BBC Session 1971 serves as a vital link in what can be viewed as the minimalistic musical evolution of the enigmatic Nico.
Originally released on a limited run vinyl pressing by John Peel and Clive Selwood’s Strange Fruit label in 1988, this new edition of the four song BBC Session 1971 EP on Gearbox allows listeners a glimpse into the stark sound Nico was exploring in the wake of her albums The Marble Index and Desertshore. Where her debut relied largely on Marianne Faithfull-esque folk pop, aided and abetted by her cohorts in the Velvet Underground, it proved to be little more than a stylistically anomalous blip. With the 1969 release of the haunting The Marble Index, Nico showed for the first time her true, unfettered artistic voice.
Stripping things to their basest elements, the album featured little more than Nico’s increasingly confident stentorian delivery accompanied by circular, wheezing melodic figures played on harmonium. Given this minimalist approach and penchant for repetition, it’s little surprise John Cale remained the only member of the Velvets to continue on with Nico following the release of Chelsea Girl, serving as arranger and producer. Finding themselves largely kindred spirits in their approach and artistic aesthetic, together Nico and Cale delivered a trio of darkly unsettling minimalist folk albums that ultimately owed more to the bleakness of the Middle Ages and modern minimalism than the flower-fueled renaissance inhabiting the majority of late-‘60s British folk rock.
In this, Nico took the lessons learned working with the Velvets, themselves outliers in their own time, and applied this darkened, singular artistic vision to her own work. Unfettered and largely alone at the harmonium, Nico managed to find a voice perfectly aligned with her icy, somewhat intimidating persona. More so than perhaps any other album of the era, The Marble Index’s cover image of a gaunt, emotionless Nico depicted in stark black and white serves to perfectly approximate the hauntingly alienating sounds within.
Skipping ahead two years and one additional release, again with Cale in Desertshore, these 1971 BBC Radio One recordings captured in the dead of winter illustrate the sound and feel of Nico’s solo live performances of the time. Alone with her droning harmonium, her voice sounds otherworldly; the lead in an alternate reality opera cut through with abject sadness and dread. Lead track “Frozen Warnings” from The Marble Index serves as an appropriate opening statement in this brief program, easing listeners into the world of Nico circa-1971. Of the four, “Frozen Warnings” is perhaps the most immediately accessible, offering listeners a recognizable chord progression and repetitive melodic figure. It’s one of the few instances here that adheres to a largely traditional pop song format.
From there, “Janitor of Lunacy” from the previous year’s Desertshore shows more of Cale’s direct influence with its repetitive, circular harmonium owing a great deal to Cale’s early work with the likes of John Cage and La Monte Young. Bordering on the atonal, here Nico’s approach to the harmonium is more to create a sense of movement, an underlying seething dread that cuts through her descending vocal lines. It’s an unsettling approach that ultimately proves rather exhilarating in its starkness and lack of musical familiarity.
“No One Is There,” also off 1969’s The Marble Index, still bears traces of recognizable contemporary pop music form and function. Her vocals take center stage, dominating the track and rendering the harmonium nearly obsolete as she wanders from the theoretical reference pitches and rhythms employed by the instrument. With just under a minute to go, she forgoes the instrument altogether and her voice finds itself still further removed from where it began. What she lacks in musicality, however, is more than made up for in terms of icy emotion and implied theatricality.
Closing the session, “Secret Side,” a then unrecorded track that would appear three years later on The End…, finds Nico greatly expanding the minimalist approach of the preceding years in favor of a broader, more melodic sound. With more nuance and variation in melody, “Secret Side” serves as a beacon for what would be forthcoming on her impressive and final album of the 1970s. Through the subtlest of variations, these sessions offer a glimpse of where she had been as a performer, where she was at the time and where she sought to go in the coming years. In this way, BBC Session 1971 serves as a vital link in what can be viewed as the minimalistic musical evolution of the enigmatic Nico.