Sister Ray

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"Sister Ray"
Song by the Velvet Underground
from the album White Light/White Heat
ReleasedJanuary 30, 1968 (1968-01-30)
RecordedSeptember 1967
StudioScepter, New York City
Lyricist(s)Lou Reed
Producer(s)Tom Wilson

"Sister Ray" is a song by the Velvet Underground that closes side two of their 1968 album White Light/White Heat. The lyrics are 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."[7][8]

At 17 minutes 29 seconds, it is the longest song on White Light/White Heat, taking up most of the second side of the record, as well as the longest song in the Velvet Underground's studio discography.

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."[9]

Studio version[edit]


"Sister Ray" was recorded in one take. The band agreed to accept whatever faults occurred during recording, resulting in over 17 minutes of improvised material. 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".[10] It is also notable that the song features no bass guitar because Cale, who usually played bass or viola, played organ on the take. The band had a sponsorship from Vox amplifiers, which allowed use of top-of-the-line amps and distortion pedals to create a distorted, noisy sound.

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.'"[11]

Reed called the song "Sister Ray" in a nod to Ray Davies of the British band the Kinks.[12]


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 17 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 38 minutes.[13]

Cover versions[edit]

  • 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 lyrics about the joys of driving around suburban Boston are in marked contrast to Reed's detached saga of "debauchery and decay".[14][15]
  • Joy Division played a shortened version of the song at the Moonlight Club in London on April 2, 1980.[16] A recording of this album is available on their rarities album Still and has been regarded by some as a uniquely darker take on the song.[17]


  1. ^ a b Gentile, John (November 20, 2015). "Velvet Underground release 36 minute live version of "Sister Ray"". Retrieved May 1, 2016.
  2. ^ Beeber, Steven Lee (2006). The Heebie-jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press. p. 59. ISBN 978-1-55652-613-8.
  3. ^ Gross, Joe (April 2007). "Essentials: Noise Rock". Spin. p. 94.{{cite magazine}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  4. ^ Maloney, Sean L. (2017). The Modern Lovers. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 46. ISBN 978-1501322198.
  5. ^ Terich, Jeff (November 28, 2018). "30 Essential Noise Rock Tracks". Stereogum. Retrieved January 24, 2019.
  6. ^ DeRogatis, Jim (1 January 2003). Turn on Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock. Milwaukee, Minnesota: Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-634-05548-5.
  7. ^ Bockris, Victor; Malanga, Gerard (1983). Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story. London, England: Omnibus Press. p. 93. ISBN 978-0-7119-0168-1.
  8. ^ Thompson, Dave (2009). Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell: The Dangerous Glitter of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Backbeat Books. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-87930-985-5.
  9. ^ Bangs, Lester (1987). Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. p. 44. ISBN 0-394-53896-X.
  10. ^ "White Light / White Heat - The Velvet Underground". Rough Trade. Retrieved May 6, 2021.>
  11. ^ American Masters: Lou Reed: Rock & Roll Heart documentary
  12. ^ Tom Robinson Radio Show, BBC 6 Music 22/5/07
  13. ^ "The Velvet Underground – Sweet Sister Ray". Discogs. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  14. ^ Barton, Laura (20 July 2007). "The car, the radio, the night - and rock's most thrilling song". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  15. ^ Crain, William (September 2002). "The Modern Lovers: Despite All the Amputations".
  16. ^ Whatley, Jack (January 2021). "Listen to Joy Division's rare cover of The Velvet Underground's 'Sister Ray'".
  17. ^ Patrin, Nate (January 30, 2018). "Gotcha Covered: White Light/White Heat".