Verve Records is releasing a Velvet Underground and Nico covers album at the end of September this year. I am always a sucker for covers albums. The Jeffrey Lee Piece Covers Sessions collection was a thing of pure beauty. It highlighted Pierce’s genius as a songwriter and musician. Blondie’s hugely sympathetic version of Lucky Jim is a gorgeous tribute that sits as a perfect addendum to the Gun Club’s original. In fact, the album sits next to the Gun Club’s output as it’s equal, a highlighter pen on Pierce’s musical notebooks: I still play it regularly, which is my ultimate tribute to the power of the tribute album. So as a Velvets completist, a total Lou Reed fangirl, and someone who would put The Velvet Underground and Nico at the top of my own personal most loved albums of all time, I am always ready to listen to what artists do with their seminal material. It is this excellence that I am looking for, my benchmark for any Tribute album, that lifts it beyond simply covering a song into something more enlightening.
When I first heard about the album I wasn’t aware it was a straight Banana album gig, I was kinda hoping it would cover the entire Velvet’s oeuvre, so was more excited than was absolutely warranted, I suppose. This state of high expectation is dangerous for any artistic output. Still, the track list is immensely promising, encompassing a whole raft of bands and performers who have been heavily influenced by The Velvet Underground. As Eno said, “only 10,000 people bought The Velvet Underground’s first album, but all of them started a band”…and the contemporary creem de la creem of them is gathered together for this tribute.
When I saw Michael Stipe was covering Sunday Morning – which is the softer, folkier ballad of the Banana album, just as Pale Blue Eyes fills that spot on the eponymous ‘couch’ album, I remained optimistically reassured that it might be my thing – a collection aimed at the hardcore Velvets fan. Stipe was wise: Sunday Morning does not require dedication to noise, which I fear might be problematic for some of the performers; it instead demands jangle and dreamy lonesome opiated blue sky-diving, of which Michael is the absolute master. Hey, Michael, get on-ta that cloud! In fact, I suspect it will be a success on the level of his definitive cover of Pale Blue Eyes on Dead Letter Office, which (sorry Lou) at least equals if not surpasses Reed’s original gorgeous paean to his gay lover.
Iggy and Sweeney took European Son on, and let’s face it who else is crazy enough to try it! Iggy has SO got European Son. The Pop was BORN to cover that song! The man is made out of shattered glass, and what would European Son be without broken glass? Just as long as the cutely gorgeous Iggy doesn’t roll round in it after coating himself in peanut butter…I like Iggy, he needs to look after his adorable self. I am holding on to listen to Iggy and Matt Sweeney bring some noisy high jinx to the party. It should be glorious!
I also have high hopes for Thurston Moore and Bobby Gillespie who take the honors on Heroin. Thurston (Sonic Youth) has the noise chops to make it work, and Gillespie (Primal Scream) has the heroin survivor warrior kudos to sell the track, not to mention the attitude and sound. There are no jim jims, politicians, or sweet girls with their sweet sweet talk that can drag these two off-course, I am sure of it! The rest of the line up is eclectic and weird enough to just about pull this project off. St Vincent and Thomas Bartlett? Bring it on! King Princess? Get in there! It sounds like probable good stuff.
The taster track released from the album, Kurt Vile and the Violators’ Run Run Run gives me a small amount of consternation, however. Of course Rolling Stone called it ‘hypnotic’ – did they even listen to it? It is glam to the gills. Kurt is nice, Kurt is cool. Kurt has a great voice, the proper rock star attitude, and makes good records. Run Run Run, as done by the Velvets is an exercise in anger, street noise, bite, screamo violas courtesy of Cale, aggressive guitars, basic primitive bang bam drumming, minus any of that high hat tin and jazz syncopation. It is lyrically brutal and unswervingly honest. The jangle of Lou’s and Sterling’s guitars, experimenting with a noise that flickers in and out of focus, like a tape juddering playing Iggy Pop’s The Passenger music video about 2.5 times too quickly, that ole in and out of melody and nerve-shredding Noise, employing that signature Velvets drone.
Run Run Run has bite, boys and girls. It has attitude in buckets. It is the closest the average square can get to pure methadrine overdrive without kissing goodbye to vein-virginity and the $25 in their hand knocking on the door of some Lexington brownstone. No Sir! Niceness is furthest from Run Run Run‘s drug-saturated mind and dirty street agrro soul. The dissonance, the dedication to staying just the wrong side of the tracks to niceness and harmony whilst still nodding towards it enough to keep the target listening. The energy of the track is filthy overdriven distorto-art-rock, chemically pushed onwards, forwards, faster, Mo, faster, while Lou growls about New York Union Square doyennes and their daily exploits, deaths, failures and triumphs. This song is no ‘small town taste’. The trolleys which beardless Harry rode to 47th in the Bowery stopped rolling in 1957. This is old-skool New York scuzz, beat cool, a song of hustlers and heroines. The song is dirt to its melted butter bones.
I loaded up Kurt’s Run Run Run, looking for that hot shot noise and rumble of the bass, willing him on to triumph, and you know what it is a kind of success: just not the kind I am looking for. Where’s the noise, boys? Where is the experimentalism? Kurt and the Violators cleaned the song up, wiped it’s noise, washed it’s face, gave it a sniff of narcan, put make up onto the blue face of Sarah while they dialed back the feedback and the overdrive and calmed the frequencies. Run Run Run is tasteful in their indie-rock capable hands. This is what would have happened if someone asked Marc Bolan to record Run Run Run, this is Ride a White Swan slash Run Run Run in 6 inch platform shoes. In fact I hear Bolan so clearly in this I am disconcerted. Kurt is so sweet he does the impossible: he makes Run Run Run a radio friendly, boppable, a glitter soaked glam-pop nugget.
The thing is Run Run Run by Kurt and the Violators deserves to be a radio hit. It is the Velvets for people who can’t hang with the noise and the feedback and the distortion. It is making it accessible, listenable for the majority. This track will entice those who reject the Velvet Underground and Nico as simply too challenging, and there are worse things than coming on like Marc Bolan riding that T Rex wave. This is Velvets Lite. Of course, I don’t hate it, but I do not care for it either. The genius is in making the Velvets mainstream, it is also the crying shame and sadness of it. There is no point doing a cover and trying to recreate the original, that much I accept, but it is so lovely, so glittery, so public radio friendly that I find myself deflated and disappointed. It will be a roaring success, given airplay, and should get some people buying the original and to hear the Velvet’s original vision and sound, but I will stick to Lou and the Velvets for this one.
In short, if you can’t make it to the thirty second mark of the second track of The Velvet Underground and Nico, here is your welcoming, friendly, listenable entry to their brilliant but noisy world, and I think you want to buy this just for the ride!
I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico is to be released 9/24/21 on Verve Records.
1. “Sunday Morning” – Michael Stipe
2. “I’m Waiting For The Man” – Matt Berninger
3. “Femme Fatale” – Sharon Van Etten
4. “Venus In Furs” – Andrew Bird & Lucius
5. “Run Run Run” – Kurt Vile & The Violators
6. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” – St. Vincent & Thomas Bartlett
7. “Heroin” – Thurston Moore & Bobby Gillespie
8. “There She Goes Again” – King Princess
9. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” – Courtney Barnett
10. “The Black Angel’s Death Song” – Fontaines D.C.
11. “European Son” – Iggy Pop & Matt Sweeney