Collection: 1. The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico

The dream of the underground as an autonomous zone takes root here: a sense of style that would pave the way for glam rock; a sense of nihilism that would bulldoze a clear path for punk; an uncompromisingly avant-garde sound that would lead to post-punk and beyond. There was their subject matter, decadent and depraved: whips and furs, back-alley blowjobs, tragic heroines, and also heroin—lots of heroin. The hippie phenomenon was a populist movement, as relatable to teenagers as bubble-gum pop had been a few years prior, and the Velvets were anything but. They invented a whole new kind of cool, their sound raw and shambolic: “Femme Fatale,” despite its glamorous premise, sounds like it was recorded in a broom closet. Lou Reed’s voice is high and nasal, and Nico—a fashion model and actor from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Warhol’s Chelsea Girls—sounds about as lively as an IV drip. The record was grotty and lo-fi, the sound of a reel-to-reel tape retreating into a turtle shell. And yet they had noise, much from their avant-gardist John Cale, a classically trained violist who turned his education into droning, seesawing, nails-on-a-chalkboard frequencies. When they performed, incongruously, at a formal dinner for the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry in 1966, one shrink called them “a short-lived torture of cacophony.”

Today, it’s easy to see The Velvet Underground & Nico as a solipsistic record, given all the social and political problems of the era that it ignores; the Velvets weren’t so much turning on and dropping out as digging in and shooting up. If the contemporary underground begins here then so too, perhaps, does its occasionally blinkered perspective. Art for art’s sake can be a hell of a drug. But for all of their danger and debasement, there was also something cozy about the Velvet Underground. “Sunday Morning” is a song about taking stock of the “wasted years,” yet it’s as gentle as a lullaby. “Heroin,” despite Reed’s bleak decision to “nullify my life,” turns two chords and a motorik beat into a burbling sunrise pulse that feels like rock’n’roll heaven. Far from “closing in on death,” the Velvet Underground were zeroing in on the sound of the future. –Philip Sherburne /

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