May 202022

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)

Much respect to Chapter House for their 1990 version of “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” but it’s Ulrika Spacek who are responsible for the ultimate psychedelic rendition of the chorus-free song involving a sex-change operation going badly wrong. The English indie band, in need of a B-side to their standout 2016 single “Everything: All The Time,” brought to the track a fine new line in haunting and disorienting sounds, which they combined with a funky groove. The ambient sounds, the ghostly vocal, the angular bassline, and the Sonic Youth-style guitar lines make for a truly hypnotic thing, indeed.
Cabaret Voltaire – “Here She Comes Now” (The Velvet Underground cover)

Cabaret Voltaire, those influential post-punk pioneers of British electronic music, outshine Galaxie 500, 800 Cherries, and even Nirvana on their cover of “Here She Comes Now.” They offer the most adventurous take on this most conventionally structured of White Light songs, by having used it, in 1978, as a springboard into an unchartered world of cutting-edge analog synthesizers (before Gary Numan got hold of them!), ferocious guitar work, and primitive drumming. They sure did draw weird and freaky noises out of those machines, too, making for a nightmarish piece of work to distinguish their debut EP. In fact, it was the freaky noises, combined with the sinister way Richard H. Kirk delivered those mystifying lyrics about a girl being “made out of wood.”
Hoodoo Gurus – “I Heard Her Call My Name” (The Velvet Underground cover)

Who, you might think, would have the bottle to cover “I Heard Her Call My Name” in view of the insane guitar solos Reed served it up with, to signify his mind being “split open”? Well, a few acts have had a crack, such as Half Japanese in 1994, and Yo La Tengo in 2013. But it’s Australian garage band Hoodoo Gurus who really stand out on their 1994 version, which they released on their Bite the Bullet compilation of 1998. The group are raw, aggressive, and faithful to the Velvets’ sound here, while guitarist Dave Faulkner certainly comes close to replicating a Reed level of mayhem with his fretwork. What sets them apart, though, is the way they turn everything up to the max, and deliver the song at a breakneck pace. This is the Gurus in full-attack mode, and no mistake!
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.

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  2 Responses to “Full Albums: The Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’”

Comments (2)
  1. Triffic!!!!

  2. Well, holy crap, even for this VU fanatic, there were a bunch of eye openers here. I will be assembling a comp of these once I find versions to buy. Thanks!

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