The Velvet Underground - White Light / White Heat - Review
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critics' view

Arriving at the tail end of January ’68 was the second Velvet Underground LP, recorded over the course of just 5 days in September ‘67. The brutalisation of Rock n Roll continues – and this time there ain’t no sugar sweeteners for the black caffeine. The whole scene is black; the cover, the lyrics, the humour, the shades, the clothes. The Velvet Underground’s response to the disappointing sales of their debut album was illogical; this aggressive and beastly follow-up was devoid of normal pop charm. It was “consciously anti-beauty” said John Cale. Since the debut, Lou Reed had cut loose singer Nico and manager Andy Warhol on charges of tardiness and unprofessionalism. For all the confrontational chaos of their Art Rock, he wanted the group to succeed on both artistic and commercial grounds. John Cale reaffirmed the group’s commercial intent: “There was close competition with Bob Dylan” he admitted. “He was getting into people’s heads. We thought we could do that.” The VU played the promotional game to a certain extent – but it was always a hard-sell in a musically conservative world.

As regards the product, there’s never a dull moment on the six-track set. The adrenalin-fuelled starter “White Light/White Heat” carries on where “I’m Waiting For The Man” left-off, with John Cale hammering that piano like a man possessed. “Have Mercy!” exclaims Lou. It’s the closest we’ll get to source Rock n Roll truisms. “The Gift”, in super-stereo, affords the listener a range of attractive listening options: a) listen to a gruesome short story in your left speaker, b) Listen to a gruesome rock instrumental in your right speaker or c) Take in both aspects of the gruesome extravaganza at once, with your head positioned exactly in the middle of your right and left speaker. I’m so transfixed with excitement that I can barely breathe. Poor Waldo. The black humour continues on “Lady Godiva’s Operation” which describes a transvestite's botched surgical procedure. Clearly not happy with John taking a second vocal, Lou bursts in with “SWEETLY”, an interruption which seems twice as loud as John. It kills me every time. Side 1 closes with “Here She Comes Now”, a lazy jangler which echoes stylistically with “There She Goes Again” from the debut. It’s the most conventional track on the LP, and serves as the calm before the storm of side 2.

I Heard Her Call my Name” is a 4 minute freak-out which revels in a sense of controlled punk abandon. Sterling Morrison sums up the passion and tension within the group’s members: “I quit the group for a couple of days because I thought they chose the wrong mix for 'I Heard Her Call My Name', one of our best songs that was completely ruined in the studio.” Presumably this is the right mix – Sterling never quit and it sounds fantastic. This leads into one of the greatest moments in the history of Rock n Roll – the seventeen minute sonic assault that is “Sister Ray” – never has the avant-garde grooved with such intensity. “By this time, we were a touring band” John Cale explains. “And the sound we could get on stage – we wanted to get that on the record. In some performances, Moe would go up first, start a backbeat, then I would come out and put a drone on the keyboard. Sterling would start playing, then Lou would come out, maybe turn into a Southern preacher at the mike. That idea of us coming out one after the other, doing whatever we wanted, that individualism – it’s there on Sister Ray, in spades.”

Literate, expressive and insanely exciting – these four were easily the World’s smartest, coolest rockers in 1968. Alas, sales were disappointing again. By September, John Cale had left the band. Don’t it always seem to be that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone? “John has said we didn’t get to finish what we started – that is sadly true. However, as far as we got, that was monumental. I would match it with anything by anybody, anywhere, ever. No group in the world can touch what we did.” I'll stand witness for Lou anytime.

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