Velvet Underground & Nico reimagined in new album I’ll Be Your Mirror — along with definitive documentary on Apple TV+

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THE original rock outsider, Lou Reed was never one to mince his words.

“I write a song called Heroin and it’s like I murdered the Pope or something,” the abrasive New Yorker once complained.

From left to right: John Cale, Moe Tucker, Nico, Lou Reed, front, and Sterling Morrison

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From left to right: John Cale, Moe Tucker, Nico, Lou Reed, front, and Sterling MorrisonCredit: Alamy

Championed by pop-art guru Andy Warhol, Velvet Underground was at the epicentre of a movement that was glamorous and ground-breaking but also dark and dangerous.

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Championed by pop-art guru Andy Warhol, Velvet Underground was at the epicentre of a movement that was glamorous and ground-breaking but also dark and dangerous.

Warhol got German model Nico to lend her deadpan, glacial, Teutonic tones to four songs on the album

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Warhol got German model Nico to lend her deadpan, glacial, Teutonic tones to four songs on the albumCredit: Redferns

Reed, who died of liver disease in 2013 aged 71, was responsible for The Velvet Underground’s unflinching lyrics.

Simulating shooting up smack in graphic detail was never going to land easily in 1967’s pop world.

If the nearest The Beatles got to druggy was through the suggestive psychedelia of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and Strawberry Fields Forever, the Velvets spared no detail in exploring New York’s seedy underground scene.

Championed by pop-art guru Andy Warhol, they were at the epicentre of a movement that was glamorous and ground-breaking but also dark and dangerous.

Indisputably one of rock’s most influential bands, the forerunners of punk and New Wave, The Velvet Underground have come hurtling back into the limelight in autumn 2021.

Filmmaker Todd Haynes, who depicted the lurid British glam-rock scene in Velvet Goldmine, has made the definitive documentary, set for Apple TV+ on October 15. It is a gripping collage of split screens, grainy live footage, rare still photographs and telling insights from all the key protagonists, including new interviews with surviving members John Cale and Maureen “Moe” Tucker.

Separately, Verve Records, which took the bold step of releasing The Velvet Underground & Nico in ’67, is putting out inspired re-imaginings of the 11 songs on that iconic debut LP.

Called I’ll Be Your Mirror, the collection was produced by the master of the tribute album, Hal Willner, and it is sadly his last project before his untimely death from Covid last year.

Well-connected Willner gathered up an impressive cast of singers including Michael Stipe, Iggy Pop, St Vincent, The National’s Matt Berninger, Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie, Sharon Van Etten, Courtney Barnett, Kurt Vile and Fontaines DC.

More on their efforts later from the current head of Verve, Jamie Krents, and guitarist Matt Sweeney, who collaborated with Iggy on an intense rendition of European Son.

But first I am returning to Haynes’ painstakingly pieced-together documentary. He has managed to present an unsentimental deep dive into VU folklore while thankfully swerving gushing praise from celebrity fans.

The film’s central narrative is the creative but fractious relation-ship between two headstrong characters, Reed and Cale.

We learn of Lou’s childhood — how he picked up a guitar aged ten; in high school, told friends he wanted to be a rock star; at university, became “sullen, antag-onistic, rebellious”; and why he was given electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) after a mental breakdown.

And, crucially, how Reed, under the mentorship of poet Delmore Schwartz, began writing unnerving lyrics that would change pop for ever.

If literary works could go to the dark side, why not music?

We hear of Cale’s childhood in the Welsh valleys; how he took up the viola at grammar school because there were no spare violins and later got into avant-garde improvisations; how his musical journey took him from Goldsmiths college in London to the Big Apple.

When he teamed up with Reed on the New York club scene, first as part of a band called The Primitives, the fireworks began.

All these years later, Cale’s dark hair has turned white, giving him the aura of a distinguished elder statesman.

“When I met Lou, there was a lot of eyeballing,” he recalls.

“We had coffee and I was still playing classical viola, with this heavy vibrato which sounded really good. Lou said, ‘S**t, I knew you had an edge on me’.”

In 1965, they needed a name to reflect the experimental, altern-ative route they were taking. It came from a paperback, written by Michael Leigh and published in 1963, exploring deviant sexual practices in the US (as you might expect).

