Graham Reid | | 4 min read
Has there even been an album whose cultural influence far outstripped it's commercial impact more than the debut by New York's Velvet Underground?
Their 1967 The Velvet Underground & Nico – in that famously provocative banana cover by the band's champion and nominal “producer” Andy Warhol (a phallic pink banana revealed when the skin was peeled back) – arrived to no great effect: the record company ad in New York's Village Voice for it read, “So far underground you get the bends!”.
That proved prophetic for an album that appeared with barely a trace.
It sold only a few thousand copies and peaked at 171 on the Billboard charts (a lofty 102 in Cashbox).
The few who wrote about it were dismissive: “They sound rather tedious despite their ventures into electric viola, at al. Their forte is the loud whine – something like a musical motorcycle,” said Jazz magazine.
Some did get it at the time, although -- despite what many think -- the infamous Lester Bangs didn't write about it at the time even though he is associated with the album's subsequent acclaim.
A cautious Village Voice writer Richard Goldstein noted some pieces on VU&N were “pretentious to the point of misery” but that VU were “an important group, and this album has some major work”.
But by February 1969 – two years on – it had sold, largely by word of mouth, almost 60,000 copies.
A decade after its release rock resident philosopher and futurist Brian Eno – who had been 18 and studying fine art when the album was released – told Punk magazine, “I knew that they were going to be one of the most interesting groups and that there would be a time when it wouldn’t be the Beatles up there and then all these other groups down there.
“It would be a question of attempting to assess the relative values of the Beatles and the Velvet Underground as equals”.
Eno is also credited with the famously extravagant quote that not many people heard this album but everyone who did went out and formed a band.
The trickle-down of the album and VU's influenced continued to grow and in the early 80s you could hear elements of their reductive sound in the lo-fi offerings from some Flying Nun bands then Wellington-born Dean Wareham's New York-based band Galaxie 500 and then Luna in the 90s.
And ever since there have been essays, box sets, re-assessments and so much more.
Inevitably there have been many tributes to VU (notably Beck's version of the whole VU&N album) but none quite like I'll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to The Velvet Underground & Nico produced in large part by Hal Willner.
Willner – who died in April last year at 64 – was a producer-without-portfolio who, among other things, curated tribute albums to musicians as diverse as Kurt Weill, Charles Mingus and Harold Arlen as well as albums of sea shanties and Disney songs.
The cast on these albums included Rufus Wainwright, Debbie Harry, Ringo, Bono, Sting, Nick Cave, jazz and folk musicians, and his longtime friend Lou Reed of VU.
So gathering musicians to pay tribute to the VU debut came easy: Michael Stipe (of R.E.M.), Kurt Vile, Sharon Van Etten, guitarists Bill Frisell and Thurston Moore, Courtney Barnett, Iggy Pop . . .
And as expected, these artists offer sometimes movingly different treatments: Stipe's drowsy interpretation of the restful Sunday Morning opens with a pastoral clarinet and he sounds as if he's slowly rousing himself to greet the first rays to a bass part perilously close to the minimal Walk on the Wild Side; Matt Berninger (The National) gets the unenviable task of taking on I'm Waiting For The Man but shifts Reed's desperate, bleak original into a defeated, nervy tautness over the repeated rhythm; Van Etten's seductive, slo-mo, string coloured Femme Fatal is gloriously languorous highpoint.
St Vincent dramatically relocates Nico's All Tomorrow's Parties to the seance-like gloom of Laurie Anderson's parlour where sorrowful secret words are whispered surreptitiously, Courtney Barnett moves I'll Be Your Mirror to an after-hours folk club for a speak-sing interpretation.
Not everything works: Moore and Bobby Gillespie (Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream) enjoy the tension-release of Heroin but fall short of the original's edgy frisson; and although guitarist Matt Sweeney noisily rips through European Son with destructive Stooge-like delight, the joyously unconstrained yelps and howls by Iggy add little.
Singer Lucius and violinist Andrew Bird bring a folk approach to an uneven Venus in Furs, Bird's sometimes strident part aiming for more allure than John Cale's unnerving viola drone on the original.
At its best – and the coiled rage of Fontaines D.C.'s The Black Angel's Death Song is among them – the album reminds us that Lou Reed (who'd served time in a pop song-writing factory before the VU) could be a discreetly melodic writer beyond the sometimes challenging surfaces and PG lyrics.
The album on no particular VU anniversary but – by happy coincidence? – Todd Haynes' much acclaimed VU documentary arrives on October 15 which
Haynes is something of a re-interpreter himself, as witnessed by his excellent 2007 I'm Not There in which seven different actors – from 15-year old Marcus Carl Franklin to 58-year old Richard Gere – portrayed various Bob Dylans in a freewheeling quasi-biography, Cate Blanchett winning numerous awards for her portrayal of the elusive, evasive Dylan in the mid 60s.
Haynes' more straightforward The Velvet Underground documentary – which appeared at Cannes out-of-selection has won favourable notices for being thorough and – through interviews and previously unseen footage – locating the black-wearing band in the context of New York and its era . . . which we need to remind ourselves arrived at the height of multi-coloured Sgt Pepper, colourful clothes and hippie peace'n'love slackerism.
It will doubtless reflected some welcome light on Willner's all-star project.
Tribute album sell in tiny quantities however.
But as The Velvet Underground & Nico proved, commerce isn't what art is about.
I'll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to The Velvet Underground & Nico is available now on digital platforms and double vinyl through Southbound Records, Auckland.
Todd Haynes's documentary is on Apple+ from October 15