Radar Replay: ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ is as relevant today as it was decades ago

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If there is any important album known for being a complete failure when it was initially released, it’s The Velvet Underground’s debut album. When it was first released on March 12,1967, many record stores prohibited the sale of the LP and radio stations across the nation banned its playback.

“The Velvet Underground & Nico” was so controversial from a commercial standpoint for two main reasons: its sound content and its lyrical content. For the time it was released, it was extremely experimental in comparison to the music that was being played in 1967; this period is characterized by the strong advancement of pop music after all. Many songs on this album feature extensive tracks of harsh sounding instruments. Pop music on the other hand is generally characterized by songs that range from two and a half to four minutes and feature a melody that is easy for a listener to fall in love with from the first time they hear it. From a lyrical perspective, pop music tends to feature relatable themes along the lines of being in love or having fun.

“The Velvet Underground & Nico” does not adhere to this songwriting style. This album deals with many issues that musicians had not sung about previously. It mostly features lyrics that discuss the intense realities of drug abuse and being sexually deviant. Although not every song on the album is directly about the two mentioned ideas, they are prominent throughout the album. It is for that reason it was blacklisted among many music outlets. 

Take the song “Run Run Run,” for instance. It talks about four characters that all put themselves in dangerous situations in order to find drugs. “I’m Waiting for the Man” is similar to the previous track, in that it mentions someone going to a derelict part of a city in order to buy drugs. Perhaps the most impactful song that effectively tells a story is the seventh track, titled “Heroin.” It is a seven minute long monologue featuring someone openly explaining their relationship with the narcotic. The soothing sound of a viola becomes abrasive to the listener’s ears as the singer explains that heroin allows them to disregard stark reality so easily in a time when the country was becoming split over various issues. Then again, even today the country is polarized on the account of many subjects, some even centered around drugs. 

“There She Goes” is an account between the lack of a relationship between a prostitute and her client. Details of violence from a man to the woman can be heard in this. The song “Venus In Furs” is based on a short novel with the same name. It is a causal account of someone with a desire for a partner to engage in sado-masochistic behavior with. Promiscuous behavior at the time was considered far more shameful that it is today, the publication of non-traditional media like this to a wide audience can be attributed to the evolution of people’s ideas. 

While there are endless songs today that are thematically similar to this album, I will argue that few are so honest and create such convincing stories. Even though this was released over half a century ago, many of the emotions portrayed in this album are relatable to listeners today. It is for this reason that the album that was an utter failure has become an icon. It serves as a piece of history that reflects a generation’s outlook on the nation and it can even apply mirror the attitudes of people now.

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