For the 1960s, there was not a band as innovative and as influential as
The Velvet Underground as a template for rock music afterwards. Their debut, with Nico, is arguably better known, and has the fingerprints of Andy Warhol all over it, from its pop-art cover to the pop sensibilities intertwined with Lou Reed’s controversial (at the time, at least) lyrics about drugs, transgender characters and established himself pretty much as a personification of New York dirt. If The Velvet Underground And Nico was dirty, then White Light/White Heat is filthy. It features the larger role of multi-instrumentalist and songwriter John Cale, who is largely credited with the Velvet Underground’s more avant-garde performances and as this album was his last with the group, the Velvet Underground bounced back into pop with their self-titled third LP. It was on their album where their influence can be rooted. It was too much for their producer Tom Wilson, who reportedly walked out during ‘Sister Ray’ and the public, who were listening to the Beatles and the Stones still, were not prepared for the shock of such a recording. It set the scene for everything noisy that came after, bypassing the Kinks’ invention of distortion by transforming it into something that might not hit the charts.
Without Nico and Warhol, the Velvet Underground had a chance to make a record that matched their chaotic live performances. So songs such as ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’, with its extended guitar solo paying no attention to structure and song convention, and the masterpiece that is ‘Sister Ray’ in all of its seventeen minutes is the Sonic Youth bible. The most pop they get is the two minute ‘Here She Comes Now’, one of the few songs featuring Reed on vocal duties. It’s funny that this song slots so easily onto an album made up almost entirely of ramshackle noise, but it offers a moment of peace following the wordy ‘The Gift’ and ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’ with its peaceful guitar line and Reed’s more conventional singing compared to Cale. But the song is wrapped in innuendo, which works well as Reed never makes it sound like a joke song in his deadpan vocal. Reed has a way of inserting dark, violent and often sexual references in pop songs, which translated to his later solo career where he was allowed to indulge in his pop side whilst retaining a screwball lyrical style. It’s almost like he wants to be a commercial project just so he can hear people who don’t care about music, or the conservative parents, singing songs about heroin and botched transgender operations.
If you listen to the last half of ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ you can almost hear the no-wave scene birthed from this very song (plus ‘Sister Ray’ mind). The guitar pays no attention to anything, the limits of noise, structure and songs were being tested in 1968 and nobody paid attention. Saying that, anybody approaching ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ without an investment in noises that are going to test the listener probably won’t enjoy it. It’s a niche attachment, but it’s the gateway to everything that came afterwards. Imagine what it must have been like to be the Velvet Underground in the 1960s. Nobody likes the music, nobody likes the lyrics, they polarise opinion. To carry on making the music, in the belief that someone someone, somewhere will enjoy it, is admirable. Most bands would have given up. Maybe the reason the Velvet Underground are held in such high regard today by young bands, compared to musicians such as the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, is that both the music and the lyrics are timeless. Mick Jagger singing ‘Under My Thumb’ with its gross sexism is regarded as an ugly habit of the time. Lou Reed singing ‘Sister Ray’ in the midst of Reed and Sterling Morrison’s guitars wailing away and Maureen Tucker somehow keeping time at the root of it all could be transplanted to the music scene right now and it would fit in. Of course, it would still be a niche album, and some parents might squint at lyrics like ‘She’s busy sucking on my ding-dong’, but it would be a band you could devote your life to. Reed as a prophetic everyman, Cale as the artistic multi-instrumentalist, Morrison as the counterweight to Reed and Tucker as the firm beat not allowing Cale and Reed to command the rhythm as well as the lyrics and the melody.
Back in January, when David Bowie died, Thurston Moore offered his thoughts. He said that when punk exploded in 1977, not many of the pre-1977 rock’n’rollers were saved from the cynical punks. The few that were – Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed – were permitted as influencers and tastemakers. This was because Reed, and the Underground by extension, had something that the Stones, the Beatles and Led Zep didn’t have. They were freaks. In a subculture that treasured freaks, a character like Reed, who claimed to be homosexual and a transvestite and wrote candid songs about drugs, sexuality and depravity, was a god. For the style of White Light/White Heat, they completely moved beyond what was expected of them. They discarded their pop art connections and set out to make an album which would represent their live show. Cale is the centre of this all, and often gets less credit than Reed, but he anchored the Underground’s most experimental moments and through his guidance they carved out a new sound that would go on to impress the likes of Joy Division, Sonic Youth, Wire, My Bloody Valentine and the Fall. By accepting their freakiness, they inspired a legion of freaks who looked less and less like a strange minority, and more like an alternative underground culture.