Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Velvet Underground
White Light/White Heat


Released 1968 on Verve
Reviewed by Stevo, 03/07/2001ce


"The other Cale period Velvets LP is 'White Light /White Heat. It came out in a black on black sleeve with a picture of the skull and crossbones tattoo on the top of Billy name’s arm. It was produced by Tom Wilson, a young black hipster who had already produced Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. The band had just been endorsed by the British music firm Voxx so were getting instruments free. There are several photos in existence of members of the band posing with Voxx’s trademark lute-shape guitars, which the Rolling stones’ Brian Jones was also known to use.
The record has very little separation due to the proximity of players to each other so there is a lot of noise/feedback throughout this really adds to the sound and is probably cited by the whole lo-fi scene as a progenitor. So over the course of two LPs the Velvets were indirectly responsible for 2 much derided music scenes, both of which did issue forth rare gems.
Here for the most part Cale plays bass, and it is only on hearing the box set re-mastering of this that I realised just how downright funky this LP is.
The tracks are as follows: -
White Light /White Heat – A song about the apex of an amphetamine rush the time when your toes curl back as do your eyes. That feeling that you have heat rays coming from your eyeballs. It features more of Cale’s repetitive piano pounding this time incorporating the styles of Jerry lee Lewis and Little Richard this is strange because there’s also a bass pounding away here. One of the rare occurrences that the later Doug Yule featuring band does a version of the song that’s almost as good as the original. The other version is on 1969 Live (volume 2, if you get the CD)
The Gift - John Cale recites Lou Reed’s college short story of unrequited love and sudden accidental death -done in one take-over a funk instrumental ‘Booker T’ presumably named after the MGs
main man Booker T Jones. Strange then that there’s no keyboard especially since it’s featured elsewhere. Perhaps feedback swathes take its place.
It was originally supposed to have strict stereo separation with the vocals on one side and the instrumental on the other. So the listener could decide whether they wanted to hear about the tragic fate of Waldo Jeffers or the music or both. This was badly bungled in 1967 and was only put right for the Peel Slowly and see box set.
Lady Godiva’s Operation – The second narrative in a row this time more in song form with Reed and Cale alternating lines. The story of a sex change operation that goes badly wrong. Reed particularly liked Cale’s impersonation of a life support system. Again horror strikes prior to the end of the story.
Here She Comes Now – The one moment of near beauty on an overloaded album. A song of anticipation of a girl the narrator is deeply enamoured with but maybe doesn’t notice him.
Does Cale play viola on this track or is it confusion with the demo? The box set has him listed as playing viola somewhere on this album but I can’t hear it and this seems to be the one place it would fit.
I Heard Her Call My Name – song about the narrator’s confusion about a dead loved one ‘I know she’s dead and gone but I heard her call my name’ etc. It has one of the wildest guitar solos ever which has been described in the liner notes as being ‘The closest any rock guitarist had yet dared to get to the exuberant free jazz squall of saxophonist Ornette Coleman and pianist Cecil Taylor’s shotgun melodicism’
In Uptight Reed says something about Jimi Hendrix having this great sense of timing which is copied here in the way the song stops then suddenly explodes into the solo.
Moe Tucker’s metronomic drumming here is another highlight.
Sister Ray – The most famous track on this album. 17minutes and27 seconds of the band fighting for dominance over a simple chord change. Everybody was trying to be louder than everybody else. Morrison was surprised when Cale –playing surprisingly melodically for such a steamroller song- pulled out all the stops on his organ so got louder than everybody else, whose guitar amps were all already on 10. This leads to Moe Tucker’s drums becoming all-but inaudible.
The studio engineer walked out half way through this number saying ‘Call me when it’s over.’
The band had previously decide that they only had it in them to do one take of this song so if anybody wanted to play anything do it now. -No excuses or druthers
One other thing to notice is the lack of a bass – obviously Cale couldn’t play two instruments at the same time and there were no overdubs.
The lyrics to the song were the story of a bunch of lowlifes – a catalogue of drug hustles and blowjob jollities to quote the Peel Slowly linernotes ‘Too busy sucking on my ding-dong -she sucks good like Sister Ray says’
Written by Reed on the way to a gig although the words would continually change live where the song was preceded by a track called ‘Sweet Sister Ray’ that could itself last up to 40 minutes.
The music came out of a chord change that came up during an Exploding Plastic Inevitable engagement at Poor Richard’s in Chicago during July1966. Reed was at the time hospitalised with hepatitis presumably from needle use and the band had re-shuffled accordingly- Cale was on vocals Tucker had switched over to bass and original drummer Angus MacLise was back on hand drums.


Reviews Index