20
Jan
2011
My Year in Lists
Week Three
Jordan
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

"Warhol's brutal assemblage"”non-stop horror show. He has indeed put together a total environment, but it is an assemblage that actually vibrates with menace, cynicism and perversion. To experience it is to be brutalized, helpless"”you're in any kind of horror you want to imagine, from police state to madhouse. Eventually the reverberations in your ears stop. But what do you do with what you still hear in your brain?"- Michaelo Williams of Chicago Daily News on The Velvet Underground and Nico

"When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, "˜This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies."-Sam Phillips, record producer noted for "discovering" Howlin' Wolf

"Sometimes I'm thinking that I love you, but I know it's only lust."-Gang of Four, "Damaged Goods"

How the hell do you write about one of the greatest albums in the history of rock and roll, produced by one of the few bands that can arguably attain the title of The Great American Rock Band (and one of the few that has, without a hint of sarcasm, been referred to as "The American Beatles")? In order to even attempt to capture the titanic power and influence of The Velvet Underground & Nico, Tab's pick this week, I am going to try something heretofore unheard of here at (the admittedly still in its infancy) My Year in Lists. Rather than write about a select few songs off the album (that would be completely impossible here; where would I even begin to cut songs from the discussion?), I'm going to just write about every single track. Were this any other album, the exercise might get tedious, but so much went into the production of this album, and so much has come out of it, that any other strategy would be a failed attempt to capture its majesty. So prepare yourselves, folks, because this installment is going to be a rollercoaster ride through the entire album, with loops thrown in courtesy of Howlin' Wolf and Gang of Four. If this installment seems overly packed with references to Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums" and "500 Greatest Songs" list, well that's just because all three of the albums we will examine today have been hugely influential to music.

The Velvet Underground, named after a book about the secret sexual subculture of the early "˜60s written by Mike Leigh, was managed at the time of their debut album by a little known figure of the avante garde art movement named Andy Warhol. Unfortunately, Warhol's experimental style, avante garde films, and paintings of pop culture ephemera such as Marilyn Monroe and a Campbell's Soup Can never gained him much notoriety, and I'll forgive you if you've never heard his name before (isn't sarcasm just the bee's knees?). The Velvet Underground became the house band at Warhol's hangout The Factory and for his Exploding Plastic Inevitable show, which toured the country in 1966 and 1967 showcasing the band, Warhol's films, and performances from regulars at The Factory. Before they were discovered by Warhol, the band played its first gig (which paid them only $75) at Summit High School in Summit, New Jersey where they opened for The Myddle Class. Percussionist Angus MacLise left the band before this gig, believing they were selling out (because, I'm sure Lou Reed and John Cale planned to take that $75 and buy fur coats and sports cars and then just fill a swimming pool with the rest and bathe in it). Guitarist Sterling Morrison remarked at the time that "Angus was in it for the art." Surprisingly Angus didn't die of starvation, and actually played with the band again on a temporary basis when Lou Reed was unable to perform.

MacLise was replaced by Maureen Tucker, who played drums using mallets as drumsticks, and, during one show when her drum set was stolen from the stage, played on garbage cans brought in from outside (I guess the band had squandered too much of their rich payoff from that Summit High gig to have a backup set laying around). When Warhol took over as manager he suggested (some would say strongly insisted) that the band feature his protégé Nico on several songs.

At the time of its release, The Velvet Underground & Nico was noted for its overt descriptions of drug use, prostitution, sadism, masochism, and sexual deviancy. In other words, this band definitely wasn't The Monkees. The sound of the album was heavily influenced by John Cale (who played electric viola, piano, bass guitar, and something called celesta, because, you know, he could) who was in turn influenced by his work with La Monte Young (who we'll discuss next week). The opening track "Sunday Morning" was actually written on a Sunday morning (for verisimilitude, I guess) and was written at the suggestion of technical producer Tom Wilson, who thought that the album needed another song with the potential to be a successful single. Noticeably more lush and produced than the rest of the album, it was clearly an afterthought"”on the album's final master tape, "Sunday Morning" is actually penciled in above "I'm Waiting for The Man."



That song, which is pretty explicitly about lead singer/songwriter Lou Reed's attempt to purchase $26 worth of heroin at the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street in New York, notably includes a barrelhouse-style piano in addition to the band's standard guitar, bass and drums and was ranked #159 on Rolling Stone's list of "The 500 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time." "Femme Fatale" was written at Warhol's request about another Factory favorite, Edie Sedgwick. "Venus in Furs," which follows it was inspired by the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novel of the same name, and like the novel, includes explicit references to sadomasochism, bondage, and submission.





