Album released this week in… 1968: The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat
IN STARK contrast to the safe solo work of Lou Reed that Dan looked back on at the start of the month, I have taken the opportunity to have a look at some of the dangerous territory he ventured into earlier in his career. With The Velvet Underground, Reed, along with John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker (oh, and Doug Yule), created some of the most diverse and exciting music of the 60s. From the timeless The Velvet Underground & Nico, to the avant-garde White Light/White Heat, the folk-driven The Velvet Underground, and finally the generally more rock-like Loaded. We don’t talk about Squeeze.
Easily the most experimental of these releases is White Light/White Heat. Largely driven by improvised jams on stage and Cale’s love of the drone and unconventional, the album also characterised the disagreements between members. The tension between Reed and Cale lead to this music, almost pulling it in different directions to create something unheard of to a mainstream audience. Much like their debut, White Light/White Heat focused on topics of sex, drugs and the dark underground culture of New York City. The crass, rough exterior of the music reflected the deep, dirty, lyrics that lay within.
White Light/White Heat contains only six tracks, but each one represents something different. ‘The Gift’ shows Cale’s loveably Welsh voice telling us a short story over the rest of the bands raucous undertones. ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’ is a classic example of the Velvets’ primal pop instinct with Reed interjecting Cale’s sweet vocals. ‘Sister Ray’ is a 17 minute long cacophony of sound that somehow works out into perhaps the greatest track on this album., yet drove producer Tom Wilson out of the studio.
Weirdly though, I’ve found White Light/White Heat to be my least favourite album the Velvets have done (again, not counting Squeeze). It lacks something the other albums have. Songs like ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ or ‘I Have A Reason’, that show a chink in the absurd armour of The VU, are absent on White Light/White Heat. With a half proto-punk, half avant-garde track listing, it’s clear that the musical battle between Cale and Reed left no room for a moving number. Instead, harsh, often grating sounds dominate this album, with songs that sound like ‘European Son’ on acid.
In the aftermath of White Light/White Heat, and the departure of John Cale, the only remedy was to calm down. And so the beautiful The Velvet Underground came into being; a much calmer, touching, very Lou Reed release. But White Light/White Heat introduced the world to the idea that popular music could be more than clean cut songs and Nico collaborations. The mayhem that the album brought to the stage was unparalleled at the time, and once the seed was sown the idea began to grow and grow. Without this album, the musical world would be a very different place.
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