“Peel slowly and see,” reads the tiny text pointing to the tip of a bold yellow and black banana peel. Underneath the sticker, at least on the original copies, is pink, fleshy fruit. This phallic imagery and tongue–in–cheek humor—a signature of Andy Warhol's aesthetic brand—make up an iconic cover artwork that has earned the nickname "the Banana Album," but for those who have spent time justifying their pretentious music taste and idolizing the ’60s art scene of New York City, it's better known as The Velvet Underground & Nico. It’s the kind of album cover that has become ubiquitous with the music world, and one that you recognize without ever having listened to the band.
Released in 1967, The Velvet Underground & Nico served as the self–titled debut album of American rock band the Velvet Underground and German singer Nico. Despite being produced and supported by the successful Warhol, the album was a commercial flop and would remain outside of the mainstream for years. As one promotional poster put it, the album was “So far underground, you get the bends!”
This is perhaps due to the music’s experimental sound and taboo topics: droning strings and avant–garde instrumentals, Nico’s androgynous and accented voice, sexual sadomasochism, and a seven–minute ode to shooting up aptly titled, “Heroin”. While everybody else during the Summer of Love sported long hair, flowery clothing, and spent their time taking hallucinogenic drugs and fighting against war and for free love, the Velvet Underground wore all–black leather, grappled with intravenous addiction, and explored the intense connection between love and pain. Although that resistance to pop culture kept them from being a commercial success, it's perhaps the exact reason why The Velvet Underground & Nico resonates with so many to this day.
Unlike other contemporary titans of the music industry, the Velvet Underground stubbornly avoided following the popular music style—but that decision has kept them from sounding dated in the present. The album opens with “Sunday Morning,” and follows the dream–like journey of the morning after a Saturday night out. Paranoia and perhaps regret seems to seep into Lou Reed as he sings, “Watch out, the worlds behind you / There’s always someone around you who will call / It’s nothing at all.”
The album quickly transitions to the more upbeat “I’m Waiting for the Man," also sung by Reed, in which he not–so–subtly describes going up to Harlem to meet his drug dealer. The backing music of this song hardly changes from the strumming of guitar and clanging piano keys as Reed tells his story. Nico’s first appearance on the album is “Femme Fatale.” With mellow, toned down instrumentals, the star of this song is Nico’s vocals as she sings, “‘Cause everybody knows / The things she does to please / She’s just a little tease / See the way she walks / Hear the way she talks.” Cale and Reed sing back up vocals for her, creating a more masculine presence behind her words.
Based on Leopold von Sacher–Masoch’s 1870 novella of the same name, “Venus in Furs” is where the Velvet Underground’s inclination towards topics unacceptable in general society come to light. With lyrics like, “Taste the whip in love given lightly / Taste the whip, now bleed for me,” the song beautifully tells of a man’s desire to be completely enslaved and punished by his lover. If the first four songs of this album weren’t enough of a thrill to compel their underground audience, the tracklist only delves into deeper, more troubling waters with songs like “Run, Run, Run," “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” and, of course, “Heroin.” The experience of listening to these songs, whether for the first or hundredth time, always takes one on a journey through the seedy underbelly of the world.
The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh is currently hosting an exhibit dedicated to the band’s 1966 sessions at Scepter Studio. The bulk of these recently discovered recordings would make up The Velvet Underground & Nico album a year later. The museum also hosted author Richie Unterberger, whose lecture helped to break down the album’s unique makeup and legacy.
In a small, dark room, the exhibit plays snippets of music while displaying footage and photographs of the band. They define cool; dressed sleek and always wearing a pair of sunglasses. Nico, with her platinum blonde hair and sharp features, is the epitome of the ’60s “It girl.” Lou Reed; guitarist, singer, and in his eyes, leader of the band, still has all of his hair. John Cale; violist, bassist, pianist, and in his eyes, the leader of the band, along with Sterling Morrison as guitarist and bassist and Moe Tucker on drums, make up the rest of the crew.
Perhaps the most interesting piece of this exhibit is its collection of records: displayed on an entire wall stands original copies of the album that feature the peelable banana sticker. Some of the stickers have been peeled off entirely, others only partially; but each rip reveals the vibrant pink fruit. Other owners were kind enough to leave the album undistrubed, while one person took the liberty of adding their own stickers. It’s a simple yet effective look at how each owner made the album their own. Taking in the wall lined with about a hundred copies of the same album cover, one can begin to understand how it resonated with each individual in their own unique way.
Though its sheer experimental nature left it largely unknown following its release, The Velvet Underground & Nico has since developed cult classic status. As British musician Brian Eno once said about the album supposedly only selling 30,000 copies, “Everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” The Velvet Underground—and Lou Reed especially—served as an inspiration for the likes of Bono, Joy Division, and The Strokes. The group's influence stretches far and wide, and they've earned a dedicated fan base of fellow artists and music lovers.
That fanbase extends to Locust Walk. As a guest of music critic and Penn professor Anthony DeCurtis, Lou Reed himself visited the Kelly Writers House in 2012. In the biography Lou Reed: A Life, DeCurtis writes of the experience: “When we emerged I could feel the audience’s tense energy. Lou, of course, seemed impervious. That kind of tension was the emotional sea he swam in, the air he breathed. The room was small, and it was packed. A number of people had traveled great distances to be there. Everyone had known that Lou was in the house, but his not emerging for the reception lent the gathering an edge. This was Lou Reed, after all. Maybe he would walk out. When we sat down in the two chairs set up in the front of the room, we adjusted our mics, and I thanked Reed for coming. “Anything for you,” he said.”
The magic of The Velvet Underground & Nico lies in its ability to appeal only to a very specific audience. Even today, as pervasive as the album has become, it still lies somewhat outside of popular culture. The experience of playing through the tracklist is intimate, not only due to its emotional subject matter, but because the listener feels as though they are discovering something new. It’s underground. It’s cool. It’s a thrill and more than a little intimidating. The Velvet Underground & Nico is the anthem for the rebels of every new generation.