Heroin (The Velvet Underground song)
|Song by the Velvet Underground|
|from the album The Velvet Underground & Nico|
|Released||March 12, 1967|
|Studio||TTG Studios, Hollywood, California|
"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 of Allmusic 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."
Writing and recording
In an interview with WLIR in 1972, Reed said he wrote the lyrics while working for a record company.
I was working for a record company as a songwriter, where they'd lock me in a room and they'd say write ten surfing songs, ya know, and I wrote "Heroin" and I said "Hey I got something for ya." They said, "Never gonna happen, never gonna happen."
"Heroin" was among a three-song set to be re-recorded, in May 1966 at TTG Studios in 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 track on the album at 7 minutes and 12 seconds; being eclipsed by "European Son" by only 30 seconds.
"Heroin" begins slowly with Reed's quiet, melodic guitar, Sterling Morrison's steady rhythm guitar and hypnotic drum patterns by Maureen Tucker, soon joined by John Cale's droning electric viola. 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 5:17 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.
- Lou Reed – lead vocals, lead guitar
- John Cale – electric viola
- Sterling Morrison – rhythm guitar
- Maureen Tucker – percussion
Ludlow Street Loft, July 1965
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
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.
The Velvet Underground and drugs
"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. 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. 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'", 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.
Billy Idol version
|Single by Billy Idol|
|from the album Cyberpunk|
|Released||May 4, 1993(U.S.)|
|Format||CD single, 12-inch single|
|Recorded||1992, Los Angeles|
|Genre||Electronic rock, techno|
|Billy Idol singles chronology|
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 Patti Smith's introduction to "Gloria", used under license from Linda Music Corporation. Idol mixed eleven versions of "Heroin", releasing them on various singles with some containing previous hits.
|U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Club Play||16|
Other cover versions
- The song has been covered by several artists, including Mazzy Star, Human Drama, Iggy Pop, Echo & the Bunnymen, Roky Erickson, and Third Eye Blind.
- Lou Reed later performed "Heroin" live in his glam rock style, featuring the guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. The resulting thirteen-minute track is included on his live album Rock 'n' Roll Animal, released in 1974.
- Pere Ubu performed "Heroin" live with Peter Laughner on vocals, a recording that was released on The Shape of Things.
References in popular culture
- Denis Johnson's short story collection Jesus' Son, and the film based on it took its title from the lyrics of this song.
- In Irvine Welsh's novel Trainspotting, the central character Mark Renton describes playing the Rock 'n' Roll Animal version of 'Heroin' instead of the original as 'breaking the junkie's golden rule'.
- Zak, Albin (2000). The Velvet Underground Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. Music Sales Group. ISBN 978-0028646275. Retrieved 1 March 2014.
- "Heroin" at Allmusic
- The Velvet Underground: Under Review (Motion picture). 2006.
- Cannon, Geoffrey (March 1971). "The Insects of Someone Else's Thoughts". Zigzag (18).
- 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.
- Harvard, Joe (2007) . The Velvet Underground & Nico. 33⅓. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 0-8264-1550-4.
- 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)
- singles chart
- Allmusic review
- "Full Albums: The Velvet Underground & Nico » Cover Me". Covermesongs.com. Retrieved 2012-01-10.
- "Fiction Book Review: Jesus' Son: Stories by Denis Johnson". Retrieved 26 May 2017.