Nico’s austere beauty and dry, deadpan Germanic accent provided a core element to the debut Velvet Underground album. Although she only sang three songs, her presence provided an essential ingredient that helped define “The Velvet Underground and Nico” (aka Warhol’s ‘banana’ album) as something very out of the ordinary and deeply compelling.
Nico’s time in the Velvet Underground was short-lived, but long enough to make a permanent impression on those who heard her – and despite a not so amicable departure, long enough for its bandmembers to provide half of the material for her solo debut, “Chelsea Girl.” Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison wrote five of the ten tracks here, with three more by an unknown kid named Jackson Browne, another by Bob Dylan (a version of “I’ll Keep It with Mine” which Dylan himself never released until the mid-eighties), and a closing number by Tim Hardin.
Still contracted to Verve Records, it made it easy for Nico to retain a professional relationship with her ex-bandmates and also maintain a connection to Warhol, who indirectly provided the album title (Nico starred in a ’66 Warhol film titled “Chelsea Girls”) from a song written by Reed and Morrison. Single-minded producer Tom Wilson helmed the controls for “Chelsea Girl,” and maintained a tightfisted approach, insisting on specific instrumentation that often clashed with Nico’s own desire for drums and something more basic. Wilson ‘ghost-produced’ the first Velvet Underground album (credited to Warhol, who lacked the qualifications and rarely showed up at the sessions), so Nico might have guessed what to expect. After all, Wilson was the guy who added electric backing to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” without their knowledge (a move they considered outrageous, an opinion that yielded quickly as the song ascended to #1), so it shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise when he disregarded Nico’s intentions for a more baroque chamber-pop feel. Nonetheless, she was horrified when she heard Wilson’s finished product, and brought to tears by his use of a flute on key tracks.
As would be presumed by the songwriting credits, the basic material is excellent, but Wilson’s production is likely one of the major reasons that “Chelsea Girl” remains an underground classic. The moody songs are lightly embellished so that they stand apart from what was common at the time, providing a sound that compliments Nico’s world-weary vocal style. Today, the album might still bring tears, but not for the same reasons that once provoked Nico.
October 1967 – Billboard Did Not Chart