The seminal band’s second album may be the pinnacle of their achievements.
As the legend goes, hardly anyone bought The Velvet Underground’s records, but everyone who did was influenced by them. Which may well be true, but in the world of VU mythology, you could be forgiven for thinking that the band only recorded a single, pivotal LP. All their subsequent work tends to get written out of the story far too often by the music history writers who don’t like to complicate matters, even if those subsequent albums are just as important and feature pivotal tracks. So second album White Light/White Heat is a welcome reminder that the band were far more than one-trick ponies.
In fact, there’s a strong argument to make that this is the seminal VU album, a solid garage / art rock collision, a low-fidelity slice of rock ‘n’ roll realism as exemplified on the opening title track, a crude and chaotic musical assault on the senses that clocks in at a punchy 2.48 minutes and seems to encapsulate all the sleaze and underground culture vibes of late 1960s New York. It’s a song that predicts the new decade – it feels like a Times Square soundtrack, part of a world of danger and sensation.
Not that this is a collection of one-dimensional numbers. Following on from the title track is The Gift, a spoken-word short story backed by a grinding riff, as removed from the basic, primal rock ‘n’ roll of the preceding track as you could get, yet clearly part of the same whole. It’s also an amusing little short story in its own right.
Lady Godiva’s Operation is initially more laid back, almost pop music, closer perhaps to the quaintly twee psychedelic pop of the era, though the fuzzed out guitar and throbbing bass rhythm take it somewhere else, and the addition of unsettling vocal interjections from Lou Reed twist the song away from easy accessibility, a subversive undermining of the song that allows it to become increasingly strange.
Similarly Here She Comes Now is close to – but still removed from – pop music sensibilities. Not something that would be out of the place on any 1960s movie freak out soundtrack, in fact, while I Heard Her Call My Name is another frantic jam, with howling freeform guitar soloing stripping what little control the track has away. This is not so much reinventing the sound of 1967 as taking it to its wildest extremes.
The original album ends with the still-astonishing 17 minute hymn to sex and sordidness, Sister Ray, a grinding, repetitive, crude and hypnotic bad trip of a tune. It’s like the summation of what we’ve heard so far – a constant riff, free-form jamming, basic, crude, unpolished and improvised that has an intensity and a drug-fuelled depravity that is the flipside of the acid dreams of the hippies – you can still freak out to this, but not in some tedious loved up way. This is more Charlie Manson than Sgt Pepper, the soundtrack to bad trips and death cult insanity. That’s not a condemnation.
Beyond the six tracks originally featured on the LP, you can also get a deluxe edition – all thje better to milk the collectors as the market for physical media diminishes – that features a collection of alternate versions and demos, which vary in quality. There’s a version of I Heard Her Call My Name, with a more buried guitar freak out and much rougher sound mix. An ultra-fuzzy unfinished instrumental I Guess I’m Falling in Love is pretty cool, closer to the traditional garage punk sound of 1966 with it’s heavy dance beat and crude guitar breaks. There are the original mixes of Temptation Inside Your Head and Stephanie Says, the former a surprisingly slick pop number, the latter a wistful ballad. Along with the poppy Hey Mr Rain (featured here in two versions) and Beginning to See the Light, these tracks feel a little like a bridge between White Light/White Heat and the VU albums that would precede and follow it (or Lou Reed’s solo career for that matter). These tracks, mostly coming from John Cale’s final sessions with the band are less brutal, less uncompromising than the album proper, though no less impressive in their own way.
Disc two of the three disc set features the mono mix of the album – perhaps not essential but good for the completists, especially as this is supplemented by mono single cuts of Here She Comes Now and White Light/White Heat, as well as vocal only and instrumental mixes of The Gift – ideal for all you budding mash-up artists to play about with.
Perhaps most exciting for anyone who already has this album is disc three, which features the live Gymnasium tapes, previously only available as a bootleg. Recorded in 1967, a few months before the White Light/White Heat sessions, it kicks off with the instrumental Booker T, a number than starts out with a classic Sixties dance groove and becomes increasingly fuzzed out, and goes on to include versions of I’m Not a Young Man Anymore, Guess I’m Falling in Love, I’m Waiting for the Man, Run Run Run, The Gift (again an instrumental, moody and brilliant here) and a fairly gobsmacking 19 minute version of Sister Ray. The recording quality is as rough ‘n’ ready as you would hope and the performances tighter than you might expect.
It’s fair to say that the Velvet Underground were not, as some critics like to maintain, operating in a vacuum – there were other acts, in the USA and the UK, who around this time were exploring similar worlds of experimentalism and wallowing in a world of decadence that was far removed from the hippy peace and love dream. But the VU were at the forefront of the collision of rock ‘n’ roll, art, experimentation and deviation, and this album, more than their debut, reflects that forward-looking approach.
As a prototype for ‘underground’ music throughout the remainder of the 1960s and into the 70s, this is a hugely important record. But more that that, it’s still a great album 45 years on, as challenging and experimental as ever.