Song of the Day: The Velvet Underground, All Tomorrow’s Parties
Portions of this post are reproduced from the Songs of the Day archive, where they accompanied commentary on the song Sunday Morning
In a prior post, I argued that the Beatles’ magnum opus Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the most important album in pop/rock history, and I stand by that. However, there’s another, far less popular, recording of the same vintage that many would cite instead: The Velvet Underground and Nico, the widespread and lasting influence of which is all the more remarkable when you consider that only a few thousand copies were pressed, vs. the sales of 30-40 odd million (and counting) for the Beatles disc.
The Velvet Underground were in many ways similar to Nick Drake, minus the tragedy of early death. Led by Lou Reed, a visionary of the urban pop art movement that emerged in the middle Sixties, the Velvets were heard by almost nobody, sold almost no records, and folded up their tents having made no discernible impact on the music of their day, only to become, as years went by, the recording artists that everyone refers to when talking about popular music that transcends the genre. The common quip is that during their time as a group, no more than X-thousand people ever heard a Velvet Underground record, and every single one of them went on to form a rock group.
They emerged in 1967 as an almost contemptuously stark counterpoint to the hippies and psychedelic heroes of the middle class adolescents who were then driving so much of pop culture. Their first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico (Nico was a beguiling German chanteuse whose vocals also feature on the album), with its famous Andy Warhol banana cover, was very close to being a punk antithesis to Sgt. Pepper, almost an open rebuke to the dominant record of the day, and the trippy Summer of Love that it inspired (though actually it was released a couple of months earlier). No anthems of peace, love, and joyous drug induced transcendence for this lot. Love? Oh, fuck off. The Velvets were all about the gritty, ugly reality of the street, where drugs were a trap, thugs and dealers ruled the roost, whores plied their trade, and junkies stumbled from fix to fix in an unrelenting agony of yearning for the next high. Some of their songs, like White Light, White Heat, and Heroin, were almost unbearably violent re-creations of the experience of tripping and flirting with overdose, full of distortion and feedback evocative of the loss of control, and the virtual annihilation of the soul, that comes with hard-core substance abuse – though Heroin, characteristically, is laced with softer intervals that exemplify the human sympathy so central to the ethos of this band.
All Tomorrow’s Parties, voiced as no one else ever could by Nico, with her thick German accent (creating an aura of world-weariness that evokes Kurt Weil and Berthold Brecht), is just about bleak enough to serve as the soundtrack for today’s dire social and political realities. I wrote yesterday of taking solace, in the era of Trump, that at least we can all die laughing. All Tomorrow’s Parties could be taken to reflect another way of coping, via descent into a world of make-believe and oblivious hedonism. The thing is, it’s no use, long term. The emptiness always catches up to you.
And what costume shall the poor girl wear
To all tomorrow’s parties
A hand-me-down dress from who knows where
To all tomorrow’s parties
And where will she go, and what shall she do
When midnight comes around
She’ll turn once more to Sunday’s clown
and cry behind the door
It’s hard to put your finger on why this dirge from a much different time seems so suited to the world we now confront. It just does.