Of all of the Velvet Underground‘s officially released studio and live albums, White Light/White Heat is by far the noisiest and most difficult. “No one listened to it,” said Lou Reed of the LP in 2013, just a few months before his death. “But there it is forever – the quintessence of articulated punk. And no one goes near it.”
Recorded in a short flurry of studio sessions in September 1967, and released on January 30th, 1968, White Light/White Heat – the band’s final studio album with co-founder and multi-instrumentalist John Cale – boasted none of the louche charm of the Velvets’ 1967 debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico; nor, for that matter, did it contain any of the hushed melodicism heard on the band’s self-titled 1969 LP, and it was utterly devoid of any instant classic-rock anthems like “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll” from 1970’s Loaded. With its needle-pinning assault of overdriven instruments, and lyrics about methamphetamine abuse (the title track), botched medical procedures (“Lady Godiva’s Operation”), grisly violence (“The Gift”), cries from beyond the grave (“I Heard Her Call My Name”) and heroin-dealing drag queens (“Sister Ray”), White Light/White Heat was all about pushing the boundaries of sound and taste. Even 50 years after its initial release, it remains a bracing and challenging listen. “It’s a very rabid record,” Cale opined in the liner notes to the 1995 box set Peel Slowly and See. “The first one had some gentility, some beauty. The second one was consciously anti-beauty.”
But contrary to Reed’s assertion, some people certainly have listened to it. Even though the record only briefly appeared on the Billboard 200, peaking at Number 199 in March 1968, and was largely ignored by the music press, White Light/White Heat would prove profoundly influential upon such artists as the Stooges, David Bowie, Jonathan Richman, Suicide, the Buzzcocks and a little band called Nirvana, to name a few – and in 2003, Rolling Stone ranked White Light/White Heat at Number 293 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The album has also gained new fans over the years via various reissues, and will surely make some additional converts via its inclusion in Verve Records/UMe’s forthcoming 180-gram vinyl box set, The Velvet Underground, which drops February 23rd and will contain “definitive stereo editions” of the band’s four studio albums, as well as Nico’s 1967 album Chelsea Girl, and a two-LP recreation of the band’s much-mythologized “lost” album from 1969.
In honor of the album’s 50th anniversary, here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about White Light/White Heat.
1. The album’s ugly and aggressive sound was an intentional reaction against the flower-power vibe of the “Summer of Love”.
When the Velvet Underground entered New York’s Mayfair Sound Studios to begin work on the album in September 1967, the vaunted “Summer of Love” was still grooving in San Francisco – and blissed-out hippie scenes were something the Velvets wanted absolutely no part of. “Inspired by media hype, and encouraged by deceitful songs on the radio (Airplane, Mamas and Papas, Eric Burdon), teenage ninnies flocked from Middle-America out to the coast,” Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison remembered in Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga’s Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story. “And so, at the height of the ‘Summer of Love,’ we stayed in NYC and recorded White Light/White Heat, an orgasm of our own.”
“It was very funny – until there were a lot of casualties,” said Lou Reed of the hippie movement in a 1987 Rolling Stone interview. “Then it wasn’t funny anymore. I don’t think a lot of people realized at the time what they were playing with. That flower-power thing eventually crumbled as a result of drug casualties and the fact that it was a nice idea but not a very realistic one. What we, the Velvets, were talking about, though it seemed like a down, was just a realistic portrayal of certain kinds of things.”
2. The album’s fuzzed-out guitar sounds were the direct result of the band’s endorsement deal with Vox, the British musical-equipment manufacturer.
Initially popularized in America by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and other British Invasion acts who used their amplifiers, organs and guitars, England’s Vox company struck an endorsement deal with the Velvet Underground in 1966, making Reed & Co. one of (if not the) first American bands to endorse their gear. The powerful Vox amps and fuzz pedals enabled the band to experiment with volume and distortion, which they pushed to the fullest extent on White Light/White Heat. “Those guys used Vox amps and Vox fuzz boxes for the first two albums,” Velvets obsessive Jonathan Richman explained to Bockris and Malanga. “On stuff like ‘Sister Ray’ and ‘The Gift,’ the fuzz is important. Vox fuzz bozes are distinct from other fuzz sounds. Lou used to use the built-in mid-range boost peculiar to Vox amplifiers a lot.” “White Light/White Heat was just us using the Vox amps and playing them emphatically,” added Morrison, with some degree of understatement.
