Like most people my age, many of my formative musical experiences involved my parents’ car. Thanks to my somewhat older Mum and Dad, however, it wasn’t the sweet sounds of Paul Simon that I used to rock out to. In amongst the scattered tapes of kids’ songs and Now compilations were home-dubbed tapes of things like Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July (forever a Proustian rush when I hear ‘Master Blaster’) and a new wave compilation designed to showcase the best of Virgin Records’ output (PiL, Buzzcocks and Magazine were all present and correct).
Also lingering in the dashboard was an archetypal shop-bought double-cassette compilation called Back on the Road. In amongst all of the tried and true road rock hits – hell, the first two tracks are ‘All Right Now‘ and ‘All Along the Watchtower‘ – were a few strange gems that caught my pre-pubescent ears: Fairport Convention’s ‘Meet on the Ledge’, the warped yodel metal of ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Focus and Arthur “The God of Hellfire” Brown.
Buried in the middle of the second tape, however, was ‘Venus in Furs‘ by The Velvet Underground. That was my favourite. I’ve no idea why – I couldn’t hear the words – though my dad made a passable attempt at sounding like a bald Jim Morrison when singing along – it sounded boring as hell and the lady singing had a really weird voice. But it left me completely captivated every time I heard it – it was full of strange noises and everything sounded totally out of tune (or , at the very least, very wrong indeed). Were it not for the lyrics that, I later found out, were about hardcore S&M, it would have made a snug fit on that tape I had somewhere of children’s TV theme songs.
I never really followed up on that interest, though; The Velvets crossed my path mostly because they were one of those bands you were supposed to like, if you were in any way Serious About Music. And at any given time, of course I had my favourite; my inner noisenik cherished White Light/White Heat, and in my indiepop phase (or whenever I want to relax, then jump up to hit the skip button, then relax for two more minutes), the self-titled album is my go-to. At the moment, I think I like the ’80s rarities set VU the best – I mean, it does have the best songs on it – but, truth be told, I have never really LOVED The Velvet Underground the way most do. John Cale remains a hero, but Lou Reed is still an arse, and (the Mary Chain aside) the band is responsible for a never ending glut of terrible bands who use their stand-up drummers as some kind of ill-advised mark of integrity. Maybe you had to be there. Yet, The Velvet Underground and Nico remains a record with something for everyone.
And so to this arbitrarily anniversaried reissue. The original Velvet Underground and Nico was graced with eleven songs, each of which has left its mark on music in its own way. This deluxe edition has almost six times that many spread over five CDs, including a childhood-memory-slaughtering five versions of ‘Venus in Furs’ – though, for those with a less ostentatious bank balance, a two-disc version is also available. The remastering makes the instruments leap out far more clearly than any previously-released versions – the mono mix is also a great touch both for completists and for those who aren’t into the way most stereo records of the time separated the instruments. The main draw, for this reviewer at least, is Nico‘s Chelsea Girl, which finally gets the lush remastering treatment given to all of her other solo LPs; others, however, will be excited by the presence of the first official release of the now-legendary Sceptre Sessions acetate – a one-off early session which was found in a New York flea market for under a dollar a few years ago.
The album itself remains a mess; guitars are out of tune, you can’t hear the drums if you tried, tape is audibly spliced (one verse of ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ begins with what sounds like someone triggering a sampler too early on Nico’s voice). But god, what a mess. Lou Reed may be an awful human being, but his time on Tin Pan Alley – when he was once commissioned to write a song instructing a generation to ‘Do the Ostrich’ – completely pays off. ‘Sunday Morning’ is still one of the best opening tracks ever – an immaculately-constructed comedown anthem, while ‘There She Goes Again’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ are also perfectly-crafted examples of ’60s pop at its best. ‘Waiting for the Man’ has no right being the classic it is, seeing as it’s on an album with’ Run Run Run’, a track which says all the same things, but ten times better, and ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is still awe-inspiring (though my heart has a slightly bigger place for the Bad Seeds’ Brokeback Mountain-preempting cover) and… well, you don’t need me wasting any more words on The Velvet Underground and Nico. You’ve heard, you’ve seen, you know.
Listen to The Velvet Underground and Nico