“I was writing about pain and about things that hurt,” Reed’s droll, disembodied voice can be heard saying. “I was writing about reality as I knew it.

“I was interested in communicating with people who were on the outside.”

His songs dealt with sadomasochism (Venus In Furs), scoring smack on a street corner for 26 dollars (I’m Waiting For The Man) and then there was the alarming Heroin itself.

It was an intoxicating mix of disturbing themes and turbo-charged riffs from Reed and recruit Sterling Morrison with the droning and screeching of Cale’s plugged-in viola.

Moe Tucker, who gave The Velvet Underground their beating heart, speaks of the band’s duality, by turns “elegant and brutal”.

They soon caught the attention of Andy Warhol — the epitome of Sixties cool with his mop of blond hair and shades — who comes across in Haynes’ film as the band’s unlikely father figure. You see him attracting New York’s young and beautiful people like moths to a candle to his studio, The Factory, where he conducted various multimedia projects involving film, music, dance, photography and, of course, visual art.

There, his parties would descend into drug-fuelled debauchery that would make the guests at a Roman orgy blush.

Warhol took charge of the artistic vision of his “house band” and he is described as “producer” of their debut album (despite the involvement of Tom Wilson, who worked with Bob Dylan on his seminal early albums).

Crucially, it was Warhol who got German model Nico to lend her deadpan, glacial, Teutonic tones to four songs — Sunday Morning, I’ll Be Your Mirror, Femme Fatale and All Tomorrow’s Parties.

In another old interview salvaged for the new film, Reed praised the contributions of both Warhol and Nico when he said: “Andy was extraordinary and I honestly don’t think things could have occurred without him.

“I don’t know if we would have gotten the contract if he hadn’t said he’d do the cover, or if Nico wasn’t so beautiful.”

It’s fair to say Nico completely changed the dynamic, as her songs were given softer settings and twinkling tunes — even if the gorgeous Sunday Morning was actually a study in paranoia.

She died in 1988 after a bike accident in Ibiza but is heard reflecting on her brief time recording with The Velvet Underground.

“It was not only noise but the kind of music you can hear when there’s a storm outside,” she said.

As for Warhol, he believed the band were perfectly in tune with his own aesthetic.

“One of the things that was so great about The Velvet Under-ground was they always sounded raw and crude,” he once said. “Raw and crude was the way I liked our movies to look.”

And, of course, Warhol’s gloriously effective banana motif morphed into one of pop music’s most striking album covers.

Owners of original copies were asked to “peel slowly and see”. This meant they could remove the bright-yellow skin sticker to reveal a risque flesh-coloured fruit.

It is great to hear recent thoughts from Moe Tucker, who comes over as an alternative-music Charlie Watts — calm, considered and forthright.

Reed once called The Doors “garbage” and she continues the theme today in her assessment of Sixties West Coast music versus the Velvets.

She is still not a fan of pot-smoking, patchouli-scented hippies wearing flowers in their hair.

‘Iggy went totally bestial on the guitar’

“This ‘love, peace’ crap, we hated that — get real!” cries the 77-year-old. “Everybody wants to have a peaceful world . . . but you cannot change minds by handing a flower to some bozo who wants to shoot you.”

On its initial release, The Velvet Underground & Nico sold poorly, prompting an oft-repeated quip years later from Brian Eno, sonic pioneer and co-founder of Velvets-influenced Roxy Music.

He said only 30,000 people bought the album during its first five years — but “everyone who bought one of those copies started a band”.

We discover in the film that Reed was dismayed at the luke-warm reception, too, particularly in his home town.

“I was surprised by the response in New York,” he said. “I thought we did something nobody else did. I thought it was so great that people would just be bowled over by it.”

The disappointment signalled the end of the band’s relationship with Warhol — a moment vividly related by Cale.

“Lou suddenly went crazy and fired Andy and Andy called him a rat,” he says. “The whole thing was done behind closed doors, I mean I had no idea.”

For the even more experimental second album, White Light/White Heat, there was also no Nico.

