Looking back to Lou Reed (via the Velvet Underground and Nico) – by Killian Laher
Not so long after becoming a teenager, I became aware of Lou Reed, through the one song that was always played on the radio – Walk On The Wild Side. Undoubtedly a good song, but not exactly a catalyst for an obsession. Next on my radar was Dirty Boulevard (or Blvd as he put it), a gritty, mature rocker.
But it was a year or two later that I heard about Reed’s old band called the Velvet Underground. At that time there were no gateways back to older, ‘legendary’ acts, you might hear the Beatles, Stones or Dylan but that’s it. The concept of ‘retro’ wasn’t on my radar. Nobody I knew had heard or owned any of their music, but their debut album had a song called Heroin on it, so I thought – this I had to seek out. Confusion reigned. Was The Velvet Underground and Nico the same thing as the Velvet Underground??
The opening track, Sunday Morning was disarming in the extreme. A low key song that just creeps out of the speakers, and a damn strange vocal that sounded nothing like the Lou Reed I thought I knew. Was it definitely him… or a woman? I wasn’t sure about it until two minutes in Sterling Morrison’s brief, crackly guitar solo. The track that followed was when the penny really dropped. I’m Waiting for the Man has a pulsating beat and a cool, catchy guitar riff, while Reed invents the Lou Reed that everybody thinks of: his ‘street’ persona. Dispassionately drawling lyrics about hanging out in New York waiting for his ‘man’, it was as vivid a picture of grimy New York as any seventies de Niro movie.
What followed couldn’t be more different, Femme Fatale, despite Nico’s flat, Germanic vocals, has a soft, soothing melody which sounds instantly familiar. This is blown out of the water by John Cale’s off-kilter viola playing on the dark, malevolent S&M tale Venus In Furs, a weird-sounding but totally addictive listen.
After such a strong opening run of songs it was difficult to maintain such a standard, and they don’t quite. On the rest of the album we get scuzzy rockers (Run,Run,Run, There She Goes Again), and two wildly contrasting Nico songs (the plodding drone of All Tomorrow’s Parties and the slight but sweet I’ll Be Your Mirror). We also get the difficult avant-garde pair The Black Angel’s Death Song featuring what could only be described as a wheezing viola, and European Son which, two minutes in, descends into a noise experiment, continuing for a further five minutes. Almost like the first ever Sonic Youth song and only the committed would persevere with these tracks.
So what of Heroin? Little could prepare me for this. Opening as a simple two chord strum, backed by Cale’s bleak viola whine, Mo Tucker’s tom tom drums are the pulse that drive this song, quickening and slowing in pace as Reed candidly describes taking heroin (“when I put a spike into my vein”…. “when I’m russshhhing on my run”) as the music builds and drops in intensity. It’s a complex but ingenious song. On the face of it the lyrics are horrifyingly graphic but it was like nothing I had heard before. After five minutes what is already an intense song changes up a gear. The music gets louder and more distorted, descending into crazed, screeching viola while all the while Tucker pounds on the drums, ultimately reaching a climax. It’s utterly exhilarating even now, drugs or no drugs.
It felt like discovering a kind of forbidden secret, the type of secret the internet has all but done away with. It’s an album that has become iconic, indeed it’s hard to remember a time when it wasn’t. It certainly paved the way for me to save whatever I could to investigate Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground further.