It begins like a children’s song. The soft plinking of a celesta. And much of “Sunday Morning,” the first track on the Velvet Underground’s ambitious, timeless, hugely inspirational debut album, sounds like a lullaby. Well, as much as a song about paranoia can sound like a lullaby.
Soon enough, however, the record goes darker. At times, much darker. Lou Reed sings in his sweet deadpan about drugs, kinky sex, and loads of dirty rock-and-roll. Guitars jangle, screech, and howl. Drums pound a nervous dirge. It’s the band’s ability to balance lightness and darkness so curiously that, in part, has kept the album fresh over the 50 years since it was released. (The cover art has certainly helped, too: You might know it as the banana record, thanks to Andy Warhol’s iconic print.)
Now a worthy celebration of the work of Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen “Moe” Tucker, and the so-cool, genre-defying singer Nico is part of BAM’s annual Next Wave culture festival. Cale himself, the band’s polymath musician who played viola, piano, and bass, has organized a tribute to The Velvet Underground & Nico. For two nights in November, he’ll be joined onstage by the Wordless Music Orchestra, which plays exceptionally well at the intersection of classical, rock, and electronic sounds. There will also be special guests dropping by to help perform the album in full.
You’d have a hard time finding a rock critic who doesn’t have The Velvet Underground & Nico pinned to a best-of-all-time list. In our way-post-punk era, it can be tricky to recall just how bracing and surprising the album sounded when it first came out. The word “groundbreaking” gets tossed around too often, but in this case it must be used. Writing in Rolling Stone earlier this year, Jordan Runtagh said that “the LP still sounds stunningly original, providing inspiration and a blueprint for everything from lo-fi punk rock to highbrow avant-garde—and so much in between.”
It’s true: from the Sex Pistols to Pavement to R.E.M. (which loved to cover VU), much of the best music of the past half century owes a debt to this record. And to think it was all so fleeting and fast. Cale left the band a year after the album was released and went on to have a long and prolific career playing and producing with some of the most talented pop performers to ever pick up instruments, including Nick Drake, Patti Smith, and the Modern Lovers.
All of his endless creative energy will be on rousing display at the BAM shows for an event that won’t ever be staged again. Or at least for another 50 years.
Why You Should Go: This is, literally, a once-in-a-lifetime event.
John Cale: The Velvet Underground & Nico
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Peter Jay Sharp Building
Thursday, November 16, and Friday, November 17
Tickets start at $35