[Review] The Velvet Underground: White Light/White Heat (1968)

The Velvets’ second is a descent into darkness and drugs. Many rank it among rock & roll’s greatest records.

Kronomyth 2.0: White noise.

The Velvets’ first album was remarkable for its bruised beauty. White Light/White Heat is notorious for its brutal rejection of beauty and decency. For years, critics have called this a classic album, defending its noisy experimentation as art. In my opinion, any art that occurs on the Velvets’ second album is accidental. The band is completely out of control, content now to be merchants of chaos.

In its defense, White Light/White Heat is an intense listening experience not soon forgotten. But there’s not one song on here that doesn’t sound like an acid-laced outtake from their first album. This isn’t an album of music, it’s an ode to noise and intoxicated impulse. Over the years, each song has earned its infamy: “White Light/White Heat” presented in amphetamine overdrive; the bizarre short story “The Gift” recited by John Cale against bleak, unchanging scenery; a surreal duet between Cale and Lou Reed that centers around a botched operation to remove a brain tumor; the unexpectedly uncomplicated “Here She Comes Now;” the explosive “I Heard Her Call My Name;” all of it obliterated from memory by that black hole opus, a seventeen-minute “Sister Ray” that wears you down and washes over you like filthy rain.

In retrospect, you can see how critics might have been convinced to put a crown on White Light/White Heat . (How Metal Machine Music ended up with one too remains a mystery.) This isn’t art pushed to the breaking point, though. It’s broken art. Reed, Cale and the rest of the band had gone to a dark place from which return was impossible. And so John Cale left the band, effectively ending one of rock’s most interesting partnerships. Literally, the difference between this and Cale’s next record (Vintage Violence) is night and day. As the most bizarre and confrontational of the Velvets’ records, White Light/White Heat will continue to draw to itself the legions of disaffected noisemongers that every generation breeds in its dimly lit corners. And maybe it is a brilliant record after all, but you didn’t hear it from me.

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Original LP Version

A1. White Light/White Heat (Lou Reed) (2:44)
A2. The Gift (Words: Lou Reed/Music: Sterling Morrison/John Cale/Maureen Tucker/Lou Reed) (8:16)
A3. Lady Godiva’s Operation (Lou Reed) (4:52)
A4. Here She Comes Now (Words: Lou Reed/Music: Sterling Morrison/John Cale/Lou Reed) (2:02)
B1. I Heard Her Call My Name (Lou Reed) (4:35)
B2. Sister Ray (Words: Lou Reed/Music: Sterling Morrison/John Cale/Maureen Tucker/Lou Reed) (17:27)

Expanded elpee version (Russia 2008)
1. White Light/White Heat
2. The Gift
3. Lady Godiva’s Operation
4. Here She Comes Now
5. Stephanie
6. Temptation Inside Your Heart
7. I Heard Her Call My Name
8. Sister Ray
9. Hey Mr. Rain

The Players

John Cale (vocal, electric viola, organ, bass guitar), Sterling Morrison (vocal, guitar, bass guitar), Lou Reed (vocal, guitar, piano), Maureen Tucker (percussion). Produced by Tom Wilson; director of engineering: Val Valentin; recording engineered by Gary Kellgren.

The Pictures

Cover concept by Andy Warhol. Cover design by Acy R. Lehman. Cover photo by Billy Name. Back cover photo by Mario Anniballi. Inside photos by Suzan Cooper Archives.

The Plastic

Released on elpee on January 30, 1968 in the US (Verve, V6-5046).

  1. Re-issued on elpee in 1971 in the UK (MGM, 2353 024) with a different cover.
  2. Re-issued on elpee in 1981 in Japan (Verve, 23MM-0190).
  3. Re-issued on elpee and cassette in 1984 in the UK (Polydor, SPELP/SPEMC-73) with a different cover.
  4. Re-issued on elpee in the 1980s in the UK (Polydor, 2353 024), in Canada (Verve, 9393) and in Japan (Verve, 18MM-0583).
  5. Re-issued on elpee and compact disc in 1985 in the US (Verve, 825 119-1/2).
  6. Re-issued on compact disc on May 7, 1996 in the US (Polydor, 1251-2) and on elpee in 1996 in Germany (Polydor, 2810 3824).
  7. Re-released on original master compact disc in 1998 in the US (Mobile Fidelity, UDCD-724).
  8. Re-released on 180g white vinyl elpee in 2000 in the US (Verve, V6-5046) and on 180g vinyl elpee in the UK (Simply Vinyl, SVLP-200).
  9. Re-issued on compact disc in 2006 in Japan (Polydor, UICY-9135).
  10. Re-issued on 180g vinyl elpee in 2008 in the US (4 Men With Beards, 4M-155).
  11. Re-released as expanded elpee in 2008 in Russia (Vinyl Lovers/Lilith, 900044) with 3 bonus tracks.
  12. Re-released on purple vinyl elpee in 2008 in Russia (Vinyl Lovers/Lilith, 990045) without bonus tracks.
  13. Re-released as super high material compact disc in 2009 in Japan (Universal, UICY-93896).

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