‘We were intent on recording this album live in the studio because we were so good live at that point. We played and played and played, and to keep that animalism there, we insisted on playing at the volume we played on stage. We were working in a very small studio with no isolation so it was all this noise just smashing into more noise’.
A vague promise made me pick up a little nugget of negativity tonight and I’m so glad I did. Mind you I can’t think of a single album that gives less of a big shiny shit about whether you like it or not than Velvet Underground White Light/White Heat.
I got into the habit of playing the second side of this album first many years ago and so I was confronted with the scraping snarl of ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ first up. I love the way that it sounds like it just starts part-way through the song as though someone has just opened a door into the studio, in this case a studio full of insaniacs who appear to be playing two different songs simultaneously turned up so loudly that everything’s distorting wildly. Snatched phrases like ‘after hours with Mad Mary Williams’, ‘eyeballs on my knees‘ and, repeatedly, ‘she’s gone, gone, gone‘ come down through the wire like snatches of a badly delayed long-distance telephone conversation from Planet Drugs.
Everything about White Light/White Heat is so gloriously hostile, the production most of all. Credited to Tom Wilson I gather it’s a bit of a moot point as to how much responsibility he had over it, according to that man Cale again, the band were fed up with his seeming nonchalance and spent all their time just trying to crank things up into the red.
Nothing shows this as brilliantly as ‘Sister Ray’ the 17-minute cornerstone of this album and definitely one of my Top 10 tracks about a bunch of transsexuals/transvestites having a drug-fuelled orgy with a bunch of sailors descending into violence, nihilism and arrests*. It’s a great song for really, really dividing a room, you’ll either get it and love it, or you’ll think its a primitive noisy waste of shellac that makes you feel physically sick. It took me a couple of goes initially but I just worship at its’ altar now. It’s pretty extreme sounding in 2015, it must have sounded like road works in Hades to all the groovy folks when it was released in 1968; but there again that’s the fun of White Light/White Heat in particular and VU in general, the contempt they held the groovy flower powerites in back then, like East Coast anti-matter painting all the rainbows black.
But anyway, just listen to ‘Sister ray’ again**. Never mind about inspiring bands, you can hear whole genres being birthed during this track. John Cale tells us that on a good night they would play a 38 minute version of it, starting out from an improvisatory point far away from the song and working their way back to it for the last 20 minutes. There are deluxe CD versions extant that catch this monstrosity, but I think I’ll pass and file away in the ‘You probably had to be there’ file. I love Lou Reed’s lyrics on this one, never mind all his oblique character songs, we just lurch straight in the front door ‘sucking on a ding-dong’, I feel touched at his worry that a heady combination of unnatural practices and bloodshed might damage the furnishings though, ‘Don’t you know you’ll stain the carpet?’, is sung with real feeling.
The first side of White Light/White Heat is the lesser one for me. I love the title track and have done ever since I first heard Bowie play it in the Ziggy movie, the original has a far more chaotic edge and some random production tics that genuinely make it sound like a bulletin from a seriously hot-rodded nervous system. Which it was. A bit more troublesome on the likeability front is ‘The Gift’, John Cale’s spoken word rendition of one of Lou’s short stories over, or adjacent to*^ a mutated boogie which may, or may not have been called ‘Booker T’ depending on who you believe. I don’t just say this as a patriot but I do really like hearing Cale’s accent on this one, it just gives it something that it wouldn’t have had if one of the others had read it. I still find it difficult not to skip this one every other time it comes up though. What a band though, there was really something about how this line-up meshed, Mo Tucker’s drumming remains a primitive pleasure and Sterling Morrison? he’s just one of those players that seems to play everything just so, even in this feral gathering.
Now ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’ I do like, its soft but with an underlying hint of guitar menace and I like that. It is also one of my favourite ever songs about a botched surgical procedure, true story. The way Lou Reed invades the song late on in a singularly tone-deaf manner is a delight and how can you not like a song which contains the lines:
Doctor arrives with knife and baggage
Sees the growth as just so much cabbage
Do me a favour please, in the unlikely event that you meet anyone who tells you that this is their favourite ever song – just run. Forget about dignity, personal possessions and/or the shady drug deal/sordid assignation you were about to pull off, just run.
Which isn’t true of the enigmatic but sweet little jewel that is ‘Here She Comes Now’, which pointed the way to next years’ The Velvet Underground. Is it a song about waiting for a chick? is it about Lou’s guitar? or about bringing a lady to a state of sexual bliss? no-one seems to know and I really don’t care – I’m shallow enough just to enjoy the gentle sounds. I think ‘Here She Comes Now’ is a much-overlooked number in the Velvet’s canon.
White Light/White Heat was the end of the road for the original VU. They’d all but split with Warhol, Cale left taking his experimental yearnings and essential Welshness with him^. It was necessary though because any more releases as user-unfriendly as this and they’d have ended up dying of starvation in a cold water flat in Harlem during the next cold spell, the band needed to retrench, reboot and reconnect. They did of course, wonderfully so, but they never strolled nearer the abyss than they did here. Few have.
Now if you’ll excuse me I have some carpets to shampoo.
PS – all quotes pinched from The Autobiography of John Cale: What’s Welsh For Zen? John Cale & Victor Bockris (1999), a big gorgeously designed book full of wild excess and no little wisdom.
PPS – Reviewed on a ‘vague promise’ given to POP a while ago, who wanted my opinion on this little beauty. Hope you like it.
*’Babe’ by Styx being my all-time favourite one, obvs.
**true to form I used to think that this was a, particularly bad, Sisters of Mercy track; having first encountered it via live bootlegs of theirs.
*^since the vocals were mixed on one side and the music on another.
^leaving them as a shadow of the band they’d been before. I have always thought that Welshness is what made them so incredible and influential, without it – pah! I think you can view the rest of Reed’s career as a desperate attempt to find and harness his inner Welshman. It’s a little known fact that he wanted to call his New York LP, Newport. That’s totally true. 100%.