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The Velvet Underground and Nico

by admin on November 14, 2014

The whole scene can be described by a painting of a banana: the amp feedback, screaming guitars, the un-regretful lyrics about drugs and sex, the soothing voice of a German chanteuse and a shy Polish guy with a bad nose and a knack for making the everyday beautiful and new. The Velvet Underground are cited as one of the most influential rock bands of all time, causing drastic changes to how pop culture views live music, lyrics and the general attitude of rock music. The band’s lyrical content covered a vast array of racy topics; including drug use, prostitution and sex. While The Velvet Underground’s debut album The Velvet Underground and Nico (67) covers racy topics that plenty of other rock groups have touched on, the unemotional and nonchalant manner in which The Velvet Underground discussed these subject matter can be viewed as a direct effect of the 1960’s Andy Warhol pop-art environment in which the album was written.

The Velvet Underground’s debut album utilizes musical techniques ranging from guitar feedback, drone and thundering drums to carefully orchestrated tunes with 3-part harmonies, viola and soft piano. Their lyrical content also ranges from love songs such as “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and the idealization of a nice morning, “Sunday Morning”, to songs about the purchase and non-regretful use of drugs, “I’m Waiting For The Man” and “Heroin”, and violent sex and prostitution, “Venus In Furs” and “There She Goes”. The band’s ability to display such different topics and themes, both sonically and lyrically, is reflective of the environment in which “The Velvet Underground and Nico” was written. Andy Warhol, viewed as an artistic genius and cultural revolutionary, acted as their producer and manager during the recording of the album. From 1965 to 1967 The Velvet Underground were part of Warhol’s multi-art project, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which included the band’s live music, film projections, lights, and dancers. During this time the band was part of the collective of oddballs that spent days in a row at Warhol’s “Factory” where they were exposed to a large amount of sexual promiscuousness, drugs, and over-all wild behavior, such as Warhol’s tendency to film hours of activity every day.

Warhol’s view of everyday activities and objects as art rubbed off on the revolving members of the “Factory”, as former Warhol superstar Brigid Berlin recalls “We used to stay up for eight or nine days without going to bed. I recorded for about eight years every moment of my life” (South Bank Show Documentary 23:37-24:23). Warhol would employ his unemotional observatory views of art with the band, using production techniques such as telling Reed to write about random every-day subjects, as Reed recalls “he said, ‘Oh, you should write a song, so-and-so is such a femme fatale. Write a song for her. Go write a song called ‘Femme Fatale.’ No other reason than that’ (Rolling Stone Interview 1989). Reed’s exposure to the casually wild behavior he experienced in the “Factory” led him to view promiscuous activity in a casual, un-emotional manner. According to Reed “a real characteristic about The Velvet Underground songs …is that they’re about something that we really care about that really happened…. I was trying to give you a shot of the street” (South Bank Show Documentary 12:30-12:47). In “Heroin”, one of the band’s more polarizing songs, Reed bluntly describes his Heroin addiction. John Cale, secondary song writer for the band recalls “I was quite disinterested in people writing songs that had nothing but questions in them, and it is far better to write a song that makes a statement…. The lyrics to ‘Heroin’ are certainly not self-pitying” (South Bank Show Documentary 14:02- 14:35). While many rock bands have talked about similar subjects such as drugs and sex, the Velvet Underground were revolutionary in their nonchalant, un-emotional tone regarding these topics.

by Jon-MIchael Askew

Healey Cox-McMahon November 23, 2014 at 9:27 pm

Oh man, these guys sound great. I’m glad you introduced me to their music. Drugs and sex certainly seem the focus of rock music, and now pop music in general, and they are usually glorified. So, if The Velvet Underground portrays them in an unemotional, unattached manner, at least that’s a step away from the outright promotion of ‘sin’. Nonetheless, I think any music that sounds good tends to romanticize its own content. That being said, I think that suffering artists often produce excellent music, because suffering somehow fuels good art. How do you think we can learn from music that portrays ‘racy’ topics in a nonchalant manner? Does the fact that the music sounds ‘good’ mean that people in general should approach these issues in a nonchalant manner as well? What statement does the song “Heroin” make with its unemotional tone, and how is that revolutionary (certainly other artists were overexposed to sex and drugs, why did they interpret that experience differently)? While Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” is certainly not a parallel in that it isn’t unemotional, I interpret the messages of both “Heroin” and “Cocaine” as quite similar. With “Heroin”, the songwriter admits their addiction and drones on about how it makes him feel good and thus he doesn’t give a shit about anything (meanwhile there’s a violin or some string playing the same note in the background the whole time, like a tone-painting of the high… then towards the end it goes crazy and screeches, and I don’t wanna do heroin anymore). So certainly the song reinforces the idea that heroin will make you feel great, but it fails to explore withdrawl (except maybe with the screeching), probably because the artist didn’t plan on stopping anytime soon (it ends on a happy note). Whereas “Cocaine” provides a more rounded view of another drug, admitting that it will mess you up in the long run. Drugs are bad, mmkay. But hey, “Heroin” sounds good (when you’re high, at least). I digress, you should definitely explore the message of The Velvet Underground’s music further in your final paper, because you’ve said that they portray a sense of detachment. What can we learn from that? Is it Andy Warhol’s fault?

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