Femme Fatale

Album: The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
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  • A "femme fatale" is a very seductive woman who will leave a man worse off than she found him. The inspiration for this song was actress Edie Sedgwick, who was a member of Andy Warhol's "Factory" crowd. Warhol was the manager of the Velvet Underground for a time, and good friends with Velvet Underground leader Lou Reed. He asked for this song to be written for Edie, playing up her image as a heartbreaker.
  • According to the book The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side, during Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows, Warhol's right-hand man, Gerard Malanga, would get onstage in a leather outfit and crack a whip during this number. S&M was a common theme in 1960s culture, especially around Warhol's New York, and of course it was a large influence on early Velvet Underground songs.

    The band's name itself came from journalist Michael Leigh's 1963 paperback The Velvet Underground, an exposé of the sexual revolution going on in the USA at the time. The book included hyperbole-laden examinations of S&m, polyamory, homosexuality, and other practices then seen as "deviant." Tony Conrad, a filmmaker friend of the band, accidentally dropped the book for Lou Reed to find, who pounced on it and adopted the title; he liked it less for the S&m aspect and more for the word "underground" which would associate them with the underground film and music scene. Lou Reed himself in a 1969 interview with Open City would later call the book "the funniest dirty book I've ever read."
  • The subject of this song, Edith Minturn "Edie" Sedgwick, was an actress, socialite, model, and heiress. Her fame extended well beyond the (Warholian) proverbial 15 minutes - her great-great-great grandfather, William Ellery, was a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence, and her family history blooms out from there touching almost every corner of United States history from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the founding of New York's Central Park. In spite of this impressive family tree, Sedgwick was to find only limited success outside of Andy Warhol's flock, struggle with substance abuse, and die from overdose of alcohol and barbiturate at the age of 28.

    Perhaps this is a good point to mention that Velvet Underground's producer and mentor, Andy Warhol, had the nickname of "Drella" - a name derived from a contraction of Dracula and Cinderella. The reference was to how Andy could make you famous, but at the price of sucking some of that fame away for himself. This brought Lou Reed and John Cale, long since split from The Velvet Underground, to name their 1990 collaborative album Songs For Drella, in tribute to Warhol, who died in 1987.
  • Nico is a German singer who fronted the Velvet Underground. When she saw the "whoa whoa whoa" lines Reed wrote in the lyric, she thought he was making fun of her. He had to explain that these kind of nonsense words were part of American rock and roll tradition.
  • Lou Reed recorded a new version of this song with the Tom Tom Club for their 1988 album Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom. Tom Tom Club was formed by the rhythm section of Talking Heads: drummer Chris Frantz and bass player Tina Weymouth. They first met in 1976 when Talking Heads was a new band playing at the New York Club CBGB. When Chris and Tina decided to cover "Femme Fatale," they called Reed on a lark to see if he would join them, and he said yes. They then called their Talking Heads bandmates David Byrne and Jerry Harrison to let them know Reed would be coming by for a session, and they came too.

    Reed and Byrne played guitar on the track, and Harrison added some keyboard washes using a device called an Emulator. Weymouth played Harmonium sang lead. At her suggestion, the guys sang the "she's a femme fatale" backing vocals.

    Later in 1988, Tom Tom Club returned to CBGB for a three-week residency. Debbie Harry of Blondie sang "Femme Fatale" with them on one night, and at the last show, Reed joined them on the song.
  • In 2021, Sharon Van Etten covered "Femme Fatale" for I'll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to The Velvet Underground & Nico. "I always loved that song; especially living in New York and having that image in my head, all in slow-motion of Nico just walking down the street," she told Uncut magazine. "I felt it was perfectly in my range - I did a tribute to Nico with John Cale years ago, and 'Femme Fatale' is one song I didn't get to perform then."

Comments: 11

  • Derek from Pittsburgh, PaOn the Bootleg Series and on 1969: Live, Lou sings this song.
  • Brian from Dublin, Irelandi heard lou wrote this song about nico and she was part of the reason him and john fell out
  • Jezebel from Lincoln, MoI agree I'm totally intrigued by her voice and she was sooooo beautiful. She was pure art I tell ya
  • Jenny from West Hills, CaOne of my favorites! Love the band and am intrigued with Nico's voice!
  • Glen from Fredericksburg, VaI think Nico's contribution really made the album. Her voice is so mysterious, it draws you in. This album is really underrated in my opinion, but I guess that applies to the band in whole. I love the song.
  • Stefanie from Rock Hill, Sc60's compilation tape? That's surprising!
  • Cameron from Irvine, CaI first heard this song on a 60's compilation tape, which is pretty suprising considering the Velvet's were a pretty low key group, and I've been into them ever since. But, among many of the Velvet's material, I prefer the 1969 Live version.
  • Stefanie from Rock Hill, ScAgreed Steve. Hey you guys. You'll never guesssed who cevered this song? Duran-Duran. I 5hought it was a strange combination when i first heard it, and I didn't remember having ever heard it before, but I had heard the original a few times. I told my mother about it, and played the original for her the next day. I like the original better, even though Doran-Duran is a pretty good band I think. Some of you guys might disagree with me though on them as a band. Anyway, I thought I'd share that tidbit. I can't remember the name of the album the cover is on, but I think it came out in 1993.
  • Stefanie from Rock Hill, ScNico was great! It's ashame she died when she did. I like the fact that she always tried to remain mysterious. It's too bad she didn't perform with the band more.
  • Stefanie from Rock Hill, ScThis song is great!!!!! Didn't realize the character was a prostitute. GAha Maybe I should have... duhh. Anways, I think this song is great and I love Nico's voice.
  • Steve from Fenton, MoI liked this song the very first time I heard it. I wish there were more pictures of Nico.
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