The Velvet Underground and Nico, released 50 years ago tomorrow (there is actually some disagreement on the exact date), is the definitive way-ahead-of-its-time album. With a near-peerless collection of songs — nearly all written by frontman Lou Reed — and an iconic, banana-sticker cover designed by band benefactor Andy Warhol, this jarring and innovative collection was initially a cult success at best, with no hit singles and a “peak” of No. 171 on Billboard’s albums chart in December 1967. But the world eventually caught up with it, and for the past 30 years it’s had perennial placement on best-ever lists, including No. 13 on Rolling Stone’s 2012 “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” tally.
It’s the first album to truly combine a novelist’s gritty realism with equally confrontational rock music, yet it’s also a fount of soft, vulnerable songs like “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” — songs that are all the more poignant because you can sense, somehow, that the sensitive soul who wrote them is also kind of an asshole.
Still, it was initially considered a commercial failure, selling approximately 60,000 copies in its first two years — not bad, but no More of The Monkees. This was due partially to a legally induced (more on that shortly) factory recall that removed the album from shelves just as its Warhol-driven publicity was peaking. But that certainly wasn’t the only challenge to its commercial prospects; the group’s ensuing albums met an even more dismal commercial fate, and a disillusioned Reed left the band in August, 1970. Despite his solo success, The Velvets’ catalog gradually slipped out of print over the next few years.
The Velvets gradually assumed their proper, lofty place in rock history, their oeuvre was reissued in the U.S. in 1984 (although The Velvet Underground and Nico’s cover was a single-sleeve reduction of the original gatefold with a printed banana instead of a sticker). Thus another generation of obsessives was spawned. And on and on.
Yet the most atypical obsession of those five decades may be that of veteran music publicist and longtime Velvets fan Mark Satlof, who collects original pressings of the album. He owns more than 800 of them – he’s actually not sure exactly how many – which are neatly filed on shelves in his study. They account for an estimated 1 percent of all copies manufactured in the U.S. before March 1969.