Born Christina Päffgen on 16 October 1938 in Cologne, Germany, Nico became a fashion model at the age of 14, and in 1960 she appeared in Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita.
Her singing career began at the Blue Angel, a New York nightclub, in 1964. A year later, she released a single in England, The Last Mile, which was produced and arranged by Jimmy Page. Rolling Stone Brian Jones played on the B-side a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s I’m Not Sayin’.
The oddly compelling match – the breathy German vocalist and the streetwise electric-pop terrorists – was vividly captured on the band’s 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico.
Founding bassist John Cale remarked that in performance, Nico was “like a rock. She didn’t move up there. It all came through the voice.” Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison said, “she was very forbidding. Especially at the height of her beauty.”
Later in 1967, Nico went solo, releasing an album titled Chelsea Girl(the title of an Andy Warhol film she had appeared in) – a collection of songs by Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and the teenage Jackson Browne, who was also her guitarist for a while. “She was very sweet,” Browne recalled. “Yet she didn’t really trust anybody and could be very rough and willful.”
The public were unprepared for Nico’s experimental art-rock masterpieces and their melancholic ambience, and the desolate beauty of Chelsea Girls made little impression upon release.
Nico was dissatisfied with the finished product. Looking back in 1981, she stated: “ I still cannot listen to it because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away. 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!”
With her 1969 album The Marble Index – a haunting song cycle heightened by the trademark drone of her harmonium – Nico “truly carved herself a niche,” said John Cale, who arranged and played on the LP. “I don’t think she saw rock and roll as her particular strength. Whatever poetic ability she had was strongly in the European artistic tradition.”
Desertshore, released in 1971, was even more austere, and her 1974 reading of The Doors‘ song The End transformed Jim Morrison’s Oedipal imagery into pure Gothic horror.
Nico recorded only intermittently during the 70s, and her last studio effort, Camera Obscura, was released in 1985.
She died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 18 July 1988 in Ibiza, Spain. She was just 49.