Retrospective: White Light/White Heat
Original Release Date: 30 January 1968
Label: Verve Records
I like to compare Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat to Kanye West’s Yeezus, with both albums taking pleasure in violently ripping apart the script of a magnum opus. But while the abrasive music of VU’s second album remains exhilarating 50 years on from its release, the record’s supposedly subversive lyrics leave me cold.
After disappointing sales of their 1967 debut The Velvet Underground & Nico, Lou Reed’s relationship with manager Andy Warhol soured, with the legendary artist reportedly calling Reed a “rat” after being fired. Yet this decision was cathartic for the band, which no longer had to accommodate Nico’s lush melodies and could instead further explore the dark territory of songs like Venus in Furs. No longer confined to the populist tag of ‘Andy Warhol’s music project,’ Reed and John Cale went full avant-garde. And the raw, feedback-ravaged guitars of White Light/White Heat, an album created in just 48 hours, are the complete antithesis to the crisp production present on previous songs such as Sunday Morning.
In a later interview, guitarist Sterling Morrison would admit that he quit the band for a few days after feeling that I Heard Her Call My Name had been ruined by the roughness of the mix. But this act of self-mutilation was completely intentional by Reed and Cale, with producer Tom Wilson and engineer Gary Kellgren instructed to create uncomfortable levels of distortion. Take Cale’s distorted electric bass outro on the title track, which replicates the abrupt rush of a methamphetamine high. It’s an unflinching thrust and takes you into a nightmarish dimension whether you’re listening for the first or 600th time. Or the feedback from Reed’s atonal guitar two minutes and fifteen seconds into I Heard Her Call My Name. It is so coarse and intense, it feels like your head has been split open with a crowbar – a moment piercingly out of step with the flower power vibes of its era.
When the record was released in January 1968, its subversive lyrics failed to captivate critics or mainstream audiences – White Light/White Heat briefly touched the top 200 in the Billboard charts, peaking at 199. Reed and Cale were inspired by the underworld literature of authors like William Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr. and wanted to recreate the same visceral imagery in their songs. However, you could argue the record’s reliance on provocative lyricism has dated.
On The Gift, a deadpan Cale recites a short story Reed wrote in college about a paranoid and possessive young man called Waldo Jeffers who mails himself to his long-distance girlfriend, who, in turn, accidentally kills Waldo while cutting open the delivery box. I’m sure the next song – Lady Godiva’s Operation – was a very personal song for Reed, who was attempting to mirror his own experiences of electroshock therapy as a youth. The first half of the song gives the impression of being a conventional psychedelic number about Lady Godiva, a woman who seduces boys away from their mothers. In the second half, Godiva is revealed as a transwoman and is forced to go through surgery that ends in her death. But lyrically, it feels detached. Lady Godiva seems more like a punchline than an actual human being and Reed borders on the voyeuristic with his descriptions of gender-altering surgery (He wryly sings: “Doctor arrives with knife and baggage, sees the growth as just so much cabbage”).
Sister Ray, meanwhile, depicts an orgy between a group of transsexuals and sailors, with heroin use heavily implied. I’m sure in 1968, these lyrics sounded transgressive. Unfortunately, in 2018, they sound like a Carry On film via distorted organs and guitars. As Reed chants: “She’s busy sucking on my ding-dong, you’ll stain the carpet!” – it makes you question whether this was a genuine insight into the LGBTQ community of the late 1960s or just a crude joke at their expense.
While the band’s literary hero Selby Jr. shed a sympathetic light on taboo subjects with 1964’s Last Exit to Brooklyn – such as drug use, gang rape and transvestites – among New York’s working classes, Reed’s lyrics fail to do the same. The daring nature of the music on White Light/White Heat means it’s still the blueprint for radical rock ’n’ roll reinvention. But while the raw production is impossible not to admire, the suspect lyrics make it a record that’s a lot harder to love. Perhaps that was the aim all along.