The Velvet Underground & Nico is the debut album by The Velvet Underground and vocal collaborator Nico, released in March 1967 by Verve Records
At the time, Pop Art figurehead Andy Warhol was at his creative peak. His silkscreen prints of Campbell’s soup cans and copies of Brillo soap pad boxes had taken the art world by storm, his controversial films were perplexing the public and critics alike, while his New York studio, dubbed the Factory, was a hubbub of underground activity. That same year, Warhol encountered the four-piece Velvet Underground in a Greenwich Village club. Warhol decided to add music business impresario to his list of credits, offering to manage them and in return he demanded a singing role for one of his so-called superstars, the German singer/model Christa Päffgen, aka Nico.
After some objections from Velvets mainstays Lou Reed and John Cale, Nico was hired, and with the group signed to Vanguard Records, Warhol coughed up $2,500 for three days in a studio. Although credited as producer, in truth Warhol did little more than set the tapes rolling; any actual producing per se was done by the band and engineer Tom Wilson.
But one thing that Warhol indisputably did was to create a truly iconic album. Set against a plain white background (this was a year before the Beatles’ White Album, remember) the image was a silkscreen made from simple black-and-white acetate film. In case the genitalia-esque shape wasn’t provocative enough, Warhol added the invitation: ‘Peel slowly and see.’ When the skin was peeled it revealed … a banana – albeit a pink and rather phallic one. With no mention of the band on the front, the LP became one of the first rock records to have a cover with no visible association with either the group or the music within
But for Verve Records, the banana was a production nightmare. “Someone had to sit there with piles of albums, peel off the yellow banana skin stickers and place them over the pink fruit by hand,” said Warhol’s artistic director Ronnie Cutrone
By 1968, the peelable banana was dropped. Originals now fetch up to £300 each. The fruity image has since thrived on everything from art prints to T-shirts to handbags.
So what did it mean, anyway?
As Warhol had done with several of his other pop art works, he removed an everyday image from its familiar context, forcing the observer to confront and ponder it on its own terms, aesthetically and otherwise. As a result, some saw the banana as having definite druggy connotations – a reference to a common belief at that time that you could get high by smoking banana skins (you couldn’t). To others the banana was a phallic symbol, plain and simple, with homoerotic overtones
As usual, Warhol himself wasn’t saying, thus leaving it to observers to derive any meaning for themselves
Although as psychologist Sigmund Freud might have said: sometimes a banana is just a banana
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