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Velvet Underground - White Light / White Heat, Part 3

  by Jon Rogers

published: 6 / 6 / 2014

Velvet Underground - White Light / White Heat, Part 3


In the final part of his three part series on the Velvet Underground's 1968 second LP 'White Light/White Heat', Jon Rogers examines critical perception of it since its release and its recent box set

The artwork of ‘White Light/White Heat’ was even out-of-step with the prevailing times. While contemporary album covers usually went psychedelic post 'Sgt Pepper' in brightly coloured, bold graphics, 'White Light/White Heat' was, essentially, just jet-black. It was a nihilistic look that was in sharp contrast to the hippie vibe in full-swing on the West Coast. Despite Andy Warhol not being associated with the band anymore, he still had an involvement with the second album, albeit on a very minor level. He came up with the basic idea for the cover as Reed noted in a letter to Gerard Malanga dated 23 December 1967: "a black-on-black picture of a motorcyclist tattoo by Billy [Name]. Beautiful. ALL BLACK!" The detail was from a still taken from Warhol's film 'Bike Boy'. Like much of the music on the record though, it was hard to make out just what it was as it was a black, grainy photo on a black background. As Name explained in 'The Velvet Underground Under Review': "That came about because, when they were going to do the second album, Lou came to me and said, 'Billy, I want you to do the cover'... So I said, 'Lou, you know, rather than me trying to come up with a design image, why don't I let you look through all my negative files, and you select something and we'll use that for the cover image.' So what he selected was an image from one of Warhol's movies called 'Bike Boy', with this stud hustler [Joe Spencer]. He had that tattoo on his upper bicep forearm, and Lou spotted it in one of the frames from one of the stills I had made on his arm... in a 35mm black-and-white frame. It's like this teeny little thing, you know? So I really had to like enlarge it enormously, so it got totally grainy. But it was cool. It was funky-looking like that." Released on 30 January 1968 in the US (it album was given a UK release in May), ‘White Light/White Heat’ was largely ignored by the mainstream critics and, if they did bother to listen, they generally dismissed it. 'Rolling Stone', tellingly, chose to ignore it. Even in the original review in 'Crawdaddy', Sandy Pearlman - who would go on to produce albums by the likes of Blue Oyster Cult and the Dictators - did not really know what to make of it all, and seemed rather bemused by it all, concluding: "The Velvets’ repetition scene makes it hard to tell whether they're playing badly or not [...] which was an always pressing problem for the Banana album." The next issue carried a much longer, rather rambling, appraisal by Wayne McGuire, who dubbed the band "prophets of a new age" citing them as "sons of metallic [William] Burroughs and leather [Jean] Genet" and concluded that the Velvets were "the most vital and significant group in the world today." The 'Los Angeles Free Press' carried a review in the 10 May 1967 edition by Gary Youngblood which captured something of the record: "The Underground's music says 'We're not kidding.' It is sincere... and on the new album 'The Gift' and 'Sister Ray' exude a scathing, soulless genius that conjures up Bosch debacles and sadomasochistic dream states. Listening is like a visit to hell without getting burned, and we'd all like that, wouldn't we?" Youngblood also called their music a "cruel, savage, animal". The 'NME' carried a short review of the album in June and referred to their music as "raving, out-of-tune, distorted sound," concluding the album was "weirdo stuff." 'Disc' also carried a review the same month with the unaccredited review calling the album as "staggering" and featured "an amazingly exciting sound," concluding: "The Underground are a very American, very hip rock band with meaningful and often evil lyrics which combine to exert a powerful hypnotic state on the listener. Hear it - if you dare!" One positive contemporary review of the album came from Tim Souster in the 4 July 1968 edition of 'The Listener', which largely focused on the track 'Sister Ray'. Writing about the song, he said: "Recorded pop is at last making decisive steps in a direction with far-reaching implications for the creative development not only of pop itself but 'serious' music too." Perhaps not surprisingly FM radio largely ignored it. There was no hit single to boost its profile and the songs were just far too long or too weird to get air play. Even the underground stations that had backed acts like The Mothers of Invention and Country Joe & The Fish largely kept it at arm's length. The public ignored it and it sold even fewer copies than their debut. The album just made it into the 'Billboard' Top 200 albums at 199 on 16 March, stayed there for a further week and dropped out again. With its rather unwholesome themes of deviant sex, death, drag queens and drugs, radio stations did not go anywhere near it. Plus now that the association with Warhol had gone any interest he might have drawn was also out of the window. 