The Velvet Underground & Nico is undoubtedly one of the most influential LPs of all time. Released in 1967 as the band’s debut album, it launched the long careers of Lou Reed, John Cale and Moe Tucker.
It has become an enduring icon and a phenomenon. It initially sold only 30,000 copies, but has been certified platinum in the UK since. Brian Eno famously said that “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band”.
The Velvet Underground & Nico is the 13th best album of all time, according to Rolling Stone Magazine, behind only artists like The Beatles, Stones, The Beach Boys, Elvis, Miles Davis and Dylan. Pitchfork rates it as the best album of the 60s. NME puts it third. The Observer rated it at number one in a list of albums that changed music and everyone, EVERYONE since has cited it as an influence.
But of course, not everyone likes it. And some of those who don’t have kindly spent some time providing considered and informed counter-arguments to all the glowing reviews on Amazon.
In fact there are A LOT of negative reviews. They can be roughly divided into three categories:
- Reviews by The Velvet Underground/Lou Reed fans who don’t rate this album
- Reviews by people who dislike the Velvet Underground.
- Reviews by people who hate The Velvet Underground and refuse to believe that anyone else really likes them either
So, let’s have a quick scoot through categories 1 and 2 before we get to the one that’s the most fun – category 3.
1. Reviews by VU/Lou Reed fans who don’t rate this album
PP considers Lou Reed’s Transformer to be a “masterpiece” while The Velvet Underground & Nico is “mainly dreadful”, “virtually tuneless rubbish“ and, in a meaningless reference to the album’s sleeve art, “definitely a banana skin”.
BBB5 also reckons “Reed is a brilliant solo artist”, but “just can’t see many people, in the 21st century, listening to this album and finding it a pleasurable experience”, because it’s “a pile of junk” and “nothing more than Andy Warhol’s joke, and he’s laughing at us all from beyond the grave!”.
Another, Anonymous reviewer reaches a similar conclusion. He/she grudgingly concedes that Lou Reed’s “talent developed gradually and is only slightly in evidence here” and that TVU&N is influential, but suggests that that’s the only reason people own it.
He/she then ponders:
“How much owners of this formerly obscure artifact from an excessive era really do listen to it? I mean even those owners who profess to be passionately devoted to it. I doubt very often.”
Any idea? Don’t worry, Anonymous isn’t going to leave that question hanging:
“I doubt very often. I imagine very seldom.”
So now you know.
2. Reviews by people who dislike The Velvet Underground
Typical for this category is this Anonymous reviewer:
“A good example of an album which is overrated to a degree that is surreal. One suspects that this has little to do with the music, and more to do with the mind set of the overrater [sic] on first hearing it.”
He/she doesn’t bother to explain what he/she meant by that second sentence before going on to criticise the singing, musicianship and compositions. But then, judging by the fact that the review is nonsensically titled “overrated overhyped overhere [sic]”, this reviewer just likes putting words together without worrying too much about what they mean.
JF describes it as “Tedious and limited” and ponders, “How this ever achieved cult status is a miracle”. For B, it’s “more about the cover than the music”.
WW is also unimpressed:
“After reading reviews in Amazon and references in Rolling Stone, I was sure I was going to love this album. I didn’t. It was poorly engineered, consisted mostly of disorganized sounds and didn’t seem to have any redeeming features.”
“On the bright side, it wasn’t very inexpensive, so my experience didn’t cost much.”
For AFABR, writing in 2005, it’s just too damn old:
“This was a classic in its day. Listning [sic] to this album in 2005 is truly painfull [sic]..it’s almost 40 years old. You do the rest of the math…..”
Meanwhile, PP doesn’t care about its age, just that it’s “virtually tuneless rubbish”. DB calls it “dated”, another Anonymous reviewer says “musically it is not up to scratch” and PM confesses to finding it “interesting but not my cup of tea”, which is fair and reasonable, but not as much fun as those in the next category…
3. Reviews by people who hate The Velvet Underground and refuse to believe that anyone else really likes them either
In his review of TVU&N, titled “The most over rated band/album of all time”, JC explains:
“This is the most self-indulgent of all albums.”
