White Light/White Heat b/w Here She Comes Now
June 24th, 2010 by NumberSix

The Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat" single, on Verve Records

The Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat" single, on Verve Records

The Velvet Underground had its roots in a meeting between New York native Lou Reed and Welsh native John Cale in 1964. Lou Reed was a college student who played with garage bands and had worked as a songwriter for Pickwick Records. Cale had moved to the United States to study classical music, but was also interested in rock music. Reed and Cale formed a group called The Primitives, with Lou Reed as the guitarist and lead vocalist, and Cale playing other instruments and also providing vocals. Reed soon recruited college classmate Sterling Morrison, who played guitar, and the band added Angus MacLise to play percussion. The quartet called themselves The Warlocks, then the Falling Spikes, and they finally settled on the Velvet Underground. Angus MacLise, left the band when they decided to take a gig playing Summit High School in Summit, New Jersey in 1965 (for the princely sum of $75); he viewed this as a “sell out” and was replaced by Maureen “Mo” Tucker, the younger sister of a friend or Morrison’s. Andy Warhol became the band’s manager in 1965 and helped them secure a recording contract with MGM’s Verve Records. He also suggested that they record with the German-born model Nico, who sang on 3 songs on the Velvet Underground’s debut LP, “The Velvet Underground and Nico”, released in March 1967. The album was a modest commercial success, peaking at #171 on the U.S. Billboard chart, although sales were undoubtedly hurt as a result of the album being pulled from stores by MGM as a result of a legal dispute with “Chelsea Girls” cinematographer Eric Emerson (he claimed that a still from the movie had been used on the back cover of the album without his permission).

The Velvet Underground subsequently severed ties with Andy Warhol and Nico, and began work on their second LP. The album, “White Light/White Heat” was recorded in September 1967 and released on January 30, 1968, entering the Billboard chart at #199, and remaining there for 2 weeks before sliding off the album chart. The album showed Lou Reed and John Cale pulling the band in different directions, containing both Cale-inspired noisefests like “Sister Ray”, and shorter, more conventional, almost pop-ish numbers written by Lou Reed, like the title track. Although this album proved to be the last hurrah of the Reed-Cale collaboration (Cale would leave the band in September 1968 before work on their third album started, and was replaced by Doug Yule), it did contain today’s featured single: “White Light/White Heat” b/w “Here She Comes Now”.

“White Light/White Heat” demonstrates why when MGM president Mike Curb decided to purge MGM of all hippie/drug-related acts, the VU’s days on the label were numbered. “White Light/White Heat”, unlike some of the band’s other songs (e.g. “Heroin”), sounds like a commercial for amphetamines. The song features only a few chords (the verses only have 2 chords – A and D – and the chorus includes 4 chords – A, D, G, and F), but the chords are all downtuned a whole tone. The enthusiasm that Reed exudes as he sings suggests that speed was his drug of choice at the time: “Oh, I surely do love to watch that stuff drip itself in/Watch that side, watch that side/Don’t you know gonna be dead and dried”. And while he notes that it’s “messin’ up my mind”, it’s doubtful that he thinks this is an unwelcome side effect. There’s a great dissonant, droning guitar chord at the end (G), perhaps influenced by Cale. The song is relatively short (2 minutes and 45 seconds), but in concert it became a showcase for Reed’s guitar work, and, as a result, the version on “1969: The Velvet Underground Live” is three times as long. John Cale and Sterling Morrison sing backing vocals on this track (the “white light/white light/white heat/white light” backing chorus). Cale also plays a rollicking, barrelhouse-style piano on the track, not unlike he does on “I’m Waiting For The Man”. This song has had a major influence on glam rock and punk, and was covered by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, not to mention Reed himself, who resurrected it on his live LP “Rock and Roll Animal” (1974).

