Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’ Turns 45: Hear Six Incredible Covers
Nirvana, David Bowie, and Suicide reinterpret a classic
The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat originally came out 45 years ago today. The New York avant-garde rock legends’ second album — and first without Nico, and last with John Cale — sharpened the debut’s experimental edge and has had a similarly profound effect on punk, noise rock, and other feedback-lacerated, distortion-loving musical genres. In honor of the record’s anniverary, we’ve assembled some stellar cover versions of its unforgettable songs.
David Bowie covered White Light/White Heat’s opening title track so often that the Thin White Duke included one such rendition on his 1973 concert documentary Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, as well as on its accompanying 1983 album. Trading John Cale’s staccato piano for glammy guitar solos, Bowie sings a love song to methamphetamine with a sense of euphoria that Lou Reed’s take never had.
(To break the fourth wall for a sec, we wanted to include psych-soul outfit Sleeping Future’s cover of “The Gift” — the spoken-word short story about insecurity, infidelity, one-sided relationships, and manslaughter — but it wasn’t available on Spotify. You can still watch its live performance here, and we recommend you do. Till then, though, we give you…) French jazz-rock experimentalist Rodolphe Burger.
British shoegazers Chapterhouse are faithful to “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” retaining the deadpan, off-key vocals, the strained melody swathed in fuzz, and the plodding drums of Reed and Cale’s warped duet. The cover is regularly featured on Velvet Underground tribute albums.
Nirvana, on the other hand, turn White Light’s gentlest two minutes into a five-minute-long, distortion-laden headbanger. Kurt’s “Here She Comes Now” was originally available in 1991 as a split 7-inch alongside Melvins’ own version of the Velvet Underground & Nico’s “Venus In Furs.”
For “I Heard Her Call My Name,” Jad Fair, founder of Michigan noise-punks Half Japanese, called in former VU drummer Moe Tucker. Fair leads a sprawling, screeching interpretation of what was already the most abrasive White Light track, and somehow Half Japanese mop up the slop without compromising too much of its ramshackle appeal.
And finally, New York proto-synth-punk duo Suicide trimmed “Sister Ray Says,” the Velvets’ infamous 17-minute-plus ode to heroin-fueled debauchery and avant-jazz, down to a more manageable four minutes for their 1981 live compilation Half Alive. Despite the amputation, Alan Vega and Martin Rev’s take still drones and wheezes with all the high-minded sleaze of the original.
Here Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat covered below.