Saturday, 9 February 2019

The Velvet Underground - White Light/White Heat (1968)

  

Released January 1978

This was The Velvet Underground's second album, and and absolute masterpiece of demi-mode, drugged-up, psychedelic proto-punk, proto post-punk paranoid white noise. It is one of rock's most influential albums of all time, but, strangely, is never really mentioned in the list of true classics. The sound quality is "rough", to say the least, but seemingly intentionally so. It was meant to hit your nerve endings. It was recorded in only two days.

TRACK LISTING

1. White Light/White Heat
2. The Gift
3. Lady Godiva's Operation
4. Here She Comes Now
5. I Heard Her Call My Name
6. Sister Ray

The title track suffers from appallingly tinny, scratchy sound, despite numerous remasters. I guess it is always going to be like that. In many ways it doesn't matter - it's grainy, raw, edgy sound contains is massive, insistent, electric drill-like appeal. It is an iconic slice of late sixties adventurous sub-culture. "The Gift" is eight minutes of buzzy, "industrial" guitar long before Joy Division and features John Cale speaking the disturbing vocals in his appealing Welsh accent. Cale turns his hand to singing is a haunting, sonorous fashion on the oddly catchy "Lady Godiva's Operation". The track once again features some absolutely killer guitar riffs and lyrics that just take your breath away in their avant-garde experimental, just plain weirdness. Lou Reed joins in near the end of this fetching bonkers composition. Was any one else doing stuff like this in 1968? Sure, "I Am The Walrus" had been decidedly odd, and The Doors would have their moment later in the same year, but this was genuinely ground-breaking stuff. Way, way, way ahead of its time.

"Here She Comes Now" sees Reed back on vocals on a perfect piece of late sixties psychedelic pop, with its intense drum sound and intoxicating slowed-down Byrds-esque guitar. Put this on and let it swim around your head and you are at one heck of a late sixties party. Just when you think your trip couldn't get any worse, man, you are assaulted by the gloriously feedback-drenched racket of "I Heard Her Call My Name". Don't listen to this with a migraine. Its searing guitar drills into your head and Reed's vocals get more crazed as it careers along its beautifully bonkers path.

The final track is the epic seventeen minute "Sister Ray" based around a three chord riff that never lets up. I am sure this is what Jonathan Richman used as his inspiration for his 1978 "Roadrunner". Apparently the chords are different, but Richman acknowledges that he based the song on this. The Buzzcocks founder members, Howard Devoto (later of Magazine) and Pete Shelley initially bonded over a love for this track. The lyrics are about a drag queens' orgy, apparently, although at many points they are pretty incomprehensible. About half way through some stonking lead guitar augments the beat, while the organ has swirled around all over the place from the beginning. The Stranglers must have listened to this too. At ten minutes in, the beat finally slows up and quietens down ever so slightly, but the feedback grows in intensity, so there is no relaxation, anywhere. There are brief hints of Blondie's "Rip Her To Shreds" for a few brief seconds. The keyboard noises around twelve and a half minutes in are very Brian Eno. The list of those who must have been influenced by this piece of glorious insanity grows by the second. The track's last two minutes are a breakneck roller-coaster ride of mad guitars and ranting vocals.

You can't listen to this album over and over every day. It needs to be experienced every now and again. Listen, you don't need no drugs, man, just give yourself half an hour of this.

B

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