3. Though generally thought to be about methamphetamine, “White Light/White Heat” may also have been partly inspired by Lou Reed’s interest in metaphysics.
Given Lou Reed and John Cale’s well-known affection for methamphetamine use during the Velvets’ early years, the album’s title track has long been interpreted as nothing more than an enthusiastic ode to shooting speed. But according to Richie Unterberger’s White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day by Day, Reed hinted in a November 1969 radio interview that the song may have also had something to do with his lesser-known interest in metaphysical studies. “I’ve been involved and interested in what they call ‘white light’ for a long time,” he told an interviewer at KVAN in Portland, Oregon, noting his recent investigation of a Japanese form of healing “that’s a way of giving off white light.” In the same interview, he also cited Alice Bailey’s A Treatise on White Magic – which includes instructions on how to “call down a stream of pure White Light” – calling it “an incredible book.”
4. Lou Reed “played” a cantaloupe on the album, at the urging of Frank Zappa.
On the track “The Gift,” John Cale reads a short story, written by Reed, about a lovesick young man named Waldo Jeffers, who tries to surprise his girlfriend by mailing himself to her in a large cardboard box, but meets a grisly end when her unsuspecting friend uses a sheet-metal cutter to open the package. “I wrote ‘The Gift’ while I was at college,’ Reed told Lester Bangs in a May 1971 Creem interview. “I used to write lots of short stories, especially humorous pieces like that. So. one night Cale and I were sitting around and he said, ‘Let’s put one of those stories to music.'”
In order to achieve the sound of a blade plunging through Jeffers’ skull, Reed (depending on who’s telling the story) either stabbed a cantaloupe with a knife, or smashed it with a wrench – directed by none other than Frank Zappa, who was recording with the Mothers of Invention at the same studio. “He said, ‘You’ll get a better sound if you do it this way,'” Reed later recalled to Mojo. “And then he says, ‘You know, I’m really surprised by how much I like your album.'”
5. “Here She Comes Now” was originally written to be sung by Nico.
A sequel to Lou Reed’s mysterious character study “Femme Fatale,” “Here She Comes Now” was originally intended as a vehicle for Nico, the German chanteuse who – at the suggestion of then-manager Andy Warhol – had sung “Femme Fatale,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” on the Velvet Underground’s first album. She reportedly sang “Here She Comes Now” at a few live performances, as well; and while there’s no recorded version of the song with her on vocals, it’s easy to imagine her Teutonic tones icily caressing lines like “She looks so good/But she’s made out of wood.” But after the band parted ways with both Warhol and Nico in the spring of 1967, it fell to Lou Reed to record the vocals of the song for White Light/White Heat.
6. Lou Reed’s guitar solo on “I Heard Her Call My Name” was a tribute to jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman.
Throughout his career, Reed often spoke about his love of free jazz, and specifically the music of saxophonist Ornette Coleman. “There were two sides of the coin for me,” he told Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke in 1989. “R&B, doo-wop, rockabilly. And then Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, Archie Shepp, stuff like that. When I was in college, I had a jazz radio show. I called it Excursion on a Wobbly Rail, after a Cecil Taylor song. I used to run around the Village following Ornette Coleman wherever he played.”
Reed’s free jazz influence is apparent on several of White Light/White Heat‘s tracks – especially on the vicious, mind-splitting guitar solo in “I Heard Her Call My Name,” which found him cranking up his amp and channeling his inner Coleman. “I wanted to play like that,” Reed told Fricke. “I used the distortion to connect the notes, so you didn’t hear me hesitating and thinking. … I never thought of it as violent. I thought it was amazing fun.”
7. A studio engineer was so put off by “Sister Ray” that he actually left the studio while it was being recorded.
Clocking in at 17-and-a-half minutes on record – and often much longer in concert – the tawdry epic “Sister Ray” was one of Andy Warhol’s favorite songs from the Velvet Underground’s live sets. “When we were making the second record,” Lou Reed told Rolling Stone in 1989, “He said, ‘Now you gotta make sure that you do the ‘sucking on my ding-dong’ song.’ ‘Okay, Andy.’ He was a lot of fun, he really was.”
