Part lost Velvet Underground album and part baroque-folk pop-art experiment, Nico’s solo debut LP, Chelsea Girl, was worlds apart from anything else she’d ever record, but it’s a classic on its own terms.
The album was made almost immediately after the March 1967 release of The Velvet Underground & Nico, and was reportedly assembled in a mad frenzy of activity over just a few days, with VU producer Tom Wilson at the helm. Its basis was the solo act Nico had recently begun developing, sometimes backed by her 18-year-old paramour Jackson Browne, who contributed three songs to Chelsea Girl. Browne would later recall that amid the hectic sessions, he was in the studio playing with Nico on his compositions the same day Lou Reed was there laying down guitar on tunes he wrote.
Chelsea Girl was not a million miles from “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Femme Fatale,” the ballads Nico sang with the VU. The basic template for the singer’s husky vocal approach was still Marlene Dietrich meets ‘60s mod, but instead of a full-band backing, the album places the German émigré in a baroque-folk setting.
There were precedents in Marianne Faithfull’s early recordings, which became mid-’60s U.K. hits, and Judy Collins’ In My Life, which helped break the folk singer into the mainstream. This may have informed the business-savvy Wilson’s decision to make a drumless album and engage Larry Fallon for chamber-style woodwind and string arrangements. A 1968 review in New Society would memorably dub Nico “a satanic Marianne Faithfull.”
Time has vindicated Wilson’s decision. From an objective distance, the taut but warm string and flute parts feel like the ideal foil for Nico’s deadpan delivery. But both Nico and Reed would later gripe about the arrangements. “I cried when I heard the album,” Nico would say, “I cried because of the flute.” In a 1978 Creem interview, Reed held forth on the album: “Everything on it – those strings, that flute – should have defeated it. But with the lyrics, Nico’s voice, it somehow managed to survive. We still got ‘It Was a Pleasure Then’ on, they couldn’t stop us. We’d been doing a song like that in our beloved show; it didn’t really have a title. Just all of us following the drone. And there it sits in the middle of the album.”
Half of Chelsea Girl was written by some combination of Velvet Underground members. Reed’s “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” and the Cale/Reed tune “Little Sister” had both been tried at the Velvet Underground & Nico sessions, ballads with calm surfaces belying the lyrics’ psychological and physical violence. Cale’s “Winter Song” and the Reed/Sterling Morrison-penned “Chelsea Girls” bear the same sort of contrast, the latter inspired by the studied decadence of the 1966 Nico-starring Andy Warhol film of the same name. The staccato string arrangements bring just the right blend of archness and accessibility to all of them.
As Reed suggested, “It Was a Pleasure Then” grew out of a wild, avant-garde improv piece from the Velvets’ live set known as “Melody Laughter.” While it moves at an unhurried pace similar to the other tracks, Fallon’s arrangements are eschewed for Reed and Cale’s ebbing and flowing currents of sonic derangement.
The Browne songs are far closer to the folk-rock singer/songwriter conventions of the day. Their tender melodies and melancholy yearning balance with Nico’s emotional distance, especially on the poignant “These Days,” the only one of his three tunes that Browne would later record himself.
Chelsea Girl is rounded out by a song each from Bob Dylan and from Nico’s labelmate and occasional accompanist Tim Hardin. Dylan’s open-hearted “I’ll Keep It With Mine” was first recorded in 1964 by Judy Collins, creating yet another parallel between her and Nico. The album closes with Hardin’s literally mournful “Eulogy to Lenny Bruce,” which would turn up as “Lenny’s Tune” on 1968’s Tim Hardin 3: Live in Concert. Hardin’s lyrics bemoan the substance abuse that led to his famous friend Bruce’s untimely death, and the song becomes all the more chilling in light of Hardin’s own early, drug-assisted exit from our realm.
After completing Chelsea Girl, Nico diverged from the album’s path as quickly and drastically as humanly possible. Her 1968 Cale-produced album The Marble Index was the start of two decades of self-penned albums embracing utterly uncharted territory. But, for a brief moment in 1967, Nico occupied the strangely compelling space between arty abandon and fragile balladry. It was – and is – a pleasure.