In June 1967, culture critic Richard Goldstein panned the Beatles’ new album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in the pages of the New York Times: “The sound is a pastiche of dissonance and lushness…the over-all effect is busy, hip and cluttered.… Like an over-attended child ‘Sergeant Pepper’ is spoiled. It reeks of horns and harps, harmonica quartets, assorted animal noises and a 91-piece orchestra.… There is nothing beautiful on ‘Sergeant Pepper.’… For the first time, the Beatles have given us an album of special effects, dazzling but ultimately fraudulent.”
Perhaps Goldstein had already seen the light, because a few months earlier he’d glimpsed a future with all manner of the punk and alt-rock that would expand on the Beatles’ majestic pop. In April of 1967, he gave — with a few insightful caveats — a rave to the first album by the Velvet Underground.
Founded by John Cale and Lou Reed, the Velvets were already known as the house band for Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable — which, we discovered in an ad in the March 31, 1966, issue of the Voice, was originally termed the Erupting Plastic Inevitable — and its multimedia extravaganzas. For performances at the Dom on St. Marks Place, Warhol projected still images and movies upon the band and on various “silver dream factory” denizens who gyrated under cracking whips. A cross section of downtown culture is presented in this full page of ads, featuring the first iteration of the E.P.I. You could amble around and see Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, check out Sunset Boulevard at a rep house, or, if you preferred your entertainment more subterranean, there was Warhol’s My Hustler — “See sea, sand and sin” — or live shows from Dr. Lattah and His Feelies, presenting “Color Suck: An evening of oral and nasal dreams including notes by an assassinated preacher on the Ten Commandments.” In this boho milieu, the raucous reverb and seizure-inducing strobes of the E.P.I. were just another night on the town.
In promotional ads, impresario Warhol gave the German chanteuse Nico equal billing with the Velvets. His instincts from a decade of crafting high-fashion advertising graphics taught him that soaring cheekbones and blonde tresses could never hurt. Reed, who wrote the bulk of the band’s songs and switched off on lead vocal duties with the Teutonic femme fatale, was always skeptical, and would shortly maneuver both the pop artist and the statuesque model out of the group.
In the ad for that first album, the tagline didn’t quite track — “So far underground, you get the bends!” — but Warhol always counted on a bit of misdirection in his work. “What happens when the daddy of Pop Art goes Pop Music? This does!” the ad copy continues. “It’s Andy Warhol’s very first, very far-out album — featuring the unbelievable Nico. See the Andy Warhol Show, starring Nico, now appearing nightly, out-of-sightly at the DOM, 23 St. Marks Place, New York.”
There are so many sins against Lou Reed’s ego in those three sentences that a breakup was inevitable. But who knows how much that tension contributed to the startling originality of the Velvets’ sound, a mix of the droning minimalism Cale learned from composer La Monte Young and the Top 40 knockoffs Reed had crafted for the down-market Pickwick Records label. This was music greater than the sum of its parts on steroids.
Reviewer Goldstein obviously appreciated that the zeitgeist was crackling below 14th Street, and that keyboardist–string player Cale, guitarist Reed, bassist Sterling Morrison, drummer Maureen Tucker, and yes, vocalist Nico were distilling it into something elementally potent. (Unfortunately, Goldstein has no comment on the transcendent melancholia of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” which Reed later revealed was Andy’s favorite Velvet Underground song.)
Below are the pages with the original review, in all their brittle, yellowed glory. Following them is the text, for your copy and pasting pleasure.
The Velvet Underground is not an easy group to like. Some of the cuts on their album are blatant copies: I refer specifically to the progression lifted from the Rolling Stones “Hitchhike” in “There She Goes Again.” The lead vocal on other songs sound distressingly like early Dylan. Some of the mterial [sic] is dull and repetitive. And the last two cuts, “Black Angel’s Death Song” and “European Son” are pretentious to the point of misery.
But the Velvets are an important group, and this album has some major work behind that erect banana on the cover. “I’m Waiting for the Man” is an impressively understated vignette about scoring in Harlem. “Venus in Furs” is fine electronic mood-manifesting. “Femme Fatale” is an unearthly ballad subtly fuzzed-up to drive you mad fiddling with bass and treble switches. Nico’s voice is harrowing in its pallor, but chic, very chic.
Most important is the recorded version of “Heroin,” which is more compressed, more restrained than live performances I have seen. But it’s also more a realized work. The tempo fluctuates wildly and finally breaks into a series of utterly terrifying squeals, like the death rattle of a suffocating violin. “Heroin” is seven minutes of genuine 12-tone rock ’n’ roll.