06. The Velvet Underground – “Sister Ray”
White Light/White Heat, 1968
The Velvet Underground may have released songs with more radio play and crossover potential, but “Sister Ray” is a rock ‘n roll revolution, a 17 minute avant-garde, improvisational rampage that is the forefather of countless sub-genres. Coming off of the legendary Velvet Underground & Nico and cutting ties with Andy Warhol, the quartet had to respond to their growing reputation somehow, and they did so violently with the expansive White Light/ White Heat, and “Sister Ray” in particular.
Recorded in a single take, the droning noise rock allegedly was so irking to the recording’s engineer that he walked out of the room. In the documentary, Lou Reed: Rock & Roll Heart, the frontman explained that “the engineer said, ‘I don’t have to listen to this,” got up, and left. The result is raw, unadulterated rock glory, Reed and Sterling Morrison churning out modal guitar chords as John Cale pounds at a distorted organ like the world is burning.
The freeform intensity of “Sister Ray” is a predecessor of punk in its raw antagonism, a child of bebop jazz in its conversational improvisation, a root of noise rock in its wall of atonal sound. Reed’s stream of consciousness descriptions of subversion of norms in every form embodies rock to its very core. “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,” Reed once explained.
Lines like “Too busy sucking on a ding-dong” are in-your-face challenges as much as realist beat poetry. Without the droning, choppy chord intensity of The Velvet Underground, bands like The Modern Lovers’ wouldn’t exist (and frontman Jonathan Richman credits Reed, Cale & Co. with a song called “Velvet Underground”, in which he briefly quotes “Sister Ray”). No Wave bands similarly relied on the song’s structure-denying intensity and Maureen Tucker’s primal rhythms, leading to covers by bands like Suicide. The album comes at a point directly after the band were sponsored by Vox, and access to the company’s then revolutionary effects pedals is the stuff of gear fetishism and shoegaze lore.
Even for an intense artist like Lou Reed, there are few songs as catastrophically aggressive and purposively difficult in his catalog as this (save maybe Metal Machine Music, though the “songs” on that album don’t have the focus that “Sister Ray” does). When a man is shot in the song’s narrative, Reed’s response is incredibly wry, informing dark lyricists for years to come: “Aw, you shouldn’t do that/ Don’t you know you’ll stain the carpet?” There isn’t a moment of escape anywhere to be found in “Sister Ray”, and the thrumming energy is such that you’ll never even try to look for one, instead reveling in the destruction of barriers and definitions of what rock ‘n’ roll is and can be. -Adam Kivel