Actress, model, musician, Christa Päffgen, better known as Nico, wore a lot of hats over the course of her life. Most people can only dream of matching her accomplishments. Of the three, however, it is the last one that people remember her most for. Or they would remember her most for if she was not largely forgotten.
Which is a real shame since her influence was essential to the development of goth-rock and, to a lesser extent, postpunk. More than that, though, her compositions are unique creations completely impossible to mistake for anyone else’s.
Christa Päffgen was born in the German city of Cologne in 1938. To call her childhood an unhappy one would be an understatement of mythic proportions. Various joyous events included dodging Allied bombing raids, watching her father slowly expire from a war wound, and finally, a rape at the hands of an American soldier at the age of fifteen. A life like that would be enough to screw anybody up, and Päffgen was indeed that. More on that later.
Nico, as she would soon rechristen herself, fared much better in her professional life. She began as a store model for a popular German department store, but her career subsequently went international. She soon branched out into acting, landing parts in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls. The last job led to Warhol inserting her into a local band in which he’d developed an interest: the Velvet Underground.
The resulting album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, is one of the most influential in rock history, more or less creating alternative music (though not, ironically, underground music, the Fugs already did that in 1964). However, Nico only really played the part of chanteuse on that album.
While she already had some experience with the music industry under her belt, her experience with the Velvet Underground, plus her romance with the Doors frontman Jim Morrison, gave her a desire to be a creator in her own right. Lucky for her, her connection to the Velvets made her marketable. Her first try was 1968’s Chelsea Girl, a woodwind-heavy chamber-pop album. Because she had no creative control, the final result bore almost no resemblance to Nico’s vision.
The Marble Index
It was her next album that established Nico’s signature sound. Released in 1969, The Marble Index perfectly reflected Nico’s vision. Described by its producer, former Velvet John Cale, as “less of an album and more of a hole you fall into,” there was nothing like The Marble Index in the late 60s. In fact, there’s nothing on the market like it now.
The album had a spare, mournful sound that mostly revolved around Cale’s signature strings and Nico’s harmonium. Of course, strings were not exactly rare in rock, not in 1969. However, Nico’s instrument of choice, which is essentially a miniature organ, was basically unheard of. The harmonium’s distinctive wheeze would be odd enough, but the particular model she used was one made in India and not tuned according to western scales. To this, Nico and Cale added more unusual instruments. For example, the album’s fourth track, “Ari’s Song”, shrieks to life with the thin, icy wail of a bosun’s whistle.
In terms of genre, The Marble Index defies easy categorization. It’s not rock, not by a long shot, having more in common with modern classical works, especially minimalist ones. The only category it does fit neatly into is avant-garde, which is such a catch-all category that it is almost a cop-out.
Nico went on to release more albums over the course of the seventies and early eighties. Except for her final album, Camera Obscura, most were variations on the same sound The Marble Index introduced. While her albums stayed out of the mainstream, they ultimately found their way to the underground. Especially in Manchester, where she settled later in life. Since Manchester was a focal point for musical innovation during her career, it was a windfall. She particularly influenced the nascent goth-rock genre, as typified by bands like Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees. A fact that is certainly evident in goth-rock’s use of the same spare, repetitive melodies Nico herself used.
As above, Nico’s music doesn’t remotely qualify as rock, hieing closer to classical. Central to her sound is the wheeze and rumble of her harmonium, usually mixed with John Cale’s wailing strings, which provides the backbone of most of her compositions. Some critics have described her melodies as childish, and there is some truth to that. She generally just plays simple progressions with little variation. In fact, her melodies have almost the same vibe as Captain Beefheart’s melodies. Especially his simpler, softer ones like “A Carrot is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond”.
In general, there is something unsettling about Nico’s songs. Often she sounds like she is singing in the middle of a vast wasteland, her voice strong but always fading around the edges. All the while, her harmonium croaks under her voice. It’s eerie but very effective. Her lyrics don’t help things either, being mostly about isolation, death, and other happy things.
In many ways, her sound reflected her personality, which a charitable person could call complicated. Aside from being casually anti-semetic and a vicious racist (she once attacked a mixed-race woman in a restaurant with a broken wineglass just for being there), Nico was generally neurotic and depressive. Her heroin habit didn’t help matters either and would end her life in 1988. Extremes defined her.
A Place in the Sun
While Nico herself isn’t as well-remembered as the acts she associated with, her influence lives on. Whatever else she was, she was an artist, and unlike many in her position, she managed to fulfill her vision. If there’s such a thing as a win in life, that would certainly count.