Music Features

"Peel Slowly and See": A Track By Track Review of The Velvet Underground & Nico

With the 45th anniversary of The Velvet Underground’s brilliant debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, being acknowledged today with the release of a massive six-disc box set, many of us writing about the release are struggling to find new ways to describe this critically lauded masterpiece after decades of overwhelming praise (including the coveted number one spot on No Ripcord’s 100 Greatest Debuts of All Time). Released in 1967 with the help of pop art icon Andy Warhol and a little New York art rock band consisting of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maurice Tucker, and German singer Nico, The Velvet Underground & Nico may have been a commercial dud and faded into obscurity soon after, but as the years went on the album would go to influence countless bands and practically invent genres ranging from twee pop to noise rock.

Of course, many of you already know this by now, so instead of just discussing the album as a whole like most would normally do, this feature will instead consist of a track-by-track review to uncover some of the finer details and more interesting quirks found in each of the albums eleven unique tracks. What were these songs about? What kind of emotions or images do these tracks inspire based on the raw elements of their sound? Which song had a deeply profound impact on my life as a music listener at an early adolescent age? To make some sense out of these questions (hopefully) and possibly even inspire some new ways of approaching this decades-old album, let’s further inspect the seedy, corrupted depictions of New York City life found in The Velvet Underground & Nico, in all of it’s “too cool for school,” sunglasses wearing majesty. After 45 years of countless praises and thousands among thousands of listens, what is it about these songs that make them so unique and important, even after all these years?

Sunday Morning - “PEEL SLOWLY AND SEE.” This subtle, yet curious phrase discreetly printed next to Warhol’s iconic banana on the album cover does more than hint at said banana’s pink, fleshy secret, but in fact reveals the method in which The Velvets choose to introduce themselves on their debut. For an album more often discussed for the way it frighteningly challenges and even destroys some of rock music’s conventions, it seems almost unexpected in the way opening track Sunday Morning calmly and reassuringly invites listeners in with some of the sweetest melodies the album has to offer. Greeting listeners with twinkling, music-box-like sounds, Sunday Morning glows with the warm, comforting light of dawn, as John Cale’s viola swoons rather than shrieks and Lou Reed’s cooing vocals approach the song more as a lullaby. As pristine as the track is, one can’t deny the feeling that something much more sinister lurks in the shadows, as Reed constantly mentions the “wasted years,” “streets you crossed” and the “world behind you,” that must be proceeded with caution. Though this may or may not be referring to the chaotic and unwary scenarios to come, what is certain is that Sunday Morning gives listeners the chance to stand alone in the “early dawning” – the calm before the storm, maybe – and breathe.

I’m Waiting For the Man – If any song by The Velvet Underground could be considered their (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, it would most likely go to I’m Waiting For the Man. Easily one of the more iconic songs the group has produced, I’m Waiting For the Man is as true blue a rock song as they come, with all of the grit and bluesy rhythm’s needed to help the song fit in quite well with the era (certainly much more so than just about any other track on the album). Despite its more traditional rock form, however, the song could not have been done the same way by anyone other than The Velvets, and that mostly has to do with a few key elements in the track practically invented by the group. First, theirs the songs subject matter: The experience of a man trying to score some good dope from his favorite New York drug dealer, while shamelessly exhibiting every detail from the address they meet at to the 26 dollars needed for the exchange. More importantly, however, is the voice depicting the experience, as Lou Reed uses this track to solidify himself as one of the “coolest” vocalists of all time. Reed doesn’t just tell the story, he’s right in there, prowling the streets of NYC like he owns the place. When he says he’s “Feeling sick and dirty, more dead than alive,” you can practically envision the man standing alone on the street corner, hair a mess, sunglasses on to cover his woozy, hung over gaze, and anxiously awaiting the arrival of the man with his goods. You’d be hard pressed to find a band from this era write a rock song with such subtle conviction and detail towards a subject more often avoided.

