47 Years Ago: The Velvet Underground Make a Glorious Racket With ‘White Light, White Heat’
If you look up the phrase “glorious racket,” chances are a picture of the Velvet Underground‘s second album, ‘White Light, White Heat’ will appear. Really. That description fits each and every one of its 40 minutes perfectly. Unlike the haunting beauty of their flawless debut album, ‘White Light,’ which was released on Jan. 30, 1968, drops a bit of the artiness and supplements it with rage and raw power.
From the moment the needle hits the opening burst of the first track, it’s safe to say your speakers may be in danger. “We were intent on recording this album live, because we were so good live at this point,” said John Cale in his autobiography, ‘What’s Welsh For Zen.’ “To keep that animalism there, we insisted on playing at the volume we played on stage.”
One of countless brilliantly simple riffs Lou Reed had a knack for writing, the title cut kicks off this chaos-drenched ride without pretense or disguise, letting loose on the listener’s senses via its amphetamine-laced punch. The song was later covered, very nicely, by David Bowie. ‘The Gift’ is a John Cale narrative set to a motorik groove. The brittle guitars and heartbeat drums of Maureen Tucker pump this along like blood to the heart, while Cale tells the amusingly bloody tale of Waldo Jeffers and how not to use the postal service.
‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’ is almost folk-rock in its framework, with a very Byrds-like, almost jangling riff driving the song. However, in the hands of the Velvets, it takes on a shape all its own. The part where Reed chimes in on ‘Sweetly’ and ‘neatly pump air’ still sounds so odd, as the vocals are mixed so loudly there. Every time it plays, you know it’s coming, but it’s still jarring. ‘Here She Comes Now’ is probably the most mellow moment on the album and a nice way to end Side One. It features an understated vocal from Reed and in some ways, foreshadows album No. 3 in its overall vibe. A real beauty indeed.
OK, so we’ve flipped the LP over and upon doing so, we are knocked out of our seats. ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ is a brutal four-minute ride about hearing the voice of a now-deceased love, with some of the most charged feedback ever committed to tape. After Reed sings the line “and then my mind split open,” there is a pregnant pause before the burst of feedback and guitar tears apart the cones of your speakers. The beauty and power of the electric guitar might just be summed up on this track.
And then, we have arrived at our final destination, a little song called ‘Sister Ray.’ 17-plus minutes of raw-as-can-be rock and roll with a riff that just never stops. It’s not so much a proper ‘song’ as it is a riff — a riff that never lets up and by the power of its insistence, becomes a song. And what a song it is. Reed’s lyrics roll out like a stream of consciousness blur of sex, drugs and death. All the while, the guitars and organ fuse together into a sonic overload as Tucker never lets up for a moment. At the end of the 17-minute ride, we’re exhausted! “We were working in a very small studio with no isolation so it was all this noise just smashing into more noise” said Cale, “We never quite realized that there were technical problems in turning everything past nine.”
Recorded in late 1967, the effects of the “Summer of Love” were nowhere to be found here. The New York City that spawned this band and this album was a long was from warm San Franciscan nights and flowers in anyone’s hair. The cover alone is the antithesis of the psychedelic explosion, all black with the band name and LP title very formally sitting at the top. They even managed to beat the Beatles to the punch of the ‘White Album’ artwork with this darker take on a similar motif. It goes without saying that the album sold next to nothing, but would continue to gain notoriety over the years.
Neither the Velvets, Lou Reed, nor John Cale ever made another record like ‘White Light, White Heat’ again. Though its influence guaranteed that many others would try, no one has ever come close. It feels entirely of the moment. Its power so genuine, the emotion so raw, it simply could never be copied, even by those who made it. We’re not saying it’s the best VU album — there may not be a ‘best’ VU album since they are really all very different animals — but it is certainly their most vicious and demanding platter. It’s heavy without being metal, and it’s metal without being heavy. The years have not snuffed out its fire.