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24 December 2017

Lavinia Greenlaw on White Light/White Heat by The Velvet Underground: “An experiment in limits and scale”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

By Lavinia Greenlaw

I was hanging around my local record shop wondering what to listen to next. I’d made my way through punk assuming that because it seemed shapeless and rootless, it had come out of nowhere. I’d been young enough to believe this possible and had thrown out most of my records and clothes thinking that I could come out of nowhere too. Now music was revealing its connections the way art or poetry do when you’ve spent enough time inhabiting them. I relaxed, letting myself listen to soul again and talking about jazz without irony. I allowed that there was old stuff that was exciting, radical even. I was rummaging through the shop’s second-hand section when among the Barclay James Harvest, Average White Band and 10cc, I found White Light/White Heat.

Recorded in 1968, it’s the second Velvet Underground album and the last they made in their formative line-up. It’s the most tense record I’ve ever heard and not one I play often. One minute it sounds like the most fabulous and finely judged convergence and the next as if the musicians belong to different bands and the tracks to different albums. It’s an experiment in limits and scale. Every beautiful musical possibility is pushed out of shape or forced off the road but the point is that the possibility was there in the first place. Each track contains elements of perfect pop: a solid chorus, a bouncy backing vocal, crisp riffs, express-train drumming, irresistible bass. Only we are given too little or too much, it’s over too quickly or goes on too long.

The opening title track sets out as frayed rock’n’roll, over in a brisk three minutes, but it gets stuck in its own ending. Pop driven into a wall. This is followed by “The Gift”, three times as long: John Cale reading Lou Reed’s short story in one speaker and music in the other. There I was, listening admiringly to an eight-minute rock instrumental as if punk had never happened.

Only there’s nothing plodding and indulgent about this – or about “Sister Ray”, the album’s wild but somehow catchy 17-minute finale. Musical surfaces form and shatter. There are distortions and perforations everywhere, and one moment of feedback so painful that it never gets any easier to take. On “Lady Godiva’s Operation”, a ballad from the dark side, Reed overdubs certain vocal phrases as if he’s leant over to shout them in your ear. The brief and delicate “Here She Comes Now” is an idea of sweetness that refuses to progress.

I had never heard anything like White Light/White Heat and it changed how I listened as well as what I listened to next. It didn’t come out of nowhere any more than punk did, but it couldn’t have been made by a different line-up or even by the same people in a different place and time. It sounds no less original every time I hear it. 

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special