The Velvet Underground & Nico
The 1967 eponymous debut album (V6-5008) by The Velvet Underground (with German model Nico providing vocals on three tracks) was both one of the poorest selling and most influential releases of the late sixties. Compelling dark subject matter, dissonant guitars, scrapping viola and Nico's cold, disengaged voice made for difficult listening, much more than was appreciated by many during the so-called summer of love. Sterling Morrison's angular guitar complimented and competed with Lou Reed's own abrasive axework while Welshman John Cale alternately held down the rhythm on bass guitar or added his harsh viola playing to the clatter.
Percussionist Maureen Tucker used a rudimentary three piece kit for primitive, tribal drumming unusual for a modern rock album. Reed's bleak tales of hard drug use ("I'm Waiting For The Man", "Heroin") and sadomasochistic sexual experimentation ("Venus In Fur") were delivered with a curtain of noise that repelled more than it attracted.
The band's record company (the jazz label Verve of all things) were understandably not entirely sure just what they had on their hands. Not that they were around for the recording of the album. After some preliminary rehearsals, the VU entered Scepter Studios in New York in April 1966 to record the tracks "Femme Fatal", "Run Run Run", "All Tomorrow's Parties", "I'll Be Your Mirror", "Black Angel's Death Song" and "European Son". Follow up sessions in May 1966 at T.T.G. Studios in Hollywood resulted in the songs "I'm Waiting For The Man", "Venus In Furs", "Heroin" and "There She Goes Again" plus some overdubs on the previously recorded "All Tomorrow's Parties" and "I'll Be Your Mirror". A final session at Mayfair Studios in New York during November 1966 was booked for the deceitfully upbeat sounding album opener "Sunday Morning". Once completed, the full album was then delivered to Verve (after being rejected by Columbia, Atlantic and Elektra Records).
A drum heavy mix of lead single "All Tomorrow's Parties" (VK-10427) was released on July of 1966 a full eight months before the album itself, and failed to connect with listeners. Once the proper album was unleashed it struggled to hit #171 on the Billboard sales chart. A separate mono edition of the lp (also V6-5008) similarly made little impact with the public despite reportedly being the musicians' preferred mix.
But gradually the record (and it's iconic Andy Warhol sleeve artwork) began to attract fans who were willing to invest the time required to explore the album's sonic depths. David Bowie was an early supporter and later groups such as Suicide, Joy Division, Sonic Youth, and The Jesus And Mary Chain would all proudly state they were greatly influenced by The Velvet Underground & Nico. Before long VU "banana" t-shirts could be seen worn by people much too young to have ever experienced the band during it's active lifespan. And the movement to correct the Underground's place in rock history was on.
A 1993 Australian three CD boxed set career retrospective What Goes On appeared of album cuts, live tracks, rarities and most importantly eight songs from the debut album making their debut on CD in their original mono mix.
Even better, a five CD boxed set Peel Slowly And See was released domestically in 1995 and added rare tracks to each of the band's four individual studio albums. The disc devoted to the debut benefited from opening with that great single of "All Tomorrow's Parties" then after the disc's proper eleven songs, finishing with the bonus cuts "Melody Laughter" a ten minute throbbing live jam recorded on Nov 4 1966 in Columbus (edited down from a nearly thirty minute piece, an even shorter 8:32 edit appeared on the previous What Goes On boxed set) and two songs from Nico's Oct 1967 solo album Chelsea Girls (V6-5032) which the Velvet Underground wrote and played on.
The box also had a bonus six song disc of a rare July 1965 rehearsal of the pre-Tucker trio running through multiple takes of various tunes including four that would end up in more finished arrangements on the eventual first album. Recorded in John Cale's Mahattan apartment, these acoustic tracks are revelatory for both their intimacy and historical value.
For the album's thirty fifth year anniversary in 2002 a new 2 CD deluxe edition was released. This set contains both the stereo and complete mono versions of the album plus both sides of two different singles (the aforementioned "All Tomorrow's Parties" plus "Sunday Morning" VK-10466) and this time four tracks from Nico's VU related album Chelsea Girls.
The two CD edition also replicated a feature of the original 1967 album packaging, a peel-able banana on the sleeve jacket.
