Today’s post is dedicated to the birthday of Nico: international supermodel, film star, and singer. She had a long and circuitous route to fame, starting out as a model in her native Germany, before she became famous by singing some amazing songs on the debut record by The Velvet Underground. Nico was an important icon, in the truest sense of the word, and her proto-gothic image and aesthetic went on to inspire countless others. She was not a traditional singer by any means, and her solo material, post-Velvets, is largely based on spooky harmonium playing and her deep, chilling voice.
Nico deserves a lot of credit as an artist, even though her voice was unconventional and her music can be extremely dark and haunting. She was part of a movement in the late sixties to take rock and popular music into the art gallery, so to speak. She and other artists of her time were trying to establish contemporary music as a form of high art; previous to then, most people viewed music as entertainment. The idea of the album or song as a meaningful art form, on par with sculpture or painting, had not yet completely taken hold in the popular consciousness. Lou Reed was another big proponent of this idea in American culture; he often said that he saw songs and lyrics as being similar to novels and short stories. Nico contributed to this elevation of pop music into the realm of serious art, in her own inimitable way.
This video documents the only time that Nico performed with Lou Reed and John Cale together after she formally left The Velvet Underground in 1967. It was filmed during a concert in Paris, France at La Bataclan, on January 29th, 1972.
Here’s an interview with Nico in all her cool, inscrutable glory, from what appears to be some time in the late 70s or early 80s. She speaks in somewhat mocking tones about the use of drugs in the sixties, while looking suspiciously spaced out herself:
Here’s a French television feature on Nico from 1972, where she plays some solo material in her typically intense way (the interview is in French, of course, but it’s still pretty cool):
Nico recorded six solo albums before her death in 1988. For my money, her best record is also one of her scariest: ‘Desertshore’, released in 1970. The record was produced by John Cale, who also played virtually every instrument on the album except the harmonium. In tribute to this weird and wonderful woman, here is a spooky version of ‘Janitor Of Lunacy’, from ‘Desertshore’, that was recorded as part of a BBC Peel Session in 1974.