Album Review: White Light White Heat by The Velvet Underground

While their previous record The Velvet Underground and Nico gets more attention and is arguably more well rounded, the group’s follow up White Light White heat remains a favorite of mine for it’s high energy assault and chaotic experimentation.  For those who do not know, The Velvet Underground is an important 60’s rock band, that greatly influenced punk and other “alternative genres”.  The group is known for starting the careers of Lou Reed and John Cale, and their association with art icon Andy Warhol.

White Light White Heat comes at a time when the band had parted ways with Nico and fired Andy Warhol.  As such, Lou Reed and John Cale largely dominate the record.  The resulting album feels like an intense kick in the teeth today, and I can only imagine how it must have sounded, to people in the sixties who heard it for the first time.  Through out the record, Lou Plays heavily distorted (often screeching) guitars, John Contributes in a wide variety of ways and drummer Maureen “Mo” Tucker plays relentless, almost mechanical, pounding, beats that never get lost above the chaos.  She avoids any ornate drumming, and I doubt she even hits the symbols once on the whole record.

The album opens with its title track, a Jerry-Lee Louis style rocker featuring John Cale playing a pounding skeletal piano part (not unlike the one he plays on The Stooge’s I wanna be Your Dog), that at times is drowned by Reed’s droning ultra-distorted guitar, and tucker full frontal drum assault.  Reed’s lyrics in this track are unambiguously about shooting hard drugs.  It includes lines like: “I surely do love to watch that stuff drip itself in” and “watch that speed freak everybody gonna go and make it every week”.  As the track progresses, the song’s droning and pounding elements becomes more prevalent.

Next is the gift, which features John Cale reading a short story written by Reed in one speaker, while the band rocks out in another speaker.  The story features, Waldo Jeffers a lovesick student, who attempts to mail himself to his long-distance girlfriend.  The ill-fated tale has a very cosmopolitan feel to it and reminds me of an early Vonnegut story.  Meanwhile the band jams in a fairly steady fashion, while some rather abrasive and dirty guitar notes are hit.

The Gift is followed by Lady Godiva’s Operation, which features John Cale singing about a transexual woman’s botch lobotomy.  The melody is almost Beatles like, but the harsh instrumentation sounds completely in keeping with the rest of this album.  As the song progresses, it gets weirder and weirder.  About three fourths of the way through, vocals from Lou start interjecting to cut off the last words of Cale’s lines and singing their own.  Lou’s interjections on the track sound intentionally poorly mixed and poorly sung in places.  Meanwhile, there are weird heavy breathing sounds and chatter going on as well as something that sounds a lot like a wookie moaning.  All this happens as the guys are getting deep into surgical imagery.  I am told it is a hell of a thing to lay on a guy with a head full of drugs.

The album’s one softer piece, Here She Comes Now, seems to be built around a sexual innuendo, and has some bizarre lyrics from Reed about being “made out of wood”.  It is followed by what have to be the two noisiest and chaotic tracks here.  On Heard Her Call my Name, Lou Reed play high gain high distortion guitar leads that screech with pain, and mo plays her most hard hitting drum machine-like beats, which Reeds guitar sounds strangely syncopated with.  I cannot emphasize how abrasive the guitar is on this otherwise catchy song, other than say it is way ahead of its time.  The track also features some seemingly nonsensical lyrics about being “on ripples” and “eyeballs on my knees”.  It is undeniably a highlight of the album.

The album closes with Sister Ray, which goes on for over seventeen minutes.  The song, was largely improvised and recorded in just one take.  It features Lou singing/shouting about a transsexual orgy and subsequent fight with the police, not to mention “sucking on a ding dong”.  As the song progresses it, gets more structurally free form, as Lou’s guitar and vocals are competing with Cale’s organ parts to see what can be the loudest element of the song.  They frequently drown each other out, and go on bizarre tangents and the only thing that holds the whole thing together is Tucker’s drumming, which never strays from it’s booming rhythm.  Somewhere in it is a groovy party tune, but it is quickly lost among the noise and confusion, which strangely matches the subject matter.

Overall, this is a great album, for anyone looking for a protopunk, or late sixties record, that takes listeners on a wild, noisy ride.  It loud, painful, hideous and utterly unapologetic about it.  No wonder so many punks bands saw inspiration in this music.  It may not be the album I introduce people to this band with, but it is still a favorite among the initiated.

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