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Music / White Light/White Heat

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White light, don't you know it fills me up with surprise? White light, awww white heat tickle me down to my toes..

"And you know what I love is in "Sister Ray", where he mixes it so you can't quite hear what's going on."
Sid Vicious on his love for Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, "New Wave" magazine, interview conducted by Michael McKenzie, 1978.

White Light/White Heat is the second studio album by The Velvet Underground, released in 1968 through Verve Records. Less iconic than their previous effort, The Velvet Underground & Nico but equally revered as a groundbreaking record.

The album was recorded after Nico and Andy Warhol had stopped their involvement with the band. Tensions grew as Lou Reed and John Cale now fought each other to get control over the finished product. The end result is a very chaotic, yet intriguing album and the final one on which Cale was involved in.


Side One
  1. "White Light/White Heat" (2:47)
  2. "The Gift" (8:18)
  3. "Lady Godiva's Operation" (4:56)
  4. "Here She Comes Now" (2:04)

Side Two

  1. "I Heard Her Call My Name" (4:38)
  2. "Sister Ray" (17:28)

Principal Members:

  • John Cale - viola, bass, backing and lead vocals, organ, sound effects
  • Sterling Morrison - guitar, bass, vocals, sound effects
  • Lou Reed - lead vocals, guitar, piano
  • Maureen Tucker - drums, percussion

And then my trope split open! [incongruous noise]:

