What Exactly About “The Velvet Underground & Nico” Was Especially Groundbreaking?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico. I had a conversation with a friend about this album recently & while they thoroughly enjoyed it, they had a hard time identifying the aspects of it that make it so influential. They realised it’s probably similar to the “Seinfeld is Unfunny” effect in that its aspects are seen everywhere now so it doesn’t seem so special. But they still wanted to know exactly what they did that was different and ‘unheard of’ for the time. Basically, they wanted that Brian Eno quote “all 10,000 people who bought the album started a band” explained…

Initially, I totally related to their confusion about why “The Velvet Underground & Nico” is regarded as so groundbreaking. But the more I listened to a lot of pop and rock music from the period in which it was recorded, the more I started to hear what made “The Velvet Underground & Nico” stand out in its time. For one thing, the record sounded poorly recorded to my ears on a first listen. And today, it still sounds like it was recorded with all the meters in the red – everything sounds blown out and distorted. The grungy recording quality, in retrospect, feels like a conscious choice on the part of the Velvets. This was, after all, 1967 – the year that the Beatles set the standard for good sound quality and sophisticated production in rock music. Music production had been getting cleaner, more defined, throughout the 60s. While there was a fad for distorted guitar sounds in those years (in the waning garage rock scene (I.e. locals and amateurs imitating The Stones) and in the more sophisticated rock scene of the day (i.e bands like Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience & The Yardbirds), that fad was mainly limited to the guitars only – every other instrument was becoming more well-defined in the typical rock sound mix of the day.

Because of George Martin and The Beatles’ advances in recording techniques, rock bands in the studio were now recording their music in stereo, on recording machines that were graduating from basic 4-track to multi-track (“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, it should be noted, was recorded entirely with 4-track). So basically, rock music, as recorded in the studio, was becoming more and more intricate, sophisticated, and detailed. Rock musicians and producers were becoming more and more concerned with providing a vehicle for multi-part compositions. Rock bands like The Moody Blues were cribbing notes from the classical music world and creating “art” in the form of musical suites (this strain of rock would later come to be called “prog” (i.e. progressive rock) but in its time it was called “art rock.”

So, while the rest of the rock music world was trying to make rock music more complex, full of tempo shifts and dramatic shifts in tone and structure, more full of non-rock band instruments, more finely detailed, something more akin to high art, (i.e. string sections, horn sections, traditional folk instruments, exotic sounds borrowed from India, etc.), The Velvet Underground were already running a counter-movement.

Their music was intentionally crude and simple in execution. Instead of the sprawling ambition of the psychedelic bands, The Velvet Underground just wanted to make noise. Instead of multi-part epics full of every chord imaginable, The Velvet Underground restricted their songs to just a handful of chords – sometimes only two or three. Their music was recorded crudely, too – there was distortion on everything and it was hard to tell if that was a conscious move or not – either way, the sheer sound of that first album would have been a shock to its contemporary audience, since it was so grungy and muddy. In 1967, that wasn’t considered radical or revolutionary, it was just considered “bad sound.” Some musicians of the day who heard “The Velvet Underground & Nico” dismissed it because it represented to them the kind of music they’d wanted to leave behind – the simple, basic garage rock that had been the by-product of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones capturing the imaginations of suburban kids across the world circa 1964-1965.

By 1966, with “Rubber Soul” & “Revolver” under their belts, The Beatles had signaled that there would be a movement away from crudely-played small-band rock music, and toward a more sophisiticated, urbane, high-minded type of rock music. The Velvet Underground, along with a few urban bands like The Fugs and The Godz, represented a reversal of this movement.

Another thing you have to realise is that that album, along with The Velvet Underground themselves, were largely ignored upon their arrival. “Rolling Stone” didn’t write about them in any kind of serious way, they were strictly an underground “art” phenomenon (due to their association with Andy Warhol). In a commercial sense, that record was a complete dud. It didn’t sell. Outside of Manhattan (and Boston, where they faithfully played the Tea Party club there for many years), they were unknowns. Rock music wasn’t the ubiquitous phenomenon it would become in the 80’s and 90’s, with stores and public places playing rock music constantly. Rock music – even the really safe stuff – was still considered too raucous and crazy to be played in public. If you had a successful rock band then, there were good chances that the band was wholly a creation of a record company and the record company would be the entity responsible for calling the band’s tune (for instance, bands not being allowed to play their own instruments on their first records, or recording with studio pros instead of their actual line-up). So the idea of a fully autonomous rock band writing all their own songs in 1967 was still something of a novelty, even among the respected musicians of their day. The Velvet Underground, by this standard, were insanely radical as an idea and as a band.