The B-side of the single, “Here She Comes Now”, seems even more minimalistic than “White Light/White Heat”. It is possible to replicate the entire lyrics in this posting, because there are only 9 lines in the song: “Here she ever comes now now/She ever comes now now/She ever comes now” (repeated several times) and “Oh oh, it look so good/Shes made out of wood/Just look and see”. The lyrical content is mysterious; the song is credited to Morrison, Cale and Reed, and they claim that it is “a 7-line thesis on the possibility that a girl might come.” It works for me. The song consists of 3 chords (D/C/B5), and although it’s a rather simple song, the piano playing of Cale and the light touch of Mo Tucker on the drums (not to mention the melodious dissonance of Reed on guitar) impart a unique sound to the track. Whereas Reed sounds passionate on “White Light/White Heat”, on this track he sounds indifferent and impassive, a vocal styling that he would hone to perfection during his solo career and that one suspects was an influence on many artists (David Bowie comes immediately to mind, but undoubtedly there are others). The song was originally intended to be sung by Nico, who did sing it live several times. A demo was recorded with Lou Reed singing vocals; this version had two additional verses and was released on the 1995 box set “Peel Slowly and See”. By the time the Velvet Underground recorded the LP “White Light/White Heat”, their collaboration with Nico had come to an end, and “Here She Comes Now” was again recorded with Reed supplying the vocals. The song clocks in at 2 minutes and 4 seconds, making it the shortest song on “White Light/White Heat”. Incidentally, Nirvana apparently did a cover version of this song, released in 1991 as part of a split single with The Melvins.

The single (catalog #: VK10560) was released by Verve Records, and was the last Velvet Underground single released by Verve Records (subsequent singles would be released on the parent label, MGM). No picture sleeve was issued with the single. The label is blue, with the Verve Records logo across the top, the band’s name on the left side, and the track name on the right side. I’ve profiled quite a few singles in this blog, and this does seem to be one of the more unusual labels. The band would be active for a few more years, but commercial success still eluded them. “The Velvet Underground”, the band’s third album and first with Doug Yule, was issued in March 1969 but failed to make the Billboard album chart. They spent much of 1969 on the road (which yielded the abovementioned live LP, released by Mercury Records in 1974), and recorded a number of studio tracks, many of which went unreleased for many years due to disputes with MGM. Finally, in 1969, MGM president Mike Curb decided to drop all hippie/drug-related acts from the label and the VU were unceremoniously dropped from MGM. They were snapped up by Atlantic Records, who issued their fourth album, “Loaded”, on their Cotillion subsidiary in August 1970. The album contained 2 of their most radio-friendly tracks – “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll”, which garnered considerable airplay – but Reed became disillusioned with the band while recording the album and left the band. Doug Yule became the new singer/lead guitarist, and Walter Powers was recruited to replace Yule on bass. Sterling Morrison left the band in 1971 to pursue an academic career, and was replaced by keyboardist Willie Alexander. This lineup was touring the U.K. in 1972 when their manager secured a contract with Polydor Records; Yule sent the band back to the United States and recorded the fifth Velvet Underground LP, “Squeeze” (1973), essentially by himself. A new lineup was assembled to tour in support of the album (which was released only in Europe), but when the brief tour ended in December 1972, Yule pulled the plug on the band. Yule assembled a new band, called it the Velvet Underground, and toured the New England bar circuit in the spring of 1973, but other than Yule, this band had no connection to the old Velvet Underground, although they did play VU covers. The band has essentially been defunct since 1972, although Reed and Cale have reunited on several occasions, and the classic lineup of Reed-Cale-Morrison-Tucker finally reunited in 1992. The band toured Europe in 1993, but before long, Reed and Cale had a falling-out and the VU were in limbo again. The death of Morrison in 1995 seemed to put an end to any talk of a reunion, although Reed and Cale put aside their differences to perform (along with Tucker) at their Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction in 1996.

External links – I couldn’t find any footage of the VU performing – does any such footage exist? Well, here’s 2 links anyway:

External links – I couldn’t find any footage of the VU performing – does any such footage exist? Well, here’s 2 links anyway:

Lou Reed and Pete Townsend performing White Light/White Heat

White Light/White Heat “video”

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