The Marble Index (album)

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The Marble Index
NICOMARBLEINDEX.JPG
Studio album by Nico
Released November 1968
Recorded September 1968
Studio Elektra Studios, Los Angeles, United States
Genre Avant-garde
Length 30:48
Label Elektra
Producer Frazier Mohawk, John Cale (uncredited)[1][2]
Nico chronology
Chelsea Girl
(1967)
The Marble Index
(1969)
Desertshore
(1970)

The Marble Index is the second solo studio album by German musician Nico, released in November 1968. Produced by Frazier Mohawk, it was released on Elektra Records. Described by critic Simon Reynolds as "one of the most harrowing and death-fixated albums in rock history,"[3] The Marble Index was written by Nico and features musical arrangements by John Cale, who had worked with Nico during her collaboration with the Velvet Underground.

Though a commercial failure upon release, the record has since received acclaim from music critics. The Marble Index set the musical model for the rest of Nico's career, and became a crucial music and visual prototype for the gothic rock movement of the post-punk era.[4]

Background and recording[edit]

Nico had made her studio album debut in 1967 as a vocal collaborator in The Velvet Underground & Nico. She had joined The Velvet Underground at the request of Andy Warhol, the band's manager at the time, as he felt a chanteuse would add to the group.[2] Both Nico and The Velvet Underground were regulars at The Factory.[5] The group, however, was unimpressed with Nico's abilities and reluctant to have her in the band.[2] This, coupled with her desire to be a soloist, made Nico decide to leave the group as casually as she had joined.[5] The band members continued to accompany Nico as she performed on her own, and eventually participated in her solo debut, Chelsea Girl, released in 1967. The folk-pop album also featured songwriting credits by Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, and Jackson Browne —with whom Nico had a short affair.[2]

Although Chelsea Girl is well-regarded by music critics, Nico expressed rejection towards it, stating: "The first time I heard the album, I cried. I still cannot listen to it, because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away."[6] Jim Morrison, who Nico later referred to as "[her] soul brother," encouraged her to write her own songs; this was "a key breakthrough for [her]."[7] They were together in California between the months of July and August 1967, where they often drove into the desert and experimented with peyote.[8] Morrison also encouraged Nico to write down her dreams and read Mary Shelley, William Blake, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to her.[8] He would record his chemical visions and dreams, and then use this material for his songs, in the fashion he imagined the opium-addicted Coleridge worked.[8] In 1986, Nico said: "He taught me to write songs. I never thought that I could. [...] He really inspired me a lot. It was like looking in a mirror then."[9] She subsequently began writing her own material, and performing in intimate circles at Steve Paul's club, The Scene.[2] Nico composed her music in a harmonium. According to Richard Witts, she bought it from a hippie in San Francisco,[8] while then-manager Danny Fields recalls "I think Leonard Cohen may have given it to her, or had something to do with her getting it."[10] With that instrument, "she discovered not only her own artistic voice, but a whole new realm of sound."[11] The droning pump organ would become her trademark.[12]

The Marble Index was produced in a period of Nico's life that biographers tend to barely probe. For The Quietus's Matthew Lindsay, "the liminal drift of these years only emphasizes the music's amorphous moorings and lack of precedent."[13] Nico approached Danny Fields around the summer of 1968 with the desire to make an album to prove herself artistically.[10] Resentful towards her beauty, she radically changer her image, dyeing her hair red and wearing black clothes as an effort to distance herself from what had made her a popular fashion model.[5] John Cale said: "She hated the idea of being blonde and beautiful, and in some ways she hated being a woman, because she figured all her beauty had brought her was grief. [...] So The Marble Index was an opportunity for her to prove she was a serious artist, not just this kind of blonde bombshell."[10] Nico already had the title for the album in mind, taken from The Prelude, magnum opus of William Wordsworth; in it he contemplates a statue of Isaac Newton "with his prism and silent face / The marble index of a mind for ever / Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone."[14] When asked about the significance of choosing a Wordsworth quote, Nico replied: "I sometimes find a little of my own poetry in other poets, yes. Incidentally, or accidentally."[9]

I didn’t think it was going to sell at all. But I thought it would be worth making. Elektra was doing so well at the time that we were able to take risks and experiment. That’s what I did, took chances. People think record companies are only in it for the money. And yes, in order to keep doing what we were doing we had to make money. But it’s how you spend your money that’s important.

