Some Tracks to Play at All Tomorrow’s Parties
by The Ghost of Music Past
Unless you liked everything on one side, back in the days of vinyl LPs it was a lot more difficult to pick and choose the tracks you wanted to listen to. For one thing, lifting up and putting down your needle all the time shortened its life – replacing those things was expensive. Also, you didn’t want to risk scratching the LP or doing anything that would cause it to skip in the future. And who wanted to keep getting up to move the needle anyway? Unfortunately some albums had tracks on them that you just really didn’t want to hear at that moment, or maybe at all. For me, one such album was The Velvet Underground and Nico. I liked and still like the album, but a few of the tracks I just found a little difficult to listen to. So “yay” for modern technology, from that point of view. But it’s those songs I enjoy that I want to talk about.
Just as the band, with the addition of Nico and her soft, husky voice, was a collection of diverse talents, so too is the album an eclectic array of sounds that remains as idiomatic as the artists who created it. Lou Reed composed or at least had a hand in all the songs, and he sings the first track, the delightful Sunday Morning. To me, this, more than any of the other numbers on the album, foreshadows the sound Reed later achieved with his blockbuster, Transformer. Track two, I’m Waiting for the Man, is one of the songs addressing the drug scene of the late ‘60s, the anxious anticipation associated with the impending arrival of a drug dealer is amply captured by this lively number. But then track 3… ooh, track three… Femme Fatale, featuring the sensitive Nico’s very pleasing and luxurious vocals.
The song was written about actress Edie Sedgwick by Reed at Andy Warhol’s request, and is as beautiful as both its subject and singer. It is followed by Venus in Furs, a somewhat jarring number that I don’t always feel like hearing, but it’s interesting nevertheless. With its “shiny boots of leather”, this is a tale of sadomasochistic fetishism – the Velvet Underground were not one to shy away from the shocking or controversial.
Run Run Run doesn’t do much for me, but All Tomorrow’s Parties, again sung by Nico, is a stark deconstruction of the falsity of lives we often feel compelled by societal norms to live, and is another personal favorite. Although discordant in places, the next track, Heroin, is such a powerful and evocative piece that I usually just have to listen to it. Rather than advertise the drug, it seems more like a grim testament to the destructive nature of this substance.
There She Goes Again is another very Lou Reed number, and again challenges the listener to contemplate the more concealed aspects of society, in this case, prostitution. I’ll Be Your Mirror is a lovely Nico track, and Reed’s lyrics are outstanding. We all need an associate like Nico, a ‘mirror’, to show us the beauty within ourselves that it’s all too easy to lose sight of, and some of us are even lucky enough to have one! The Black Angel’s Death Song is just too grating for my taste, and European Son doesn’t impress me either, so I’m done by Mirror.
The Velvet Underground are often spoken of, in musical terms, as an early precursor of punk, retroactively classified as protopunk, and the songs on this album that I’m not so fond of are probably more in that vein than the songs I like, even though I’m certainly a fan of punk. In my opinion, losing Nico was a big mistake, and although Lou Reed’s later success with Transformer is further testament to his talent, Reed and Nico in combination are, to me, superior.
Truthfully, no matter how they are classified, Velvet Underground had a sound that was uniquely theirs – they’re a musical entity in their own right. Other band members were percussionist Maureen Tucker, Welshman John Cale on electric viola, and Sterling Morrison on bass guitar. The 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition of the original album, released last year, includes all of Nico’s solo album, Chelsea Girl, that has a number of Velvet Underground-penned songs on it, and there’s also a bunch of alternate takes of the classic Underground numbers. I’d certainly recommend listening to one version of the album or another, if you haven’t sampled this band previously.
— The Ghost of Music Past