Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
In March, The Velvet Underground & Nico marked its 45th anniversary. Its birthday is being commemorated — a little bit late — with a six-disc boxed set out this week. It’s the grandmother of pretty much all of underground rock as we know it; as Brian Eno famously told Kristine McKenna in 1984, it supposedly only sold 30,000 copies in its first five years in print, but “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
And most of those bands (and their descendants) have apparently covered at least one of its songs over the past 45 years. Here’s the best–or at least most interesting–cover I could find of every song on it.
1. The Queers: “Sunday Morning”
The temptation with covers of “Sunday Morning” is always to reproduce the sweet pop arrangement of the original version–nearly every cover of it tries to imitate the sound of John Cale’s celesta. The long-running pop-punk band the Queers came up with this marvelous interpretation on their 2003 split album (with Manges) Acid Beaters, preserving the tenderness of the Velvets’ version but converting its tone to full-throttle fuzz.
2. Vanessa Paradis: “I’m Waiting for the Man”
If you can’t be sacrilegious about the Velvet Underground, what can you be sacrilegious about? French actress Paradis recorded her version (produced by her then-boyfriend Lenny Kravitz) for her self-titled 1992 album; over an arrangement nearly identical to the Velvets’, she transforms it from a song about copping drugs to a song about total lust–without changing a word of Lou Reed’s lyric.
But the greatest obsessive Velvet Underground fan ever may be David Bowie, who’s returned to “I’m Waiting for the Man” again and again over the course of his career. He first recorded it in late 1966 or early 1967 after hearing an acetate of the not-yet-released The Velvet Underground & Nico; this remarkable version is from a rehearsal for his Station to Station tour in 1976.
3. Propaganda: “Femme Fatale”
It’s sometimes worth bending a great song as far as possible to see whether or not it breaks. The mid-’80s German synth-pop band Propaganda recorded “Femme Fatale” as a bombastic B-side, complete with marching-band drums (and a line from the middle of a verse, misheard as “before you start you already bleed,” relocated to the top of the song); it still comes out kind of amazing. Here’s a live performance from 1985.
For pure beauty, though, you can’t beat Alex Chilton’s impossibly fragile version of “Femme Fatale” from Big Star’s 3rd/Sister Lovers, recorded in the mid-’70s:
4. The Ukrainians: “Venus in Furs”
In the mid-’80s, the Wedding Present recorded a string of radio sessions for John Peel’s BBC radio program that featured Ukrainian folk songs. The band’s guitarist Peter Solowka split off from the Wedding Present in 1991 to form the Ukrainians, who played entirely in that mode (if not entirely that repertoire); their second album, 1993’s Vorony, featured this Ukrainian translation of “Venus in Furs” (as well as a cover of the Smiths’ “The Queen Is Dead”).
5. The Riats: “Run Run Run”
Nearly every garage band on the planet can pull out a Velvet Underground cover in a pinch. But the Dutch band the Riats get special credit: this organ-centered 1967 single was apparently the first released cover of the Velvets (and its B-side was a version of “Sunday Morning”).
6. June Tabor: “All Tomorrow’s Parties”
English folk legend June Tabor teamed up with the Oyster Band in 1990 for Freedom and Rain, which arguably pointed toward the next few decades of both of their careers. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” was one of the album’s highlights–it’s not exactly a folk song, but in Tabor’s performance you can hear how it might connect to that tradition.
7. Roky Erickson: “Heroin”
The mighty Texan psychedelic singer/songwriter Roky Erickson has seen his share of trouble over the past few decades, but his band the 13th Floor Elevators released their debut some months before The Velvet Underground & Nico. The defining feature of the Velvets’ “Heroin” is its slow builds and breakdowns; Erickson’s version, recorded for 1986’s Gremlins Have Pictures, is revved up all the way, and genuinely desperate-sounding.
8. Thumbs Up: “There She Goes Again”
The Velvet Underground could be brutal and abrasive, but they could also be ridiculously tuneful. The fact that there is, in fact, a ukulele duo devoted to playing Velvets covers–Thumbs Up, whose YouTube channel also includes their versions of “She’s My Best Friend,” “Femme Fatale” and “Temptation Inside Your Heart”–testifies to that.
9. YACHT: “I’ll Be Your Mirror”
The Velvet Underground & Nico has been part of alternative music’s DNA for so long that its songs have ended up in the repertoire of bands who seem to come from completely different aesthetics–like the Portland, Oregon synth-pop group YACHT, who released this plinking, minimal electronic cover of a Nico showcase as a B-side this summer.
10. Beck: The Black Angel’s Death Song
In 2009, Beck inaugurated his occasional “Record Club” project–a cluster of musicians covering an entire album in a single day–with a stellar interpretation of The Velvet Underground & Nico that featured Nigel Godrich and Joey Waronker, among others. One of its highlights is Beck and bassist Bram Inscore playing “The Black Angel’s Death Song”–originally a woozy showcase for John Cale’s viola freakout–as a totally straightforward singer-songwriter-style number. (Also worth checking out: Beck and Godrich’s synth-drone “Run Run Run.”)
11. Olivia Tremor Control: “European Son”
“European Son” seems like it would be the toughest song on The Velvet Underground & Nico to cover convincingly–it’s two brief verses followed by a long, nearly free-form jam–but brave bands occasionally take a stab at it. (Its distinctive eight-note bass line also turns up in Yo La Tengo’s “Moby Octopad.”) The Southern indie-psychedelic band Olivia Tremor Control, whose co-founder Bill Doss passed away this past summer, recorded this playful version of it for a Velvet Underground tribute album that came out in 2000.