Femme Fatale – At first, Femme Fatale seems to be coming from the same place that Sunday Morning arrives from, with two distinct guitar parts introducing the track as if they are from some subconscious dream state. However, what sets Femme Fatale apart from its opening predecessor is its secret weapon: Nico. With her thick German accent and harsh, uncompromised vocal delivery, it seems at first that someone of her abilities would have no business singing a song as gentle as this. She certainly tries her best to keep things low-key at times, but it can be hard to not get distracted when first hearing “what a clown” pronounced as “what a claan.” But the Velvets clearly understood just how vital pure, natural expression was, and by putting Nico’s droll, unconventional voice right at the front, she ends up practically owning the song and making it her own creation, belting out the chorus with full conviction and practically demanding The Velvets vocal backing. “See the way she walks, / Hear the way she walks,” she solemnly states by the chorus’s end. Make no mistake about it, this is her song.

Venus In FursVenus In Furs is the first song where the music fully submerges itself in the scummy dirge of the city’s grotesque underbelly, rather than just detailing certain experiences like drug dealing in cool confidence. Reed’s lyrics, centered on various acts of BDSM, paint the scene using nothing but shades of black on a canvas of dilapidated hopes and dreams, delivered with the wary bluntness only someone of Reed’s composure could deliver. When he confesses “I am tired, I am weary / I could sleep for 1000 years,” it’s as if Reed, barely standing with bags under his eyes, is dropping all of his exhaustion and hopeless dependencies right on the listeners shoulders. But the key component that solidifies Venus In Furs as a concerto for the hopelessly submissive is John Cale’s wall of droning, unforgiving violas, which act as the backdrop to Reed’s morally bankrupt words. As if each bow-scraped screech was the cracking of a whip against a frail body, Venus In Furs traps listeners in its god-forsaken misery, if only for five minutes.

Run Run Run – If you didn’t already understand that The Velvet Underground & Nico plays with music’s conventions like a wad of silly puddy, you might be mistaken to think that Run Run Run is just The Velvets honest attempt at writing a blues rock song. With a steady, galloping guitar riff and lyrics that sound like something Robert Johnson would write while wandering the Lower East Side of Manhattan, The Velvets build this track up to be rather unassuming. However, the band is only slyly trying to gain the listeners trust in order to better implement their surprise attacks, which come in the form of Reed’s battered, atonal bursts of guitar squall. Beginning with a demonic screech that most bands would never let come from their guitars (nonetheless put to tape), these uncontrolled guitar lines attempt to derail the song off of whatever dusty trail it was originally headed down to leave it stranded in the desert.

All Tomorrow’s Parties – How does one song become so iconic that its namesake is eventually used for a major yearly multi-national festival series? Simply by being one of the most distinct tracks on an album that’s already totally distinct from everything else. Lyrically, the song acts as something of a Cinderella story for the deprived, art-freak socialites of Manhattan, depicting the “poor girl” seen throughout as some sort of tragic figure who must dress to impress if she doesn’t want to find herself in tears as “Sunday’s clown.” But it’s really the music itself in this instance that helps the song transcend it’s rather modest lyrical sentiments. Nearly every sonic element included in the track feels like it’s pushing the song well past its structure, with Nico’s doubled-up voice droning in near monotone through each line and percussionist Maureen Tucker’s solitary drum bursts locking things into position with as little effort as possible. Most unique, however, is the chiming prepared-piano utilized by John Cale as a rhythmic piece throughout the track. This technique, often utilized by Cale’s mentor, avant-garde supremist John Cage, was rarely, if ever, used in a song with such pop sensibilities as All Tomorrows Parties, and ultimately shows one of the many ways in which The Velvets incorporated various influences to defy the parameters of pop music.

