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Sister Ray story
Patrik Lindell (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Composers: Lyrics - Reed, Music - Cale, Morrison, Reed, Tucker
Prelude: Velvet Underground
In March 1967 the first Velvet Underground album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, was released. It coincided very well with a new massive youth culture; the flower power -- the upcoming summer of 1967 was the infamous Summer Of Love. Yet the New York based group didn't respond well to the "peace, love and understanding" message of the flower power generation, and the flower power generation didn't respond well to the Velvets. The hippies sang about a dream, a Vision. The Velvets sang about the harsh and real life in the streets. The hippies sang about abstract love. The Velvets sang about homosexuality, sadomasochism and other sorts of sexual depravation, as it was seen by most at the time. The hippies sang about peace. The Velvets sang about war in your own backyard. The hippies sang about psychedelic drugs. The Velvets sang about heroin.
Nobody wanted to know.
Only a couple of thousand copies of the first Velvet Underground album was sold back then -- but it's been said that all those who bought it ended up starting a band of their own. Considering the now-acknowledged enormous musical influence of the Velvets, this point might have some validity.
The second Velvet Underground album, White Light/White Heat, was recorded in September 1967, released in January 1968 and sold even less. It came in a totally black cover, with only the band and album names in white lettering. The total ignorance of the mainstream, of record companies and of producers was answered by making the dark and harsh sound of their debut even darker and even harsher.
The album reached levels which were absolutely unheard of at the time, and in some aspects are unequalled to this day. Its sound heralded punk aesthetic many years ahead of its time; the album was an absolutely uncompromising creation, an extraordinarily abrasive, tension-filled record, full of mindnumbing feedback and incessant drones. Its lyrics dealt with dense personal drama, alienation, confusion and despair.
Years later John Cale noticed: "[The second album] was a very rabid record. The first one had some gentility, some beauty. The second one was consciously antibeauty."
Year Zero: Sister Ray
For the finale of White Light/White Heat the Velvets chose a one year old track, which was still in embryo form. The band decided to record it in one take, and to stretch it as far as they possibly could. Two guitars, drums and an organ were used, together with Lou Reed's vocals. No bass guitar. They hit the song hard, right out of the box, each Velvet fighting to be heard over the others, and 17+ minutes later Sister Ray was laid down as it is presented on the album. Legend has it that the sound engineer walked out during the recording, saying "Let me know when it's over".
The song is a smack-fuelled orgy with sailors, drag-queens and all kinds of strange freaks living out their twisted lives to a wall of sound created by using various distortion devices for maximum effect, while the band were playing at their most savage. The song's single chord progression gradually builds up to the war cry of overdriven guitar distortion and fullbore feedback terrorism. It has became a benchmark in sonic excess, an ugly blot of fuzz box angst on the tangerine sunshine canvas of 1967.
Lou Reed, who wrote the lyrics for this story of drug hustles and blowjob jollies, commented: "It's just a parade of New York night denizens. But of course, it's hard to understand a word of it. Which is a shame, because it's really a compressed movie."
The Velvets are dead - long live the Velvets
The White Light/White Heat album entered the USA Billboard 200 chart for just one week, at position 199. The creative, emotional and financial strains of maintaining an outlaw career had left the band exhausted, and half a year later Reed and Cale parted. Sister Ray was their swan song.
On rare occasions in 1968 live shows the Velvets coupled Sister Ray with an extended stream-of-consciousness prelude dubbed Sweet Sister Ray. This freeform jam sometimes ran for 40 minutes.
A few years into the 1970s people like David Bowie had namedropped the Velvets enough times to make them well known in the mainstream. However, critics were praising and people were buying not the first two Velvets albums, but the much more polished Loaded album, together with Lou Reed's solo albums. Among these the most popular was the live Rock'n'Roll Animal which included covers of Velvet Underground songs. In comparison to the Velvet Underground originals, these sounded like Toto running through Adrenochrome. Most people were still not at all aware of the original Sister Ray.