Before taking a deep breath and blurting out:
“It just has enough pretentiousness about it to be one of those things that people who want to appear cool and ‘with it’ will band about in conversations like they have this hidden knowledge of music and that these awful bunch of albums in some way define them as being more music obsessed more music knowledgeable and more ‘cool’ than you.”
Picture poor JC, constantly put down by pretentious Velvet Underground fans. He can’t take it anymore! He snaps:
“The only reason any C thinks it is a classic is because when your [sic] stoned off your Ts it probably does sound profane and remarkable but otherwise in the real world with a cup of tea maybe it just doesn’t have the same impact.”
No doubt he means profound rather than profane, but you’ll have to guess what he means by ‘C’ and ‘Ts’. He concludes his ranted review by saying “I’ve got proper music to be listening to”. Let’s hope he had that cup of tea and calmed himself down after writing this.
But there’s certainly no shortage of reviewers who agree with him. Like BD, who wrote this one-star review in 2007:
“VU remain amongst the darlings of the average bo-bo pseudo-intellectual, an acquired taste handed down from generation to generation.”
Not sure what he means by “bo-bo”? But BD obviously believes he’s seen through the hype. As does this Anonymous reviewer in 2001:
“This album is one of those records that is bought by sophomores in college who want to look cool. It is soooo avant-garde and so hip to buy an album all the other cool people say that you should have.”
Along the same lines is EF, ranting in 2006:
“I don’t understand why this band is so revered, and why it’s almost a necessity in certain social circles to pretend you like this band if you really don’t. This is not for listening to, this is for displaying on your shelf so you can look cool in front of your hipster doofus friends.”
SW, writing in 2004 is similarly nonplussed:
“For all of the hushed, awed appraisals of the 1967 VU release “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” I really doubt that anyone truly enjoys this album–those who claim to are simply falling victim to “Well-I-guess-I’m-supposed-to-like-this” syndrome.”
Finally, there’s SMR’s review, and subsequent debacle, which might shed some light on this whole ‘pretentiousness’ issue. In 2014, SMR wrote:
“There’s nothing in the world worse than people striving to be “avant-garde” It invariably leads to suffocating pretentiousness (like this junk). I truly believe that deep-down many of those who praise this album to the high-heavens are doing so to be “fashionable” and “more sophisticated”—it makes them somehow “superior” to us average bourgeois slobs with no “taste”—-YUCK…BARF!!”
This prompted RH to step in and take issue. He replied to SMR’s comment to point out:
“The Velvets practically created so many genres that it’s unbelievable. The Doors wouldn’t exist without them, nor would a good majority of the bands that have come out since.”
Predictably, SMR doesn’t like The Doors either. He replied that “the ‘mythologizing’ of Jim Morrison and The Doors has gone beyond the absurd”, but concedes that “they had a unique dramatic quality”.
Then comes a twist, with a third participant, G, coming out of nowhere to stick his oar in. He takes issue with both SMR’s dislike for The Velvet Underground and any tolerance for The Doors, replying to these comments with this pompous and ridiculously optimistic plea:
“But you do understand that the Doors suck, right? By all means like their music but at the same time wrap your mind around the fact that they are a pretty terrible group. I hope you do the opposite of that with VU. While understanding the music is not to your taste realize that they made great music and were one of the few truly watershed artists of the 1960s.”
Got that? So G will condescendingly allow you to enjoy The Doors, but insists that you must acknowledge that they’re shit. You must also concede that The Velvet Underground’s music was objectively great, whether you like it or not. G, who let’s remember, no one was talking to in the first place, has come blundering on to the scene to declare himself the unarguable arbiter of good musical taste.
Maybe it’s people like G that are the problem? Maybe all these negative reviewers are lashing out at the Velvet Underground because they’re sick of being lectured on them by dicks like G. If so, I can’t say I blame them.