Jac Holzman, Uncut, 2015[10]

Fields took Nico's petition to Jac Holzman, head of Elektra Records.[2] She then went to Holzman's office in Broadway with her harmonium and performed for him.[2][10] Despite the challenging nature of Nico's music, Holzman agreed to make her album and assigned Frazier Mohawk as a producer, despite Nico and John Cale's desire to work together. He signed off on a budget of $10,000 with a recording schedule of four days in La Cienega, Los Angeles.[2][10] Cale was contacted by Fields, and worked in the album as the de facto producer, while Mohawk left him alone to work on it. Mohawk later said he had spent most of the sessions doing heroin with Nico.[10] Her drug use is usually cited as an influence in the album's sound, with Simon Reynolds writing: "While it may be a reductive interpretation to regard The Marble Index as the ultimate heroin album, its hunger for narcosis, its frigid expanses, recalls William Burrough's description of the junkie's quest for a metabolic 'Absolute Zero'."[3]

Nico and Cale worked on a song at a time, mixing the album as they went; her voice and harmonium were the starting point for each track.[10] Regarding the recording process, Cale remarked:

The harmonium was out of tune with everything. It wasn’t even in tune with itself. She insisted on playing it on everything so we had to figure out ways to separate her voice from it as much as possible and then find instrumental voices that would be compatible with the harmonium track. [...] As an arranger you’re usually trying to take the songs and put a structure on them, but what I thought was valuable was when you took the centre out of the track and worked around the central core of the tonality and changes. That left you with a sort of floating free-form tapestry behind what she was doing, which is when things became more abstract.[10]

He also stated: "I was pretty much left alone for two days, and I let [Nico] in at the end. I played her [the album] song by song, and she'd burst into tears. 'Oh! It's so beautiful!', 'Oh, it's so beautiful!' You know, this is the same stuff that people tell me, 'Oh! It's so suicidal!'"[8] The original release of The Marble Index included eight of the 12 songs Nico recorded for it.[15] "Roses in the Snow", "Nibelungen", "Sagen die Gelehrten" and "Reve Reveiller" were the tracks that didn't make the final cut.[16] The finished album lasted barely 30 minutes, which "was as much apparently as Frazier Mohawk, mixing and sequencing it, could stand without starting to feel suicidal."[10]

Composition[edit]

"My melodies are from the Middle Ages. They are from my Russian soul. I do not mean this literally, but they are that in my imagination. John Cale said that they are not tonal. They do not come from our key system. They are too old in their arrangement."

— Nico[8]

The avant-garde style of The Marble Index was unprecedented and distanced Nico from rock and pop.[11][17] When an interviewer pointed out the contrast between Chelsea Girl and The Marble Index, Nico said the latter was "not supposed to be noise, because most pop music to me is noise, alright?"[9] John Cale considered it "makes more sense in terms of advancing the modern European classical tradition than it does as folk or rock music."[10] While Nico's simple compositions are based around one or two chords,[1] Cale decided to keep the album away from drone and raga —Eastern traditions which were common in the West Coast at that time— in favor of an European classical approach in his arrangements.[10] The resulting sound has been likened to ancient Germanic folk,[18] Gregorian chant,[19] medieval music —such as the madrigal—,[14][20][19] European avant-garde,[18] Romanticism,[21] and the work of Richard Wagner.[19] Author Peter Buckley also noted Nico's use of psychedelic drugs during the Summer of Love as an influence in the album's music;[22] likewise, Jim DeRogatis considered it "minimalist bad-trip psychedelia."[23] frieze declared it the "bridge between the New York Minimalists of the late 1960s and Brian Eno's ambient records of the late 1970s."[24]

According to Uncut, the album is "one of that rare breed of recordings which, the better part of four decades later, still has no adequate comparison, existing in a genre all its own."[25] The Marble Index is considered by many to be an influential proto-goth record.[26][20][27] Its soundscape has been described as "bleak",[17] "chilly",[26] "harrowing",[28] and "everything from the sound of someone rapping on a coffin lid to that of being buried alive."[29] Anne Marie Micklo, in her 1969 Rolling Stone review, described it as "mood music, with an obscure and elusive text recited over it."[30]

