White Light/White Heat

White Light/White Heat (BBC, 1972).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1972).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1973).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1983).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1987).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1990).
White Light/White Heat (BBC, 1997).
White Light/White Heat (Bowie with Lou Reed, 1997).
White Light/White Heat (live, 2003).

Covering “Waiting For the Man” gave the young David Bowie a hint of street cred, covering “White Light/White Heat” just gave him power. As Bowie and the Spiders honed their live act, they swapped out the likes of “Starman” and “Andy Warhol” for bruising workouts like “White Light,” whose relentless drone rhythm and severity of design (mainly just thrashing on G and D chords, then thrashing on F at the end) made it a hard contrast to the more fanciful Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust songs. It was a staple of the Ziggy tour by May 1972, and Bowie would play it for decades.

Giving prominence to “White Light/White Heat” and “Waiting for The Man” also helped Bowie bring Lou Reed into his rapidly-expanding sphere of influence and in July 1972, Reed played his first-ever UK concert as Bowie’s guest. Bowie and Mick Ronson produced Reed’s Transformer* over a manic six weeks in the summer of ’72, working with Reed during the day, playing concerts across the UK at night. Reed, drugged into near-catatonia, needed a translator to understand Ronson; Bowie sometimes was found in the studio bathroom weeping; Ronson did much of the work and his touches are all over the record, like the soaring string arrangement on “Perfect Day.”

“White Light/White Heat” is mainly about the joys of speed, though VU chronicler Richie Unterberger said in a Well interview last year that another possible influence was Alice Bailey’s “A Treatise on White Magic,” which delves into astral projection “all down a stream of pure White Light.'” (Reed reportedly mentioned the book in radio interviews and Unterberger interviewed a fan who recalled Reed babbling about psychic healing via “light projection.”) Bowie likely had no clue about this when he covered the song, though it’s fitting given his own interest in astral projection (“Did You Ever Have a Dream”). “White Light” was transcendence, chemical or no.

Bowie recorded two versions of “White Light/White Heat” in May 1972 for the BBC, and the song was central to the 1972-1973 Ziggy tours; a recording from the last Spiders concert in July 1973 was issued as a single a decade later (RCA 372) to promote the concert film Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture. Bowie recorded a version of “White Light” in 1973 for his covers LP Pin-Ups but eventually scrapped it, with Ronson using the backing track for his own cover on 1975’s Play Don’t Worry.

Top: L to R: The top student, the feral child, the dark master (Mick Rock, 1972).

* It’s been repeatedly claimed, even in credible Bowie biographies like Strange Fascination, that Bowie secretly wrote “Wagon Wheel,” a forgotten track on Reed’s Transformer. To my knowledge, this is bunk (seriously, “Wagon Wheel”?), and there appears to be some proof dispelling the rumor—a tape allegedly exists of Reed singing “Wagon Wheel” in New York in 1971, a time when he had only met Bowie once at a nightclub—but doubtless this bizarre legend will persist for decades to come.

2 Responses to White Light/White Heat

  1. Maj says:

    I think Bowie did a fine job covering this song. My favourite version of his would be the one on the Beeb, with him adorably but absolutely misguidedly singing “white light makes me sound like Lou Reed”. No, it doesn’t, silly. Bless. + Ronno’s on top form, jujst the right amount of guitar w***ing. :)
    The version on Ziggy Motion Picture is a bit too messy…but my least favourite is definitely from the Serious Moonlight tour. I’ve come to realize I hate 80’s Bowie live. He is a fine singer as ever but his bands from that era rub me the wrong way completely.

  2. Rufus Oculus says:

    Wagon Wheel appears on the Castle set ‘Oh you Pretty Things The songs of David Bowie’ where his songs are covered by the likes of Donovan and Peter Noone.

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