However, one of the engineers working on White Light/White Heat – either Gary Kellgren or Val Valentine, both of whom worked on the record in an engineering capacity – was far less amused when the band was recording the improvisatory track in the studio. In Anthony DeCurtis’ Lou Reed: A Life, Reed recounts that, “When we recorded ‘Sister Ray,’ the engineer stood up and said, ‘Listen, I’m leaving. You can’t pay me enough to listen to this crap. I’ll be down in the commissary getting coffee. When you’re done, hit that button and come get me.’ That’s completely true.”
8. Producer Tom Wilson spent more time chasing women than actually overseeing the album.
Though White Light/White Heat producer Tom Wilson – who had also helmed albums by Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Mothers of Invention – had previously worked with the Velvets on The Velvet Underground and Nico, the band wasn’t always thrilled with his involvement (or lack thereof) during the sessions for White Light/White Heat. “He knew more, uh, ladies of the night than there are women on this planet,” John Cale recalled to Creem in 1987. “He’s a swinger par excellence. It was unbelievable, a constant parade into that studio. He was inspired, though, and used to joke around to keep everybody in the band light.”
Velvets drummer Moe Tucker was particularly incensed when Wilson became too distracted by what she described as “the blondes running through the studio” to remember to turn up the microphones on her drums during a specific break in “Sister Ray.” “I could have killed myself,” she later complained to the Velvet Underground fanzine What Goes On. “‘Cause we did two takes of that as I recall, and it came out nice, it was really good, and here’s this part that drops out the bottom. I was tapping on the rim, and it wasn’t recorded. And of course everybody thinks that I stopped playing the drums, which infuriates me.”
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9. The album’s cover art was a “parting gift” from Andy Warhol.
When the Velvets and Andy Warhol parted ways shortly after the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico, the split wasn’t exactly an amicable one. “He sat down and had a talk with me,” Lou Reed told Rolling Stone in 1989. “[He said] ‘You gotta decide what you want to do. Do you want to keep just playing museums from now on and the art festivals? Or do you want to start moving into other areas? Lou, don’t you think you should think about it?’ So I thought about it, and I fired him. Because I thought that was one of the things to do if we were going to move away from that. He was furious. I’d never seen Andy angry, but I did that day. He was really mad. Called me a rat. That was the worst thing he could think of.”
But by the end of 1967, Warhol’s anger had subsided enough for him to suggest an idea for the design of White Light/White Heat‘s album cover. According to a December 1967 letter from Lou Reed to Gerard Malanga, it was Warhol’s idea to use “a black-on-black picture of a motorcyclist tattoo by Billy [Name]. Beautiful. ALL BLACK!” Reed had seen the tattoo in question on the bicep of actor Joe Spencer in Warhol’s film Bike Boy; and with Warhol’s permission, Factory artist Billy Name blew up a black-and-white negative frame from the film and set it against a black background, creating a cover that was the very antithesis of the psychedelic, Sgt. Pepper–inspired imagery that was everywhere at the time.
10. “White Light/White Heat” and “Here She Comes Now” were banned in several radio markets because of their content.
Though the songs “White Light/White Heat” and “Here She Comes Now” sounded like nothing else on the American airwaves in late 1967, Verve, the band’s label, decided to release the songs – the two shortest cuts on White Light/White Heat – to radio on a seven-inch single. Unsurprisingly, the single stiffed, and so few were even pressed that original copies now change hands for hundreds of dollars.
But while the songs had little commercial appeal to begin with, members of the band would claim on several occasions that they had actually been banned – the raging “White Light/White Heat” because of its drug references, and the quieter “Here She Comes Now” due to what some programmers perceived as sexual content. “We put out ‘Here She Comes Now’ in San Francisco and they said, ‘That’s about a girl coming,'” Reed recalled to Time Out in 1972. “And I said, ‘Well no, it’s not, it’s about somebody coming into a room.’ And then I listened to the record and I realized it probably was about a girl coming as a matter of fact, but then again, so what? But we were banned again.”