'White Light/White Heat' was released as a single - and quickly went nowhere, even getting banned in the hippie capital of San Francisco. Only compounding the problem for record sales that even for the most clued-up record label would have been a difficult task. MGM-Verve simply did not know how to handle such a radical band as the Velvets. Verve had been founded in 1956 by the jazz pioneer Norman Grantz, who had designed it to handle jazz recordings that included the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington before selling it to MGM in the 1960s. A label like that simply had no idea of how to market such a band. Despite the previous patronage of Warhol, one album already released and endless tours and residencies, the band still wallowed in obscurity. While fingers have been pointed at the problems with the label, Verve did make some sort of effort to promote the record. It took out a full-page ad in 'Rolling Stone' on 27 April issue as well as smaller ads in 'The East Village Other' and 'The Fifth Estate’ in an attempt to attract the counterculture audience. Verve also made a radio ad for the album which heavily featured 'The Gift' and included sound-bites from the song before culminating with the announcer stating: "The Velvet Underground pulls no punches. Get their latest album, 'White Light/White Heat', on Verve today." A rather prosaic ad is also placed in the teen magazine 'Hullabaloo' which, in part, states: "Come. To where vinyl virgins devour the macabre mind. And flowers of evil bloom in the Elysian-pure atmosphere of ‘White Light/White Heat’." Anyone who had heard the album probably speculated if the copywriter had even heard the record. Over the years though, the album has been hailed as a ground-breaking forerunner and, despite its poor production, seen as a masterpiece. The famed critic Richard Williams later wrote a lengthy appraisal of 'Sister Ray': "The album's great set piece - a classic of sixties ambition to stand with [Bob] Dylan's 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands', [Terry] Riley's 'In C' and Ornette Coleman's 'Free Jazz' - was the seventeen-and-a-half-minute 'Sister Ray', in which a song structure no more demanding than that of dumb punk classics like '96 Tears' or 'Woolly Bully' was made to serve the demands of the avant-garde. Musically, 'Sister Ray' offered none of the familiar blues-derived comforts of a lengthy jam by, say, Cream or the Grateful Dead. It was harsh, barbed, unwelcoming, built on the nagging buzz and drone of relentless clatter of Tucker's garbage-can drumming. Reed wrote its lyrics to match, diving into the netherworld with the conviction of a long-term resident. Barely piercing the din, the words of 'Sister Ray' dealt strictly with drugs. This time, though, there was a difference. 'Sister Ray' wasn't a carefully arranged art-song about drugs and sex: in its rush and incoherence and desperation, it was drugs and sex, done together in absolute extremis." Richard Mortifoglio would sum up the album as "failed brilliance", writing: "'White Light/White Heat is the most resolutely anti-melodic rock ever recorded before punk, a truly 'black' record, from the colour of the cover to the crackling electronic burp closing 'Sister Ray', that monster opus that summarises the album's high anarchy and takes seventeen minutes to end it. It's an extreme record, and this very extremity marks it for the kind of failed brilliance most 'experiments' suffer in time." Lester Bangs, writing in 'Creem' in May 1971, stated: "'White Light/White Heat’ was the album that firmly proved the Velvets to be much more than a Warhol phase, and established them for any one with ears to listen as one of the most dynamically experimental groups in or out of rock. This great album, which was all but ignored when it appeared, will probably stand to future listeners looking back as one of the milestones on the road to tonal and rhythmic liberation which is giving rock all the range and freedom of the new jazz [...] the Velvets left 'White Light/White Heat' to stand, for the time being, as their ultimate statement in the new musical vocabulary of electronic abstraction." It was, as Cale put it, "the most abrasive and powerful Velvet Underground album. It reflected the internal tensions as we ascended at each other's throats. Our shared intelligence could not offset the antagonism of differing musical notions." Those tensions between Cale, who wanted to keep the band's original premise of avant-garde experimentation, and Reed, who wanted to move the band in a more pop direction with gentler songs focused around structure and lyrics, as well as the former's dislike of their manager Steve Sesnick would ultimately propel Cale to leave the band. Also driving