The Velvet Underground: White Light/White Heat
The Beatles’ White Album is—needless to say—a sprawling mess, filled to the brim with classic songs, one-off experiments, and a kitchen-sink attitude that more than justifies its audacious 90-minute running time. As a result, it’s often easy to forget about 1968’s other White album: that lo-fi, distortion-filled epic that changed the very definition of what a pop song could be over the course of six not-so-simple tracks.
1968 wasn’t a particularly good year for the Velvet Underground, but you would be hard-pressed to find evidence of the band noticing. Following 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico, Lou Reed and co. dropped Andy Warhol’s enigmatic song siren (Nico would go on to do some solo discs of her own), and—as such—lost contact with Warhol. Yet Reed and avant-garde maestro John Cale weren’t bothered by this; if anything, it allowed them to go to dark musical places that they had only hinted at before. Oh sure, they could still write rollicking piano-rock numbers (the title track), but the lyrics here were depicting the effects of amphetamines on the body, once again flexing the anti-commercial tendencies that the band inhibited. “The Gift”, meanwhile, rode a seductive bass groove to which Cale recited a short story about the man who decides to mail himself to his love, only to have his loving gesture end with disastrous results.
When anyone writes about White Light/White Heat, much ink is automatically devoted to the spiraling 17-minute noise-rock epic that is “Sister Ray”, a convention-shattering jam that dared and teased listeners in ways that had never been touched on before. Though the song’s length was unprecedented in its own right, it was far from its most noticeable feature. Here, Reed snarled out the line “sucking on my ding-dong” without the safety net of irony, his guitar chugging along with a sleazy strut, and—in the process—embodying every aspect of the term “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll”. It can be safely argued that no one has come close to topping it since.
Yet perhaps the greatest revelation that White Light/White Heat provided was perhaps its least talked about aspect: slowly unearthing the vulnerability that was at the bottom of every Reed composition. “Here She Comes Now” was the kind of wounded guitar pop that the band did best, wrapping surreal lyrics around a simple, un-amplified guitar coda, Reed talking about the woman that never comes (all Godot-like) in a way that’s defiantly anticipatory, revealing more depths about its narrator than it has any right to. Of course, on the band’s following album, Reed would be penning iconic ballads like “Candy Says”, but, really, those highlights would not have been possible were it not for his work here.
In retrospect, White Light/White Heat is often looked at as the Velvet’s least accessible album, what with its noise-rock epics and explicit lyrics and the like. Yet this is also the album where we get to see the band push the envelope in ways that they weren’t able to before, and by redefining their own boundaries, they redefined the limits of all of rock music in the process.