"Run Run Run" was written by Reed on the back of an envelope on the way to a gig (Lou Reed was pretty much the Abraham Lincoln of "˜60s avante guard rock and roll songwriters) and details a number of characters living in New York City, all of them on an endless loop of using and seeking drugs, and also features an incendiary guitar solo by Reed. "All Tomorrow's Parties," which became Warhol's favorite song, is based off of Reed's observations of the Warhol clique hanging around The Factory at the time he wrote the song. It was also one of the first pop songs to use a prepared piano (intertwining a chain of paper clips with the piano strings to change their sounds). It further features the Ostrich Guitar, invented by Reed which is played after tuning every string to the same note. The song also inspired a music festival (surprisingly called All Tomorrow's Parties) in East Sussex, England which focuses on post-punk, avante garde, and underground hip hop (more on that in a bit).





"Heroin," the next song on the album and the opener of Side B on its initial release is an epic depiction of heroin use and abuse, as well as its effects on the user. Included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll" and ranked at #455 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time," the song features a gradually increasing tempo that mimics the high that goes along with drug use until the song ends in a frantic crescendo. Lou Reed has stated many times that the song does not advocate drug use, but that it was written as an objective description of the topic and aimed to be balanced without taking a moral stand (though perhaps saying that he feels "just like Jesus' son" might have pushed some listeners in one direction). Reed was often disturbed when he was approached after shows by fans telling him they "shot up to "˜Heroin'" and eventually he became hesitant to play the song for much of the band's later career.



"There She Goes Again" borrows the syncopated guitar riff from Marvin Gaye's "Hitch Hike," though Reed admits he was influenced more by The Rolling Stones cover version. "I'll Be Your Mirror" was actually written about Nico and is a tender and affectionate song, a marked contrast to some of the album's darker tracks (I'm looking at you, "Heroin." And at you, "Venus in Furs." And at you, "The Black Angel's Death Song."). "I'll Be Your Mirror" ended up being the hardest song on the album to record as the band wanted Nico to sing it with slender delicate vocals and she continuously sand it louder and more aggressively. The band made her do it over and over again until she burst into tears. Then, as Sterling Morrison recounts, "we said, "˜Oh, try it just one more time and then fuck it"”if it doesn't work this time, we're not going to do the song.' Nico sat down and did it exactly right." The band enjoyed that final version of the song so much that even after Nico left the band in 1967, live performances were always done with Reed imitating her accent.





"The Black Angel's Death Song," coming next as if the band was afraid we would get too comfortable in the wake of "I'll Be Your Mirror" is written seemingly from the perspective of the Angel of Death as he philosophizes on life and death. "European Son," the closing track, is the longest song on the album, clocking in at nearly eight minutes. The song was dedicated to Reed's literary mentor Delmore Schwartz because it had the fewest lyrics on the album and Schwartz notably detested rock and roll lyrics.





A famous quote attributed to both Brian Eno and Peter Buck states that although hardly anyone bought The Velvet Underground & Nico, (the album peaked at #171 on Billboard's Top 200 chart) everyone who did started a band. The band influenced David Bowie, REM, The Cars, The Strokes, and Beck, as well as creating the sound that would become noise rock and grunge decades after this album was released. Every album The Velvet Underground recorded is included in Rolling Stone's list of "The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time," with The Velvet Underground & Nico being ranked #13 and called "the most prophetic rock album ever made." The magazine also ranked The Velvet Underground #19 on their "100 Greatest Artist of All Time" list. All of this makes me feel slightly better for writing 1,800 words about them.

Howlin' Wolf (born Chester Arthur Burnett) is one of the most influential blues singers in history, popularizing the idea of blues rock and setting off a trend that would blossom into rock and roll as we know it (artful segue, right?). At 6 feet, 6 inches and 300 pounds, Wolf cut an imposing figure, which he often used to add to his characterizations on stage. Unlike many blues musicians, after leaving his impoverished childhood behind, Wolf remained financially successful for the rest of his life. This may be due at least in part to the fact that (also unlike many blues musicians, and really, musicians in general) Wolf avoided alcohol, drugs, gambling, and "loose women." He was also functionally illiterate into his 40's before going back to school to earn his GED and study accounting to help with his career. Really, the perfect storm of not dying bankrupt.

