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50 Years of ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

By Olivia Ladd, Studio M staff // 

Everyone remembers the first time they heard “The Velvet Underground and Nico.” We asked a few of the Nashville artists who recently played a tribute show for the 50th anniversary album about their first time:

“I’m pretty sure I was in high school and one of the first songs I heard was ’Sunday Morning.’ I just remember immediately gravitating towards it, and I learned how to play ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ because I started listening to them then,” says Elise Davis, a Nashville singer recently named one of Rolling Stone’s 10 country artists to watch. “I was just instantly a fan.”

“The whole experience stems from my high school girlfriend who I shared a lot of musical taste with,” says Taylor Cole, the mastermind behind psych pop solo project Tayls and previously a member of Creature Comfort and Chalaxy. “I spent a lot of time sneaking away from class just to go smoke cigarettes in my car and listen to ‘Sweet Jane’ and all kinds of stuff.”

Four-piece Southern rock group The Weeks agrees.

“We wore out ‘VU’ every morning. We didn’t have cable, so that’s just like, that was what we woke up to,” says Samuel Dee, guitarist of the band.

“I was a meter reader after my senior year of high school in Iowa, and no one was listening to cool music,” Tyler James of local duo Escondido says. “I remember putting it on in the little truck I had from the city and I just listened to it the whole summer nonstop.”

Listening to the album is an adolescent rite of passage to new musical planes and a window into 1960s New York.

“At the time, it was a groundbreaking thing,” Taylor Cole says. “You can look back on any groundbreaking record and see its relevancy hold up.”

The record was avant-garde and revolutionary, both sonically and lyrically.

“They weren’t playing things that were really that difficult,” Suzie Chism of Nashville band Sup says. “But nobody else was doing it.”

“They wrote about things that were a big part of culture but weren’t actually spoken about in public,” Tyler James of Escondido says. “The song ‘Heroin’ had no tempo. I think when you’re starting up music, especially as a young musician, you don’t even think those are possibilities.”

Ahead of its time, only 30,000 copies were sold originally. The misunderstood masterpiece is now considered one of the greatest rock albums of all time by Rolling Stone, other outlets, and any well-versed music nerd.

The project began with Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia installation. The group played shows at Factory parties and The Velvet Underground was more of an art project than a band.

“The community of people and what they were doing is more so what the whole thing is about to me,” Liz Cooper says. “The recordings aren’t the best recordings in the world by any means.”

In the same way, the record’s sound can be attributed to Andy Warhol’s hands-off production style. He rented out Scepter Studios, a New York record label that came to be associated with the band, let the gang have full creative freedom, and cut a record that came to define “cool.”

“It was sort of a druggy-filled spector, which I think a lot of bands in town are sort of pulling from, says Dee of The Weeks. “Where it’s like the droning and incorporating, not just strings but, really harsh instruments like oboes and harsh woodwinds that did a lot. There needs to be more of that in town.”

The fuzziness, droning and unconventional instrumentation just adds to its appeal. Even so, it’s still an accessible record.

“I think from a production standpoint, because a lot of people in Nashville are record producers and we care a lot about the way records sound and make you feel, this Velvet Underground record in particular is the epitome of cool,” Tyler James says. “When you think of how you make a guitar sound cool, you just think about this record. It’s brittle. It’s weird and dark and also something that anyone in the world can get into.”

Nico’s soft but harsh vocals can’t go unnoticed in the record’s influence either. Bands now take style tips from her, making “seemingly soft and delicate packages that have huge lyrical content and a lot of power,” says Bone of The Weeks.

The Factory’s influence echoes in Nashville today. The tight-knit scene of artists, musicians, writers and scenesters is not dissimilar.

“The scene in Nashville reminds me of a Laurel Canyon or the Greenwich Village scene back in the ‘50s and ‘60s definitely,” Liz Cooper, frontwoman of folk rock group Liz Cooper and the Stampede says. “I think that there’s a scene like Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol– it’s not what they were doing necessarily, but kind of in its own way, I think that there’s something that reminds me of that here in Nashville today.”

“I think Lou Reed started the cool kids club, just so he wouldn’t be left out of it, and then he became the captain,” Suzie Chism says. “I think a lot of us can relate to that. “

It’s no question why, 50 years later, the record is still applauded for its ingenuity. The Velvet Underground spurred dozens of genres, and Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, Nico and The Factory scene have proved their long-lasting influence.

Olivia Ladd is a senior in journalism at Middle Tennessee State University.

Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

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