Sunday, October 11, 2009

The roots of rock - The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground and Nico is an album that was, from what I have read about it, if not the trunk from which every branch of rock music later grew, at least a very significant tree that somehow seems to have managed to graft itself onto pretty well everything else in the forest.

It certainly covers a lot of territory and right from the slightly disturbingly child-like tinkerings at the beginning of “Sunday Morning”, you sense you are in for a unique journey. It’s a simple little song and perhaps, for that reason, with its cold, skeletal xylophone, seems a bit unsettling.

And sure enough, any pretence at innocence is quickly dispelled with the hard rhythmic beat that pounds through “Waiting for the Man”: tough and gritty garage music that paces the floor edgily, like thumping veins waiting for a fix.

This is followed by “Femme Fatale”, which, a little like “Sunday Morning”, has a deceptive appearance of innocence and niceness – disguising its menace behind harmonies of Beach Boy-like smoothness and Nico’s deep, silky smooth voice. And just as “Sunday Morning” led into a rawer expression of its own message, so “Femme Fatale” leads into “Venus in Furs” – full of grotesquery, a song that must surely have had a profound influence on some of Nick Cave’s more sinister songs, with scratchy, eerie, slightly out-of-tune electric viola and chilling vocals.

A kind of centre piece to the album is “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, with a wonderful majesty to it which, like so much else on this album, is only hiding deeper troubles. Its real story is told to us not only in its words of poverty and pretence, and of shallow, short-lived beauty, but also in the almost funeral procession beat of the drum, unrelenting, like a knell, through the whole song. It’s a shattering piece.

“Heroin” has all the raw brilliance that Lou Reed injects so well into this sort of music. It rises, it falls, it screeches, it screams. Listen to the droning, groaning sounds of the electric guitars, holding their ground no matter how frenzied and frenetic the rest of the music becomes, as if the darkness of addiction is the only thing that the singer can rely upon to be constant.

Some songs on this album seems to be less concerned with telling a profound story, and more with just being fantastic to listen to – like the hard rock of “Run Run Run”, the blues-like undertones of “There She Goes Again”, and the gentle, comforting swing of “I’ll be your Mirror” – the one love song on this album that doesn’t sound cynical.

“The Black Angel’s Death Song” is probably the most unconventional piece on the album – chant-like vocals form Lou Reed against an unsettling, noise-rock background, as if garage grunge from “Waiting for the Man”, with its steady if frenetic beat, has fallen apart at its own seams. It leads perfectly into “European Son”, disturbed and restless, and with a beat that builds behind the scenes, and takes everything along with it, leaving you breathless by the end.

So much has happened on this album that it is hard to believe that it is just one album. But The Velvet Underground and Nico is ultimately only the beginning of a very big future - not only for this band, but for all of rock music.

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