a wedge between the two was Cale's relationship with fashion designer Betsey Johnson whom he married in New York in April. Reed seemed to distrust her involvement and to view the relationship in a similar vein to John Lennon's relationship to Yoko Ono which, in part, brought about the end of the Beatles. All this just played into the hands of Sesnick, who really saw the group as 'Lou's band' rather than of equals. At the end of September 1968 the band played a couple of shows at the Boston Tea Party. They would be the last that Cale would play with the band. Reed then later called a meeting with Tucker and Morrison at the Riviera Café in the West Village to tell them that Cale was out of the band. Reed though chickened out of doing the dirty work and left to Morrison to deliver the news. Over the years the album has been reassessed, and, despite its inaccessibility is seen as a direct antecedent of the punk/new wave scene of the late 1970s. 'Rolling Stone', despite ignoring the album at the time of its release, then put it top of the '50 Coolest Records' in the 11 April 2002 issue. So, forty five years later and the album gets the 'deluxe' treatment. Disc one contains the original album including a couple of out-takes from the original sessions in September 1967 - and an alternate take of 'I Heard Her Call My Name' with Reed's guitar playing not so prominent, along with an instrumental version of 'Guess I'm Falling in Love' recorded on 5 December 1967. It remains unclear just why the band bothered to book a recording date for just one song. Perhaps they considered it as a possible single with its more commercial sound attracting radio play. Or perhaps they had other ideas that never quite paid off. Only an instrumental backing track is recorded, and that does not really compare to the live version recorded at the Gymnasium in April. There are also original versions of 'Temptation Inside Your Heart' and 'Stephanie Says' from a session on 13-14 February 1968, which were done as a possible single but never saw the light of day. No MGM producer was actually present, so the reason for the recording session is a little unclear. Val Valentin, however, acted as a joint producer and engineer. 'Stephanie Says' is perhaps about as conventional a song Reed penned during his Velvets involvement. It is a gentle ballad which marks the first of his series of songs that mention a woman's name plus the word 'says' in the title, such as 'Candy Says' or 'Lisa Says'. As pretty as the song is, it is far from the band's strongest and rather flimsy. Even Morrison appeared not to be too keen, writing in a letter quoted in the 'What Goes On' discography: "We could do songs like this any time we felt like it, and this is a good representative of the type." Rather cryptically, Cale would later assert that 'Stephanie' is not actually a woman but the song refers to Steve Sesnick. 'Temptation Inside Your Heart' marks a definite departure for the band as they morph into good-time, rock 'n' roll bar band with an obvious debt to Motown and girl groups like Martha & The Vandellas, whom Reed considered one of his favourite acts. They even get a name check on the record, which sees the band in high spirits as they start to fool around in the studio and includes chatter, cut-ups and spoken asides on the recording as well as Reed in rather surrealist form, claiming that "electricity comes from other planets." Also included is an interesting session in May later that same year, which included two versions of 'Hey Mr Rain' and a rudimentary version of 'Beginning to See the Light' recorded at TTG Studios in Hollywood on 29 May 1968. Perhaps, once again, this recording session was set up to try and get a commercial-sounding single out of the band. If that was the case, however, it is an odd choice as the song is far from the band's strongest with neither version particularly strong and the version of 'Beginning to See the Light' too unstructured for a commercial release. Most interesting of all for fans though is the inclusion of the famed Gymnasium gig in New York on 30 April 1967, which has been widely bootlegged in the past with 'Booker T' and 'Guess I'm Falling in Love' having been previously issued on the 'Peel Slowly and See' box set in 1995. Included now though is a run through of the previously (legitimately) unreleased 'I'm Not a Young Man Anymore' as well as a raw, bare-boned 19-minute take of 'Sister Ray' with a ten-minute version of 'The Gift' closing proceedings. Finally, after years of hearing poorly recorded bootlegs the gig can finally get a proper airing. It's all pretty much essential listening. As Morrison noted in an interview with 'LA Weekly' in April 1985: "That's the litmus test. If you like that album, then you like the Velvet Underground."

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Velvet Underground - White Light / White Heat, Part 3

Velvet Underground - White Light / White Heat, Part 3

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