CD / LP / DL
The Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/white Heat’ turned 45 this year, something that Polydor decided to celebrate by reissuing the album (described as “one of the most confrontational and inspirational second albums ever made by a rock band”) with lots of added exclusive material. Simon Tucker reviews.
Sadly, due to the recent passing of Lou Reed, this reissue of the Velvet Underground’s second album has even more gravitas than just celebrating its being 40 years since it was first released. People looking to reacquaint themselves with his work will have a vast catalogue of albums to delve through, but THIS is the album that everyone should start with. Yes, the debut album is superb and influential. Yes, the third has moments of sublime prettiness and heartbreaking ballads. Yes, there some masterpieces in his solo work (Berlin, Transformer etc) but it is with White Light / White Heat that you get the perfect encapsulation of his, and the rest of the VU’s, ethos, majesty, and beautiful darkness.
Racing out of the traps we have the title track that is as perfect an encapsulation of a methamphetamine rush that you will ever find. Barking vocals and sheer joyful abandon throw you instantly into the world that the record was created in and it contains enough chaos to make your head swirl and your stomach churn like good speed. Cale’s bass outro collapsing in on itself is not only a sign that the multi-instrumentalist simply couldn’t carry on (in the liner notes for this release, written by David Fricke, Cale himself says “I’m pretty sure it broke down because my hand was falling off”). The fact that WL / WH is only 2mins 48secs really shocks as it leaves you feeling like you’ve been lost to the world for hours.
Following that with a spoken word, swampy blues number is yet another masterstroke and one that shows this band had no problems when it came to confidence. The fact that this creative writing piece, spoken in the honey-Welsh baritone of John Cale, is recorded through two separate channels is a very clever move indeed. If you tire of repeated listens to the story, you can just pan the speakers so you get just the music or vice-versa.
Lady Godiva’s Operation returns us to the feel and sound of the debut album in many respects and it’s easy to imagine Nico singing this track. A fine example of Reed’s storytelling and his skill with prose, the disjointed nature of his vocal interjections add another, more raw element to what is basically a very pretty melody albeit one in which Morrison and Reed’s guitars can take off in any direction they feel, making this song sound deceptively simple until you really get into the nuts and bolts of the track.
Here She Comes Now finishes side one and is one of the VU’s most beautiful ballads. Memorably covered by Nirvana, HSCN is a clear signpost of which direction Reed would take the band next on their third, and most sedate, album.
Side Two starts very much in the same vein as Side One as we get the sheer brutal, maximum R&B of I Heard Her Call My Name. An influential track that still sounds shocking to this day, and one that contains one of the finest ‘anti’guitar solos in the history of rock music. Reed overloads his Fender amp and plays like jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. IHHCMN is where the genre of ‘noise-rock’ begins.
Closing the album we have the colossus that is Sister Ray. Forget every other suggestion you may have been given, if you really want to understand what the Velvet Underground were about then here it is in all it’s glory. Seventeen-plus minutes of free-form jazz, rock and roll, grimy street stories, and repetition make this the most powerful track in the VU canon. Many have tried to cover or copy it (Joy Division being one band who managed to pull of a successful cover) but none have ever bettered it. The DNA from this track alone has seeped its way into every seminal and important album of the last forty years. Don’t believe me? Well listen to it and then listen to Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR, or P.I.L’s Flowers of Romance, or Throbbing Gristle’s Second Annual Report, or Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions… (the Bomb Squad’s production on that album is the exact same sonic overload as Sister Ray).
The fact that not once during the song does it sag, or seem repetitious to the point of boredom is a testament to the skills on show here.
With the deluxe anniversary edition you get some really interesting extras and alternate takes, the most impressive being the band’s run through of Temptation Inside Your Heart with studio banter and Motown doo-wop swing, BUT, the real magic is the previously unreleased Live At The Gymnasium concert.
Recorded in 1967 at the end of their residency at the short-lived New York club, the recordings capture the band just before they started recording WL / WH and is a transitional gig in many ways. Only I’m Waiting For The Man and Run Run Run are here from the debut record, whilst Sister Ray and The Gift show what is to come.
It is also on this recording that you get to hear the actual rock ‘n’ roll that lies at the band’s heart. Boogie-Woogie and two-chord guitar riffs show a danceable side to the band that can be sometimes hard to find on their studio work. A sensational gig and an essential listen.
In the end White Light / White Heat is still as raw and as uncompromising as it was when it was released. Perfect in its imperfections, the albums noise and brutality have been taken by other artists and used as the basis for multiple musical genres. It is also the perfect Velvet Underground album. It is the only one that the four original members made together on their own. It is the only one that was made in a proper studio, pushing the engineer Gary Kellgren and famed producer Tom Wilson to their limit. It is perfectly New York. It contains street poetry and stories about junkies and drag queens. It has drone, feedback, tribal drumming and straight up riffing. It’s rough. It’s pretty. It’s hip. It’s loud. It’s subtle. It’s cool. It’s messy.
It has, and is, ROCK AND ROLL, and boy I like it.