By and large, the Velvet Underground represent a phenomenon that has always been viewed retrospectively. Their importance has expanded with the passage of time, with the prescient few who locked into the band in 1967 and 68 being vastly outnumbered by the successive legions of us who missed the whole dark trip’s initial departure. Like their debut, White Light/White Heat has now attained such critical mass that its stature has become monumental.
Serendipitously, White Light was recorded in 1968 – the same year that Stanley Kubrick’s expansive 2001: A Space Odyssey was first screened. Like the proto-humans in that film’s epiphinal scene, we are now presented with a substantial, black monolith. The sounds within both structures have changed the course of history.
Over the past four decades, the six tracks that comprised the original album have been dissected in the context of the moment, analysed, poured over, assimilated and adapted. The darkness of the albums sleeve has been considered at length and often determined to be a graphic marker for the point at which the light of the previous summer was subverted into something altogether less wholesome. While the Beatles were slicing off ‘Helter Skelter’ and Zappa was lampooning the Haight-Ashbury axis across We’re Only In It For The Money, the Velvet Underground – stripped back to the core quartet – honed in upon the grime and ink black humour of the streets, transforming it into various forms of sonic trepanation.
While representing the public with material they’ve largely already got is often a tricky and divisive business, Universal have got it right here. White Light is an album of textures – and this notion is underlined by the remastered stereo and mono versions of the disc included in this set. The juxtaposition of saccharine sweetness with serrated savagery is as marked as the jarring gulf between Lou Reed’s Noo Yawk whine and John Cale’s fecund tones. The addition of alternate takes serves to illustrate the intensity with which the album was recorded over two speed-fuelled days and nights, while the third live disc (notable for the inclusion of the rarely heard ‘I’m Not A Young Man Anymore’) reveals further sonic facets.
This is a set that should be purchased because the prospective listener wants to listen, rather than for any pathological completism. Should you wish to (and I’d recommend this), this 45th anniversary edition enables the listener to line up pretty much an hour’s worth of ‘Sister Ray’. Exposure to the track, sustained over this length of time, becomes an exercise in enjoyable endurance and hammers home the way in which repetition lies at the heart of rock’n’roll. Here is the album’s pivotal track given a textural polish and presented as a relentless travelogue into darkness. It’s a trip worth taking.
Review by Dick Porter