Sister Ray

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This article is about the song. For other uses, see Sister Ray (disambiguation).
"Sister Ray"
Song by The Velvet Underground from the album White Light/White Heat
Released January 30, 1968
Recorded September 1967, Scepter Studios,[1] Manhattan
Genre Protopunk, experimental rock, avant-garde
Length 17:29
Label Verve Records
Writer Lou Reed
Composer Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker
Producer Tom Wilson
White Light/White Heat track listing
  1. "White Light/White Heat"
  2. "The Gift"
  3. "Lady Godiva's Operation"
  4. "Here She Comes Now"
  5. "I Heard Her Call My Name"
  6. "Sister Ray"

"Sister Ray" is a song by The Velvet Underground that closes side two of their 1968 avant-garde rock album White Light/White Heat. The song's lyrics were written by Lou Reed, with music composed by John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and Reed.

The song concerns drug use, violence, homosexuality and transvestism. Reed said of the lyrics: "'Sister Ray' 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. 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."[2]

Studio version[edit]


"Sister Ray" was recorded in one take. The band agreed to accept whatever faults occurred during recording, resulting in over seventeen minutes of highly improvisational material.

The song was recorded with Lou Reed providing lead vocals and guitar, Sterling Morrison on guitar and Maureen Tucker on drums while John Cale plays an organ that was routed through a distorted guitar amplifier. Secondary guitarist Sterling Morrison remarked that he was amazed at the volume of Cale's organ during the recording and had switched the guitar pickup on his Fender Stratocaster from the bridge position to the neck position to get "more oomph". Also notable about the song is that it features no bass guitarJohn Cale, who usually played bass or viola, was playing his organ on the take. The band had a sponsorship from Vox amplifiers, resulting in use of top-of-the-line amps and distortion pedals to create a very distorted and noisy sound.

After the opening sequence, which is a modally flavored I-bVII-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. The recording engineer is famously rumored to have walked out while recording the song. Lou Reed recalled: "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.'"[3]

Reed called the song "Sister Ray" in acknowledgment to Ray Davies of the British band, The Kinks.[4]

Performance lineup[edit]

Live versions[edit]

"Sister Ray" was a concert favorite of the band, who regularly closed their set with the song. The studio recording of the song was recorded in one single take that lasts over seventeen minutes, while live versions were known to last as much as half an hour or more. The triple live album Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes, released in 2001, features three live performances of "Sister Ray" from 1969, with approximate running times of 24, 38 and 29 minutes. The band also had an intro entitled "Sweet Sister Ray" that they would perform occasionally. On the single known recording of this intro (recorded during the April 30, 1968 show, and without the complete subsequent performance of "Sister Ray"), "Sweet Sister Ray" alone lasts for over thirty-eight minutes.[5]

Cover versions[edit]

  • Joy Division, New Order, Suicide, The Badgeman and The Sisters of Mercy have done covers of the track. A Joy Division cover played live on April 3, 1980 appears on the 1981 compilation Still, and a New Order cover played live at Glastonbury 1987 was released in 1992 on the album BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert.
  • Jonathan Richman plays a portion of "Sister Ray" on his song "Velvet Underground." Indeed, it has been argued that Richman's "Roadrunner" is, considering its distorted organ solo (provided by producer John Cale) and chordal similarities, largely a reworking of "Sister Ray" in musical terms, although Richman's positive and life-affirming lyrics about the joys of driving around suburban Boston are in marked contrast to Reed's detached saga of "debauchery and decay".[6][7]
  • British power-punk band Buzzcocks formed as a result of a classified ad placed by founding member Howard Devoto seeking musicians to collaborate on a version of "Sister Ray".