Beautiful Chaos: ‘White Light/White Heat’ at 50

An appreciation of The Velvet Underground’s second album, released on this day in 1968.

“Crazy to think less than a year after the pop perfectionism of Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Something Else came a cacophony of noise, drenched in punishing guitars, each line louder than the next, disenchantment in the organ sneering, John Cale’s bass empowering.  While The Sex Pistols sang about anarchy, The Velvets sounded like anarchy.”

“We were all pulling in the same direction. We may have been dragging each other off a cliff, but we were all definitely going in the same direction.”

So said Sterling Morrison about the recording process that finished with White Light/White Heat and this inner/outer collusion is the perfect statement for the beautiful chaos present on the Velvet Underground’s second album.

Crazy to think less than a year after the pop perfectionism of Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Something Else came a cacophony of noise, drenched in punishing guitars, each line louder than the next, disenchantment in the organ sneering, John Cale’s bass empowering.  While The Sex Pistols sang about anarchy, The Velvets sounded like anarchy; album closer Sister Ray a near twenty minute drive of punishing guitars, maniacal screams and offensive organ playing. It’s also, incidentally, the best track the band would collectively record, each jumping off the strengths of the other, bringing a masterful display of eerie arrangements and musical mastery, a world apart from the sixteen vessal virgins and firemen with hourglasses of ’67.

Lou Reed, as masterful a beat poet as he was a guitar player, tells a tale of drag queens and smack transvetites, one year before Midnight Cowboy realised a vision of the tale of the seedy New York underbelly. Beside him, Cale sears with an organ sound that Morrison himself couldn’t believe the veracity of and Maureen Tucker batters her drum with the heavy whack of a foot soldier lining a Vietnamese battlefield. Intoxicating in unpleasantness, this sealed the mania of an album, more than twice the length of the album’s second longest track.

This, The Gift, showcased Cale’s wistful Welsh lilt, as he narrates one of Reed’s college stories, a torrid tale of Waldo Jeffers and his distressing long distance love affair with Marsha Bronson. Paul McCartney famously boasted that Eleanor Rigby and She’s Leaving Home were stories; Reed just took this idea one step further!

Fuzz bass racing, this album was a showcase for Cale’s wizarding string skills, though White Light/White Heat would prove his swansong; Cale was ousted after Reed gave his bandmates a “Cale or me” ultimatum engineered by manager Steve Selsnick, and his place on the VU’s third album was taken by Doug Yule (who, though admirable, was a much less exciting bass player). With him, Cale seemed to take the proto-noise with him, Loaded (1970) sounds positively cool with commercialism. Cale and Reed would collaborate on Andy Warhol tribute Songs For Drella (1990), though, typically, both claimed to never want to work with the other again after the project.

But here they work beautifully, opener White Light/White Heat, a ‘50s be-bop harmony track ploughing through a pillow of distorted guitars, an iconoclastic single that Joy Division, PJ Harvey and U2 would point to in their work. Perhaps the most famous song on the album (Reed would later perform the track with Metallica and The Raconteurs to crowd delight,  and it was a setlist regular for almost every David Bowie tour from 1972 to 2004, as well as a acknowledged influence on The Dame’s Queen Bitch and Andy Warhol). It also proved lyrically salacious. You think The Jesus and Mary Chain were the first to sing about amphetamines? Think again!

The song’s inspiration by amphetamines is by now well known, but its inspiration by Alice Bailey’s occult book A Treatise On White Magic, which advises control of the astral body by a “direct method of relaxation, concentration, stillness and flushing the entire personality with pure White Light, with instructions on how to ‘call down a stream of pure White Light'”, is less so.

In White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-by-Day, rock historian Richie Unterberger writes:

“Specifically, “White Light/White Heat” is often assumed to be about the exhilarating effects of crystal methedrine amphetamines, and Reed does say the song “is about amphetamines” in his 1971 interview with Metropolitan Review. But an equally likely, and perhaps more interesting, inspiration is Alice Bailey’s occult book A Treatise on White Magic. It advises control of the astral body by a “direct method of relaxation, concentration, stillness and flushing the entire personality with pure White Light, with instructions on how to ‘call down a stream of pure White Light.’” And it’s known for certain that Reed was familiar with the volume, as he calls it “an incredible book” in a November 1969 radio interview in Portland, Oregon.”

Cale’s viola beautifully joins Morrison’s stylish staccatos on Here She Comes Now (the closest the album gets to a conventional pop song), gracing his skills with the often used but rarely deserved title as a true multi-instrumentalist. Cale and Reed share vocals on Lady Godiva’s Operation while second guitarist Sterling Morrison takes on bass duties (and, according to sleeve notes, the role of “medical instruments”) on the band’s subversive re-telling of the lady who once rode naked through the streets of Coventry.

And while I Heard Her Call My Name may sound pretty in title, it sounds passively paltry, loud, brash, washing the album’s second half with an attack with monstrous aggression and atonal Reed soloing. Punk pioneers that they were, this sounds like the Buzzcocks classic that never was (though with lyrical flair the Buzzcocks never quite mustered, ironic given that their band was fronted by a name named Shelley!)

White Light/White Heat is not the type of album you’d play at a Saturday night party or for libidinous lie-ins. It’s the anti-pop party pooper, the intense humming in your head as Richie James would later write on his morbid masterpiece The Holy Bible. It’s forty minutes of ear drenched feedback, a killer album with killer ideas and lyrics. Some might call it noise, so would I. And that’s why it’s amazing!


❉ The Velvet Underground – ‘White Light/White Heat’ (V/V6 5046) was originally released by Verve Records on 30 January 1968 in mono and stereo: For the mono versions, side 1 is a dedicated mono mix, side 2 is a fold down of the two stereo channels. UK reissues on MGM (2353024, 1973) and Polydor Select (SPELP 73, 1985) featured the ‘toy soldiers’ alternative cover. 1973 US compilation ‘That’s The Story Of My Life’ featured unique mixes of ‘Sister Ray’ and ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’. For its 45th anniversary ‘White Light/White Heat’ was reissued in expanded, remastered form as a 2CD Deluxe Edition and 3D Super Deluxe Edition.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply