‘White Light/White Heat’ was played often during the Ziggy Stardust Tour in 1972-3.
It was wild: wonder and delirium from city to city to city. It might have been the costumes that did it – David changed his three times each show – or the spectacular sound system, a setup we’d ensured was far superior to prevailing industry standards, or perhaps the strobes that began pulsing when the Spiders launched into Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’, and kept flashing until the whole crowd was tripped-out crazy.
Backstage Passes: Life on the Wild Side with David Bowie
On 8 July 1972 Lou Reed joined Bowie on stage at London’s Royal Festival Hall, prior to work beginning on Reed’s Transformer. They duetted on three Velvet Underground songs: ‘White Light/White Heat’, ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, and ‘Sweet Jane’.
Prior to singing ‘White Light/White Heat’, Bowie introduced Reed with the words: “I’d like to do a number by a guy who tonight is in London somewhere making an album and I think he’s a friend of mine. Anyway he’s one of the best songwriters around today. His name’s Lou Reed!”
I thought Lou was cool. He definitely rose to the occasion and had been out and bought a black velvet suit decorated with diamond patterns of diamanté, like a glam Mexican. Towards the end of the seventy-minute set Bowie introduced Lou and we played ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘White Light/White Heat’. The two of them singing those songs together was amazing and, needless to say, it went down a storm.
Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie
Another performance of the song, from the final Ziggy Stardust Tour date, was released in 1983 on Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture. The song was also issued as a single to promote the album, with ‘Cracked Actor’ on the b-side, but peaked at a lowly number 46 in the UK.
Bowie also performed ‘White Light/White Heat’ during the Serious Moonlight (1983), Glass Spider (1987), Sound + Vision (1990), Summer Festivals (1996), Earthling (1997), Heathen (2002), and A Reality (2003) tours. Recordings are available on Serious Moonlight (Live ’83) and Look At The Moon! (Live Phoenix Festival 97).
He also performed the song at the Bridge School benefit show on 20 October 1996, and at his 50th birthday concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 9 January 1997. At the latter show he was joined once again by Lou Reed.
David Bowie recorded ‘White Light/White Heat’ on three occasions for BBC radio.
The first was for an edition of Sounds Of The 70s presented by John Peel. It was recorded at London’s Maida Vale studios on 16 May 1972, and broadcast seven days later.
Bowie and the Spiders From Mars were joined by pianist Nicky Graham for the session. They played five songs, all of which were released in 2000 on Bowie At The Beeb: ‘White Light/White Heat’, ‘Moonage Daydream’, ‘Hang On To Yourself’, ‘Suffragette City’, and ‘Ziggy Stardust’.
The second BBC version was taped on 23 May 1972, again at Maida Vale, and broadcast on 19 June. It was for another edition of Sounds Of The 70s, this time presented by Bob Harris.
The final version was for ChangesNowBowie, a 50th birthday special. Bowie was accompanied by Reeves Gabrels on guitar, Mike Garson on piano, Gail Ann Dorsey on bass guitar and vocals, and Zachary Alford on drums.
The session took place in November 1996 in SIR Studios at 520 West 25th Street, New York City, and was first broadcast on BBC Radio 1 on 8 January 1997, Bowie’s birthday.
The complete recordings were issued on compact disc and vinyl as ChangesNowBowie on 18 April 2020, as part of the annual Record Store Day.