This year marks the 45th anniversary of The Velvet Underground & Nico. The album was a commercial and critical flop upon its release but has gone on to be hailed as one of rock’s most important albums. Why was this so and what relevance does this album have to the South African rock scene in 2012?


In 1967 The Velvet Underground teamed up with German chanteuse, Nico, and released their eponymous, debut album. At the helm producing was New York City art scene doyen, Andy Warhol. The album was as varied as it was bold. The band did their take on love songs like “There She Goes Again” but also hit upon drugs and sadomasochism. “Sunday Morning”, the album’s opening track is a sweet, lilting number that clocks in at a radio-friendly 2:54. The closing track, by contrast, is an all out assault on every pop sensibility hitherto known to man and runs nearly eight minutes long. Perfect bookends to an album full of songs that are diametrically opposed yet none seem out of place. Each track works because of its sheer authenticity. The Velvet Underground were a band very much of their time but the brazen execution of their songs was light years ahead. 


Why then did the album not take off right away? There were many distribution issues. The album was banned in many stores and on radio. It has been said that The Velvet Underground & Nico only sold 10,000 copies but everyone who bought one went on to form a band. The true impact of the album was only realised later. Its maverick spirit of individualism spoke to the disenfranchised masses. If that’s not rock n’ roll what is? Their influence helped give rise to glam, new wave, indie and punk rock. As the popularity of these genres grew so did that of The Velvet Underground, even though they had disbanded by this point.


So what can the South African rock scene learn from The Velvet Underground & Nico? South Africa could be the last bastion of artistic expression in rock music. I understand the practicality of compromising artistic integrity for commercial success. We all have to eat. I understand the temptation in America and Europe where it could mean the difference between selling millions of albums and selling 100,000 albums. The market in South Africa, however, is so small that selling 20,000 albums is considered doing well. Add to that the rock genre takes a backseat to things like kwaito and Afrikaans country music. Why pander to radio stations and prevailing tastes to sell maybe 10,000 units and still be working a day job? It near as makes no difference to stick to your guns and sell 1,000 copies and leave a legacy like The Velvet Underground & Nico. I think artists and fans alike should ask themselves the question: Would I rather have cookie-cutter rock music or something genuine, albeit unpopular, that could give birth to a fresh, new scene. Don’t we all deserve better?