The Velvet Underground

Song Review by Dave Thompson

The centerpiece of the first Velvet Underground album, "Heroin" is also one of Lou Reed's most legendary compositions, a seven-minute monolith that he would, in later years, stretch to almost twice that length, so conscious was he of the song's bearing on his own legend. Myriad interpretations of the song exist. Defending the Velvet Underground against the common charge that they glorified drug use and depravity, drummer Maureen Tucker described "Heroin" as a song about a bad trip, and that might well be the case -- line for line, the song really doesn't take sides. Such subtleties were lost on many of the band's audience, however -- in 1973, Reed himself complained of fans who approached him to announce, "I shot up to your song," while his own performances (during the Rock and Roll Animal tour) frequently saw him tying off with his microphone cord and miming precisely the same action himself. Whatever its intentions, there is no doubting "Heroin"'s quality, both lyrically -- the verses do indeed trace a user's absorption of the drug, physically and emotionally -- and musically. Led by Cale's almost pained viola, the band -- understated for much of the song -- reaches an absolutely maniacal peak of intensity in the final section, a fact that Reed readily acknowledged in 1977. "'Heroin' is very close to the feeling you get from smack. It starts on a certain level, it's deceptive. You think you're enjoying it. But by the time it hits you, it's too late. You don't have any choice. It comes at you harder and faster and it keeps on coming. The song is everything but the real thing."

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
The Velvet Underground & Nico 1967 Polydor 7:12
The Velvet Underground 1969 Polydor 0:00
Golden Archive Series 1970 MGM Records / Sundazed 7:07
Velvet Underground 1973 Pride 7:05
The Best of the Velvet Underground: Words and Music of Lou Reed 1989 Polydor / Verve 7:09
Retro 1989 BMG / Sony Music Distribution 7:07
The Doors [Original Soundtrack] 1991
Original Soundtrack
Elektra 7:08
What Goes On? 1993 Raven 7:13
Peel Slowly and See 1995 Polydor 13:34
Essential Soundtracks 1999
Various Artists
Telstar TV Records 5:37
Classic Velvet Underground: The Universal Masters Collection 2000 Polygram / Polydor 7:12
Gold 2005 Polydor 7:12
Chronicles 2005 Polydor 7:12
The Very Best of the Velvet Underground 2006 Universal / Um3 7:11
The Velvet Underground Story 2006 Polydor / Universal Distribution 7:12
Rock Legends 2008 Polydor 7:11
Playlist Plus 2008 Polydor 7:10
I Love Punk [Central Station] 2008
Various Artists
Central Station Records 7:09
Icon 2011 Polydor 7:11
Killing Them Softly [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] 2012
Original Soundtrack
Lakeshore Records 6:45
Scepter Studios Acetate 2012 Polydor 6:16
New York Rehearsal 1966 2018 Sutra 6:17
The Velvet Underground: A Documentary Film by Todd Haynes 2021 Polydor 7:10
Best of the 60's [Universal]
Various Artists
Universal 7:10