I’ll Be Your Mirror: Artists Reflect on The Velvet Underground & Nico

I’ll Be Your Mirror: Artists Reflect on The Velvet Underground & Nico

The Velvet Underground have an invaluable influence on music that cannot be understated.

What The Beatles did for pop and rock at large, The Velvet Underground did for punk, post-punk, art-rock, grunge, and every variation of alternative, indie and experimental rock of the past half century.

While each of their four studio albums are essential texts of the rock and roll canon, their self-titled debut album with Nico, immediately identifiable by the iconic yellow banana screen print by Andy Warhol on the cover, is as keystone a text as they come – the fire and brimstone mythology Old Testament to the New Testament gospel of Sgt. Pepper’s, released three months later in 1967.

As Brian Eno famously said: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

Below, we asked a few artists to share their thoughts on the profound legacy of the Velvet Underground and their debut album.

Don’t miss reading our feature article on by music journalist Joe Levy, The Birth of Cool: 50 Years of The Velvet Underground & Nico, along with our Legends and Tracks & Traces playlists.

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DEAN WAREHAM
Galaxie 500/Luna/Dean & Britta

What has the Velvet Underground & Nico meant for you and how has it inspired your own work?

When I was a teenager, living in New York City in the late ‘70s, it was impossible to find The Velvet Underground & Nico in record shops. That tells you how the band’s reputation has changed, and how the world has changed too. So my introduction to the VU was through their Live ’69 album. But eventually, in the early ‘80s, it was reissued and of course I loved it.

How do you consider their debut album 50 years down the road?

The astonishing thing about the VU — and this debut album — is how fully-realized it is – this brilliant melding of rock and roll and avant-garde influences. Compare it to first records by The Beatles or Stones, who sound like they are imitating Chuck Berry, tentatively defining their own sound. But the VU sound like they have it all figured out.

What’s your definitive VU moment?

I was lucky enough to be on tour with the VU when they reformed; my band Luna opened the shows on their European tour. I will always remember eating a sandwich in the dressing room on Day 1, in Edinburgh, Scotland, and hearing “Venus in Furs” come across the little speaker while they played it upstairs. I realized right then that no one else really sounds like the Velvets.

 

GLENN MERCER
The Feelies

How did you first hear The Velvet Underground & Nico

When I first heard the record, shortly after it’s release, it didn’t have much impact on me. I think it seemed a bit unusual at first, with the juxtaposition of the mellow songs against the up-tempo ones, as if the band’s identity lacked focus. I didn’t really appreciate the unique quality of Nico’s voice initially, and the sound of Andy Warhol’s “production” didn’t help. I remember liking “Waiting for the Man,” and “Heroin” was easy to learn on guitar, but it wasn’t until later, with the third record, that I made a deeper connection with the Velvets. After that, it was a matter of working my way back to the first two records. By then, so much had changed in popular music that it allowed for a different perspective, and the “banana” album no longer seemed as foreign as I originally thought.

What has the album meant for you and your own work?

When I did connect with them, the songwriting seemed to have evolved to a point that allowed for a more heartfelt expression that carried a deeper emotional resonance. There is almost a spiritual quality that shines through, offering a redemptive nature to the music. The simple and direct approach to the arrangements helped me to more clearly hear and understand the various elements. I could easily relate to the primitive and minimal style. The first record, and those that followed, had an abundance of atmosphere that conveyed a sense of time and place. The New York City environment is embedded in the grooves.

How do you consider the album 50 years down the road?

The first record came out at a time when most bands were celebrating the “we can be together” communal spirit of the Summer of Love. The Velvet Underground & Nico record was in direct contrast to that ‘hippie’ attitude, with a much darker undercurrent. It suggested that no topic, however deep, compelling and unattractive, was off limits. It’s often pointed out that many aspiring musicians started bands after hearing the Velvet Underground. I don’t know how true that is, I think that distinction applies more to The Beatles, but much of the really important music that followed can be linked to this record. It now seems obvious that punk rock, alternative music and even the grunge genre, all share roots that reach back to this LP.

What’s your definitive VU moment?

