Heroin (song)

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Song by The Velvet Underground from the album The Velvet Underground & Nico
Released March 1967
Recorded May 1966 at T.T.G. Studios in Hollywood, California
Genre Experimental rock[1]
Length 7:12
Label Verve
Writer Lou Reed
Composer Lou Reed
Producer Andy Warhol
Cover versions
The Velvet Underground & Nico track listing
  1. "Sunday Morning"
  2. "I'm Waiting for the Man"
  3. "Femme Fatale"
  4. "Venus in Furs"
  5. "Run Run Run"
  6. "All Tomorrow's Parties"
  7. "Heroin"
  8. "There She Goes Again"
  9. "I'll Be Your Mirror"
  10. "The Black Angel's Death Song"
  11. "European Son"

"Heroin" is a song by The Velvet Underground, released on their 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. Written by Lou Reed in 1964, the song, which overtly depicts heroin use and abuse, is one of the band's most celebrated compositions. Critic Mark Deming writes, "While 'Heroin' hardly endorses drug use, it doesn't clearly condemn it, either, which made it all the more troubling in the eyes of many listeners".[2]

In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked it #455 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The song is included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.


"Heroin" was among a three-song set to be re-recorded at T.T.G. Studios, Hollywood before being included on the final release of The Velvet Underground & Nico (along with "I'm Waiting for the Man" and "Venus in Furs"). This recording of the song would be the album's second longest at 7 minutes and 12 seconds, being eclipsed only by "European Son" by about 30 seconds.

"Heroin" begins slowly with Reed's quiet, melodic guitar and hypnotic drum patterns by Maureen Tucker, soon joined by John Cale's droning electric viola and Sterling Morrison's steady rhythm guitar. The tempo increases gradually, mimicking the high the narrator receives from the drug, until a frantic crescendo is reached, punctuated by Cale's shrieking viola and the more punctuated guitar strumming of Reed and Morrison. Tucker's drumming becomes hurried and louder. The song then slows to the original tempo, and repeats the same pattern before ending.

The song is based on D♭ and G♭ major chords. Like "Sister Ray", it features no bass guitar; Reed and Morrison use chords and arpeggios to create the song's trademark sound. Rolling Stone said "It doesn't take much to make a great song," alluding to the song's use of merely two chords.

Tucker stopped drumming for several seconds at the 6:17 mark, before picking up the beat again. She explains:

As soon as it got loud and fast, I couldn't hear anything. I couldn't hear anybody, so I stopped, assuming, well, they'll stop too and say "what's the matter, Moe?" [laughs] But nobody stopped. And then, you know, so I came back in.[3]


Alternative versions[edit]

Ludlow Street Loft, July 1965[edit]

The earliest recorded version of "Heroin" was with Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and John Cale at the band's Ludlow Street loft in July 1965. Unlike songs such as "I'm Waiting for the Man" and "Venus in Furs" which sound drastically different from their corresponding 1966 recordings on The Velvet Underground & Nico, the '65 version of "Heroin" is nearly identical to the album version in structure. On the recording, Reed performs the song on an acoustic guitar. This version of the song can be found on the 1995 compilation album, Peel Slowly and See.

Scepter Studios, April 1966[edit]

The original take of "Heroin" that was intended for release on The Velvet Underground & Nico was at Scepter Studios in New York City, April 1966. This version of the song features slightly different lyrics and a more contained, less chaotic performance. Overall, the tempo of the song is at a steadier, quicker pace. It is about a minute shorter.

One notable difference in the lyrics is Lou Reed's opening — he sings "I know just where I'm going" rather than "I don't know just where I'm going" as on the final album recording. Reed was known to do this during subsequent performances of the song as well.[4]

The Velvet Underground and drugs[edit]

"Heroin", (along with songs like "I'm Waiting for the Man" which dealt with similar subject matter), tied the Velvet Underground with drug use in the media. Some critics declared the band were glorifying the use of drugs such as heroin.[5] However, members of the band (Reed, in particular) frequently denied any claims that the song was advocating use of the drug. Reed's lyrics, such as they are on the majority of The Velvet Underground & Nico, were more meant to focus on providing an objective description of the topic without taking a moral stance.[2][6] Critics were not the only ones who misunderstood the song's neutral tone; fans would sometimes approach the band members after a live performance and tell them they "shot up to 'Heroin'",[7] a phenomenon that deeply disturbed Reed. As a result, Reed was somewhat hesitant to play the song with the band through much of the band's later career.[5]