Nico died in 1988 after a bike accident in Ibiza but is heard reflecting on her brief time recording with The Velvet Underground

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Nico died in 1988 after a bike accident in Ibiza but is heard reflecting on her brief time recording with The Velvet UndergroundCredit: Courtesy of Cornell University – Division of Rare Manuscript Collections

The band with their champion Andy Warhol

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The band with their champion Andy WarholCredit: Getty

The Velvet Underground and Nico at Phillip Law's home during the Exploding Plastic Inevitable tour

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The Velvet Underground and Nico at Phillip Law’s home during the Exploding Plastic Inevitable tourCredit: Corbis

But there was plenty of fast, angry, distorted noise. It would prove to be Cale’s final album as part of The Velvet Underground, as his relationship with Reed disintegrated.

He reveals: “I really didn’t know how to please him. There was nothing I could do. You try to be nice and he’d hate you more.

“If I tried to suggest something, he’d just dismiss it. If all those drugs hadn’t been around, we would have all been pushing for something but it was time to back off because the trust was gone.”

Cale was soon in demand as a producer, helming The Stooges’ searing, nihilistic first album, with Iggy Pop their larger-than-life, bare-chested frontman.

It seems fitting the irrepressible Iggy has contributed to the new covers album in tandem with guitarist and producer Matt Sweeney. Quite frankly, the resulting track is astonishing.

So, I have turned to Sweeney for some final reflections on the band, their legacy and his interpretation of The Velvet Underground & Nico album’s most dissonant song, European Son (to Delmore Schwartz).

“The Velvet Underground are my favourite rock’n’roll group and my favourite rock’n’roll singer is Iggy Pop,” he says.

“I’m lucky to have toured in Iggy’s band, so I asked him to sing on the track. Turned out he was in New York City in late February 2020. I still can’t believe it all lined up.

“Iggy was excited to slay European Son. We used the word ‘nasty’ a lot when discussing the song — and the band.”

The lead, bass, rhythm guitar and vocals were all recorded in “extra-primordial” fashion, then something extraordinary happened. “At my request, Iggy overdubbed a guitar solo,” says Sweeney. “He went totally bestial and savaged the electric six-string for two straight minutes. Pretty much the coolest thing I’ve ever witnessed.

“After atomising that guitar, Iggy went straight to the airport. Covid lockdown started the next day.”

How true to the original is their version, I ask. “We were ready to pay tribute to the spirit of the song, which Lou Reed wrote in defiance of his college poetry teacher,” he replies.

“At the same time, our version reflects awareness of being at the start of an unprecedented pan-demic, that lockdown would begin the next day. It was the beginning of a new age.”

‘Brutality, danger and timeless melodies’

Sweeney hails the tribute album’s producer Hal Willner. “Hal was Lou Reed’s confidante and the embodiment of New York City’s music scene,” he says. “His life was magic in action.”

Finally, I ask Sweeney to sum up The Velvet Underground. “They are the best and the baddest,” he decides. “Reed and Cale had a willingness to get unhinged inside the music and be wildly in the moment. It’s taken me years to get anywhere close to it.”

He chooses his next words carefully: “Genius and power, taste and brutality, vulnerability and danger. And timeless melodies.”

Sweeney reserves his final thought for The Velvet Under-ground & Nico album itself.

“To very deep thinkers and totally lazy thinkers, it stands for a dream of New York City.”

Velvet Underground & Nico reimagined in new album I’ll Be Your Mirror — along with definitive documentary on Apple TV+

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The Velvet Underground & Nico

★★★★★

Velvet Underground & Nico reimagined in new album I’ll Be Your Mirror — along with definitive documentary on Apple TV+

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The Velvet Underground: A Todd Haynes Documentary

★★★★★

Velvet Underground & Nico reimagined in new album I’ll Be Your Mirror — along with definitive documentary on Apple TV+

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Various Artists: I’ll Be Your Mirror

★★★★☆

Q&A JAMIE KRENTS HEAD OF VERVE RECORDS

EXCLUSIVELY for SFTW, Jamie assesses the impact of The Velvet Underground & Nico and shares his delight that the label is home to new tribute album I’ll Be Your Mirror (out today).

In 1967, Verve was famous for a huge jazz catalogue. How come it released The Velvet Underground & Nico?