Nico's lyrics have been described as "mythological and surrealist."[31] According to Spin, "for lyrical inspiration, Nico looked to the Romantic poets and peyote, passions shared with Jim Morrison."[14] Stephen Davis asserts that the album's lyrics stem from the collaboration between Nico and Morrison, and that his influence can be seen in song titles such as "Lawn of Dawns", Frozen Warnings" and "Evening of Light".[32] Morrison offered Nico a model for her writings by showing her how he worked on his poems; her use of internal rhymes. for example, demonstrate this.[8] Writer Peter Hogan believes that some of her lyrics "show a marked debt to Sylvia Plath and to William Blake," and a search for artistic legitimacy.[21] Other critics have noted an intriguing nature in the lyrics,[33] with Richie Unterberger writing that "Nico intones lyrics that don't quite express specific feelings but convey a state of uneasy restlessness."[4] Other adjectives used to characterize the lyrics of the album include "stark [and] symbolist,"[34] and "metaphysical",[35]

Songs[edit]

"Through a pale morning's arctic sunlight glinting dimly off the snow, a bank of violas emits one endless shrill note which eventually becomes electronically distorted by points of ice panning back and forth through the space between your ears, descending and then impossibly ascending in volume and ineluctable intensity until they're almost unbearable through infinitely graceful in their beauty."
Lester Bangs, 1978[36]

Problems playing this file? See media help.

The album's prelude opens the album with a gentle instrumental featuring a piano and glockenspiel, then cutting off into "Lawn of Dawns" which introduces Nico's harmonium "of undulating motion weaving against her voice".[1] The song is engulfed in "weird clattering and tintinnabulating", while a "dark twangy guitar [...] stumbles to a subdued halt in [its] final seconds."[37] It features what may be Nico's first songlyrics, inspired by the peyote visions she endured with Jim Morrison; she sings the lines: "He blesses you, he blesses me/The day the night caresses,/Caresses you, caresses me,/Can you follow me?/I cannot understand the way I feel/Until I rest on lawns of dawns -/Can you follow me?".[8] Nico explained the peyote-induced experience that inspired the lyrics as follows: "The light of the dawn was a very deep green and I believed I was upside down and the sky was the desert which had become a garden and then the ocean. I do not swim and I was frightened when it was water and more resolved when it was land. I felt embraced by the sky-garden."[8] The lyrics of the following track, "No One Is There" have been described as "in all probability influenced by Jim Morrison," as she sings "Some are calling/Some are sad/Some are calling mad" over Cale's classical quartet of violas darting in and out into her unusual vocal tempo.[1] "Ari's Song" was dedicated to Nico's young son Christian Aaron "Ari" Boulogne, her only child with French actor Alain Delon; it has been described as "the least-comforting lullaby ever recorded".[33] The track opens with the clipped and whistling tones of the harmonium as she softly intonates "Sail away/Sail away my little boy".[1] "Facing The Wind" is shored up by "Cale-banged piano clusters, scraping of percussion or walls and off-beat tympani;" Nico's voice appears to be filtered, possibly through a Leslie speaker, while the "somnambulistic toiling" of her pipe organ is fettered by viola gears and the exhaustively strident piano banging.[1]

Side two opens with "Julius Caesar (Memento Hodié)", which lyrically concerns myths and gods. It exhibits Nico's low and droning harmonium clusters while Cale's viola needles into them; on "Frozen Warnings", however, Cale's arrangements adopt a more harmonic mode to blend with the pipe organ.[1] The latter is considered Nico's signature song from her period of collaboration with John Cale,[15] with Nina Antonia stating: "Of all the strange and wracked numbers on the record, 'Frozen Warnings' is quintessential Nico; lyrics that convey a sorrowful atmosphere and little comfort in the melody."[38] The album's oneiric quality comes to an end with its closing track, "Evening of Light", which has been described as "frighteningly quiet and hypnotizing." As Nico sings "Midnight winds are landing at the end of time," delayed harpsichords and Cale's staccato viola build circularly, until the latter gains ground and sways back and forth with the tympani's "roar and clatter."[1] In the originally unreleased "Nibelungen," included in the album's reissue of 1991, Nico's voice is totally unaccompanied, even without the harmonium.[37] The full version with instrumental accompaniment was included in the 2007 compilation The Frozen Borderline – 1968-1970; according to Dave Thompson of AllMusic, "it rises to equal any of Nico's subsequent performances or compositions."[16]

Release and aftermath[edit]