Billy Idol version[edit]

Single by Billy Idol
from the album Cyberpunk
Released May 4, 1993 (1993-05-04) (U.S.)
Format 5" CD, white vinyl double 12"
Recorded 1992, Los Angeles, U.S.
Genre Electronic rock, techno
Label Chrysalis Records
Writer(s) Lou Reed with a lyric from Patti Smith's version of "Gloria"
Producer(s) Robin Hancock
Billy Idol singles chronology
"Prodigal Blues"
"Shock to the System"
Audio sample
file info · help
Cyberpunk track listing
"Love Labours On"
(audio segue)

Billy Idol covered the song on his 1993 album Cyberpunk. Billy Idol's cover interpreted the song as a fast-tempo dance track, which made use of sampling and techno beats. It also included the lyric "Jesus died for somebody's sins / But not mine", from "Gloria" written by Patti Smith, used under license from Linda Music Corporation.

Idol mixed eleven versions of "Heroin", releasing them on various singles with some containing previous hits. These singles included:

"Heroin" White Vinyl Double 12" single

Side A:

  • VR Heroin – 6:17
  • Original Mix – 6:59
  • Needle Park Mix – 5:12

Side B:

  • Overlords Mix – 7:20
  • Nosebleed Mix – 8:04

Side C:

  • Durga Trance Dub – 5:10
  • Durga Death Dub – 5:10

Side D:

  • Don't Touch That Needle Mix – 5:10
  • Smack Attack – 7:15

"Heroin" CD single

  • VR Heroin Mix – 4:14
  • Album version – 6:57
  • Needle Park Mix – 5:16
  • Overlords Mix (labeled "Blendo Mix", on the Cyberpunk: Shock to the System video album.) – 7:48
  • Nosebleed Mix – 8:06

"Shock to the System" CD single

  • Don't Touch That Needle Mix – 5:10
  • Durga Trance Dub – 5:10
  • A Drug Called Horse Mix – 7:19
  • Smack Attack mix – 6:59
  • Ionizer Mix – 7:03

"Adam in Chains" CD single

  • Needle Park Mix – 5:16


Chart (1993) Peak
U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Club Play[8] 16


Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic.com called it "one of the worst covers ever recorded" in his review of Cyberpunk.[9]

Other cover versions[edit]

References in popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ Zak, Albin (2000). The Velvet Underground Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. Music Sales Group. ISBN 978-0028646275. Retrieved 1 March 2014. 
  2. ^ a b "Heroin" at Allmusic
  3. ^ The Velvet Underground: Under Review (Motion picture). 2006. 
  4. ^ Cannon, Geoffrey (March 1971). "The Insects of Someone Else's Thoughts". Zigzag (18). 
  5. ^ a b Heylin, Clinton, ed. (2005). All Yesterday's Parties: The Velvet Underground in Print 1966–1971 (first ed.). United States: Da Capo Press. p. / 138. ISBN 0-306-81477-3. 
  6. ^ Harvard, Joe (2007) [2004]. The Velvet Underground & Nico. 33⅓. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 0-8264-1550-4. 
  7. ^ Bangs, Lester (May 1971). "Dead Lie The Velvets, Underground". Creem 3 (2). "I meant those songs to sort of exorcise the darkness, or the self-destructive element in me, and hoped other people would take them the same way. But when I saw how people were responding to them it was disturbing. Because like people would come up and say, 'I shot up to "Heroin,'" things like that. For a while, I was even thinking that some of my songs might have contributed formatively to the consciousness of all these addictions and things going down with the kids today. But I don't think that anymore; it's really too awful a thing to consider. (Lou Reed)" 
  8. ^ singles chart
  9. ^ Allmusic review
  10. ^ "Full Albums: The Velvet Underground & Nico » Cover Me". Covermesongs.com. Retrieved 2012-01-10. 

External links[edit]