So a couple of days ago, music legend Lou Reed popped his clogs. His death made me realise that I’ve always been pretty dismissive of Reed and The Velvet Underground. I think I gave this album a listen when I was a teenager or in my early twenties and felt like it was something I needed to do if I was going to consider myself a serious music fan. The problem is, when you assign yourself something like this as homework, it ends up feeling like homework. I’ll also admit to being a bit of a contrarian and probably looked for reasons to not like it, simply because everyone else was telling me I should love it. Whatever it was, nothing grabbed me back then. But now it’s 2013, Lou Reed is gone and I felt like I should give The Velvet Underground and Nico another go.
I’ve never seen the romanticism in the idea of the junky poet, I’ve never dug music with a message and I can’t think of a single song where the greatest lyrics in the world make up for a lack of melody. So I don’t care how profound or important the lyrics of something like Venus in Furs might be, if you’re gonna present it in the guise of a song, try to make it sound like a song.
Run, Run, Run and All Tomorrow’s Parties put a real edge on a more traditional 60s rock and roll, spaced out hippy sounds that I really liked it. And despite it’s on the nose title and repetitive sound, Heroin is an amazing song that never gets boring or loses any intensity over the course of its endless loop.
Then there’s Black Angel Death Song and European Son, the kind of experimental, tossed off collections of noise that were probably passed off as intense, improvisations that captured “real” and “unfiltered” moments. But they sound more like album filler to me, quickly slapped together when the band realised they were two songs shy of long player length. And even if they were “real” and “unfiltered” moments of raw emotion, that doesn’t mean they warranted being captured for posterity. There are plenty of terrible bands of teenagers making the same noise in garages everywhere right now as they try to learn their instruments, but we don’t ever need to hear it.
Lou Reed is one of those people who proves being a good singer has very little to do with having a good singing voice. His signature twang and whiney inflections may not exhibit much range or vocal technique, but there’s an undeniable quality that really does add a level of authenticity and heart to every word.
Nico, on the other hand, is not one of those singers. A song like I’ll Be Your Mirror sounds like it’s meant to be sweet and heartfelt. Instead, she comes off as cold, flat and efficiently emotionless. That couldn’t have been easy for a German.
It’s impossible to listen to any seminal album decades after its release and understand its full impact without the context of that time. Sergeant Peppers, Dark Side of the Moon and Nevermind might have been revolutionary at the time, but when someone hears them for the first time today, they’ve also probably heard countless watered down, cheap imitations that take away some of that impact. As for The Velvet Underground and Nico, I’d say even if this most recent listen hasn’t made me love it, it has made me respect it. And it brought me a little closer to understanding the legendary status of the album and it’s most famous collaborator.