THE VELVET UNDERGROUND-WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT.
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND-WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT.
It was in September 1967, that The Velvet Underground began recording their sophomore album White Light/White Heat. A lot had happened since The Velvet Underground released their debut album The Velvet Underground and Nico in March 1967.
The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol had decided to go their separate ways. Their relationship had been on the slide for some time. Eventually, things had deteriorated so badly that, the only option was for The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol to go their own way. This however, wasn’t the end in the changes.
Nico had also left The Velvet Underground, after the commercial failure of their debut album The Velvet Underground and Nico.
On its release, The Velvet Underground and Nico failed commercially and wasn’t well received by critics. Worse was to come. The Velvet Underground and Nico was banned in many places. That wasn’t surprising, given the moral climate. Songs about drug abuse, prostitution, sadism and masochism and sexual deviancy weren’t what America’s moral guardians wanted the American youth to hear. As a result, what would later become one of the most ambitious, gritty, influential, innovative and revolutionary albums passed most record buyers by. Maybe, The Velvet Underground’s sophomore album would fare better?
Undeterred, in September 1967, The Velvet Underground set set about recording their sophomore album, White Light/White Heat. The changes that had taken place resulted in a very different band entering Scepter Studios, New York.
The major change was the loss of Nico. She took charge of the lead vocal on three tracks on The Velvet Underground and Nico. This wasn’t the only loss. Andy Warhol had been credited as co-producer. However, with The Velvet Underground having severed all ties with Andy Warhol, Tom Scott was named as producer. He joined The Velvet Underground in Specter Studios, New York, in September 1967.
At Specter Studios, The Velvet Underground would record six tracks. Lou Reed contributed White Light/White Heat, Lady Godiva’s Operation and I Heard Her Call My Name. He also cowrote Here She Comes Now with John Cale and Sterling Morrison. The other two tracks, The Gift and Sister Ray, were credited to The Velvet Underground. These six song were recorded by the new lineup of The Velvet Underground and became White Light/White Heat.
At Specter Studios, the recording of White Light/White Heat took place during September 1967. Lou Reed took charge of lead vocals and played lead and rhythm guitar. Sterling Morrison played lead, rhythm and bass guitar. Maureen Tucker added percussion and John Cale played bass, organ, electric viola, piano and added sound effects. John also sang the lead vocal on Lady Godiva’s Operation. When the six songs were recorded, White Light/White Heat was released on 30th January 1968.
When critics heard White Light/White Heat, reviews were mixed. Many critics didn’t get White Light/White Heat. Nor did they know what to make of White Light/White Heat. They were left scratching their head. It was, after all, unlike anything else released during this period.
White Light/White Heat can be described as an avant garde cacophony of sound. This feedback driven album would prove hugely influential, and can be credited as one of the albums that gave birth to punk. However, just like The Velvet Underground and Nico, the lyrics on White Light/White Heat were controversial. Again, The Velvet Underground weren’t going to submit to establishment censorship. The Velvet Underground it seemed, were determined to do things their way. This would prove costly.
On the release of White Light/White Heat, it wasn’t a commercial success, stalling at just number 199 in the US Billboard 200 charts. Neither of the singles, White Light/White Heat, nor I Heard Her Call My Name would prove commercially successful. For The Velvet Underground, this was a huge disappointment.
Still, The Velvet Underground were awaiting their commercial breakthrough. The Velvet Underground were at a crossroads. Little did they realise that belatedly, White Light/White Heat would be regarded as a hugely influential and innovative album. That would come later. By then, The Velvet Underground would be reduced to a trio. For one member of The Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat was their swan-song. However, did they leave on a high?
White Light/White Heat opens with the title-track. It’s akin to an explosion of aggression. The Velvet Underground seem to vent their frustration and anger. A fuzzy, driving rhythm section and stabs of pounding piano accompany Lou’s drawling vocal. Meanwhile, the rest of The Velvet Underground add sweeping, punchy harmonies. John’s bass is supposedly, the musical equivalent of a speed rush. Adding to this wall of sound that assails you, are blistering, shredded guitars. They add a proto punk sound to this an innovative a fusion of musical genres, which seven years later, would play its part in the birth of punk.
Equally innovative is The Gift, which is akin to an eight minute short story. John Cale delivers an emotionless, Germanic spoken word vocal. It’s panned through the left hand speaker. Meanwhile, the muted, musical accompaniment is panned through the right hand speaker. Scorching, searing guitars drenched in feedback join the rhythm section in accompanying John as he tells the story of Waldo Jeffers, a lovelorn youth who embarks upon a long-distance, one-sided relationship. He misses her, but the feeling doesn’t seem to me mutual. She’s having the time of her life. Eventually, Waldo decides to parcel himself up, and mail himself to his girlfriend. When he’s delivered, he hears his girlfriend discussing how she slept with another man. Then when she decides to open the box, she struggles. So, she takes a sheet metal cutter and frustratedly, stabs it through the lid, and Waldo’s head. This brings to an end a captivating marriage of music and literature, that just like White Light/White Heat, showcases that The Velvet Underground were a groundbreaking group.