Upon hearing the album, Jac Holzman decided "there was no question of not releasing it" despite it lacking commercial appeal, seeing it as a work of art rather than a product.[10] The Marble Index was released in November 1968 with little promotion behind it.[10] A music video for "Evening of Light," featuring Iggy Pop, was shot by François de Menil in 1969.[5] It features Nico and Iggy frolicking among mannequins fixed into the earth of a ploughed potato field.[39]

As expected, The Marble Index "failed to challenge the supremacy of Nashville Skyline, From Elvis in Memphis, Abbey Road and Diana Ross & the Supremes Join The Temptations in the album charts of 1969."[37] Although Holzman was pleased with the album, Nico's permanence in the label became unlikely, as he had become increasingly concerned by her heroin use, and she had a difficult and irresponsible attitude.[10] Nico left the United States before she was officially dropped from Elektra, after a violent incident in a New York City bar.[10] Various biographers refer to her leaving America in a sense of exile; Nico said "when you live in a dangerous place, you also become increasingly dangerous. You might just wind up in jail."[9] In London, she would record two more albums with Cale in the same vein: Desertshore (1970) and The End... (1974) —which are now considered part of a trilogy.[13]

Critical reception[edit]

Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
About.com 4.5/5 stars[11]
AllMusic 3/5 stars[17]
Lester Bangs positive[36]
Le Guide du CD 4/4 stars[40]
MusicHound 4/5 stars[40]
NME 7/10[26]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide 3.5/5 stars[33]
Rolling Stone positive[30]
Martin C. Strong 7/10[40]
Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music 4/5 stars[41]

The record went generally unnoticed upon its release; it did, however, win admiration of such counter-cultural underground papers as the East Village Other and International Times.[37] Most critics found "her desolate soundscapes inaccesible."[22] Anne Marie Micklo of Rolling Stone reviewed the album positively, particularly considering side two "a really worthwhile venture into musical infinity."[30] Over the years, a cult following slowly began to emerge around it, including music journalist Lester Bangs, who wrote the article Your Shadow Is Scared of You: An Attempt Not to Be Frightened by Nico in 1978.[36] In it he writes "The Marble Index is the greatest piece of "avant-garde classical" "serious" music of the last half of the 20th century so far."[36] He heavily praises the album throughout the article, although also stating it "scared the shit out of [him]" and describing the listening experience as "self-torture."[36]

The album has had "a slow progress to critical darlinghood," although for the most part audiences have remained nonplussed by it.[31] According to Simon Goddard, most critics regard it as "her defining avant-garde masterpiece."[42] In The Rolling Stone Album Guide, the it is considered the point in Nico's discography where "the difficult listening starts", and "pretty amazing for it."[33] Anthony Carew of About.com called it "a suite of rootless songs written with little precedent," and "an astonishing haunting, the work of a woman who, even whilst alive, seemed a lot like a ghost."[11] Likewise, Anthony Thornton of NME regarded it as an "artistic triumph", writing: "Bleak but beautiful, this album remains the most fitting embodiment of her doomed glamour."[26] Spin considered "few records, before or since, have sounded lonelier, spookier, or more desolate," and that only a few of those inspired by the album "have sailed so near to the edge of the abyss with such chillingly beautiful results."[14]

Dorian Lynskey, writing for The Guardian, felt that The Marble Index forces the distinction between art and entertainment, and likens its extreme darkness to Scott Walker, Mark Rothko and Philip Roth.[28] Simon Reynolds described the record as "psychic landscapes, glittering in their immaculate, lifeless majesty of someone cut off from the thawing warmth of human contact and fellowship;"[7] and "religious music for nihilists."[3]

Legacy[edit]

Nico in Zürich, 1987. The stylistic shift she began with The Marble Index became the prototype of the 1980s goth subculture.

The Marble Index featured a unique sound which set it apart from the musical landscape of the 1960s. Anthony Thornton of NME called it "a stark, oppressive opus that has influenced everyone from PJ Harvey to The Duke Spirit.[26] Spin wrote: " [The Marble Index] set the tone for decades of music to come — Arthur Russell, Dead Can Dance, Fennesz, Zola Jesus, Grouper, pretty much every metal band that ever used a harpsichord — but few followers have sailed so near to the edge of the abyss with such chillingly beautiful results."[14]

