Posted: February 1, 2023 in MUSIC

Taken from their 1968 “White Light/White Heat” album, ‘Sister Ray’ sees The Velvet Underground at their most debauched. The product of a hitherto unseen Vox sponsorship and a nascent desire to return to their roots as an improvisational avant-garde outfit, the track is a near-20-minute swirl of black leather and white noise.

The song concerns drug use, violence, homosexuality, and transvestism. Reed said of the lyrics: “‘Sister Ray’ was done as a joke it has eight characters in it and this guy gets killed and nobody does anything. It was built around this story that I wrote about this scene of total debauchery and decay. I like to think of ‘Sister Ray’ as a transvestite smack dealer. The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear.”

‘Sister Ray’ was the Velvet Underground’s take on The Odyssey, only with more prostitutes and junkies. In The Velvet Underground Companion: Four Decades of Commentary, frontman Lou Reed claims the song was “done as a joke – no, not as a joke, but it has eight characters in it, and this guy gets killed, and nobody does anything,” he said. “The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear.”

The track was recorded in one single take, with the Velvets agreeing that, whatever the result of the studio session, they would accept the song and work it into something album-worthy. They were sensible enough to start with an incredibly simple riff, which over the course of the song’s 17-minute run time, swerves between a-tonal chaos and infectious groove-ability, absorbing the aura of the previous section and regenerating itself again and again and again. Reed is a streetside preacher erratically converting passersby, while Cale is a Cagian experimentalist, Morrison a West Coast dope smoker, and Tucker, the half-deaf drummer in a high-school marching band.

Rock critic Lester Bangs wrote in 1970, “The early Velvets had the good sense to realize that whatever your capabilities, music with a simple base structure was the best. Thus, ‘Sister Ray’ evolved from a most basic funk riff seventeen minutes into stark sound structures of incredible complexity

The Velvets were, by all accounts, left to their own devices during the recording of ‘Sister Ray’. Andy Warhol, who had produced the band’s first album and invited Nico into the fold, didn’t produce but did help steer the band in a certain direction. According to Reed: “When we were making the second record, [Warhol] said, ‘Now you gotta make sure that you do the ‘sucking on my ding dong song.’” It’s also rumoured that the engineer hired to record the ‘Sister Ray’ set up the microphones, pressed record and then left the building so as not to hear the Velvets destroying their equipment in real-time.

 The song was recorded with Reed providing lead vocals and guitar, Morrison on guitar, and Tucker on drums, while Cale plays an organ routed through a distorted guitar amplifier. Morrison remarked that he was amazed at the volume of Cale’s organ during the recording and that he had switched the guitar pickup on his Fender Stratocaster from the bridge position to the neck position to get “more oomph”.

The Velvet Underground were no strangers to extended improvised jams. Cale had been a member of La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, and when the young violist met a budding songwriter called Lou Reed, he bought his experimental musical leanings with him, combining them with Reed’s rough-shod pop songwriting to create an early incarnation of The Velvet Underground called The Primitives. Cale’s amplified viola drones quickly defined the group’s primordial, deeply textural sound, the startling nature of which sent their early audiences fumbling for the exit. ‘Sister Ray’ seems to have been designed with a similar effect in mind, with Cale routing his organ through a distorted Vox guitar amplifier, one of the many high-end pieces of kit The Velvets had received from their sponsors and proceeded to push to breaking point.

After the opening sequence, which is a modally flavored I-♭VII-IV G-F-C chord progression, much of the song is led by Cale and Reed exchanging percussive chords and noise for over ten minutes, similar to avant-jazz. Reed recalled that recording engineer Gary Kellgren walked out while recording the song: “The engineer said, ‘I don’t have to listen to this. I’ll put it in Record, and then I’m leaving. When you’re done, come get me

thanks to Far Out

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.