The Velvet Underground

Sister Ray

Composed by John Cale / Sterling Morrison / Lou Reed / Moe Tucker

Song Review by

This is it -- the big one. 17 minutes of unrelenting psychodrama, "Sister Ray" is the most legendary song in the entire Velvet Underground catalog and, quite possibly, in the history of rock. The weird thing is, you don't even realize it's that long until you look at the clock -- churning along on an almost playful rhythm, the band locked into a slow-burning mantra of distortion and melody, "Sister Ray" could probably be disguised as the greatest three minute pop song on earth, and all you'd really need to cut would be the best-known line of all: "She's still sucking on my ding dong." ("I wish Lou had thought of another rhyme," Maureen Tucker lamented years later. "That's the only Velvets song I won't let my children listen to.") Critic Lester Bangs, for whom the Velvets could do no wrong, described "Sister Ray" as the "ultimate extension" of the band's "Yardbirds/Who project," a tribute to the solid R&B basics that anchor the piece through all its extremes. Reed, too, is keen to amplify its simplicity, a one-take recording in which the band members gave each other just one instruction -- whatever you want to do, you'd better do it. Interviewed in 1976, he recalled, "When we did 'Sister Ray,' we turned up to 10 flat out, leakage all over the place. That's it. They asked us what we were going to do. We said we were going to start. They said 'who's playing the bass?' We said there is no bass. They asked us when it ends? We didn't know. When it ends, that's when it ends." Every moment of the song seems to feature something else you've not noticed before -- Sterling Morrison singled out John Cale's organ as a particular highlight, enthusing 'I think its great the way [it] comes in. Cale starts to try and play a solo. He's totally buried and there's a sort of surge and then he's pulling out all the stops until he just rises out of the pack. He was able to get louder than Lou and I were." Another admirer of that moment was Jonathan Richman -- recording the seminal "Roadrunner" with his Modern Lovers a few years later, Richman arranged for Cale to duplicate the same effect during the instrumental break.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
White Light/White Heat 1968 Polydor / Verve 17:27
The Velvet Underground 1969 Polydor 0:00
No Image 1973 Pride 17:00
Peel Slowly and See 1995 Polydor 17:27
20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: Best Of The Velvet Underground 2000 Mercury / Polydor 17:25
Classic Velvet Underground: The Universal Masters Collection 2000 Polygram / Polydor 17:29
Gold 2005 Polydor 17:27
Chronicles 2005 Polydor 17:27
Brick 2006
Original Soundtrack
Lakeshore Records 4:34
The Velvet Underground Story 2006 Polydor / Universal Distribution 17:27
Playlist Plus 2008 Polydor 17:29