Nico and Warhol are out after the disappointing (read: nonexistent) sales of the debut, so that leaves Reed and Cale to helm the Velvets on their second album. Taking their previous commercial failure into account, they decide to commercialize the sound a bit on their second album.
… Nah, just kidding. They make it even more experimental this time around.
And how do you go from experimentalism to more experimentalism? Why, feedback of course! This is without a doubt the album in question of later punk bands citing the Velvets as an influence. Reed & Co. have turned their amps up to eleven, kicked up the distortion and recorded some loooonnnnngg punkish jams.
The reaction? Mixed. “White Light/White Heat” is one of the most contentious points of controversy among VU fans. Some love it, ranking it as their best effort, and others hate it, calling it over the top, and even going so far as to call it their worst album—but doesn’t that negate the presence of an album called “Squeeze?”
As usual, impartiality is key: both arguments have valid points. A lot of the experimentalism here does go a bit too far at times. The main points of contention come in the form of the two extended grooves, “The Gift” at over eight minutes and the infamous “Sister Ray” at seventeen and a half minutes. Any effects of interest presented in “The Gift” wear off after about two listens. First time around the bluesy guitar groove and distorted licks are infectious and hypnotic. Second time, the lyrics, a short story written by Reed and spoken by Cale, are the point of interest, detailing a weary Waldo, distraught by the effects of his long-distance relationship, mailing himself in a large box to his significant other, only to be killed by a blade in her attempts to open it. Macabre, but amusing and oh, so Lou Reed.
“Sister Ray,” on the other hand is something of a mixed bag. Opinions vary wildly on this’un, just like its housing album: lots of people cite it as the Velvet’s undisputed masterpiece of counterculture and experimentalism, while a commensurate number regard it as over-the-top refuse. The punky groove is pretty darn infectious, but the effect wears off after about five or six minutes (and unfortunately, seventeen minutes is far from a brief jaunt). The point where the song degenerates into jumbled distortion is clearly where the threshold between “a song” and “an art piece” is crossed, and it is at this point where although the conventional enjoyability is sacrificed, the piece becomes important as a work of art. Try listening to some Sonic Youth or Pavement or Jesus And Mary Chain and see if it’s more appreciable.
However, the more conventional listeners may take refuge in the four shorter tracks here. Of the two rockers, the distortion-heavy “I Heard Her Call My Name” is less impressive, but the title track is an absolute gas, built on an altered ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll progression, much in the style of “I’m Waiting For The Man” and featuring infectious “White light! White heat!” call and responses.
And then there are the two middle tracks. The second of which, “Here She Comes Now” (not to be confused with “There She Goes Again”), could easily be considered a short throwaway at barely only two minutes, but don’t be fooled by the short length, it’s actually a gorgeous ballad, much in the style of the following self-titled album. “Lady Godiva’s Operation” (what is with all the songs about females?) arguably the highlight of the album. Incredibly catchy melody first sung by Cale, then about halfway through turns into an almost conversational lyrical delivery between him and Reed. The lyrics are definitely a highlight, describing our Lady Godiva awaking in the midst of some operation (there’s debate as to whether it’s a sex change, a lobotomy, or something entirely else). The eeriness of the lyrics is multiplied tenfold by the odd murmuring, breathing and various in sundry sound effects the band is producing. A cool, cool song, this one.
“Lady Godiva’s Operation” helps showcase the interesting shift of John Cale’s presence in the band—as does “The Gift.” Gone is his eerie viola from the debut, replaced by his vocals, and with it goes much of the diversity of yore. It can’t be a mere coincidence that “The Gift,” “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” “Here She Comes Now” and “Sister Ray” all utilize the same exact chord progression. And hell, all of those but “Sister Ray” are in the same key! Weird. Cale would soon depart from the band after “White Light/White Heat” would inevitably go the same course as the debut, and with that would come another major change in the Velvet sound. More to come…