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Anthony Carew

From the Vaults Friday: The Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat (1968)

By January 18, 2013

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The Year: 1968
The Album: The Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat
Who it Influenced: Everyone, pretty much.

You could make a case that the Velvet Underground's 1967 debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico, is the greatest alternative album ever. And yet, when time came from the New Yorkers to follow-up their debut, they didn't have to live up to it, but live it down.

The Velvet Underground and Nico was —somewhat infamously, now— a commercial failure upon its release, and that added to the souring relationship between the New York band and their magic/svengali figure, Andy Warhol. With Nico pursuing a solo career, the band were, a year later, a tight four-piece. And, with late-'60s listeners appearing lukewarm to their music and Warhol summarily fired, the Velvet Underground turned their backs on the world.

That lead to White Light/White Heat, the VU's second successive landmark longplayer. This time, it was a landmark because no one had made rock'n'roll music this antisocial before; so noisy, dissonant, ornery, and obstreperous. It was symbolized by its 17-minute closer, "Sister Ray," a traditional end-of-the-live-set jam that found the band veering into distortion-blasted, feedback-saturated freakouts.

It was a move that all but guaranteed that the Velvet Underground's commercial potential would go up in smoke, but the band barreled on, throwing themselves headlong into the noise. Whether they were in pursuit of new frontiers or oblivion is immaterial; White Light/White Heat's form-defying take on rock'n'roll was a work of radicalism whose influence would resound throughout the decades.


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