Funny thing about the beguiling Nico, the beautiful vocalist who performed a number of classics on the Velvet Underground’s epochal 1967 album, The Velvet Underground and Nico: almost everybody refers to her as a chanteuse, I suppose because she was European with a thickish accent, albeit German, not French, and “singer” just doesn’t seem exotic enough for a vocalist who puts the listener in mind of decadent pre-war Berlin nightclubs, or Marlene Dietrich singing Lili Marlene. Her given name was Christa Päffgen, but she was dubbed “Nico” when she was just a teenager, working as a fashion model, and from about 1955 on she was never Christa again. While still very young, she lived a bit of a charmed, jet-setting life, gorgeous, multi-talented, multi-lingual, showing up in all the major fashion magazines of the day, Vogue, Elle, and so on, then acting a small part in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, after which followed larger roles in European cinema, while she bounced between Paris and New York until somehow bumping into Andy Warhol, and via him, Lou Reed and the Velvets. Warhol seems to have conceived of her as a sort of prop, a final touch that added an alluring, mysterious element to the Underground’s stage presence within his conceptual performance art extravaganza, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a mind-blowingly avant-garde multi-media show that amounted to a virtual acid trip of overlapping music, film, and dance interludes, which went on tour in 1966.
Despite her many gifts, she was no musician, and perhaps wasn’t even much of a vocalist, from a purist, technical perspective, and her involvement with the less than overly enthused band into which Warhol inserted her wasn’t without its tensions – Lou Reed is said to have found her irritating, especially when her long stints of dressing room preparation delayed the shows – but then, there was something about her, wasn’t there? Her performances on that first album, one of the greatest ever made, remain indelible, and it’s frankly impossible to imagine anybody else as lead vocal on All Tomorrow’s Parties, I’ll Be Your Mirror, or today’s selection, Femme Fatale, which comes off like a profile of a professional heartbreaker by an almost admiring rival in the trade. Trust me, she seems to be saying to some poor besotted male slob, not without sympathy, but nonetheless with brutal honesty, I know whereof I speak.
The story goes that Warhol asked Lou Reed to write a song about model/actress Edie Sedgwick, one of Andy’s muses and frequent star of his experimental films, described in a Vanity Fair profile as “beautiful, rich, and the avatar of Warhol’s dreams”. Oh, don’t you think she’s a femme fatale, Lou?, Warhol is supposed to have said.
The Velvet Underground and Nico was released in March, 1967, and promptly vanished without a trace, almost unnoticed by the music press, and completely overlooked by a public which purchased perhaps fewer than 5,000 copies before year’s end. Femme Fatale was selected as the B side to Sunday Morning on a single which, despite packing an astonishing amount of beauty and artistry into such a small package, suffered a similarly dismal fate. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that anybody started to notice, but from then on the reputation of the album, and the band that recorded it, grew by leaps and bounds to attain almost mythic proportions. Nowadays it’s hard to believe that a record universally admired as an artistic achievement on a par with Sgt Pepper and Blonde on Blonde, containing a mix of songs which on the one hand made the Stones sound like Lawrence Welk, while on the other were as timelessly beautiful as anything McCartney ever composed, could have received so little attention upon its release. Seems the world wasn’t ready for the stark, uncompromising vision of the modern urban underbelly that was the Underground’s stock in trade, songs about drug addiction, prostitution, sexual deviance (as it was then defined), and generally aimless moral and psychic disintegration.
It wasn’t all heroin, BDSM and The Black Angel’s Death Song, though; some of the best they recorded in their brief existence were just about love, heartbreak, and the plain uncomplicated sadness of feeling spiritually empty. Have a listen to I’ll Be Your Mirror, Candy Says, Stephanie Says, Jesus, Pale Blue Eyes, or Sunday Morning. We may associate them with the late 1960s counterculture, but songs like those, like Femme Fatale, don’t really belong to any particular time, or place. You really can imagine one or another being sung by Marlene Dietrich, or slotting in to The Threepenny Opera, adding an extra measure of melodicism and emotional depth somewhere between Mack the Knife and Pimp’s Ballad.