Musically, The Velvet Underground were groundbreaking in that they integrated avant-garde techniques into what was ostensibly crude garage rock, so they were bridging a gap in the culture between “high” and “low” art – rock music was still seen as “low,” mass-market, lowest common demoninator kid’s stuff, while John Cale’s droning viola, the dissonance of the band, and Moe Tucker’s deliberately untutored, bone-simple, rudimentary drumming constituted the “high” world of the avant-garde intruding into the “low” world of rock music (or vice-versa). At the time, this was a very radical and innovative move. Rock bands were looking to get away from dissonance and out-of-tune guitars, while The Velvet Underground seemed to want to drench their songs in them.

They also signaled to a lot of musicians that you could make sophisticated art using crude methods. The fusion of simply-played, basic three chord rock music wed to Lou Reed’s poetry was pretty innovative in its day too, as well as Reed’s lyrical subject matter: hard drugs (not the sweetness and light of acid and weed, but the stark anxiety and/or numbed-out insanity of smack and speed), perversion, S&M, homosexuality. These were not topics rock bands were supposed to sing about but The Velvet Underground made this fusion work somehow.

Jonathan Richman (a devoted fan who used to go to all their Boston shows and follow the band around) once explained the appeal of The Velvet Underground in their own time by saying, “They made an atmosphere.” They didn’t just play nice, sweet songs about love, they played smart, dark, noisy songs about shooting smack. But their greatest contribution was in showing musicians how to create sophisticated, multi-layered music using crude raw materials. The Velvet Underground weren’t showy or flashy – Moe Tucker rarely played any fills, she stuck to a jungle beat, played with mallets, standing up! Sterling Morrison never played lead, preferring to just play down-strummed chords over and over again.

There was also no soul in their sound in 1967. Rock bands – well, white rock bands – were obsessed with sounding “Black” in the late 60’s. All kinds of white rockers were trying to play electric blues convincingly, or imitating soul bands. Rock drummers were trying to sound like Al Jackson or other funky soul drummers – they tried to cultivate a deliberate looseness and funk to how they played, they worked on making their beats groove. The Velvet Underground didn’t even try. They sounded rigid, uptight, four beats to every bar, heavy downstrokes on the guitar. No funk at all, no trying to sound black. They were stark, monochromatic, dry. There was no jazz or subtlety or lope to their rhythms – it was more of a martial, minimalist insistence on a primal, pounding 1-2-3-4. This further marked them as being very different from most rock bands of the day.

Their longer songs relied heavily on drone. Most of the drone was carried by John Cale’s viola, but in this they were heavily influenced by LaMonte Young and other proponents of single-chord drone music, which was considered very avant-garde and groundbreaking in its day. Static music that deliberately didn’t go places? In 1967, that was so weird that a lot of people wouldn’t even consider it music. But The Velvet Underground played their shit that way, and thus paved the way for any and all rock music that followed that relied on drones, like Krautrock and noise rock.

But mainly their contribution to rock music was that they made their music sound simple enough that anyone who knew just a few chords could play it. They democratised music for a lot of people, made it accessible. While The Beatles had paved the way for a movement that prized musicianly skill and precision, The Velvet Underground just made a racket – and they said, anyone can make a racket too. This is why that famous Brian Eno quote about how “The Velvet Underground & Nico” only sold about 10,000 copies on its original release, but all 10,000 buyers formed bands rang so true. The Velvet Underground made it so that anyone with ideas but not a lot of skill could compete in the rock marketplace against those who’d practiced their instruments for years. They made a basic, amateurish, rude music sound fascinating because they wedded that crudity to “high” ideas.

Punk would be unimaginable without them – not just because of their approach, but because of their sound. Though they never played all that fast and speed was a hallmark of punk rock, most of their songs were just a few chords, so pretty much any kid with a guitar would sit down and learn what Sterling Morrison & Lou Reed were doing by ear – they made an immediate music without frills. Lou Reed’s frantic guitar leads, sometimes played while de-tuning his guitar, like on “European Son,” would have sounded way too fucked up by most bands’ standards by then, Reed was sui generis when you consider that almost every rock guitarist of the day was trying to sound like Buddy Guy or Eric Clapton – Reed was trying to sound like an out of control subway car on fire.

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