Free from the Factory
The Velvet Underground's status as that most seminal of alternative acts is not just limited to the undeniably classic 1967 debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico. Their greatness isn't limited to that one album, or moment in time; but is displayed in the way that they evolved thereafter.
That evolution lead to 1968's White Light/White Heat, an album that is, in its own way, just as influential —just as definitive— as its predecessor. Following And Nico's lack of commercial success, the relationship between the Velvet Underground and their svengali, Andy Warhol, cracked, then fractured, then broke apart; the band effectively firing him as their manager. They parted ways with Nico, that one-time guesting chanteuse, even if John Cale, the Velvet's viola player and most radical avant-gardist, would continue collaborating with Nico up until her 1988 death.
With their peripheral players gone, critical reception to the band negative, commercial success no longer seeming likely, and shows often played in front of hostile audience, White Light/White Heat comes across, quite naturally, as a band turning away from the world. It's an insular album in which the band feel like a band; in step and in sync, locked into one musical mood together. Sure, that mood was often abrasive, tense, irritable, and irritating, but White Light/White Heat is a singular vision from a band who, with only a few years hindsight, would seem visionary.
The tender melancholia and sing-song pop-songs that shone on The Velvet Underground and Nico aren't exactly absent. The title-track opens the album with an old-fashioned, piano-driven rock'n'roll song; "Here She Comes Now" closes Side A with a hushed, dreamy, opiate lullaby; and "I Heard Her Call My Name," for all its atonal guitar-squall, feels like a fairly tuneful piece of proto psych-rock.
But White Light/White Heat is an album dominated —in running time, in spirit, in theme, and perception— by its infamous, 17-minute closing cut, "Sister Ray." A long, lacerating, distortion-blasted, feedback-saturated jam, "Sister Ray" creates a sense of constant friction; its length not finding a band coming together in communal transcendence, but colliding against each other. It's the sound of a band irritable of mood and nature; a piece of personal expression that, outwardly, is a known provocation.
The Velvets were, of course, willing provocateurs; none moreso than their frontman, Lou Reed, whose famously prickly persona, devotion to drug use, and lyrical love of sexual/gender fluidity were, even in the supposedly 'wild' '60s, huge transgressions. White Light/White Heat was, in turn, even less successful, in a commercial sense, than the VU debut. And yet, it would go on to prove just as influential; its nasty, noisy, rough, raggedy sound effectively a blueprint for alternative music; becoming a touchstone for stoners, punks, noiseniks, indie kids, etc for eternity thereafter.
Few bands can match, in that, what the Velvet Underground did on their first two records. After making an amazing, seminal, all-time-classic debut, they completely reinvented themselves for their second LP, yet made something else —something different— just as important, just as brilliant.
Record Label: Verve
Release Date: January 30, 1968