The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat (1968)

White Light / Heat

White Light/White Heat stands out among The Velvet Underground’s packed discography as the peak of their experimental tendencies and bizarre, forward-thinking storytelling. To modern listeners, experimenting with the stereo format for musical effect, noise rock, feedback, and influences ranging from gothic literature to gender dysphoria may seem normal, if not on the cusp of becoming passe by now. From the perspective of someone listening in 1968, however, Lou Reed and John Cale’s production and narratives would be out of the ordinary, if not altogether unheard of. After the commercial failure of their debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, the band boldly doubled down on the elements of the album that garnered an incredible amount of criticism and hostility. Instead of switching to the more radio friendly rock jingles that would come to dominate their later efforts, they continued to explore the furthest possibilities of what could be called music and how new technology could innovate rock. This album earns its classic merit not from the quality of the music (though it is fantastic), but from the trails it blazed and the boundaries it pushed.

The record kicks off with the title track: a rollicking account of a meth fueled bender. The first portion of the song rolls along with warm, energetic guitars and piano at a quick tempo, mirroring shooting up and the ensuing high. As the song proceeds, the lyrics become increasingly dark, touching on addiction paranoia, and begin to betray the manic instrumentation. Finally, the harsh and painful comedown is thrust upon the listener with a violent breakdown replete with screeching guitars and irregular percussion before suddenly crashing with the hangover of one groaning guitar. The song borrows from the VU’s most notable drug themed track, “Heroin,” in terms of mirroring the progression of a high and its aftermath. This format highlights Reed’s ability to translate vivid experiences and sensations into a fitting musical accompaniment.

Following “White Light/White Heat” is “The Gift,” a eccentric spoken-word performance of a short story written by Reed. The band’s masterful utilization of stereophonic sound is on full display, with John Cale’s unsettling, near monotone narration in the left channel and the band’s backing track in the right. The result is a disorienting and capturing effect, forcing the listener to focus on the content of the story. The story itself is the tale of a paranoid man, insecure in his virility, who packs himself in a box to surprise and win back a former lover and is fittingly castrated (with a satisfying THWACK in both channels) when she attempts to open the package. In typical Reed style, the narrative transcends its more eccentric presentation to strike at the underpinning themes of insecurity and how societal expectations of masculinity become toxic and damaging to men.

“Lady Godiva’s Operation” marks the halfway point of the album with a wonderfully strange tale about a botched lobotomy on a transgender man. Cale takes lead vocals again on this track in his usual melancholy and muted style. At one point Cale’s vocals switch entirely to the left channel and are immediately and jarringly interrupted with Reed’s. Following the first interruption, both singers’ voices begin to pan back and forth between the left and right channel until underlying tracks of Cale and guitarist Sterling Morrison imitating the noises of medical machinery appear. All the instrumentals unexpectedly cut out when the doctor makes his first cut before picking back up again. Reed tackles gender dysphoria and trans issues with his switch from the traditionally feminine she to the masculine he as the operation begins to fail. This track could also reference the claimed brain damage Reed received from his experiences with electroshock therapy as a teen.

Starting the second half of the record is the dual saga of “Here She Comes Now” and “I Heard Her Call My Name.” The first half can be interpreted as an ode to Reed’s guitar, a sexual innuendo, or calm prelude to a horrible drug trip, depending on who you ask. The song stands out as a rare moment of rest sandwiched between the harsh, experimental music that characterizes the rest of the record. With a smooth transition into “I Heard Her Call My Name” and repetition of the first lines of “Here She Comes Now,” the onset of Reed’s cliche bad trip picks up with an atonally squealing guitar as he lies “crippled” and helpless. The song details Reed’s encounter with a vision of a deceased lover and his subsequent awakening without her. Reed stunningly characterizes his helpless fear with blaring, almost to the point of grinding lo-fi guitars and fast pounding drums. Near the end of the song, the pace begins to pick up ever so slightly, as if to indicate Reed’s heart beating ever faster as he approaches the climax of his hallucination. The listener is left with a creeping discomfort that the entire track might fall apart into completely discordant and random guitar patterns before it finally slams to a halt after a two minute outro.

Rounding out the LP is the mother of all 60’s jam tracks, “Sister Ray.” The final song is a 17 and a half minute long proto-noise rock tale about “a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear.” This song is the strangest and most experimental on the album by a country mile. The track is set up around loud, screeching, and discordant guitars and absolutely pounding percussion that looms over Reed’s stark almost shouted delivery. The band’s attempt to create very harsh, unique noise through multiple guitars, feedback, and repeated breakdowns may not seem shocking or impactful to a modern listener, but it’s important to keep the perspective of someone who had never heard noise rock before in mind when appraising this track. The sheer scale of the song also spotlights each member’s technical prowess at their respective instrument. Altogether, the track stands as a rarely matched peak of guitar rock and its potential to create unique musical moments.

Though it’s one of The Velvet Underground’s least popular releases, don’t make the mistake of overlooking the technical achievement and influence White Light/White Heat had on the future of punk rock. White Light/White Heat stands out as the shining climax of all that made The Velvet Underground great and has truly cemented its legacy as a classic.

Author: Cameron

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *