DiscoverA History of Rock Music in 500 SongsEpisode 164: “White Light/White Heat” by the Velvet Underground
Episode 164: “White Light/White Heat” by the Velvet Underground

Episode 164: “White Light/White Heat” by the Velvet Underground

Update: 2023-04-032


Episode 164 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "White Light/White Heat" and the career of the Velvet Underground. This is a long one, lasting three hours and twenty minutes. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a twenty-three minute bonus episode available, on "Why Don't You Smile Now?" by the Downliners Sect.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at and


I say the Velvet Underground didn't play New York for the rest of the sixties after 1966. They played at least one gig there in 1967, but did generally avoid the city. Also, I refer to Cale and Conrad as the other surviving members of the Theater of Eternal Music. Sadly Conrad died in 2016.


No Mixcloud this week, as there are too many songs by the Velvet Underground, and some of the avant-garde pieces excerpted run to six hours or more.

I used a lot of resources for this one. Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story by Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga is the best book on the group as a group. I also used Joe Harvard's 33 1/3 book on The Velvet Underground and Nico.

Bockris also wrote one of the two biographies of Reed I referred to, Transformer. The other was Lou Reed by Anthony DeCurtis.

Information on Cale mostly came from Sedition and Alchemy by Tim Mitchell.

Information on Nico came from Nico: The Life and Lies of an Icon by Richard Witts.

I used Draw a Straight Line and Follow it by Jeremy Grimshaw as my main source for La Monte Young, The Roaring Silence by David Revill for John Cage, and Warhol: A Life as Art by Blake Gopnik for Warhol.

I also referred to the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of the 2021 documentary The Velvet Underground. 

The definitive collection of the Velvet Underground's music is the sadly out-of-print box set Peel Slowly and See, which contains the four albums the group made with Reed in full, plus demos, outtakes, and live recordings. Note that the digital version of the album as sold by Amazon for some reason doesn't include the last disc -- if you want the full box set you have to buy a physical copy. All four studio albums have also been released and rereleased many times over in different configurations with different numbers of CDs at different price points -- I have used the "45th Anniversary Super-Deluxe" versions for this episode, but for most people the standard CD versions will be fine. Sadly there are no good shorter compilation overviews of the group -- they tend to emphasise either the group's "pop" mode or its "avant-garde" mode to the exclusion of the other.


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Before I begin this episode, there are a few things to say. This introductory section is going to be longer than normal because, as you will hear, this episode is also going to be longer than normal.

Firstly, I try to warn people about potentially upsetting material in these episodes. But this is the first episode for 1968, and as you will see there is a *profound* increase in the amount of upsetting and disturbing material covered as we go through 1968 and 1969. The story is going to be in a much darker place for the next twenty or thirty episodes.

And this episode is no exception. As always, I try to deal with everything as sensitively as possible, but you should be aware that the list of warnings for this one is so long I am very likely to have missed some. Among the topics touched on in this episode are mental illness, drug addiction, gun violence, racism, societal and medical homophobia, medical mistreatment of mental illness, domestic abuse, rape, and more. If you find discussion of any of those subjects upsetting, you might want to read the transcript.

Also, I use the term "queer" freely in this episode. In the past I have received some pushback for this, because of a belief among some that "queer" is a slur. The following explanation will seem redundant to many of my listeners, but as with many of the things I discuss in the podcast I am dealing with multiple different audiences with different levels of awareness and understanding of issues, so I'd like to beg those people's indulgence a moment.

The term "queer" has certainly been used as a slur in the past, but so have terms like "lesbian", "gay", "homosexual" and others. In all those cases, the term has gone from a term used as a self-identifier, to a slur, to a reclaimed slur, and back again many times.

The reason for using that word, specifically, here is because the vast majority of people in this story have sexualities or genders that don't match the societal norms of their times, but used labels for themselves that have shifted in meaning over the years. There are at least two men in the story, for example, who are now dead and referred to themselves as "homosexual", but were in multiple long-term sexually-active relationships with women. Would those men now refer to themselves as "bisexual" or "pansexual" -- terms not in widespread use at the time -- or would they, in the relatively more tolerant society we live in now, only have been in same-gender relationships? We can't know. But in our current context using the word "homosexual" for those men would lead to incorrect assumptions about their behaviour.

The labels people use change over time, and the definitions of them blur and shift. I have discussed this issue with many, many, friends who fall under the queer umbrella, and while not all of them are comfortable with "queer" as a personal label because of how it's been used against them in the past, there is near-unanimity from them that it's the correct word to use in this situation.

Anyway, now that that rather lengthy set of disclaimers is over, let's get into the story proper, as we look at "White Light, White Heat" by the Velvet Underground:

[Excerpt: The Velvet Underground, "White Light, White Heat"]

And that look will start with... a disclaimer about length.

This episode is going to be a long one. Not as long as episode one hundred and fifty, but almost certainly the longest episode I'll do this year, by some way. And there's a reason for that.

One of the questions I've been asked repeatedly over the years about the podcast is why almost all the acts I've covered have been extremely commercially successful ones. "Where are the underground bands? The alternative bands? The little niche acts?"

The answer to that is simple. Until the mid-sixties, the idea of an underground or alternative band made no sense at all in rock, pop, rock and roll, R&B, or soul. The idea would have been completely counterintuitive to the vast majority of the people we've discussed in the podcast. Those musics were commercial musics, made by people who wanted to make money and to  get the largest audiences possible.

That doesn't mean that they had no artistic merit, or that there was no artistic intent behind them, but the artists making that music were *commercial* artists. They knew if they wanted to make another record, they had to sell enough copies of the last record for the record company to make another, and that if they wanted to keep eating, they had to draw enough of an audience to their gigs for promoters to keep booking them.

There was no space in this worldview for what we might think of as cult success. If your record only sold a thousand copies, then you had failed in your goal, even if the thousand people who bought your record really loved it. Even less commercially successful artists we've covered to this point, like the Mothers of Invention or Love, were *trying* for commercial success, even if they made the decision not to compromise as much as others do.

This started to change a tiny bit in the mid-sixties as the influence of jazz and folk in the US, and the British blues scene, started to be felt in rock music. But this influence, at first, was a one-way thing -- people who had been in the folk and jazz worlds deciding to modify their music to be more commercial. And that was followed by already massively commercial musicians, like the Beatles, taking on some of those influences and bringing their audience with them.

But that started to change around the time that "rock" started to differentiate itself from "rock and roll" and "pop", in mid 1967. So in this episode and the next, we're going to look at two bands who in different ways provided a model for how to be an alternative band. Both of them still *wanted* commercial success, but neither achieved it, at least not at first and not in the conventional way. And both, when they started out, went by the name The Warlocks.

But we have to take a rather circuitous route to get to this week's band, because we're now properly introducing a strand of music that has been there in the background for a while -- avant-garde art music. So before we go any further, let's have a listen to a thirty-second clip of the m








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Episode 164: “White Light/White Heat” by the Velvet Underground

Episode 164: “White Light/White Heat” by the Velvet Underground

Andrew Hickey