Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
The 2021 album I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico is, without doubt, packed with glorious covers of tracks from the seminal New York band’s revolutionary “banana LP.” Yet it sounds, at times, ever so slightly predictable, when the assembled artists from the upper echelons of US alt-rock are found guilty of smoothing out the transgressive edges of the 1967 original. Matt Berninger of The National, for instance, takes a stab at “I’m Waiting for the Man,” and he sings it magnificently in that brooding style of his. It’s well played, and it has stylish motorik beats, and the production is slick, and it has squalling guitars and backing vocals in all the right places, and…it’s pretty straightforward, really.
The brave souls who choose to tackle any of the six more improvised, less celebrated, and decidedly less melodic tracks on the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, on the other hand, can rarely be accused of being predictable. Whether for a tribute album or otherwise. Yes, Julian Casablancas may have remade the title track in 2016 in exactly the way you’d expect, as a singer who always made clear his musical debt to Lou Reed and co. But for the most part, the artists are outsider acts adopting songs that express their outsider status, recognizing that the Velvets’ notorious sophomore LP fits as well now as it did in 1968, when it scraped into the Billboard Top 200 as a monumentally uncommercial, poorly produced, avant-garde, anti-hippie, anti-everything work of anarchy. No one, in any case, could hope to tame tracks so strange, confrontational, and anticipatory of punk, glam-rock, and industrial music, especially not the frenzied “I Heard Her Call My Name,” or the epically deranged “Sister Ray.”
In short, the artists to most successfully cover a White Light/White Heat song are those who manage to tap into “the quintessence of articulated punk,” as Reed himself brilliantly described the album in 2013. They also appreciate the Velvets in the way Lester Bangs appreciated them when he lauded the foursome, in his 1971 assessment of the LP, as “one of the most dynamically experimental groups in or out of rock.” But the very best White Light covers over the whole 54 years of the album’s incendiary existence? Across the realms of alt-rock, lo-fi, proto-punk, and, erm, bluegrass? Well, they would have to be these…
The Bootleggers featuring Mark Lanegan – “White Light/White Heat” (The Velvet Underground cover)
Consummate cover artist Mark Lanegan helped put a thrilling grunge stamp on the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” as a member of the Screaming Trees back in 1990. He was equally convincing when, as a member of the Bootleggers with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, he helped put a highly unlikely bluegrass stamp on “White Light/White Heat” in 2012. To contribute to Cave’s Lawless movie soundtrack, he collaborated on the jittery title track in a way that spoke, for the first time, bootleggers in prohibition-era Virginia. Violent ones. And he totally fit the bill, of course, with his grizzly outlaw vocals providing the perfect accompaniment to Ellis’s wild fiddling, together with a fantastically raucous bunch of musicians – presumably on a back porch somewhere.
This is not to say David Bowie wasn’t right in thinking he should perform the song live and in session as an androgynous alien called Ziggy Stardust in 1972, with Spider from Mars Mick Ronson serving up one of his most explosive guitar performances ever. Of course, he was!
Rudolphe Burger – “The Gift” (The Velvet Underground cover)
French experimental composer Rodolphe Burger is, as you might expect, one of the few to cover “The Gift,” seeing as the original consists principally of softly spoken Welsh musician John Cale reading out a short story about a guy putting himself in the mail and (SPOILER ALERT) getting accidently stabbed to death. This is while the rest of the band improvise an eight-minute rock instrumental. But he did a great job on it, which you can find on his solo tribute album of 2012, This Is A Velvet Underground Song That I’d Like To Sing. Indeed, he recited the story with considerable gusto, much as your English Lit. tutor might recite it, really hamming it up on the US accent and girlish chatter of the Sheila Klein character: “Oh gaaaawd, it’s absolutely maudlin outside!” And it helps, of course, that he’s able to dispatch a raw and assaultive guitar accompaniment.
Ulrika Spacek – “Lady Godiva’s Operation” (The Velvet Underground cover)
Cabaret Voltaire – “Here She Comes Now” (The Velvet Underground cover)
Hoodoo Gurus – “I Heard Her Call My Name” (The Velvet Underground cover)
Arbouretum – “Sister Ray” (The Velvet Underground Cover)
Arbouretum’s version of “Sister Ray” is absolutely what it’s all about. The Baltimore band, widely known in 2010 for sounding a bit like Fairport Convention, were clearly taken by the way the Velvets exploited a basic funk riff on the climactic White Light track to create a “scene of total debauchery and decay” in one take. And to basically improvise the hell out of a couple of guitars and a distorted organ over 17 minutes. Yet they clearly had places they wanted to go with this groove, armed particularly with Dave Heumann’s infinitely inventive guitar playing, and Matthew Pierce’s twisted keyboard motifs. They had no need of the lyrics, even, as they worked inspiringly toward an hour-long record-length release of the track, complete with tape hiss, and plenty of fuzz pedal. It’s intense and dramatic in all its John Coltranesque glory. Never predictable.