was also the band’s manager)—became iconic. Even today, it can be found on totes and T-shirts, often coveted by people who might not have even heard the band’s music.
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That debut album was controversial when it came out. It was a year when some of rock’s most celebrated albums were released: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; Pink Floyd’s The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn; The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request; Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding; The Doors’ eponymous debut album; and plenty more albums that are now considered all-time greats.
Most of the songs on The Velvet Underground’s album, written by singer and guitarist Lou Reed, dealt with then controversial themes, such as sexually deviant behaviour, drug use and prostitution, very different from the subject matter of that year’s other albums. In the song Heroin, the lyrics are about the rush one feels after taking the drug; in Venus In Furs, the theme is sexual bondage, sadism and masochism; and Run Run Run, a song Reed is believed to have written on the back of an envelope on the way to a gig, is about characters named Teenage Mary, Margarita Passion, Seasick Sarah and Beardless Harry, all either using drugs or seeking them.
The band was clearly far ahead of its time and it would be a decade before their album was re-appraised. It went on to become a sort of musicians’ album, inspiring, influencing and impacting rock music for decades.
The classic line-up of the band was Reed, multi-instrumentalist John Cale, bassist Sterling Morrison and drummer Moe Tucker. For the debut, Warhol brought in the German singer Nico. The band went on to release three other studio albums but although it existed in some form or the other till the early 1990s, the last studio album came out in 1973.
It is not surprising that over the years, scores of musicians have covered their songs. These include musicians from genres as diverse as country, pop, indie, metal, emo, R&B and jazz, all of them paying homage to one of rock’s most influential acts. Some of them have kept to the script and fashioned covers that are similar to the original. But many have been adventurous, such as the British New Age band The Deep Freeze Mice’s Alan Jenkins, whose mainly instrumental version of Heroin makes the song barely recognisable. Or Glen Campbell, whose cover of Jesus (from The Velvet Underground’s third album) gives it a country music twist.
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This year, 54 years after its debut, contemporary musicians have got together to record an album-length tribute to the once-controversial album. Titled I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute To The Velvet Underground & Nico, it will be out later this month. Singles from it are already being released, though.
On one of them, a cover of Run Run Run by Kurt Vile & The Violators, Vile expands the original (approximately) four-minute song into a seven-minute psychedelic extravaganza that elevates what was a low-fi sound on the original into full-blown trippiness. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Vile says: “Lou Reed/the Velvet Underground were probably my earliest classic rock influence. I loved it. The first time I heard them, I’m sure I was probably stoned. When you hear music like that, so organic and raw, but you know, so confident, all those things combined, it’s so cool. So unapologetic. It just has an effect on you that you can’t even necessarily detect at the moment.”
The tribute album has covers of each song on the original album by artists such as R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe; The National’s Matt Berninger; Sharon Van Etten; Courtney Barnett; Iggy Pop; and St Vincent. The Australian singer Barnett’s laconic, almost spoken-word style rendition of I’ll Be Your Mirror (sung by Nico on the original album) gives it a folk music patina. In his version of I’m Waiting For The Man, The National’s Berninger (whose songs are tinged usually with melancholia) makes the song a sleekly polished affair, belying the fact that it was originally about someone waiting for a heroin fix. And Iggy Pop, who collaborated with guitarist and singer Matt Sweeney for the song European Son, gives it a rollickingly hard punk reincarnation, complete with yelps and screams.
The new album will be a welcome tribute to a band that began getting its due long after it ceased to exist in its original form. And, since many of the musicians on it are so young they were not even around when The Velvet Underground debuted, it could introduce their fans to the music behind that big yellow banana that looks cool on the T-shirts they wear.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.