The Velvet Underground and Nico, the group’s magnificent March 1967 debut album, was a million miles from the popular music of the time, which largely explains why it sold only about 5,000 copies (including one to me) in the first few years after its release.
If the group cared, it didn’t exactly show it with the follow-up. White Light/White Heat, which appeared at the end of January 1968, sounds even further removed from anything mainstream America would buy. Feedback and distorted guitars feature prominently in the mix, and the lyrics—which are often barely decipherable in that mix—address such topics as amphetamine (the title track), a drag queen’s attempted orgy (“Sister Ray”) and a transsexual’s failed lobotomy (“Lady Godiva’s Operation”). Not exactly “Green Tambourine” or “Love Is Blue,” the chart-toppers of the time.
Recorded in just two days in September 1967, moreover, White Light/White Heat deliberately (I suspect) eschewed the sort of polished productions that issued around the same time from the likes of the Beatles and Beach Boys. In fact, the sound at times seems reminiscent of an audience-recorded bootleg. At least some of the music, moreover, is barely listenable. It’s certainly hard to imagine anyone sitting more than once or twice through “The Gift,” in which you have to strain to hear John Cale reciting a Lou Reed short story over monotonous guitar riffs.
And yet the set delivers more than enough brilliance to mark it as another Velvets classic. “White Light/White Heat” establishes an irresistible groove and both “I Heard Her Call My Name” and “Sister Ray” feature guitar jams as transcendent as anything on this album’s predecessor. And there are many more moments of genius on this 45th anniversary three-CD box set, which Lou Reed helped to prepare shortly before his death and which comes with a 56-page hardcover book with detailed liner notes and vintage photos.
The first disc offers a well-remastered stereo version of the original album plus some fantastic bonus tracks. Among them are an alternate take of “I Heard Her Call My Name,” an instrumental version of “Guess I’m Falling in Love” and new mixes of previously released instrumental and vocal versions of the hypnotic, viola-dominated “Hey Mr. Rain.” But the biggest treasures are three tracks that hint at the sweeter songs that would emerge on the group’s eponymously titled third album: an early, previously unreleased version of “Beginning to See the Light,” a song that actually wound up on that release; and original mixes of two previously available classics—the infectious “Temptation Inside Your Heart,” which evidences a doo-wop influence and sounds at least partly ad-libbed; and “Stephanie Says,” which has to be one of the saddest and most poignant songs of the entire rock era.
Disc two is less noteworthy. It offers a mono version of the original album that doesn’t differ substantially from the stereo one plus mono single mixes of “White Light/White Heat” and “Here She Comes Now” that also add little. Even more dispensable are two previously unavailable versions of “The Gift” (which appears a total of five times in this package). One contains only the instruments and the other finds John Cale reciting the words with no backup. At least you can clearly hear the story, which is basically a one-line macabre joke stretched out to eight minutes.
Disc three is much more fascinating as it contains the first official release of a widely bootlegged show from a short-lived New York club called the Gymnasium. Recorded in April1967, shortly after the release of the group’s debut LP, this raw, energized concert includes early versions of two White Light/White Heat tracks (“Sister Ray” and, yup, “The Gift”), two classics from The Velvet Underground and Nico (“Run Run Run” and “I’m Waiting for the Man”) and the previously unheard “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore” as well as “Guess I’m Falling In Love” and the instrumental “Booker T,” both of which surfaced on the Velvets’ career-spanning box set, Peel Slowly and See. The sound quality is pretty good and most of the music is explosive.
Bottom line: while a bit bloated, especially on disc two, this box set nevertheless contains plenty of indispensable music. If you already own Peel Slowly or the original version of this album, you may or may not consider it worth upgrading to get the Gymnasium concert, the latest remaster of previously available tracks and a few other goodies. If you care about the band but lack much of what’s in this box, on the other hand, the decision to buy it should be a no-brainer. The package leaves no doubt that the Velvet Underground were way ahead of their time in 1968—and in many ways, still are.