It’s hard to choose a ‘definitive’ moment. Each record has an abundance of considerations. I’d most likely pick something with a connection to the guitar – the frantic, wild solo in “Heard Her Call My Name”; the dreamy, hypnotic solo in “What Goes On”; the fluid movement of the lead guitar on “Train Coming ‘Round the Bend”. But, I’d also have to say it’s probably Lou Reed’s vocal delivery on “Sweet Jane” or “Rock and Roll” that best captures and expresses the joy and excitement of playing in a rock band.

 

SHIRLEY MANSON
Garbage 

Fifty years on and we are all still mooning over this record. Why? Because it contains so many truly magical, exquisitely written songs. And because it continues to sound badass and completely unique, coming across  like real rebellion and adventure and curiosity. Increasingly rare attributes in today’s cultural climate.

 

ALBERT HAMMOND JR.
The Strokes

What has the Velvet Underground & Nico meant for you and your own work?

You can’t pin point that. Certain music, great music, just changes how you perceive the world and that is the root of all my inspiration.

How did you hear the album in the first place?

A neighbor brought it over. I had a crush on her and she put it on and the world became exciting and raw. Too much knowledge for my teenage mind. It felt like it had been dropped in my lap. A gift.

How do you consider the album 50 years down the road?

Fifty years! WTF. If someone made it now they would be considered futuristic so that fucking lasted the test of time. The world would be a better, cooler place had they been commercially successful.

What’s your definitive VU moment?

I do believe you are what you perceive. What comes is better than what came before… How can you pick a definitive moment? Basically after them moments became definitive. They are still so good it hurts.

 

STEVE WYNN
The Dream Syndicate

What has the Velvet Underground & Nico meant for you and your own work?

I spent the first year or two of the Dream Syndicate being joined at the critical hip to the Velvet Underground. There was never a piece about us that didn’t mention them. That kinda thing can drive you nuts, especially when you’re young and cocky and arrogant and trying to stake out your own turf in this world. As time went on I saw it as a blessing and an honor – it’s not bad to be compared to such a great band, and one that meant so much to so many people.

How did you hear the album in the first place?

The “banana album” was the first thing I ever heard by the Velvets. I can still remember exactly where I was and visualize the sight of the needle hitting the groove, hearing the first notes of “Sunday Morning” and feeling like “THIS is what I’ve been looking for.”

It was 1979, I was deep in the thrall of punk rock and new wave at the time, but I also knew my rock & roll history. Just, somehow, I didn’t know the Velvets. But something about the combination of classic songwriting with the willful, “don’t-give-a-fuck” sabotage of noise and dissonance and a mighty groove hit me in a primal way. And you could easily say that those three elements are the things that link VU+N with the first Dream Syndicate album. At that point mixing those elements was still pretty rare: beauty plus ugliness thrown into a blender and served at room temperature.

How do you consider the album 50 years down the road?

It still sounds great. You know, each of the four Velvet Underground albums has been my favorite at various points in my life, but this remains the definitive one. It’s the one you’d have to play to a space alien that came to Earth and demanded to know what was going on with this mysterious Velvet Underground thing that he had been hearing about on his planet.

Your definitive VU moment?

I covered “Sister Ray” twice in tribute concerts with the Miracle 3 not long after Lou Reed passed away. In both cases we went into it without much of a game plan. Just those two chords, the lyrics and absolute abandon. And you know what? Both versions ended up being just a few seconds over 17 minutes long – just like the record!

 

 

MARTIN PHILLIPPS
The Chills

What has the Velvet Underground & Nico meant for you and your own work?

It was one of the key albums that meant there were no rules except being true to your own vision. A lot of the bands inspired by the Velvet Underground did not simply try to emulate them but instead, like The Chills, they took that ethos and incorporated it into their own sound and direction.

How did the band intrigue you in the first place?

The attraction of the forbidden, the power of the Dark Side, huge raw and beautiful sounds with songs about outsiders, drugs, sexual ambiguity and staying out all night and not getting told off.

How do you consider the album 50 years down the road?

If the Velvet Underground was to be transported through time and play tonight at some small local venue, the audience would still shut up and listen and know they were in the presence of something special. And the album seems to be aging well, like quality whisky.

Your definitive VU moment?

It was realizing that the Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal version of “Heroin” was, for all its size and power, not as raw and exciting as the version being thrashed out in a smaller setting by “Lou Reed’s earlier band” on their first album. That was when I decided that I wanted to know much more about the Velvet Underground and to ultimately hear everything they had ever done. For some years that appeared to be a sensible and finite aspiration!

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