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.
It has spawned multiple generations of obsessives and influencees. Among the first was a young David Bowie, whose early manager Ken Pitt had art-world connections and met with Warhol and Reed at the former's famous studio The Factory during a November 1966 trip to New York. Pitt returned to London with a test pressing of TheVelvet Underground and Nico that his young charge promptly appropriated in every sense of the word. Upon his rise to fame five years later, Bowie paid back his vast Velvets influence by producing Reed's Transformer; that album's single, "Walk on the Wild Side," jump-started the grumpy bard's solo career and remains his biggest-ever hit. Ensuing generations of The Velvet Underground and Nico's spiritual progeny have included punk pioneer Patti Smith (who covered at least two Velvets songs in her early days), R.E.M. (who covered three songs from the album in their early days) and alt-rock titan Beck (who covered the entire album with some friends in 2009).
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.
In today's era of ubiquitous ubiquity, of YouTube and eBay and streaming services, it's difficult to convey just how hard it was to find a copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Used-record stores were just beginning to become a thing and even in those shrines to things past a scratched copy often would fetch $30-40 — as things go, this actually added to the band's burgeoning legend.
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. A first mono pressing, still in its shrink wrap? Check. Promo copies — both the version with the yellow label and the much rarer, white-label edition? Natch. The "Close Cut" 1972 edition with an alternate printing of the banana sticker, without the border? Over there. Original U.K., Canadian and New Zealand editions that don't that doesn't even have a banana on the cover? Yup. ... the covers featuring a shirtless Warhol acolyte Eric Emerson in the background of the group photo on the back ("The Torso Cover") ... the ones with a sticker pasted over Emerson's photo after he sued ("The Lawsuit Cover") ... the ones with his photo airbrushed out ("The Airbrushed Cover") ...
(Anyone seeking more detailed info, knock yourself out.).
The all-time rarest version, of which just two copies are known to exist, is an April 1966 acetate containing alternate takes and mixes that was purchased at a New York sidewalk sale in 2002 for 75 cents — and eventually auctioned off for $25,200. Satlof doesn't have one of those; the bulk of his collection is commercial stock copies in varying states of dishevelment. Copies with the banana partially or (usually) completely peeled off, copies with retail stickers or stamps or radio-station letters on them, copies bearing someone's name, copies people have drawn or painted on. A mysterious copy with multiple icepick-sized holes in the cover. Each one has a birthplace and a journey.
Satlof's journey began when he was a student at Columbia University in the 1980s. "A friend of mine had the album and we listened to it late at night in the common room, he recalls. "I listened to it over and over again, watching the record spin but also looking out the window at this panoramic view of New York City — Harlem from Morningside Heights, and east of us was Lexington and 125th Street" — the location of the drug deal in the lyrics of "Waiting for My Man."
"I recall thinking even at the time, 'I will always remember this'." (Asked an obvious question, he admits, "I was definitely in a mind-expanding state.")
Satlof's collection began in earnest in 1987: a $90 autographed copy from "a record dealer in an antiques mall on Canal Street," with a scrawled signature that the seller said was Warhol's, but turned out to be Reed's. Satlof casually picked up more of the albums over the years, paying "$10, $20, like $100 for ones with the full banana." But when eBay launched in 1995, "I was off to the races," he laughs. "You could see the auction winner's screen name on eBay at the time, and I found out later that I was known as 'Mr. Bananas.'"
He stresses that his hobby is due to the brilliance of the music and his love for it. But really: 800 copies?
"Yes, it's obsessive," he laughs, again, well aware. "But — and I say this as someone without an art-history background — in a way each one of these is a piece of Warhol art. And each one has been messed with in some way by a previous owner, which makes each one unique."
Since Reed's death in October 2013, the going rate for the discs has become too steep even for Mr. Bananas. "The prices are insane," he says. "People are asking way, way more than they're worth, and at this point I'm the second- or third-highest bidder on most items."
Indeed, a brief perusal of eBay and Discogs shows an original stereo copy with a pristine sleeve going for more than $4,000; a mono lawsuit edition minus "around 10 percent" of the banana for $2,500; a sticker-less white-label promo copy with "a few scuffs" on the vinyl for $1,700; and — ulp — an item that the seller claims is an official Verve advance pressing of the album, with different mixes from the officially released version (possibly the same as the 1966 acetate?), yours for $22,400.
But with few exceptions, the single greatest factor in determining the financial value of these albums comes down to one thing: the freshness of the banana. Consequently, one question remains. With over 800 albums at Satlof's disposal, has he ever — to paraphrase the words on the cover — peeled one slowly to see what it felt like? Even just a little?
He's visibly aghast. "No!" he exclaims. "Come on!" Still mortified, he reconsiders slightly. "Maybe I'd [peel] one of the reissues that has the sticker, but not an original." He shudders.