Review Summary: Welcome to the Velvet Underground. We hope you stay....
Did the band with one of the coolest names of all time ever really make an attempt to crack the mainstream in 1967? Maybe, maybe not, but the commercial failure of The Velvet Underground and Nico
didn’t seem to bother Lou Reed (vocals/guitar), John Cale (viola/vocals), Sterling Morrison (guitar/vocals) and Maureen Tucker (drums) too much, as they followed it up by going for an all-out DefCon 1 on anti-mainstream music with their follow up, 1968’s White Light/White Heat
The first thing we notice in White Light/White Heat
is the real irony of the title. This album is a black, heavy, dead piece of extraordinarily radicalised, inaccessible music. Indeed, this is what music with the complete absence of light sounds like. The hideous, guttural, spiked noir
of the production makes it sound like the entire album is played through the blackest, most frayed speakers ever, on instruments made out of tar and concrete. The lyrical content is a perfectly unholy accompaniment to the wickedness of the sound; no other artist has made heroin sound like such a magical thrill as the Velvets do on the title track, The Gift
entails depression, despair and infidelity climaxing in a brutal manslaughter, Lady Godiva’s Operation
combines a Gothic folk tale with an horrific, botched operation and Sister Ray
….I’m not going to start yet. Simply put, this is the manifesto of grunge, Goth and garage over six insane songs.
Although White Light
is an album of nihilistic extremes, there is immense fun to be found in its black humour and remorseless grinding and chugging instrumentals. The Gift
, John Cale’s eight minute spoken word jam, seems to be a run-of-the-mill rom-com, with a couple of Woody Allen-esque quirks in there for good measure: Waldo Jeffers is living states apart from his girlfriend Marsha Bronson, and is tortured by the not knowing of what she’s up to. Her vow of fidelity means nothing to his overly paranoid brain. So, he mails himself up to her in a box.
Pause. If The Gift
was written by any other songwriter, Waldo would pop out of the box to realise that his worrying had been for nothing. Marsha would be touched by his commitment, and they all would live happily ever after. But this is a Lou Reed
story, goddammit, (written, rather concerningly, when he was a schoolboy) and gallows humour comes before mushy endings. Marsha, unable to open the box, tries to carve it open with scissors and stabs Waldo in the face, killing him.
See what I mean? It’s hideous, but God, it’s enjoyable: Cale’s endless, ironically monotone murmur against the mutant dirge of the band.
Similarly, check out the free-form, delirious White Light/White Heat
, a joyous hallelujah to the religion of Heroin in the church of Velvet:
White light! White light goin' messin' up my mind
White light! And don't you know it's gonna make me go blind
White heat! Aww white heat it tickle me down to my toes
White light! Ooo have mercy white light have it goodness knows
The juxtaposition of a horrible theme against a happy melody is classic Velvets: shake up what is expected and hit the soft mainstream in the face with a very nasty reality. Likewise, the droning, edgily perverse Lady Godiva’s Operation
is a traditional, naïve folk tale that has foolishly wandered into downtown Velvets territory: the virtuous Lady Godiva has become a prostitute and the town that she walks in is one hell of a sick hospital: surgical mishaps are suspiciously regular with horrible consequences.
In an effort to maintain connections to the New York street life portrayed in Nico
, the raging I Heard Her Call My Name
has connections to the clattering I’m Waiting For The Man
, whilst the idyllic, Buddhist temple chimes of Here She Comes Now
, the only mercy break we get for the whole album, is a reinvention of Femme Fatale
and I’ll Be Your Mirror
without the yawning Nico.
But the big, mind-blowing, face rupturing centrepiece is the finale: the chugging, grinding Sister Ray
. This is the
definitive Velvets song, an utterly unholy, motherless extended art piece that utterly violates every rule of sensible music. The first three and a half minutes of Sister Ray
are as good as anything the Velvets ever recorded: funny, insane, hideous, immoral and so distant from anything on radio at the time.
To put down the synopsis of this anti-masterpiece, we open on a group of hopeless junkies in a filthy, squalid, heroin corroded apartment (presumably in New York somewhere) who pass their days shooting up and doing all sorts of kinky God-knows-what in their own little sinful paradise.
One day, they lure a visiting sailor who is looking for a dollar, into their den, where he is shot by Cecil. The reaction of the others? They simply stare their wax figure, nine-days-awake stares, and murmur:
Oh, you shouldn’t do that
Don’t you know you’ll stain the carpet?
And by the way he had a dollar
Predictably enough, this brings the heat a-callin’…
Oh who could that be knocking?
Who’s that knocking at the chamber door?
Oh could it be the police?
They’ve come to take me for a ride-ride?
Oh man, I haven’t got the time-time!
Chugging, clattering and rambling on and on, Sister Ray
is the musical symbolism of Cale’s famous quote, “We were going off a cliff, but at least we were all moving in the same direction.” By the end of the 17:27, it is incomprehensible that the instruments are still playing, since it sounds like concrete guitars and a cinderblock organ over a metal drum kit, through the oldest, most past-it speakers of 1968…and we can only guess in terror at how common drug-induced homicides were au chez
White Light/White Heat
. Do you dare?