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Music / Nico

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Nico, circa 1970.

"And with The Velvets come the blonde, bland, beautiful Nico, another cooler Dietrich for another cooler generation. Art [...] will never be the same again."
John Wilcock of The East Village Other's review of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable show, quoted in the liner notes of The Velvet Underground & Nico CD.

Nico (aka Christa Paffgen, 16 October 1938 – 18 July 1988) was a German singer, model, actress, and Pop Art muse. Born in 1938, she started modeling when she was a teenager and later moved into acting, landing a minor blink and you miss it appearance in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Later still, she started working with Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey on their experimental films, and it was Andy who inserted her into the Velvet Underground's lineup. The collaboration ended rather quickly because she and the band didn't really get along and the Velvets soon broke their ties with Warhol. Nevertheless, her work with the Velvets became legendary in the rock community, despite the fact that her involvement was limited: She only sang three songs and added backing vocals to another on The Velvet Underground & Nico. Additionally, she received no writing credits and was credited as "chanteuse."

Nico soon embarked on a solo career, using the opportunity to demonstrate the full range of her musical talent. Her debut album, Chelsea Girl, was met with praise, despite the fact that Nico wasn't really involved in the production of the album and was dissatisfied with it. It tends to be divisive, with some of her fans regarding it as a great album, and others regarding it as an unworthy recording that is unrepresentative of Nico's talents and has attracted an undue amount of attention. She started taking control of her music starting with her second album. Because of this, her sound evolved into something darker, more experimental, and more harmonium driven. Many of these albums are regarded in some circles as masterpieces. She also worked briefly with the French avant-garde film-maker Philippe Garrel (with whom she had a relationship), making a slew of obscure avant-garde films, Le lit de la vierge, La cicatrice interieure, Les hautes solitudes that are mirrors to her avant-garde music. They also starred her son Ari, the result of an affair with Alain Delon (who refused to acknowledge the boy as his son, despite him being the spitting image of Alain).

On July 18, 1988, Nico had a minor heart attack while riding a bicycle in Ibiza and hit her head as she fell. A passing taxi driver found her and had a hard time finding a hospital that would admit her. She was incorrectly diagnosed as suffering from heat exposure instead of having a severe cerebral hemorrhage, and died as a result. Her legacy still lives on, as part of the Velvets and as a respected solo artist. Musicians influenced by her include Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bat for Lashes, Patrick Wolf, Björk, Bauhaus, Coil, Elliott Smith, and Dead Can Dance. Also, despite their Creative Differences, the Velvets liked her voice enough that whenever they performed "I'll Be Your Mirror" (a song where they fought with Nico to get the final result) live, they'd sing it in a German accent.

Solo Discography:

  • Chelsea Girl (1967)
  • The Marble Index (1969)
  • Desertshore (1970)
  • The End... (1974)
  • Drama of Exile (1981)
  • The Drama of Exile (1983) note 
  • Camera Obscura (1985)

The following tropes are related to Nico:

  • Baroque Pop: Chelsea Girl.
  • The Chanteuse: How Warhol named Nico to avoid the band from thinking that he was actually adding a female front singer to the group. (Which he, in a sense, did.)
  • Cover Version: "The End" by The Doors on the album of the same name, "I'm Not Saying" by Gordon Lightfoot as her first single, "I'm Waiting for the Man" by Velvet Underground and "'Heroes'" by David Bowie on Drama of Exile, and the pop standard "My Funny Valentine" on Camera Obscura. In a variation, some of the songs for Chelsea Girl were written specifically for her by her collaborators.
  • Creepy Monotone
  • Darker and Edgier: The Marble Index is a hell of a shift from Chelsea Girl. It only gets darker from here.
  • Drone of Dread: The Marble Index, Desertshore, and The End... practically run on this trope, being helmed by former Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale, who himself is a master of this trope.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Her first single, "I'm Not Saying" (a Gordon Lightfoot composition) / "The Last Mile," is an unusually sunny affair compared to the Gothic gloom of her later works. Her first album also qualifies, since she had very little control over it (she had no control over the arrangements and the only song she had any writing input on was "It Was a Pleasure Then," which not coincidentally sounds more like her later material than the other songs on the album).
  • Epic Rocking: "It Was a Pleasure Then," the cover of "The End," and "Fearfully in Danger."
  • Harmony: From The Marble Index onwards, Nico wrote and recorded her songs on an Indian harmonium, which is tuned to an entirely different scale than the Western instruments that make up the rest of the music. The effect can be more than a little unsettling.
  • Jerkass: According to one account (published after her death, of course, so she could no longer challenge it) she was a virulent racist who once randomly attacked a black woman while drunk.
    • She also offered this reason as to why her label dropped her: "I made a mistake. I said in Melody Maker to some interviewer that I didn't like negroes. That's all. They took it so personally . . .although it's a whole different race. I mean, Bob Marley doesn't resemble a negro, does he? ... He's an archetype of Jamaican ... but with the features like white people. I don't like the features. They're so much like animals.... it's cannibals, no?"
  • Kids Rock: "Le Petit Chevalier" from Desertshore is a one minute tune of Nico playing the harpsichord and her son Ari singing a few lines.
  • Lighter and Softer: The more New Wave influenced Drama of Exile coming right after the High Octane Nightmare Fuel concentrated The End...
  • New Sound Album: All of them!
  • Perishing Alt-Rock Voice: Yeah, she and pretty much everybody else in the Velvet Underground. Except maybe Mo Tucker.
  • The Rashomon: Try to get a straight story of why there are two versions of Drama of Exile. Wikipedia has more details.
  • Rouge Angles of Satin: It's "You Forget to Answer," not "You Forgot to Answer." It doesn't help that the song title was misprinted on some editions of The End...
  • Stage Names: Christa Paffgen was named "Nico" by Herbert Tobias, after his ex-boyfriend Nico Papatakis.
  • Take That!: Her performance of "Das Lied der Deutschen," which includes the infamous "Deutschland uber Alles" verse, was, according to Word of God, intended as one towards Nazi Germany; she explicitly cited Jimi Hendrix's performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" as an inspiration and dedicated live performances to a communist. Not everyone managed to figure this out. The fact that she was apparently still pretty racist herself probably didn't help matters.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Warhol called Nico a "chanteuse" when he introduced her to the Velvet Underground so that the band wouldn't have the impression he was actually adding a new front singer to the group.