“I still cannot listen to it”: Nico’s ‘Chelsea Girl’ was far from the solo debut she’d envisioned

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“I still cannot listen to it”: Nico’s ‘Chelsea Girl’ was far from the solo debut she’d envisioned

Photo: Flickr/GanMed64
Words by Kate Streader

Though it’s become one of her best-known works, Nico hated Chelsea Girl.

Comprising tracks written by Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, John Cale, Bob Dylan, Sterling Morrison and Tim Hardin, Nico’s solo debut Chelsea Girls was destined to be a masterpiece. Yet, the first time she heard it, Christa Päffgen cried.

They weren’t tears of joy, either.

“I still cannot listen to it, because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away,” she famously said of the record in 1981, “they” being producer Tom Wilson and arranger Larry Fallon.

“I asked for drums, they said no. I asked for more guitars, they said no. And I asked for simplicity, and they covered it in flutes!

“They added strings and – I didn’t like them, but I could live with them. But the flute! The first time I heard the album, I cried and it was all because of the flute.”

In fact, despite its all-star cast of collaborators, Chelsea Girl was far from the smash success it deserved to be. Though it certainly sparked Nico’s upward trajectory, like much of her work, the record went largely unappreciated upon its release. Even now, 52 years on, Nico is often reduced to a muse or recognised for the part she played in The Velvet Underground rather than her own artistic achievements.

“You can’t sell suicide,” offered John Cale as a means of explaining the flop of her follow-up, 1968’s The Marble Index. 

Perhaps the same logic can be applied to Chelsea Girl. While it isn’t nearly as bleak at The Marble Index, possibly thanks to the cheerful twill of flutes Päffgen detested so much, Chelsea Girl is rooted in melancholy. You need only to peek the sleeve’s composite photographs of Nico staring wistfully into the ether to glean the mood of Chelsea Girl. It’s pensive, downtrodden and regretful, and though Päffgen didn’t have a hand in writing any of the lyrics, they paint a picture of the troubled mind which clouded the singer’s career and life.

The record takes its title from the 1966 Andy Warhol film Chelsea Girls — in which Päffgen starred — which documents the bohemian types and social outcasts which frequented the Chelsea Hotel in the ‘60s. The record serves as a continuation of this theme.

While the Reed and Morrison-written ‘Chelsea Girls’ offers a direct look at the SM queens, drug addicts and trick-turners which frequented the legendary hotel, the rest of the album provides a more abstract depiction of those who exist on society’s fringes.

“Please don’t confront me with my failures/I had not forgotten them”, Nico croons in the closing moments of ‘These Days’, penned by her then lover Jackson Browne, mirroring the aura of the lost and lonely soul with which the track – and Nico herself – have since become synonymous.

While Nico may have been disappointed with her debut to the point of finding it unlistenable, it’s since become one of her best-known works. And despite her descent into addiction which would consume both her career and life, Chelsea Girls remains a testament to Nico’s artistry – flutes and all.

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