Thursday, July 27, 2017
Nico - The Peel Sessions (1988; Recorded 1971)
From the looks of things, this is out of print, at least on CD. A vinyl version came out a short while back, but since modern-day vinyl is cut using digital files (as opposed to old analog tapes), you might as well just listen to the CD.
These four songs are from Nico's visit to John Peel's BBC1 radio show on Feb. 2, 1971. They were broadcast a few weeks later, on Feb. 20, 1971, but weren't officially released until 1988 -- the year Nico died. I have no idea if this release preceded her death on July 18 of that year, or if it was put out to commemorate her.
But whatever the case, these recordings are an excellent testament to her legacy. They all feature Nico performing her own compositions with just her harmonium for accompaniment -- the way she sometimes performed in concert.
If you only know Nico from the Velvet Underground or from her first album, Chelsea Girl, you might be taken aback by this music. On those albums, she sang other people's songs and it (mostly) fell into the category of pop music. This music is from when she started writing her own songs. She composed music in an old world Gothic European style and it was a whole 'nother thing. If Lou Reed's Velvet Underground songs were cutting edge, then Nico's tunes were completely over-the-edge...and then some.
But if you're a Nico fan, you're in for a treat. All of these recordings are first-rate, performance wise. Nico was definitely "on" when they were recorded, and they come across as more intimate and personal than the recordings on her albums.
The best example is the lead-off track, "Secret Side," the only song that was unreleased at the time of these recordings. Shorn of the ghost-like sound effects that John Cale added when it was recorded for Nico's 1974 album The End..., this unadorned version reveals the beauty of Nico's melody and the intensity of her singing. The song purportedly deals with Nico's rape by an American soldier when she was a teenager, but the lyric was largely obscured on the album by Cale's relentless swirling synth sounds. Here, Nico's vocals have no place to hide, and the song hits that much harder.
I've long held a theory is that in a lot of ways Nico was the real Lou Reed. What I mean by that is that a lot of Reed's reputation was built on his penchant for experimentation. But that was mostly in the early days and most of Reed's catalog is standard rock music. Nico, on the other hand, made Cathedral music from outer space that could never be mistaken for anything mainstream.
Play most Lou Reed albums to people and they'll get into it. But play Nico to someone and you're likely to get a "WTF?!!" response. She's definitely an acquired taste. But if you adjust your head and really listen to where she's coming from, her albums are pretty impressive and a lot of her songs are surprisingly catchy (in their own way).
And besides, it's amusing the way she baffled and annoyed critics. I recently came across this sentence from an old Robert Christgau review of one of my favorite Nico albums, Desertshore: "The Velvet Underground and Nico plus Chelsea Girl convinced me that Nico had charisma; The Marble Index plus Desertshore convince me that she's a fool." What better recommendation could you get than that?
Since there's not a lot of material here, I thought I'd add in a couple of related articles from two vintage rock magazines. I first read both of these articles in high school and they each had a major influence on my musical tastes.
The first is "The Velvet Underground: White Light/Dark Shadows" from the July 1981 issue of Creem magazine. It offers and cultured and scholarly overview of the band's work. In a lot of ways, this was the article that inspired me to be a writer. It definitely caused me to track down all the out-of-print Velvets albums that school year. I'm not sure exactly why Creem decided to include an article of this nature along with the then-trendy features on AC/DC, Pearl Harbor, and Joe Ely, but I'm glad they did. It's still an excellent read.
Special note to readers regarding the photo captions in Creem magazine: The editors of Creem used to use these spaces to make jokes and/or satirize the articles. These are not to be taken literally. Silly captions don't mean that the article in question is "All lies!! OMG!!" as some high school friends of mine shrieked back in the day. Seriously people, if you read this article and find you cannot emotionally handle a few jokes, the problem is with you, not with Creem. Adjust your meds.
Back to reality, the second article ran in the Sept.-Oct. issue of the little-known Trouser Press Collector's Magazine. This broadsheet, newspaper-styled publication was founded to supplement Trouser Press, the New York-based mag that covered British rock and new wave. The article focuses on Nico's recording career starting with her time in the Velvets. And while I think the writer goes a little hard on the Chelsea Girl album (which has aged exceptionally well since then), I generally agree with most of his points. And besides, who else was devoting three pages to Nico back in 1981?
The Velvet Underground - Squeeze (1973)
The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground - Etc. (1979)
Trouser Press Magazine Back Issues
1. Secret Side
2. No One Is There
3. Janitor Of Lunacy
4. Frozen Warnings
"The Velvet Underground: White Light/Dark Shadows" - Creem Magazine (July 1981)
"Nico" - Trouser Press Collector's Magazine - Issue #19 (Sept.-Oct. 1981)