Heroin – So far I have yet to detail many personal experiences involved with listening to the album, but let me start by saying that Heroin was the first song I ever listened to that made me, a mere 14 year old boy at the time, feel an imposing sense of dread and despair, and the only one visceral enough to make it truly seem real. Heroin never advocates nor condemns the use of the drug, but instead creates a startlingly vivid representation of the experience, from the forlorn emptiness inside that causes one to seek out the drug, to the frozen emptiness achieved through the drug’s use. Opening with the songs repetitive two-chord structure, Cale’s droning viola, and Reed’s dreary, stoned vocals, the song cycles through various bipolar fits of drug induced highs and lows, with Tucker’s tribal drums accelerating and decelerating like an uneven heartbeat and Reed’s words becoming more and more disorderly and out of breathe with each spike introduced to his veins, his eyes dilating with each account of clipper ships and wanting to be Jesus’ son. These cycles don’t just repeat, mind you, they slowly dissolve with each turn, slipping into a maddening decent as the drama heightens and Cale’s trusty viola begins to betray him, spiraling out of control. The manic, racing drums, the visions of “dead bodies piling up in mounds,” the screeching, chaotic fury of Cale’s viola; all of these elements help to create a terrifying atmosphere, but the one thing that sets it over the edge – the thing that truly makes you realize you’re in the threshold of hell – is the sinister, pathetic laugh Lou Reed lets out after confessing heroin is his wife and his life. This horribly effective laugh, followed by the ultimate conclusion of “I guess that I just don’t know,” reveals that yes, there is indeed a rock bottom in this world, and it sounds exactly like this. I’ve never been the same after hearing this song.

There She Goes Again & I’ll Be Your Mirror – Coming off of the vicious, cathartic assault of Heroin, these two songs may not seem like much in comparison. Both songs, the former fronted by Reed and the latter voiced by Nico, are relatively straightforward pop songs with bright, bouncing melodies and contain none of the alarming surprises found in previous tracks. However, what these tracks lack in experimentation, they more than make up for it in their excellent implementation of pop sensibilities. Both songs make for perfect examples of just how strong of a pop songwriter Reed can be when he’s not more interested in terrifying listeners. There She Goes Again has an irresistibly classic rock and roll feel to it, despite its depictions of women being “down on their knees” for whatever reason. I’ll Be Your Mirror, a seemingly quaint and compassionate song about companionship and find beauty in the darkness of others, could very well make the case for Nico as being a full-fledged pop star, though most pop singers wish they could sing with the same warmth and unbridled honesty. These songs may not be as notorious as many of the albums more daring moments, but they are integral in showing that The Velvet Underground sought out to do much more with this album than just fuck with their listeners.

The Black Angel’s Death Song – The Velvet’s had already spent plenty of time with their debut album revealing the debauchery and filth of New York’s deepest cracks, but on The Black Angel’s Death Song, the band turns their focus on a more spiritual brand of evil. Reed approaches the track as some sort of crazed, wide-eyed sorcerer, effortlessly spouting near senseless poetry that includes various characters all faced with some sort of unclear, yet ultimately dire decision that they must make. Reed’s chilling rambles are backed by nothing more than the dissonant squeals of Cale’s abused viola, which is played with no other purpose than to possibly summon any demonic beings that Reed may be referring to. As this jarring séance takes place, sudden bursts of hissing feedback blare over the track and puncture the listener’s ears. This frightening sound, its appearance happening at near random, is not just a studio trick, it’s the voice of the Black Angel itself, proving that this track is more than just Reed and Cale’s little studio experiment to freak people out, it’s the sound of chaos manifesting itself into life.

European Son – If the past 40 minutes of musical deconstruction did not already accomplish it, then consider the plate smashing heard a minute into European Son to be the symbolic murdering of rock & roll convention, with its blood on The Velvet Underground’s hands. Starting with less than a minute of what could be considered a “song,” a violent blast of noise and the breaking of good china catalyze the song into a vicious, six minute marathon of violence and, to use a word mentioned all-too frequently in this feature, pure chaos. The four key members of The Velvets don’t necessarily play the song together as much as they try to rip it to shreds with their weapon of choice, playing their instruments with as much relentless fury as they can muster. Amongst fans, European Son is incredibly divisive, with some praising it for its unhinged approach to expression and others seeing it as too alienating to possibly enjoy. But the fact of the matter is that European Son, along with the ten other tracks on The Velvet Underground & Nico, isn’t concerned with being as agreeable as possible with its audience. It’s the sound of a band taking its own idea of what it means to be a rock band and transforming it into a single, harrowing statement. Nothing is held back, and nothing is spared.