His self titled second album, Collin's pick this week, is ranked #223 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list, and the magazine called the album "an outrageous set of sex songs written by Willie Dixon," Wolf's long time writing partner who authored all but three of the tracks on the album. "The Red Rooster" uses slide guitar accompaniment and shows off Wolf's strict attention to phrasing and note perfect skill for milking nuance from lyrics, is listed as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll" and was later covered and popularized by a little bang called The Rolling Stones.



"You'll Be Mine" is a slickly paced come-on song, rolling and confident both musically and lyrically. "Little Baby" is another great example of Wolf's seduction style, which seemingly pretty much involves telling the object of his desire that she will be engaging in intercourse with him. Apparently that worked for the guy (though maybe not since he was so keen on avoiding those "loose women."). "Spoonful" also made The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll" list and was ranked #219 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list. It was later covered by Cream, The Grateful Dead, and The Who.





"Goin' Down Slow," originally written by St. Louis Jimmy Oden in 1941 alternates between sung passages that act as the meditations of a dying man, and spoken passages that seem to be his reflections on life. It was later covered by The Animals, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Huey Lewis and the news and Wolf's contemporary Muddy Waters, all of whom attributed their desire to cover it on his masterful version. Wolf died on January 10, 1976 and is buried in Cook County, Illinois under a large gravestone with a guitar and harmonica etched into it. The gravestone was allegedly purchased by Eric Clapton to commemorate Wolf's huge influence. The Howlin' Wolf Memorial Blues Festival is held each year in West Point, Mississippi as a continuing testament to the legacy of the man who mainstreamed blues and helped created rock and roll.



Gang of Four, which is made up of at least three more people than Howlin' Wolf (I am on top of it with these segues today!) gained fame for playing a stripped down punk rock with elements of funk, minimalism, and dub reggae thrown in for good measure. Their debut album Entertainment!, Ashley's choice for this week, is ranked #490 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list and sees the band mixing bass more prominently than in much of rock or punk, a tactic that would become a hallmark of post-punk in the "˜80s.

Named after the political faction composed of four Chinese Communist Party officials who were charged with treason, and whose downfall in a coup was cause for celebration in China as the end of an era of turbulence, Gang of Four quickly gained a reputation as one of the most political, idea driven bands in music (a rep also extended to their contemporaries Devo, who we discussed last week) and this political slant can be seen throughout much of the album. "Natural's Not In It" acts as a riff on Marx's concept of alienated labor while "Not Great Men" rejects the Great Man Theory popularized in the 19th Century and claiming that history can be largely explained by the impact of "great men" who influenced the flow of events nearly single handedly. "Return the Gift" focuses the band's insightful eye on the commodification of leisure and its effects on the deterioration of society (which actually turns out to be a pretty great heady idea to jam to).





"At Home He's a Tourist" talks about the alienation of the everyman in modern society. The band was invited to perform the song, its most popular to date, on the BBC program Top of the Pops. When the producers heard the line "the rubbers you hide in your top left pocket" they asked the band to substitute "rubbish" for "rubbers" in order to avoid causing offense. Ever beacons of compromise and civility, Gang of Four refused and cancelled their appearance.



When not taking a more political tact, the band often challenges society's views on love and romance, as in the punk heavy "Damaged Goods" which talks about people conflating love with lust and in "I Found That Essence Rare" about finding an equally cynical person to spend your life with. "Anthrax" finds the band comparing falling in love to contracting Anthrax, and concluding, "that's something I don't want to catch." Gang of Four influenced REM, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana (Kurt Cobain once remarked that his band started as "a Gang of Four"¦rip-off."), Franz Ferdinand, and Bloc Party. In 2005 they played Entertainment! In its entirety live at the aforementioned All Tomorrow's Parties Festival (I told you it was coming back) as part of the Don't Look Back series that asks bands to play one of their most enduring albums again live.





As this is already by far the longest installment of My Year in Lists yet, I will keep my conclusion this week short. There isn't a whole lot to say about these three albums except that each of them is a hugely influential masterwork that changed the course of music forever. Often in this feature, I attempt to contextualize music and explain its power and how it affects various aspects of our lives. These three albums stand on their own as excellent art and communicate more than I could ever hope to the individual bands' views on life, love, drugs, sex, and music. Preparing to listen to any of these albums, all I can say is sit back and strap yourself in for the ride of a lifetime. It's always worth it.


Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

We'll examine La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela's The Black Record, stop in and say hello to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, and take a look at The Cars Candy-O.
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