1967 was the height of the psychedelia movement in music, and while I suspect that come June we’ll be hearing ad nauseam about the 50th anniversary of some album by some other band with which you may be familiar, we would be remiss if we failed to note the same anniversary for what is arguably, a culturally more important work of art, The Velvet Underground & Nico.

warhol banana cover

After multiple delays (some due to Andy Warhol’s cover design involving a peelable banana sticker), the album came out in March of 1967 and was an immediate commercial failure. The Velvet Underground & Nico sounds like nothing else of its era — it’s about as far from the Summer of Love as you can get. The dark themes (drug use, sadomasochism, prostitution to name but a few) made it an immediate no-go for radio play, while the narcotic viola drone and feedback laden guitars conjured up little of the “peace and love” we associate with the era.

But the album’s influence is undeniable. As Brian Eno famously said, not a lot of people bought The Velvet Underground & Nico, but seemingly everyone who did started a band. You can trace a direct line from the album to David Bowie and glam rock, to Iggy and the Stooges, to the Modern Lovers and the New York Dolls, to Patti Smith and the Ramones, to the Sex Pistols, to REM and Pavement, to Nirvana and on to anything that calls itself “alternative” or “punk” these days. While I have a special fondness for “I’ll Be Your Mirror” (especially this Rainy Day cover from 1984), something a little darker seemed more appropriate to represent the album. There’s very little video of the band available online, despite Warhol’s omnipresent movie camera, but the clip below seems pieced together from his 1966 Symphony of Sound footage.

And if you’re looking for a good read on the subject, Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story is worth your time.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.

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Discussion

16 Thoughts on "The Velvet Underground & Nico: A Cultural Landmark Turns 50"

“not a lot of people bought The Velvet Underground & Nico”

Some of us did! How much is my first edition (UK pressing) worth?

Did you ever start a band afterwards, though? Or is Brian deceiving us?

Anyway, discogs suggests it may go for about 100 EUR if in VG or better condition (presuming you find a buyer of course). There’s so many versions and pressings listed though, so it might not be the specific one you have.

While possibly unintended, even this video vividly captures the undercurrent of chaos in their music. The music was (mostly) brilliant and decades ahead of its time. I have personal experience of it still ringing true to some teenagers in 2017.

The opening ‘Sunday Morning’ features in my Sunday morning soundtrack most weeks I’m home; true classic! Also the first SK post I feel qualified to comment on!

By “some album by some other band”, I assume you mean Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which beat everything else all hollow and launched the greatest rock band ever.

I was thinking more of the first album by The Electric Prunes, but sure, your band is pretty good too.

Uh, don’t forget that this was also the era of Charles Manson and his family of psychopaths.

This is the best Scholarly Kitchen post ever, bar none. It’s wonderful to see the usual suspects debate over Lou Reed vs Sid Barrett rather than publishing business models. Thank you David.

PS – my vote is with Lou, Nico and the VU, but I will grant that Lucifer Sam is pretty fantastic.

Far be it for me to disparage the sainted Lou Reed, but let’s keep history in perspective. Picking on Sgt. Pepper is all well and good, but let’s not forget that the Velvet Underground was immediately recognized as derivative of Dylan’s 3 great rock albums. If you want to use the Beatles as an example, start not with Sgt. Pepper but “With the Beatles,” which is probably what got Lou Reed to buy a guitar in the first place. In any event, if you are looking for great moments in rock history, I would point to the 60th anniversary on July 6 of the church fair where John met Paul. Or you could point to the date in a hotel on Central Park South where Dylan turned the Beatles on to pot. The twin poles of modern pop, Dylan and the Beatles, continue to play out today. There is a reason Dylan won the Nobel Prize.

Joe, I think you’re temporally displacing Lou Reed by a generation. He was born in 1942, the same year as Paul McCartney and one year after Bob Dylan. He was playing guitar in high school bands, so it is unlikely (barring time travel, which I wouldn’t put past Lou) that With the Beatles (released in 1963) inspired him to buy a guitar. Perhaps this perception is because he experienced his greatest commercial success after the breakup of his seminal 1960’s band, rather than the early peak of those other guys.

And while I would not disparage Saint Bob of Minnesota, I would argue that Sgt. Peppers is vastly overrated and far from the best work done by that particular band (give me Revolver or Rubber Soul any day). Your own tastes may vary.

Also, let’s not give all of the credit to Lou. The Velvet Underground became a shadow of its former self when John Cale left the band.

Thanks for that video. Lou Reed’s distinctive voice will live on forever in my mind.

Fabulous album. One of my biggest musical regrets is that I never got to see Lou Reed live!

Great post and comments. Thank you, David.

For those who are passionate about the topic, I strongly recommend PLEASE KILL ME: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil. It’s a seminal tome that captures the influences and adventures of the Underground, Nico, Reed, and Warhol had on the punk scene…the book stars just about — everyone. One of my favorites in the book is Danny Fields. Which reminds me…if you can find it, be sure to watch the recent documentary on Danny Fields, DANNY SAYS….

No one going to mention the 13th Floor Elevators, whose debut beat The Velvet Undergrounds Classic by 1 year and followed up with the magical Easter Everywhere in 1967?

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