I ran through my vinyl, pulling out albums that seemed to me we should surely have reached within our first 350 choices. I found a dozen or so and then I stopped. It’s a testament to how wide and deep we have dug over the past few years that so many of the absolute staples haven’t registered yet. From this shortlist, the Velvet Underground stood head and shoulders above the rest. Tom’s comments are accurate: we really haven’t invoked the Velvets anywhere near as much as we might have been expected to. Off the top of my head, our top ten most mentioned are along the lines of CAN, The Beatles, Danny Baker, Coldplay, Rick Wakeman, Pink Floyd, Husker Du, Tim Buckley, Mark Lanegan and Steve Albini. I’d say there were a couple of names in there, three at a push, that could claim to be as influential as the Velvet Underground, especially when looking specifically at the music our past 94 rounds have demonstrated that we love the most.
So, one way or another, it does seem surprising that we’ve never had then before.
After my initial sift, my thought was to bring ‘White Light/White Heat’ which I considered the tabula rasa of alternative rock music, the point at which the Velvets cut loose from all restraint and flew into the stratosphere, breaking the mould and setting rock and roll free for generations of wild-eyed punks to capitalise. Then I listened to it, and enjoyed it as ever, but wondered whether it was something that bore re-presentation. As part of my deliberation I checked back in with ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’, my theory being that this was essentially a record that could have come from any number of the emerging pop rock acts of the mid 60s. I also feel a lingering antipathy to it because, frankly, Nico’s voice has always left me cold. I understand that it leavens the sound here in a really useful way but, well, I just don’t like it.
Within a few minutes I was reminded just how disconnected I had become from the album, and just what a masterpiece of sweet and sour, concision and experimentation it was. And also, just how much wild, breakthrough sound it contains.
About half the record could quite easily have been recorded by Dylan, or the Doors, or Brian Wilson, or some other boundary-pushing iconoclast. Then there’s the half that just… couldn’t. ‘Venus in Furs’, as thrilling as ever even aged 50. The guitar that slices through the second half of ‘Run Run Run’ like a chainsaw, like nothing else anyone had ever heard before. The drone and majesty of ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’. And ‘Heroin’, a shockingly beautiful masterclass of expressionist music-making, structure, form and intent all working in perfect, chaotic harmony.
In short, having left it on the shelf for 10 years or so, I was knocked sideways by just how brilliant a record it is, from start to howling finish.
I can’t believe we haven’t had it already.
Steve listened: I can’t believe you haven’t had it already, having come in late in the story of DRC. It is a classic but feels so out of place for 1967, the year of its release, given the subjects of some of the songs. It feels more like the realism and come-down of 1970s after the optimism of the hippy revolution had died down. Far grittier and sharper edges, less fluffy and more dirty spoon and from the bad end of town. New York and not San Francisco. Listening to it again was a great experience and reminded me of how I came to hear it for the first time. A wonderful record.
Tom listened: Of course Rob is spot on when he says that much of The Velvet Underground and Nico sounds like nothing else that had come before. And thinking about it, nothing else since has really embraced that buzzsaw guitar playing to quite the same effect. It is surprising that we hadn’t already had this album, yet I have never come close to selecting it as I don’t…whisper it…like it very much. With the exception of the majestic All Tomorrow’s Parties (I actually quite like Nico’s glacial tones) I just can’t click with it, and truth be told, never have…even though I spent a few years in my twenties trying to kid myself that the opposite was the case. I did love White Light/White Heat though, although that fire has dimmed over the years, and the third album has its moments and a great atmosphere…but throughout their career Lou Reed’s ego, lack of self-regulation (some of their songs go on way too long) and inability to write a deft melody line has ensured that, as far as I am concerned, The Velvet Underground have stayed a band that has been easy to admire but hard to love.