Before its many layers of well-deserved hagiography, the Velvet Underground’s first album emerged in 1967 on its own terms, in near obscurity, introducing something so mysteriously cool and hauntingly grim and beautiful. Goth and punk and post-punk and New Wave and chamber pop and shoegaze and indie folk and Britpop and noise and drone and No Wave… all came decades later. But first there was The Velvet Underground & Nico. Of its unlikely creation, Tyler Wilcox writes, “talent, vision, fearlessness, a touch of genius: they’re all necessary ingredients for the creation of a classic album. But you’re also going to need a lot of luck.”
Wilcox describes in his history how all of those qualities—luck, and Andy Warhol, included—brought the five original VU members together in 1965; how the band debuted with Nico at the Delmonico Hotel 1966, occasioning the New York Herald Tribune’s headline, “Shock Treatment for Psychiatrists”; and how their lo-fi drone and Medieval folk meets decadent, literary 60s pop derived from influences like Booker T. & The MG’s and avant-garde minimalist La Monte Young. It’s one thing to read about this total re-imaging of rock and roll, and another thing entirely to see it. Unfortunately, little film of the band exists from that time—some of it very fragmentary or very rare.
Just above, you can see one of the best pieces of footage: Lou Reed, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison composing the album’s first track, the delicate “Sunday Morning,” whose handful of wistful, ambiguous lyrics introduce Reed’s “spiritual seeking” as a thematic thread that weaves through songs of sadomasochism, heroin, and death. The silent film was shot in 1966 by filmmaker Rosalind Stevenson while the band rehearsed in her apartment. This debut broadcast, with the studio recording overlaid, comes from a 1994 BBC program called Peel Slowly and See (after the instruction telling buyers of the vinyl LP to peel the banana sticker and discover this).
Had the band only recorded their first album, it’s hard to imagine their importance in rock history would be much lessened, but it’s also hard to imagine rock history without follow-ups White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground, and Loaded. Yet these were all products of deliberate focus, and a diminishing number of key singers/songwriters. The first Velvet Underground album is magical for its serendipity and almost schizoid collection of fully-formed personalities, each so distinctive that “each track” on The Velvet Underground & Nico “has launched an entire genre.”
So notes WBEZ’s Sound Opinions. Just above you can hear the show’s Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot discuss the influences and significance, with many sonic examples, of the album that launched a few thousand bands. Watch the creation of “Sunday Morning” and think about the number of times you’ve heard it haunting bands like Belle and Sebastian, the Decembrists, or Beach House. And if you’ve somehow missed all the other genres to which this first record gave birth, DeRogatis and Kot should get you caught up on why “no album has had a greater influence on rock in that last half-century than the Velvet Underground’s debut.”
Find more early VU footage in the Relateds right below.