A fashion model and bit player in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, German native Christa Paffgen was dubbed Nico and plunged into the maelstrom of rock when Andy Warhol introduced her to the Velvet Underground, which she then joined as its femme fatale singer. Chelsea Girl, her maiden voyage on a solo musical career, is of interest mainly for its links to the band Nico had just left. Five songs were written (but not recorded) by Velvet Undergrounders; three others were written or co-written by a very young Jackson Browne. The material, however, is sabotaged by tepid arrangements and weak production. Highlight: the hypnotic “It Was a Pleasure Then,” on which Nico’s sepulchral voice is accompanied only by feedback guitar, undoubtedly played by Lou Reed.
The Marble Index was a substantial improvement. Arranger John Cale took Nico’s disturbing poetry and set it to even more disturbing music; the result is one of the scariest records ever made. Unlike Chelsea Girl, in which Nico tried to adapt to an outmoded chanteuse tradition, The Marble Index blasts her off to her own universe. Regardless of whether more credit is due her or Cale, the album is powerfully effective.
The Nico-Cale collaboration continued on Desertshore. Here the disjunctive imagery is set to slightly less gothic arrangements than before, proving Nico’s chanting (she doesn’t “sing” any more than she writes “songs”) can be as chilling a cappella as it is accompanied by a horror-movie soundtrack. (The Peel Sessions EP dates from early ’71.)
Three years later, she and Cale turned up with Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno on synthesizer for The End… The title track is the Doors epic, which Nico had also just previously recorded on the all-star June 1, 1974 album. With one exception, the rest of The End is original material, putting the emphasis on Nico’s voice and eerie, foot-pumped harmonium rather than on distracting sound effects. The exception, “Das Lied der Deutschen” (or “Deutschland Über Alles”), is enough to make you run out and buy war bonds.
After a lengthy recording hiatus, Nico re-emerged without Cale but with a conventional rock band on Drama of Exile. This jarring blend hurts everyone involved; adding insult to injury, bassist/producer Philippe Quilichini filters Nico’s voice for a tinny effect. Her psychotic writing is still fascinating, and certainly preferable to aimless versions of Lou Reed’s “Waiting for the Man” and David Bowie’s “Heroes.”
Joined by two sidemen and Cale as producer, Nico made the odd but exciting Camera Obscura in 1985. This modernization program includes both the nearly vocal-less title track’s meandering semi-random improvisation and an attractively somber version of “My Funny Valentine,” with stops in between for fascinating blends of Nico’s unique singing and post-noise industrial music. Camera Obscura raises Nico’s artistic average this decade to a respectable 50 percent.
Do or Die!, recorded live throughout Europe with various bands (including the Blue Orchids) backing her, is a lengthy sampler of Nico’s work minus the production flourishes of her studio albums. The fascinating and innately bizarre Live Heroes mini-album draws on some of the same shows — adding two tracks done with the Invisible Girls — for “My Funny Valentine,” “Heroes” and five others. Another concert set, the two-LP Iron Curtain was recorded in 1985 in Warsaw, Budapest and Prague with a band that included Eric Random. The Blue Angel is a retrospective compilation of solo and Velvet Underground material.
Nico died in July 1988 on the island of Ibiza, suffering a cerebral hemmorhage in a bicycle spill. The posthumous Hanging Gardens contains her last recordings — six powerfully somber processions, tastefully produced and evocatively sung — as well as two heretofore unreleased 1982 tracks (the full-blown “Vegas” and the spare “The Line”) and Drama of Exile‘s version of “I’m Waiting for the Man.”