Simon Reynolds wrote about a female rock persona called the Ice Queen: "Ice is the opposite of all that women are supposed to be: warm, flowing, giving, receptive. Like Lady Macbeth, the Ice Queen has unsexed herself, dammed up her lachrymal and lactation ducts. She offers cold, not comfort. Her hand surfaces can't be penetrated. She is an island, an iceberg."[3] He argues that, with The Marble Index, Nico took this persona (originally embodied by Grace Slick) even further, fetishizing disconnection and "[dreaming] of a sort of negative nirvana".[3] This persona has been influential to future female artists like Siouxsie Sioux, Zola Jesus, and Björk.[20] The latter's 2011 album, Biophilia, was described by Rolling Stone as The Marble Index's "haunted digital sister."[43]

The track "Frozen Warnings" was included in Toby Creswell's compendium, 1001 Songs, who wrote "Just as she had done with The Velvet Underground & Nico, the singer put a new tone into music."[44] In 2013, John Cale curated the Brooklyn Academy of Music show Life Along the Borderline: A Tribute to Nico, which featured various tracks off The Marble Index and other album's by Nico, performed by artists such as Peaches, Yeasayer, Sharon Van Etten, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Cale himself.[45][46]

Goth[edit]

The record has been particularly influential to the goth subculture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, sometimes being called "the first goth album".[47] Gothic rock musicians, such as Siouxsie and the Banshees,[48] were influenced by the album's droning, stark sound.[17] Gothic rock musicians like Ian Astbury of The Cult and Peter Murphy of Bauhaus have cited Nico as an influence.[47] She also lived in the United Kingdom when the gothic rock scene was developing, with supporting acts including The Sisters of Mercy and Gene Loves Jezebel. Peter Murphy stated "Nico was gothic, but she was Mary Shelley gothic to everyone else's Hammer horror film gothic. They both did Frankenstein, but Nico's was real."[47] On the other hand, David Dalton of Gadfly Online wrote "some say she is the originator of Goth, but this is just silly, a misunderstanding, a pastiche. Nico has no heirs. She is a discrete entity."[2]

The album's release also coincided with a deliberate change in Nico's look, adopting what has been called a "gothic horror princess" persona.[49] She "switched from dyed blonde to dark henna and started wearing black, heavy fabrics and boots."[7] Nico thus became not only a musical prototype for the goth subculture, but also a visual one.[4] According to Claire Marie Healy, "Nico's visual statement of these years speaks of the power that comes with creating a new persona for yourself."[20] She also described the singer as "the first ever goth girl."[20] By the early 1980s, many women began to dress like Nico; they were the first goth women, who were nicknamed «nico-teens» and generated a cult following around the singer.[8][50]

Accolades[edit]

The information regarding accolades attributed to The Marble Index is adapted from AcclaimedMusic.net, except where otherwise noted.[40]

Publication Country Accolade Year Rank
About.com United States Top 30 Alternative Albums of the 1960s[51] 2010 25
Fast 'n' Bulbous The 500 Best Albums Since 1965 2012 470
Spin The Top 100 Alternative Albums of the 1960s[14] 2013 14
GQ United Kingdom The 100 Coolest Albums in the World Right Now! 2005 23
The Guardian 1000 Albums to Hear Before You Die 2007 *
Paul Morley Words and Music, 5 x 100 Greatest Albums of All Time 2003 *
Sunday Herald Scotland The 103 Best Albums Ever, Honest 2001 *
Rock & Folk France The Best Albums from 1963 to 1999 1999 *
Mucchio Selvaggio Italy 100 Best Albums by Decade 2002 83
(*) designates lists that are unordered.

Track listing[edit]

All songs written and composed by Nico. 

Side one
No. Title Length
1. "Prelude"   1:00
2. "Lawns of Dawns"   3:11
3. "No One Is There"   3:37
4. "Ari's Song"   3:21
5. "Facing the Wind"   4:55
Side two
No. Title Length
6. "Julius Caesar (Memento Hodié)"   5:02
7. "Frozen Warnings"   4:02
8. "Evening of Light"   5:40

Personnel[edit]

Credits adapted from The Marble Index's liner notes.[37]

References[edit]

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  45. ^ Schurr, Maria (January 25, 2013). "Life Along the Borderline: A Tribute to Nico". PopMatters. PopMatters Media, Inc. 
  46. ^ Chiu, David (January 17, 2013). "John Cale, Yeasayer, Sharon Van Etten Celebrate the Music of Nico". Rolling Stone. Wenner Media LLC. Retrieved January 9, 2016. 
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