Nico - Chelsea Girl - Review
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critics' view

After some 12 years as a fashion model and actress, Christa Päffgen was, by now, coming around to the idea that she could have a career in music. Following “I’m Not Sayin’”, a pretty cool one-off folk-rock single produced by Rolling Stones multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones in ’65, she had been further enthused by her involvement in two astounding singles with the Velvet Underground in ’66, her contributions being so striking that she merited co-billing status on the resulting LP. Andy Warhol dubbed her “the pop girl of ‘66”, most likely to her horror. Brilliantly, Nico would later comment: “I’d be ashamed to have an audience like Neil Diamond.”

Not yet the Queen of the bad girls, this is Nico, the ultimate Chelsea girl. She had starred as herself in Andy Warhol’s avant-garde film “Chelsea Girls”, released in September ’66. Next up in her artistic development was her very own album. In April ’67, just a month after “The Velvet Underground and Nico” was released, Nico stepped into the studio to begin work on her first solo full-length. This was a treat for the small circle of Velvet Underground devotees. For them, this would be a second ’67 serving, again on Verve Records, with Tom Wilson once again handling production in a studio which included contributions from Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison, as well as Jackson Browne, Nico’s current boyfriend. It seems, however, that Nico herself was not in full artistic control. The post-production inclusion of Larry Fallon’s string and flute arrangements were like a dagger-blow to her, shattering her dream of how it should have been: “I still cannot listen to it, because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away. I asked for drums, they said no. I asked for more guitars, they said no. And I asked for simplicity, and they covered it in flutes! They added strings and – I didn't like them, but I could live with them. But the flute! The first time I heard the album, I cried and it was all because of the flute.”

I have no idea why she’s so down on this LP – to my ears it’s an astounding set – as beautiful as it is haunting, and amazingly consistent, packed with classics at every turn. These songs may well have belonged to others but Nico takes complete command of proceedings, from the very beginning to the very last. Her presence, in fact, dominates any recording which she’s ever made (bar “Sunday Morning” which buried her backing vocals). Even these lyrics seem to have been penned with the moody chanteuse in mind: “Please don’t confront me with my failures, I have not forgotten them” On the back cover of the LP, she herself says: “I like sad songs, tragic ones… I like to improvise with the notes, with the feeling I have at the time about the song.”

Somewhere along the line, Nico became imbued with melancholia. As anyone with any true depth to their soul knows, often there’s a beauty of the purest sort to be found there. And here on “Chelsea Girl”, Nico serves up 45 minutes’ worth of the finest melancholia the world has ever been privileged to hear.

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