After the somewhat muted sound of the arrangement to The Gift, Lady Godiva’s Operation has a much clearer sound. By comparison, it almost jumps out. Searing, grizzled guitars and a fuzzy rhythm section accompany John Cale’s vocal. He delivers the lyrics about Lady Godiva having an operation recapture her youth. However, it goes wrong. John describes the story with his trademark deadpan style. Behind him, panning is used effectively. The guitars are panned left and the rhythm section right. Then John’s vocal is panned left to right. So are ad-libbed backing vocals, that dramatically bound out of the arrangement. It seems that The Velvet Underground were determined to use the available studio equipment to create what’s best described as avant-garde musical theatre.
Here She Comes Now closed side one of White Light/White Heat. It’s the shortest and most melodic song on the album. That’s despite the lyrics being mired in controversy. They’ve been interpreted differently by different people. As Lou delivers them, chiming guitars and a subtle rhythm section provide a taste of the way The Velvet Underground’s music would head on their third album The Velvet Underground.
Just like White Light/White Heat, I Heard Her Call My Name is an explosion of aggression, energy and feedback. The music is unashamedly brash. As the rhythm section and screaming, searing, guitars drive the arrangement along, Lou delivers an urgent, hopeful vocal. The rest of The Velvet Underground add sweeping harmonies. Later, the coup de grace is Lou’s atonal guitar solo. Accompanied by healthy doses of feedback, it’s one of the highlights of White Light/White Heat.
In many people’s eyes, The Velvet Underground kept the best to last on White Light/White Heat. That’s Sister Ray an eighteen minute epic, about drug use, violence and sex. With the fuzzy rhythm section and guitars bristling with aggression, a shuffling arrangement unfolds. Meanwhile, Lou delivers a sneering, half-spoken vocal. When his vocal drops out, the arrangement becomes a cacophony of sound. It’s the equivalent to an avant-garde, lo-fi wall of sound. This continues for eighteen minutes. Remarkably, this influential and innovative song was mostly improvised and recorded in just one take. It would later, go on to inspire a generation of would be musicians.
Although White Light/White Heat was neither a critically acclaimed, nor commercially successful upon its release, critics would later look at the album with fresh eyes. Only at a later date would critics appreciate just how innovative and influential an album White Light/White Heat is.
Originally, when critics heard White Light/White Heat, they weren’t impressed. As a result, the reviews are best described as mixed. Critics didn’t get White Light/White Heat. Nor did they know what to make of White Light/White Heat. They were left scratching their head. It was, after all, totally unlike anything else released during this period.
White Light/White Heat is best described as an avant garde cacophony of sound. Elements of avant-garde, experimental, proto-punk, psychedelia and rock make their presence felt on White Light/White Heat. This feedback driven album would prove hugely influential, and can be credited as one of the albums that gave birth to punk. However, just like The Velvet Underground and Nico, the lyrics on White Light/White Heat were controversial.
Lyrics about drug use and sexuality peppered White Light/White Heat. As a result, White Light/White Heat felt the wrath of the censors. In some places, White Light/White Heat was banned. After all songs about drug use, drag queens and homosexuality weren’t likely to find their way onto radio stations in 1968. America’s moral guardians made sure of this. For John Cale, this was the end of the road.
Following disagreements about The Velvet Underground’s future musical direction, John Cale left the group. This was almost inevitable.
For some time, John Cale and Lou Reed views about The Velvet Underground’s future differed. John Cale wanted The Velvet Underground to continue to innovate and create experimental music like White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground’s second album. Lou Reed, however, didn’t agree.
Lou Reed believed that The Velvet Underground’s music should become more pop oriented. This he felt, would broaden their appeal. No longer would they be an art rock group whose music appealed to discerning music lovers. Eventually, Lou Reed won over the rest of The Velvet Underground. For John Cale this was hugely disappointing. So, he decided the only option was to leave The Velvet Underground.
As a result, White Light/White Heat was John Cale’s Velvet Underground swan-song. John Cale left on a high. White Light/White Heat features The Velvet Underground pushing musical boundaries to their limits, and sometimes, way beyond. The result was a truly groundbreaking album, White Light/White Heat which is one of The Velvet Underground’s classic albums.
Undoubtably, The Velvet Underground an Nico, which featured the classic lineup of The Velvet Underground, was this groundbreaking group’s finest hour. White Light/White Heat comes a close second. Again, it featured The Velvet Underground pushing musical boundaries to their limits, on an album that seven years later, would play its part in the birth of punk.
Only during the punk era, did critics realise how innovative and influential The Velvet Underground’s sophomore album White Light/White Heat was. Looking at White Light/White Heat with fresh eyes, the album was well on its way to attaining the much vaunted classic status. Now, forty-seven years after The Velvet Underground released White Light/White Heat, it’s considered one of the most important, influential and innovative albums in musical history. That’s why The Velvet Underground’s sophomore album White Light/White Heat, belongs in every self respecting record collection.
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND-WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT.