“White Light/White Heat” by the Velvet Underground (1968)
One of the many effective gags in “This Is Spinal Tap” is Nigel Tufnel and his amplifier that “goes to 11.”
A decade and a half before Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer came up the Spinal Tap concept, an actual rock band was in the studio, pushing their amplification to its absolute limit.
The Velvet Underground first gained notoriety as part of Andy Warhol’s multimedia Exploding Plastic Inevitable, with German chanteuse Nico (the late Christa Päffgen) adding a stunning visual element to the band.
Sometime around the release of the debut “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” the band parted ways with Warhol and Nico. The remaining members – Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker and the late Sterling Morrison – started exploring a more conventional musical direction, as evidenced by demos that later appeared on the all-encompassing box set “Peel Slowly and See.”
But when the Velvet Underground entered the studio in September 1967, Reed and company decided to see how far they could push the envelope when it came to making noise.
That was nothing new in the Velvets’ repertoire. Another “Peel Slowly and See” track, “Melody Laughter,” is an excerpt of the type of distorted improvisations the band often veered into during performances.
The resulting album, “White Light/White Heat,” sounds absolutely nothing like anything that preceded it, an amalgam of loud guitar, at one point even louder keyboards, thoroughly bizarre lyrics and the sound of a project with which existing recording technology couldn’t really cope.
The late Tom Wilson, who had made his name working with such acts as Boby Dylan and the Mothers of Invention, took on production duties (has he had for “Sunday Morning,” the most sonically advanced song on the debut). But he was lucky to capture much of anything on tape that wasn’t pure distortion.
The album opens with the title track, which picks up where “Heroin” from the debut left off, a narrative about intravenous amphetamine use with suitably rush-inducing guitar riffs. The song later became a vehicle for extended jamming, as best captured on the live compilation “1969.”
Cale’s contribution is “The Gift,” which basically is his short story accompanied by chaotic instrumentation. That fits the subject matter well: Cale’s narrative tells the tale of a young man who mails himself to his girlfriend’s house, with less-than-deal results.
“Lady Godiva’s Operation” mainly features the relatively dulcet vocals of Cale, with Reed’s rougher-edged commentary popping up here and there. The lyrics tell of a transvestite who’s undergoing a certain type of operation, when: “The ether tube’s leaking, says someone who’s sloppy/The patient, it seems, is not so well sleeping/The screams echo off the walls.”
“Here She Comes Now,” credited to all four Velvets, is by far the album’s most straightforward song, a relatively soft number with oblique lyrics that, in the most elemental analysis, might just refer to a female orgasm.
Side Two of the LP kicks off with Reed’s “I Heard Her Call My Name,” a slice of heavy rock during which Reed cuts loose with a couple of piercing guitar solos that seem to pay no attention to rhythm or chord structure. The woman referenced in the title appears to be deceased, which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s made it thus far through “White Light/White Heat.”
The album concludes with one of rock’s groundbreaking performances: Seventeen minutes’ worth of “Sister Ray.”
The band decided to record the song in one take, live in the studio, with Reed and Morrison on guitars and Cale playing organ through a guitar amp. The results, as Reed explains in an interview for a publication called The Stranger:
“When we did ‘Sister Ray,’ we turned up to 10 flat-out, leakage all over the place. (Wilson) asked us when it would end. We didn’t know. We were doing the whole heavy-metal trip back then. If ‘Sister Ray’ isn’t an example of heavy metal, I don’t know what is.”
About the lyrical content, he says, “The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear.”
Sex, drugs and (distorted) rock ‘n’ roll. That was the Velvet Underground, turning it up as far as it would go.