Now in 2012 comes a super deluxe six CD boxed set to celebrate the forty fifth anniversary of this important album. Here's what makes this new set so essential:
Disc one is the original album, newly remastered with five previously unreleased alternate takes. The alt takes include a version of "All Tomorrow's Parties" with only a single vocal track instead of the doubled voice heard on the released version (this single-voiced version surprisingly appeared on the album's initial CD release in 1986) and an early run through of "I'll Be Your Mirror" that charmingly ends with Nico breaking character and laughing. The takes of "Heroin" and "European Son" listed as alternates are actually remixes of tracks from the Scepter acetate found on disc four.
Disc two is the mono version of the album, also newly remastered greatly improving on the previous mono CD releases which were from inferior source tapes. This version comes from an actual mono master tape found in the UK EMI archives. The bonus cuts on this disc are the four tracks from the vintage 1966 singles although "Sunday Morning" is restored to it's proper speed, the original single and album versions were mistakenly slightly sped up (to clarify that means this is actually not the original 1966 single).
Disc three is Nico's complete 1967 Chelsea Girls, finally appearing in it's entirety on a VU reissue package. Which makes sense as it's as close to an actual Velvet Underground & Nico follow-up album as you can get. For this release Chelsea Girls has been completely remastered for the first time on CD.
So what's so noteworthy about this? Plenty. First of all the running order is completely different than what the final album became and in fact the opener "Sunday Morning" doesn't appear at all. This version of the album opens with "European Son" with a different mix and a two minute guitar part that was edited out for the proper album here restored (the edit on the original album is pretty noticeable, it occurs at approximately 1:02 right after the plates & chairs crash). On the Scepter version of "I'll Be Your Mirror" (same take, different mix) the echo effect on Nico's vocals is missing while "Heroin" is an alternate take that has a rattling tambourine added and the original first line of lyrics that John Cale has stated is, in his opinion, more valid than the change Reed made when it was time to re-record the song for the official album (for the record, the original lyric is "I know just where I'm going" which Reed altered to "I don't know just where I'm going" changing the protagonist's relationship to his habit considerably).
The sixth track "Femme Fatale" is a different mix of the familiar take but with an extra track of background vocals sung in almost falsetto vocals. The take of "I'm Waiting For The Man" here replaces the drums with a simple, shaking tambourine while the alternate take of "Venus In Furs"has a lot more viola playing in the arrangement.
The Scepter sessions material is also available as a stand alone vinyl release pressed in numbered limited quantities. Disc four ends with six tunes recorded during rehearsals at Andy Warhol's Factory on Jan 3 1966. Among the highlights of this rare (but incomplete, a circulating boot has much more material) tape: a fun version of "Venus In Furs" sung to the music of Bo Diddley's "Crackin' Up" and Nico taking a shot at the lead vocal on "There She Goes Again".
Disc five and six present nine tracks recorded live on Nov 4 1966 at the Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus Ohio. Like other officially released live shows of the Velvet Underground (Bootleg Series Vol 1: The Quine Tapes, Live At Max's Kansas City) the Columbus recording is sourced from a low-fi audience tape. The crude sound quality may be jarring for those not used to audience recordings but the historical value of the memorable performances over-rides any questions regarding the fidelity of the tape. The live show opens with (finally!) the complete unedited twenty-eight minute epic "Melody Laughter", a multi-sectioned piece that lets the band stretch and show off it's experimental and improvisational skills. The rest of the show is devoted to seven songs from the debut album of which "Run Run Run" has a locomotive rhythm pounding under screeching guitar solos and the circular guitar patterns during "Venus In Furs" have a much more hypnotic effect than on the studio recording. The explosive concert fittingly ends with "The Nothing Song" an almost twenty-eight minute improv-jam devoted to noise and tension.
The concert is also unique as it is the first officially released live show featuring the original five person line-up of the Velvet Underground including John Cale and Nico.
Finally, the whole set is packaged in a large 88 page hard cover book featuring an informative essay by VU expert Richie Unterberger and many striking live photos of the short lived original line-up.
Still think devoting a six CD boxed set to just one album is overkill?
I'm hoping the other three Velvet Underground studio albums get this kind of deluxe treatment...
Disc four is where things get really interesting.
This is the original version of the album, cut to acetate on April 26 1966, that mentor Andy Warhol used to try and get the group a record deal. Known as the "Norman Dolph acetate" after the record company rep who ,with Warhol, paid for the sessions, this material has previously circulated only as a poor sounding rip among collectors.