  • Alternate Album Cover:
    • 1970s U.K. reissues had an alternate cover with a white negative image of toy soldiers.
    • The Archetypes reissue uses a third cover featuring two figures in racing helmets and leather jackets standing in front of an F.W. Woolworth Co. building.
    • A New Zealand pressing from the early 1970s has a Warhol-esque illustration of a disembodied pair of female lips sipping a soft drink from a straw.
    • Early CD releases use a variant of the 1968 cover that omits the tattoo and resizes and rearranges the text up top to account for the smaller size of a jewel case. The 1996 remastered CD would restore the original LP cover, tattoo and all, with later releases on the format following suit.
  • Anorgasmia: The track "Here She Comes Now" has been interpreted being about this topic.
  • Big Word Shout: Certain words in "Lady Godiva's Operation" are emphasized by Reed.
  • Black Comedy: White Light/White Heat is famous for showing the band's twisted sense of humour, as shown in "The Gift", "Lady Godiva's Operation" and "Sister Ray".
  • Bloody Hilarious: Waldo's fate in "The Gift".
  • Body Horror and Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: "Lady Godiva's Operation"
    Now come the moment of Great! Great! Decision!
    The doctor is making his first incision
    One goes here—one goes there
    The ether tube's leaking says someone who's sloppy
    the patient it seems is not so well sleeping
    The screams echo up the hall
    Don't panic, someone give him pentathol instantly
    Doctor removes his blade
    cagily slow from the brain
    By my count of ten—
    the head won't move
  • Call-Back:
    • "Here She Comes Now" seems to call back to the end of the song "White Light/White Heat", where this line can be heard:
      Hmm hmm, white light/here she comes/here she comes/everybody get 'n' gone/make me run to her.
    • "Lady Godiva's Operation" mentions Godiva's body "withering and writhing underneath the white light" in a call back to the title track.
  • Cold Open: The first thing you hear on the first track of the album: "White Light Heat"
  • Covers Always Lie: Despite being called "White Light/White Heat" the album cover is entirely black.
    • Subverted in that the original cover featured a very faint, hard-to-make out image of a tattooed arm, printed black-on-black. This has been left off recent editions.
    • Averted in UK MGM editions of the album from 1971 to the mid-80's, which had a white cover with a blurry negative image of toy soldiers (Airfix World War II British Eighth Army).
  • Creepy Monotone: Cale's reading of "The Gift".
  • Darker and Edgier: This album even surpasses The Velvet Underground & Nico from 1967 in disturbing subject matter.
  • Didn't Think This Through: In "The Gift", Waldo didn't think to make the box easy for Marsha to open — nor did he think to have something to get himself out of the box — with disastrous results; he ends up having his head bisected when Sheila decides to cut the box in half with a metal cutter.
  • Double Entendre: "White Light/White Heat" is a non-sexual example. The song's inspiration by amphetamines is by now well known, but its inspiration by Alice Bailey's occult book A Treatise On White Magic, which advises control of the astral body by a "direct method of relaxation, concentration, stillness and flushing the entire personality with pure White Light, with instructions on how to 'call down a stream of pure White Light'", is less so. Reed is known to have endorsed it in a 1969 interview, and he is also known to have been fond of the idea of writing songs that could be interpreted in multiple ways. Allmusic writer Richie Unterberger has more here.
    • "Here She Comes Now" might be about a female orgasm that's yet (or not) to come.
  • Downer Ending: "The Gift" and "Lady Godiva's Operation". Both end fatally.
  • Drugs Are Bad: "White Light/White Heat"
    Watch that speed freak, everybody gonna go and make it every week
    (...) Aww, sputter mutter, everybody gonna go kill their mother
  • Epic Rocking: "The Gift" and "Sister Ray", if you could call either of them "rocking" any-more...
  • Gratuitous Panning:
    • "The Gift", which is basically Cale reciting one of Reed's short stories over a rock instrumental track. The track was intended to have Cale in one channel and the band in the other, but it wasn't mixed properly originally. Later versions of the album fixed this.
    • On "Lady Godiva's Operation", Cale's and Reed's vocals move left and right.
  • Gross-Out Show: "Lady Godiva's Operation" gorily describes a botched operation of a trans woman.
  • Hello, Sailor!: Transvestites pick up sailors in "Sister Ray".
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: On first inspection the album cover appears to be entirely black, but actually a small skull tattoo can be made out amidst the blackness.
  • Human Mail: "The Gift" is a short story, written by Lou Reed and read by John Cale, about young man named Waldo who decides to mail himself to his girlfriend Marcia, whom he met before they went to college in different states, not realizing she has moved on. He arrives at Marcia's apartment, whereupon Marcia and her friend Sheila see the package is from Waldo and decide they might as well open it. The crate is nailed shut; Marcia and Sheila's attempts to open it are futile until Marcia grabs a sheet metal cutter. Sheila slices right through the middle of the crate... and Waldo's head.
  • Intercourse with You: Reeds' repeated line "she's sucking on my ding dong" in "Sister Ray", which in itself is about some Transgender women picking up some sailors.
  • Law of Disproportionate Response: After the prostitute in "Sister Ray" is shot down Reed's only response is:
    Aw, you shouldn't do that/Don't you know you'll stain the carpet?
  • Limited Lyrics Song: "Here She Comes Now" is mostly made up from that one line and two other lines:
    Ah oh, it looks so good
    Ah oh, she's made out of wood
    Just look and see
  • Lobotomy: "Lady Godiva's Operation" highlights the historical use of this as a form of conversion therapy through a tale about a transgender woman forced to receive one; the surgeon ends up killing her instead by mistake.
  • Longest Song Goes Last: The album closes with "Sister Ray" (17:28).
  • Love Martyr: Waldo in "The Gift". He's a Stalker with a Crush as well.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "The Gift" is read in Cale's deadpan voice, but is actually a very disturbing tale.
  • Mind Screw:
    • "White Light/White Heat"
      White light, white light goin' messin' up my mind
      White light, and you don't know it's gonna make me go blind
      White heat, aww white heat, it tickle me down to my toes
      White light, ooo have mercy, white light have it, goodness knows
      White light, white light goin' messin' up my brain
      White light, aww white light, it's gonna drive me insane
    • "Lady Godiva's Operation", where an operation on a transvestite goes completely wrong.
  • Minimalistic Cover Art: A blacker-than-black cover with white text and a faintly embossed picture of a tattoo.
  • New Sound Album: Compared to their debut, this album is even Darker and Edgier and the music is far more avant-garde.
  • Obsession Song: Waldo in "The Gift", who wants to impress his girlfriend by mailing himself to her in a package.
  • Record Producer: Tom Wilson.
  • Repeating So the Audience Can Hear: Happens a few times during "Sister Ray", because they had planned only one take and weren't sure if everything could be made out on the tape afterwards.
  • Say My Name: "I Heard Her Call My Name".
    I know that she cares about me
    I heard her call my name
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Almost literally what the group's producer said before the band decided to record "Sister Ray":
    Lou Reed: The engineer said, "I don't have to listen to this. I'll put it in record, and then I'm leaving. When you're done, come get me."
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: "The Gift" (guy mails himself to girlfriend, gets killed), "Sister Ray" (huge debauched party, someone gets shot), "Lady Godiva's Operation" (a Transgender person goes to have some operation, gets a botched lobotomy from a sloppy doctor and dies).
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Sister Ray" is named after Ray Davies.
    • The backing track for "The Gift" started life as an instrumental called "The Booker T", since it sounded like a bad cover of "Green Onions" by Booker T and the MGs.
  • Skewed Priorities: In "Sister Ray", when Cecil shoots the sailor, the narrator's only reaction is "Oh, you shouldn't do that/Don't you know you'll stain the carpet/Now don't you know you'll mess the carpet."
  • Soprano and Gravel: "Lady Godiva's Operation". Cale sings most of the song in a mannered tenor, reflecting the character's hedonistic fantasy life. The intrusion of Reed's baritone bark indicates that life is taking a grimmer course.
  • Spoken Word in Music: Cale reciting "The Gift", while some music is heard on a separate background track.
  • Step Up to the Microphone: Cale speaks the lyrics of "The Gift" and sings most of "Lady Godiva's Operation", with Reed cutting in toward the end.
  • Title Track: The first thing you hear on the first track of the album: "White Light/White Heat".
  • Transvestite: "Sister Ray".
    Lou Reed:'Sister Ray' was done as a joke— no, not as a joke — but it has eight characters in it and this guy gets killed and nobody does anything. It was built around this story that I wrote about this scene of total debauchery and decay. I like to think of 'Sister Ray' as a transvestite smack dealer. The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear."
  • Twist Ending: "The Gift" ends with one.
  • The Unintelligible: It's difficult to hear what people are singing in "Sister Ray", because the noise drowns everything out.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Ding-Dong" for penis in "Sister Ray".
  • Verbal Tic: Reed repeats the same word twice in "Sister Ray": Oh no, man, I haven't got the time-time."