In a non-pejorative sense, I can’t think of a musical trilogy I’d like to listen from start to finish less than Nico’s late Sixties/early Seventies run of The Marble Index, Desertshore and The End…. It’s the sheer undertaking of immersing oneself so fully in records that conjure up a forebodingly bleak distant feudal Mitteleuropa where “Unwed virgins” are “tied to the sand” that limits the appeal of listening to Nico’s 1969-1974 'trilogy' - listening to one is heavy going enough.
The three records aren’t thematically linked in an explicit sense, but they are undeniably cut from the same monochromatic cloth; the repetitive dirges of Nico’s harmonium, her chilling Teutonic monotone, John Cale producing and providing additional instrumentation and all wound together into entrancing plague visions, unsettling in atmosphere, but with moments of uncommon beauty. It’s a divisive sound that can make for onerous listening, but of the three albums The End…, reissued here with a second disc of live and Peel session takes, is perhaps the perfect compromise.
Although it feels like something of a deviation from the purity of having only Nico originals on the preceding two records, The End's closing tracks - comprising a cover of the titular Doors song and sometime German national anthem ‘Das Lied der Deutschen’ - provided a new found variety. The inclusion of the latter song is of course a contentious issue for some given the first verse of the song being closely identified with the Nazi regime and Nico herself having a reputation for flippant anti-Semitic comments and, rather more shockingly, racist attacks with broken wine glasses. Doubtless its inclusion was intended to be provocative, but the rendition of the song itself, if you can disassociate it from this background, is a beautiful and hymnal drone of harmonium and organ. The live version from the Rainbow Theatre on Disc 2 receives warm applause with Nico calling it “A harmless little song”. The cover of ‘The End’ sees the art-rock royalty backing band of John Cale, Brian Eno and Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera morph their way from a funeral march into a funky shuffle of bongos, shakers, bass grooves and guitar soloing that is thrillingly unlike anything else in Nico’s back catalogue. She nonetheless maintains her deadpan delivery.
Yet in the main The End… is still based around Nico’s simple harmonium melodies, with Cale-Eno-Manzanera providing subtle embellishments as necessary. Cale is as ever the person primarily responsible for the arrangements. He utilizes percussion instruments such marimba, xylophone and triangles to wonky effect on ‘We Got the Gold’ as Manzanera and Eno tease demented noise out of guitar and synthesiser respectively. In contrast the precise swishes of glockenspiel on album opener ‘It Has Not Taken Long’ add a spooky fairy tale tinkle to the looping drone. Eno’s presence is most strongly felt in passages of free form electronic noise that bookend the bare hypnotic harmonium sway of ‘Innocent and Vain’, whilst the similarly stripped back ‘The Valley of the Kings’ is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of Nico’s unique way of stretching enchanting vocal arcs over repetitive looping drones.
As the sharp contrast between the chamber-folk of her debut Chelsea Girl and her second album The Marble Index attests, Nico’s musical (and actual) DNA enabled her to create something genuinely unique of her own having been in the shadow of male collaborators so much in her early music career. Her sound is so effectively self-contained that it leaves little room for exterior influence, but The End… goes a little way to tempering this notion and also the clichéd image of her as a steely gothic siren, especially in the form of the touching ‘You Forgot To Answer’; again the shadow of Jim Morrison looms, this time the song being about her being unable to contact him before his death, and the harmonium is absent altogether replaced by plaintive piano, delicate guitar and swooning synths from her collaborators. It’s rarely spoken of as a thing of merit, but The End… is a great album for its compromises, however slight they are.
The extra disc provides mainly harmonium only versions of album tracks. From the Peel Session Nico sounds vocally more comfortable and more imposing on the ‘The End’, ‘Secret Side’ sounds better minus the album version brassy synths whereas ‘You Forgot To Answer’ is the exact opposite of the album version having harmonium only, with both versions equally affecting. The performances from The Old Grey Whistle Test and the Rainbow Theatre sound like they have an added edge of theatricality, but the general impression from the live performances just reasserts what the real core of these songs still is - just Nico’s voice and her harmonium.
8Neil Ashman's Score