Coming down from the non-success of their debut album, The Velvet Underground took an entirely different approach with their second release, White Light/White Heat. Lou Reed fired Andy Warhol as manager of the group, citing poor relations with their label, Verve, among other things. “The nastiest thing Andy could call me was a rat”, Lou later claimed. Warhol tore up their agreement and let the band go.
White Light/White Heat is primarily known as the VU’s angriest and noisiest album. And while that is true, one listen to the demos included on the version of the album from the Peel Slowly And See box set shows a very different album in the works. Quite a few quieter numbers were slated to be recorded, such as “Sheltered Life” (a song that would turn up many years later on Lou’s Rock And Roll Heart album), “It’s All Right (The Way That You Live)”, and “I’m Not Too Sorry (Now That You’re Gone)”. Had these songs actually made it past the demo stage, White Light/White Heat may have turned out sounding completely different.
But it didn’t. The album was recorded basically over the length of a day or two, with Tom Wilson engineering and “producing” the album once again, much like he did for the Velvets’ debut. However, the VU were so “over” with being produced and sickened by the failure of their first album, that they didn’t care if it sounded good. They just took their live act into the studio and started laying it all down. According to Reed “[the producer] said, ‘I don’t have to listen to this. I’ll start the tape, and you come get me when you’re done.’” So it went with White Light/White Heat. Probably best known for both its title track, and the seventeen-minute “Sister Ray”, this album is as dynamic as anything else the Velvets recorded. “Sister Ray” was originally titled “Sweet Sister Ray”, and in their live shows the VU would execute the song in two parts, the second of which being most like the album version. The lyrics tell the story of a group of sailors who bring home some drag queens and one of them winds up getting killed, and then the cops arrive.
Built around a chugging three chord vamp, “Sister Ray” gets louder and more manic as it goes on. “We were just trying to drown each other out on that one”, recalls Reed. “Someone said ‘Who’s playing bass?’ There is no bass. ‘When is the song over?’ It’ll be over when it’s over.” With Lou and Sterling Morrison on guitars, John Cale on organ, and Moe Tucker on drums, the band wreaks sheer havoc over the course of possibly the most insane seventeen minutes ever recorded by a classic rock band. The instruments all bleed together, the organ is beyond distorted, and Sterling claims to have played so loudly that he was trying to drown out Reed’s lyrics. Oddly, he didn’t succeed as the dark tale gets repeated over and over. “I’m searchin’ for my mainline / I said I c-c-couldn’t hit it sideways / Awwww, just like Sister Ray said”.
“White Heat” itself was a form of speed, and there’s no doubt at all that that was what was fueling the band at the time this album was recorded. The title track is nothing but a mere excursion into the “delights” of speed abuse. “White light goin’ messin’ up my mind / And don’t you know it’s gonna make me go blind / White heat tickles me down to my toes / Oh have mercy / White light, have it goodness knows”. Consider it a continuation of “Heroin”, if in a more upbeat fashion. The band punds out the song mercilessly as Reed calls out “Higher!” at the end, forcing the song up the frets of the guitars as the tune finally collapses.
“The Gift” is a story that Reed had previously written in college, set to music. Recorded with the vocals on one stereo channel, and the music on the other, so “you could enjoy the story, or the music, or both”, “The Gift” is yet another exercise in Lou’s dark wit. The story is about one Waldo Jeffers, who has been separated from his girlfriend Marsha. Waldo internalizes all the men Marsha could have been seeing or sleeping with and suddenly comes up with the idea of shipping himself in a giant box to her. It would hardly cost anything, and wouldn’t Marsha be surprised? In typical Reed fashion, the story twists into dark humor when Waldo arrives in the box and Marsha can’t seem to open it. She finds some scissors and plunges them into the box, going straight through Waldo’s head, effectively killing him.
Similarly, the odd “Lady Godiva’s Operation” was one of those VU experiments that didn’t quite work, lyric-wise. Reed and Cale had come upon the notion of starting or finishing each other’s lines, taking turns reciting every other line. It was supposed to be that way through the whole song, but only crops up within the last verse. It doesn’t work at all, as Reed’s voice is a bit louder than Cale’s in the mix, neatly destroying the somewhat silly idea. The song is about Lady Godiva and her perverse experiments with young boys. Another story that ends in a bizarre accident, complete with strange sound effects. Easily the weirdest thing the Velvets ever recorded.
“Here She Comes Now” is a hauntingly pretty and darkly moving mantra-like song with almost no lyrics at all. Probably the most “produced” of all the songs, “Here She Comes Now” features Lou’s pretty guitar picking backed with some strange percussive sounds by Maureen Tucker. “Ahhh, it looks so good / Ahhh, she’s made out of wood / Just look and see”. The song is as dense as the others on the album, yet this thickness enhances the performance, with the instruments sounding as if they were recorded far, far away. Proof once again that the Velvets could be as soft as they were coarse.
And then there’s “I Heard Her Call My Name”. Coming right before “Sister Ray”, this song can only set up the listener for what comes after, even if it hurts to listen to it. Filled with Lou’s shrieking feedback, Moe’s mad pounding, and John and Sterling’s instruments getting lost somewhere in between, the song goes for broke. It’s a sound not unlike getting stuck between two stations on a radio dial, with a lot of white noise thrown in. Probably the coolest moment of the entire song is an actual split second of sheer silence between the moment Lou sings “And then I felt my mind split open” and the shriek of feedback that follows. It’s very quick, but the whole song changes entirely in that almost unnoticeable break, speeding up even faster. “Ever since I was on crippled Monday / I got my eyeballs on my knees / I rapped for hours with mad Mary Williams / She said she never understood a word from me”.
White Light/White Heat sold zilch. Everyone in the record company avoided it. The radio kept as far away as one could imagine. Who was this record recorded for? The band. Plain and simple. Some people will cite Lou’s Metal Machine Music as influencing bands like Sonic Youth. And while that may be the case, I’d bet a few bucks that White Light/White Heat had a lot to do with that influence as well.
Punk fans, rejoice. Here’s one of the earliest examples of New York punk that you can lay your hands on. Sheer cacophony with unbridled adrenaline. Microphone leaks all over the place, muffled lyrics, distorted instruments, it’s all there. Highly influential. Novice fans, don’t start here if you think the VU is a mere pop band that only puts out notions like “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Sweet Jane”. White Light/White Heat is as dark as its album sleeve. The right people will understand. Everyone else still tends to keep away. But that’s all right, as the latter-day VU albums still tend to win those people over.