Monday, 28 October 2013

Top 102 Albums Minus 11 White Light, White Heat

Top 102 Albums Minus 11  
White Light, White Heat - The Velvet Underground

"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Emily Dickinson

The most iconic band in rock history? Perhaps. Today Twitter and Facebook are ticker taped with Lou Reed thoughts, clips and eulogies as the news of Lou Reed's death spreads. It seems as shocking that he was 71 as that he has died. How could someone who seemed so contemporary have been around so long. Rock autobiography after rock autobiography includes that moment when "I first heard The Velvet Underground". It was said that they sold only a few thousand albums but that everyone who bought them went on to form a band.

As I mentioned in my review of Lou's Berlin I came to Lou through Bowie but it was when I got this album that I felt I had arrived at the spring from which that particular river sprung. It's a loud, uncompromising and hypnotic album, welding rock'n'roll and the avant-garde. The tracks feel like they have been laid down as a challenge to the listener rather than any attempt to bewitch with the fragile beauty which permeates their first and third albums (both also essential).

It was the only studio album recorded by the core group. The first album is "with Nico" and Cale left after this. Above is a clip of three quarters of the band saying goodbye to the other quarter, with dignity. And they could still write a damn good song just by saying exactly what was in front of them.

Of course what was in front of them when they were writing White Light / White Heat was a pretty exotic melange. Andy Warhol's Factory, filled with aspiring superstars of all seventeen known genders offered rich pickings.

The album opens with the title track, which is like a riff on the Big Bopper's White Lightning. The Velvets, though, remove all the distance between singer and sung and deliver a stunned, deadpan rockabilly stripped of the swing with the pleasing smile replaced with snarl.
"White light, White light goin' messin' up my mind
White light, and don't you know its gonna make me go blind
White heat, aww white heat it tickle me down to my toes
White light, Ooo have mercy while I'll have it goodness knows"

Then they switch tracks completely and we get a very CONCRETE in their response to Emily Dickinson's  adage. (See above) The Gift was the song that really SOLD me on The Velvets, taking a short story about jealousy, the parcel post and scissors and pushing it deep and insistently under your skin, where it pulsates gently.    

 Not so gentle is Lady Godiva's Operation where the brain stripped naked writhes through the white hospital corridors until silenced by pentathol. All the old rules are "just so much cabbage that now must be cut away".

Side one ends with the most throwaway song, Here She Comes Now, just two minutes of gentle pop. Don't be fooled, it won't last long.

Side two starts as side one ended, with the phrase "Here she comes now, now"  but in I Heard Her Call My Name the gentle pop is replaced by guitar abuse of the sort that was still cutting edge when Sonic Youth were doing it in the eighties.

The album exits with the seventeen and a half minute minimalist masterpiece Sister Ray in which this sixteen year old Bunnymen fan recognised the dirtier, richer seam from which Villiers Terrace had sprung and also superfan Johnathan Richman's magisterial Roadrunner. This album is an electrode attached to the emaciated, half alive body of rock 'n' roll, constantly electrifying it with new life.

So long Lou. Your gifts keep on giving.

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