Turn the page, Sister Ray says
At the same time, in the early 1970s, and away from the mainstream more protopunk acts had sprung up in America (the real home of punk), playing music which most people struggled hard not to hear. Their sounds tried to describe the street life of the modern urban wasteland, the black ghettos and the white trailer parks. And from the biggest city of USA came what must have been the most hated band in rock history.
Even at their earliest stage, around 1972, their concerts easily evolved into fulltime riots. More often than not, the musicians were hit and kicked down, and had to leave the stage covered in blood. So obtrusive and claustrophobic were the music of New Yorkers Alan Vega and Martin Rev, also known as Suicide, that the people who happened to find themselves in one of their concerts were willing to go through anything to escape it.
The band was inspired by, among others, the Stooges and New York Dolls, and more than anything else, the song 96 Tears by ? & the Mysterians. (Suicide often played this song live, and Alan Vega once announced to a puzzled audience that this is the US national anthem "whether you know it or not").
No surprise then that Suicide willingly paid tribute to the Velvet Underground by playing their own version of Sister Ray, known as Sister Ray Says. It was an improvisatory creature, like all Suicide's live songs; it consisted of Martin Rev's distorted gonzoid version of the Sister Ray riff backing Alan Vega's frenzied shrieks and minimalist lyrics. Fragments of the Reed lyrics were mixed with whatever Vega felt fitting for describing life in the modern metropolis. Every version was an updated version, and the Suicide creation didn't present the picture of New York 1967 -- it was telling about New York as of (then-)today through the eyes of an experienced street punk.
Once again, nobody wanted to know.
It could be argued that The Sisters of Mercy audiences are occasionally treated not to the Velvet's original but to Suicide's Sister Ray Says -- yet this is probably not a very important discussion. However, it is well known that Suicide is one of Andrew Eldritch's favorite bands, and one that was very important in the original definition of The Sisters of Mercy.
Suicide still occasionally play this song in their gigs. An early example of Sister Ray Says can be found on the album Half Alive (ROIR).
Have a good night
Around 1976 the punk finally reached Britain -- and came in a cartoon-like shape. Most bands tried to shock their audiences with their aesthetics and provoking styles. Many of them succeeded, yet few were really frightening.
Only a handful of bands dared to seek other ways of expressing their alienation, confusion and despair. One of those were Joy Division, who dressed in old black suits instead of stripped union jacks, turned their back to the audience instead of presenting the provoking middle finger and played music and sang lyrics which sounded as coming from within a seriously tormented soul thus expressing angst, as opposed to anger. Their songs sounded both real and frightening.
Joy Division is one of the few (if not the only) late 70s/early 80s British bands that Andrew Eldritch have admitted liking.
No surprise then that they also played the Velvet's Sister Ray: the only performance of it ended a particularly successful night at the Moonlight Club in London on the 3rd of April 1980. It was a dark, monotone version which had singer Ian Curtis mixing lines from the original lyrics with an angst laden and repetitious "Have a good night". Giving the audience disturbing pictures from the dark side of the street only to wish them a good night in an even more disturbing way created a strange and frightening atmosphere.
Did the audience really want to know?
The only Joy Division version of Sister Ray is released on the album Still (Factory).
Epilogue: The Sisters of Mercy
Andrew Eldritch once described his fascination with the Altamont Festival: "If there's a point where the seeds of what we do were sown, it's probably Altamont because it encapsulated everything wonderful at the time -- the good things and the bad things, and a lot of both. It's where the trip turned sour and that's where the best music was."
For me this statement would also serve as a fitting description to "Sister Ray", although originally recorded more than two years before the chaos at Altamont Speedway.
It is in the wake of "Sister Ray" that the bands mentioned above did rise. And it is among these, and obviously a few others, that the Sisters Of Mercy should be placed. No surprise then that Sisters audiences are sometimes rewarded by (or punished with, depending on Your politics) the juggernaut howl that is "Sister Ray".
This webzine copyright © 1997-2005 Andrius Sytas
Credited material copyrighted by stated authors