The 33 1/3 Odyssey: Let’s Get Seminal!

33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each book focusing on a single album. This is the sixth installment of one reader’s quest to read all 55 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s just one opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here. On to the demi-tomes!

Part 9 of 55: The Velvet Underground and Nico by Joe Harvard (#11 in the series)

Author Joe Harvard is a musician himself; he’s also perfected his studio tan by spending the better part of three decades producing and engineering at various recording studios, including Boston’s storied Fort Apache, which he founded. Prominent on Harvard’s website is a photo of him at some bar gig or other, buck naked except for a Flying V guitar. Is this really the kind of person you want penning a Velvet Underground book, given the Velvets erudition — a band influenced more by John Cage and the Fluxus gang, and poets such as Lou Reed’s own mentor Delmore Schwartz, than the rock music of their day?

Well… yeah. It’s exactly who you want writing it. The band has been chronicled endlessly, and if there’s going to be yet another VU book — in this case, on their first album specifically — I’d rather read a take on it by a rock and roller who had his musical boundaries shaken up by hearing this album than a take by some scholar who finds the Velvets intriguing despite being a rock band. Harvard talks about how his own band began playing Velvet Underground covers and soon realized how uncomfortably they sat with the Who and Stones jams filling out the remainder of the setlist.

The Velvet Underground is a band that’s constantly in the “influenced by” list when bands describe themselves, and this first album — the only one featuring the original Reed, Cale, Morrison, Tucker and Nico lineup — is usually the sound those bands are referring to. It was the Velvets before they started reading their own press, and duly ramped up the dark underbelly quotient to theatrical excess, ensuring they’d continued to “shock.” It was also the album that included not only sinister drones and scrapes (“The Black Angel’s Death Song,” “Venus In Furs”) but also some startlingly fragile quiet songs (“I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “Sunday Morning” — although the latter was recorded only when the label sent the band back to the studio to record a song they felt could be a single.)

As an album, The Velvet Underground and Nico is chemistry personified. Recorded in four days, one day, or twelve hours, depending on who’s account you’re reading, it was Lou Reed’s vision of taking the literary sensibilities of Hubert Selby and Delmore Schwartz and nailing them to a rock beat. But it’s hard to imagine the end result would be anywhere near as sonically compelling without the classically trained (but “rules”-averse) John Cale aboard with his viola and arrangement ideas. The same could be said of Moe Tucker, who played a bass drum on its side with mallets so simply it became a hypnotic pulse the others could wrap themselves around. And the icy Nico — I’ve heard lots of folks do a comic impression of her singing “Femme Fatale,” but regardless of how you hear it, it’s something you don’t forget. And we’re not even getting into the influence of album “producer” Andy Warhol, who urged the group not to sacrifice the rawness and squall of their live shows in favor of cleaning it up for the studio. (His famous quote of the time, so very Warhol: “Don’t take the dirty words out!”)

For the “I was there” content, Harvard leans on the recollections of two folks in particular: album engineer Norman Dolph and Harvard’s longtime friend Jonathan Richman (who’s own Modern Lovers album would make a great 33 1/3 book as well, by the way). By the time the album became as celebrated and influential as it is, the VU members all carried pretty significant baggage as to where credit was due, resulting in some obvious agendas; this makes it all the more terrific that Harvard located Dolph. Norman Dolph doesn’t have any axes to grind, deflects credit to others at every turn, and basically provides recollection as to what the actual process was. It’s a fascinating read; the album is so much a part of lore now that when a fan at a record fair recently stumbled upon one of Dolph’s first acetates, it made news that the original leadoff track was meant to be the eight minute grinder “European Son” rather than a more listener friendly track. It also made news that this acetate — bought for 75 cents — sold on eBay for twenty five grand.

It’s a fair bet to say many of today’s bands that claim to be influenced by the Velvets don’t really listen to the Velvets; they listen to other contemporary bands who do. I’ve run across one band who say their sound is “Velvets-inspired”, but when asked, the CD they actually talk about is by The Black Angels. Hey, fair enough — it only goes to show how powerful the legacy of the VU is, and how saying “Velvets-like” has become a part of our pop-culture vocabulary. When you invoke the Velvets, people know exactly what vibe you’re trying to conjure up: the darkness, the drones and the danger, the minimalist psychedelia.

Joe Harvard writes as a fan and doesn’t claim to be an expert. Freed from having to critically redefine the album (it’s been done ad nauseam), he can write with unbridled enthusiasm, pose a few theories, and generally enjoy himself as he digs into the past and present of The Velvet Underground and Nico. His enthusiasm is contagious.

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