Recently, Billboard revealed its catalogue of the paramount album covers ever conceived, and the victor was not Robert Mapplethorpe, acclaimed for capturing the essence of a renowned Patti Smith album; nor was it Peter Blake, who, alongside his wife Jann Haworth, crafted an indelible image for The Beatles; and not even George Condo, celebrated for his visual artworks that became inseparable from Kanye West for a period. Instead, it was Andy Warhol who emerged triumphant, with the highest accolade bestowed upon his work for the 1967 album ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’.
For those possessing even a rudimentary familiarity with the realm of rock music, this choice might appear undeniably apt. Nonetheless, across social media platforms this week, Billboard’s compilation sparked extensive discourse, as some users posed variations of a question that prompted others to recoil in disbelief: A banana, truly?
It might be challenging to recollect a time when ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico faced lacklustre reception, yet that time did exist, and it was the year 1967 when the album graced the scene. While the album now stands as a towering achievement, it’s bold auditory landscapes and subversive verses are now acknowledged as precursors to countless musical trends that followed, it’s important to note that ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico did not find immediate favour with a mass audience upon its release.
Operating behind the curtains, Warhol wielded a profound influence in shaping the album’s inception. Serving as the band’s manager, Warhol played a pivotal role in introducing The Velvet Underground to Nico. This liaison led the musicians to participate in Warhol’s famed ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitable’ performances.
However, even Warhol’s involvement scarcely contributed to bolstering the band’s commercial prospects. Blake Gopnik, a prominent biographer of Warhol, has disclosed that ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’ only attained a modest #171 ranking on the Billboard 200 chart. Moreover, from 1967 to 1969, the album’s sales yielded a paltry $22,000 in royalties. From this sum, Warhol’s management company, Warvel, received a one-fifth share—a modest remuneration, even when adjusted for inflation. (In 1982, producer Brian Eno alleged that the album only managed to sell approximately 30,000 copies within its initial five years.)
The content of the album, laden with themes like drug use and S&M, among other provocative topics, caused numerous radio stations to refuse airplay. This aspect, alongside another likely factor—its album cover—contributed to its underwhelming performance during its initial release. The album’s cover, an embodiment of Pop art, boasted a pronounced double entendre.
Beneath the digital veneer, the cover for ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico conceals a notable facet—Warhol conceived the design with an interactive dimension. The banana’s vinyl casing could be peeled away, revealing a glimpse of a pink fruit beneath. The cover bears the inscription, “Peel slowly and see,” a not-so-subtle directive.
Gopnik likened this process to unveiling foreskin, and he noted that the cover “aligned the Velvets with the hard-edged queer culture that the Factory was coming to represent.”
Alternatively, in the words of Lou Reed, the band’s frontman, the album’s essence is encapsulated in his statement: “The banana made it into an erotic art show.”
In truth, this wasn’t Warhol’s sole venture into crafting erotic art for musicians. In 1969, he fashioned another piece for the Rolling Stones, gracing their 1971 album ‘Sticky Fingers’ with a close-up depiction of a denim-clad male torso, featuring a conspicuously apparent bulge on the left. The album cover boasted a functioning zipper that could be lowered to reveal the undergarments beneath. Subsequent editions of the album omitted the zipper, leaving only Warhol’s visual imprint.
The reception for ‘Sticky Fingers’ diverged significantly. Warhol, alongside designer Craig Braun, clinched a Grammy nomination for their creation. ‘Sticky Fingers’ also secured a spot on the Billboard 200 list, although more than 20 positions below ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’.