The label had recently employed a brilliant A&R executive and producer named Tom Wilson. He realised Verve could evolve without losing its integrity and he was instrumental in signing VU, Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention and other non-jazz artists. Wilson had an incredible run at Columbia Records, working with artists like Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan.

Why is the LP still of cultural significance?

It is obviously incredibly evocative of the New York City art and downtown social scene of that time but the music is timeless. To me, it’s the sound of authentic artists who felt unbound by the notion of chasing any trends.

Lou Reed and Nico were contrasting vocalists but such an effective pairing.

I agree about the sonic contrast of their voices but they also had a lot in common. Neither of them had a huge range but both found a way to turn that into an advantage. Nico knew her voice sounded most distinct and powerful in a lower register. Lou was so clever with his writing and crafting the songs to suit his own unique vocal style.

What about the lyrics and the music sets it apart?

Lou studied poetry and creative writing in college and he brought a sophisticated and literate approach to his lyric writing. But part of the genius was reconciling the writing with incredibly powerful rock’n’roll.

I’ll Be Your Mirror is fabulous. What do you think of these modern reinterpretations?

Well, I am completely biased due to my role at the record label! But I feel relieved and proud. I’m actually not the biggest fan of tribute albums in general and I am so thrilled – and relieved – that it has turned out to be such a solid and coherent listen. It’s really a credit to Hal Willner, who was the best curator of tributes of all time.

Any favourites among the 11 covers?

Again, I’m far from objective here because he recently signed to Verve, but I can’t stop listening to Kurt Vile & The Violators’ cover of Run Run Run. That said, it changes. Recently I’ve been listening a lot to Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen’s version of Femme Fatale. And I also love what Matt Sweeney and Iggy Pop did with European Son.

What did you make of Todd Haynes’ documentary The Velvet Underground?

He managed to make a movie that never gets too in-the-weeds and, as an avid consumer of music films myself, there has never been a documentary like this. I know that sounds hyperbolic but the movie is as indescribable as the band – in a good way.

Q&A JAMIE KRENTS HEAD OF VERVE RECORDS

EXCLUSIVELY for SFTW, Jamie assesses the impact of The Velvet Underground & Nico and shares his delight that the label is home to new tribute album I’ll Be Your Mirror (out today).

In 1967, Verve was famous for a huge jazz catalogue. How come it released The Velvet Underground & Nico?

The label had recently employed a brilliant A&R executive and producer named Tom Wilson. He realised Verve could evolve without losing its integrity and he was instrumental in signing VU, Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention and other non-jazz artists. Wilson had an incredible run at Columbia Records, working with artists like Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan.

Why is the LP still of cultural significance?

It is obviously incredibly evocative of the New York City art and downtown social scene of that time but the music is timeless. To me, it’s the sound of authentic artists who felt unbound by the notion of chasing any trends.

Lou Reed and Nico were contrasting vocalists but such an effective pairing.

I agree about the sonic contrast of their voices but they also had a lot in common. Neither of them had a huge range but both found a way to turn that into an advantage. Nico knew her voice sounded most distinct and powerful in a lower register. Lou was so clever with his writing and crafting the songs to suit his own unique vocal style.

What about the lyrics and the music sets it apart?

Lou studied poetry and creative writing in college and he brought a sophisticated and literate approach to his lyric writing. But part of the genius was reconciling the writing with incredibly powerful rock’n’roll.

I’ll Be Your Mirror is fabulous. What do you think of these modern reinterpretations?

Well, I am completely biased due to my role at the record label! But I feel relieved and proud. I’m actually not the biggest fan of tribute albums in general and I am so thrilled – and relieved – that it has turned out to be such a solid and coherent listen. It’s really a credit to Hal Willner, who was the best curator of tributes of all time.

Any favourites among the 11 covers?

Again, I’m far from objective here because he recently signed to Verve, but I can’t stop listening to Kurt Vile & The Violators’ cover of Run Run Run. That said, it changes. Recently I’ve been listening a lot to Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen’s version of Femme Fatale. And I also love what Matt Sweeney and Iggy Pop did with European Son.

What did you make of Todd Haynes’ documentary The Velvet Underground?

He managed to make a movie that never gets too in-the-weeds and, as an avid consumer of music films myself, there has never been a documentary like this. I know that sounds hyperbolic but the movie is as indescribable as the band – in a good way.

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