For most of us, the Teutonic singer Nico has always been associated with the first Velvet Underground album and then a series of fascinating solo albums (often with Velvets connections) released during the ‘70s and ‘80s before her untimely death in 1988. The voice and the look are unmistakable, that far away stare, that detached, brooding and flat tone. It might also feel like she magically appeared from a cloud of smoke in 1967 New York City.
But before she met Andy Warhol, the former teen model had crossed paths with a who’s who of ’50 and ‘60s cool: Coco Chanel, Mario Lanza, Federico Fellini (who cast her in a bit part in La Dolce Vita), Lee Strasberg, Jean Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon (who allegedly fathered her first child).
In 1965 Nico met and began dating Rolling Stones’ guitarist Brian Jones, and that’s how we get to the video above. Already having sung in nightclubs in New York, her smoky voice was established, but Jones convinced the Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham to sign her to his boutique label Immediate, which had just started.
Oldham brought in his reliable studio musician and A&R man, a young guitarist called Jimmy Page, to produce and play guitar (along with Jones) on both sides of Nico’s first single, the A-side “I’m Not Saying” (a Gordon Lightfoot cover) and the B-Side “The Last Mile” (written by Page and Oldham). As a session musician, Page is on a *lot* of British hit singles, including Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” Them’s “Here Comes the Night,” Marianne Faithfull’s “As Tears Go By,” and a surprising amount more.
The resulting pleasant-enough single didn’t exactly rock the charts, but it was a first foot in the door. Jones would introduce Nico to Andy Warhol soon after that and she began to appear in some of his films like Chelsea Girls. Destiny was right around the corner.
For a singer so tied to the Velvets, it’s worth remembering she was only on three songs on the 11 song debut album and then left. But her place in rock history was assured, even though it was the oddest of team-ups at the time.
On a side note, the video for “I’m Not Saying” was shot at Canary Wharf on the Thames, long before it was turned into shiny towers for the rich. It’s a window back into a very different time.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.