At seventeen and a half minutes long, it's the most monumental song in the Velvet Underground's catalog and a true tour de force that deserves it's own post. Here's my breakdown of "Sister Ray."
Remember, this was done live – all the band together, not the usual method of recording – in ONE TAKE!
0:00 – 0:16: The Intro. Things start hot right out of the gate with this wonderful fuzzed out chord progression. This is a near perfect sixteen seconds. I dig how it all sounds so good together. Also, remember this cohesion because it's more exception than rule to the song.
0:16 – 0:46: First Verse. We meet Duck and Sally, cooking for the down five. This verse is pretty straightforward, with guitar flourishes after each lyric line.
0:27: Oh, it's that kind of party.
0:31: The first occurence of the refrain "I'm searching for my mainline, I couldn't hit it sideways"
0:43: The first evocation of Sister Ray.
0:46: Lou leads us to first break with "Whip it on 'em"
0:46 – 1:06: Instrumental Break 1. Essentially a guitar solo that sounds a little faster than the other instruments. Not the last instance of shifting tempos.
1:06 – 1:51: Second Verse. We meet Rosie and Miss Rayon. A verse much like the first, though it has an extra stanza.
1:17: I'm always surprised to hear someone didn't like the weather in Carolina. It just doesn't seem possible.
1:36: Mainline #2
1:47: Sister Ray #2
1:50: Lou – "Lay it on 'em"
1:51 – 2:52: Instrumental Break 2. This time the organ is at the forefront, though it sticks with mostly chords.
2:00: I think it's Sterling who does this, but it sounds like he's off in the distance just creating mass amounts of fuzz and feedback
2:20: The organ starts adopting a church / ballgame kind of tone, I love how it grooves.
2:30: That subdued fuzz becomes louder chords, like Sterling re-entered the room.
2:52 – 3:52: Third Verse. Nothing to ruin an orgy like a murder, am I right? We meet Cecil and he's up to no good. In this verse, the guitar sounds a little more frantic in its embellishments and the organ joins in too, after each lyric line once the sailor dies.
3:04: RIP Sailor
3:11: "Oh, man, don't do that. Not on the rug, man."
3:22: The first occurence of the "time-time" / "ding-dong" couplet.
3:36: Mainline #3, with organ, and Lou gets his Porky Pig stammer on for the hitting it sideways bit.
3:48: Sister Ray #3
3:51: Lou – "Hold on…Oh!"
3:52 – 6:35: Instrumental Break 3. The longest interlude yet, and the one where the song irrevocably mutates into something else entirely.
3:59: The guitar and organ are soloing, but the organ really drives this section.
4:14: Organ brings it back to the familiar a little.
4:21: The churchy / ballgame organ bits again too
4:45: Is this it, is it about to go crazy?
5:16: No, false alarm, this seems familiar.
5:27: Hope you didn't get too comfortable, because once it starts speeding up here, the song breaks the gravity of convention and goes off into the ether.
6:02: The organ briefly gives way, but don't be fooled, the song is far from over.
6:14: Around now, things are becoming very different
6:25: Sounds like a different key that the organ is starting to go all over the place in.
6:35 – 7:25: Fourth Verse. Busted! The cops show up. This verse is faster and bears little musical resemblence to the ones that preceded it.
6:40: Edgar Allen Poe "The Raven" reference, perhaps the seed that led to Lou eventually doing a project on the poem.
6:51: "Time-time" / "ding-dong" #2. Not even the police can stop it.
7:04: Mainline #4
7:14: The distinct vocal tic of this verse is Lou's "Oh, just like" said six times.
7:25 – 9:03: Instrumental Break 4. Just strap in for the ride.
7:34: Guitar solo begins.
8:12: This effect of the organ always makes me think of a video game, like Space Invaders or something.
8:19: Guitar scratching starts
8:42: Here, the guitar solo becomes more about hitting a sort of chord/note repeatedly, which actually happened in the last break as well, it was just masked by the organ. Right around the six minute mark if you want to go back and check.
8:53: That video game sound again, this time with some punchy guitar hitting on the upbeat. I like how it sort of interlocks with the other guitar.
9:03 – 9:37: Fifth Verse. This is actually the first verse again, but way more paranoid.
9:12: The "do it" gets repeated like a schizophrenic echo.
9:17: S-s-s-searching for my mainline (#5), with an interesting delivery of "sideways" as side-WAAAAAAAYS.
9:29: "Just like" X 5 but no Sister Ray. I guess by now we get that.
9:37 – 10:20: Instrumental Break 5. This passage leads to another shift, things begin to get more subdued, settling almost into a trance.
9:40: Guitar picks up with a "wall of sound" kind of approach.
9:52: Guitar starts getting drone-y.
10:00: Everything slows down and softens.
10:04: A new riff.
10:13: The repetitive organ "explosion" plus discordant blast begins. It'll last into the coming verse.
10:20 – 11:32: Sixth Verse. A repeat of the second verse, but in this new mode that has a sort of ambient blues vibe. Another subtle difference is that embellishments come after pairs of lyric lines, instead of just one line at a time like they did when we last heard this verse.
10:40: Starts getting bluesy
11:07: Mainline #6 with…
11:13: …the distinct tic of this verse is "Whip it on me, Jim!"
11:22: "Sister Ray." S/he's back!
11:32 – 13:17: Seventh Verse. A return of murderous Cecil as verse 3 is repeated. This mimics what verse 6 does in adding little licks after pairs of lyric lines.
11:40: Organ starts hitting chords and holding them.
11:47: The sailor dies again.
11:59: Something about the way Lou does the carpet bit this time makes me think about Patti Smith and "Land" (definitely a spiritual cousin to this song).
12:13: A little up-and-down blues lick.
12:25: "Time-time" / "ding-dong."
12:26: Now the organ sounds like a tugboat or foghorn.
12:42: Vocal tic on "mainline" (#7) is to draw it way out. Each word lasts several seconds.
13:10: "Just like" X 3 into "Sister Ray."
13:17: Lou – "Now do it to 'em"
13:17 – 16:05: Instrumental Break 6. The last extended musical interlude, once again taking the song to new places. I constantly marvel at how this song evolves because while each part is so different, it all does flow. I wonder how much of this was written and planned ahead of time versus how much of it was just the band locked in on a sudden burst of inspiration and improvisation.
13:17: The organ leads off…
13:25: …but it's not long before the guitar comes back to also solo.
14:04: The organ takes things to another place.
14:11: "Mo Tucker drum fill, go!"
14:25: Heavy percussive guitar here. I assume this has been Sterling and the noodling is Lou.
14:41: The organ changes it up again.
14:51: Things start to speed back up.
15:20: A tasty little blues lick.
15:38: The "rhythm" guitar starts a marching sort of figure that kind of foreshadows the moment when…
15:55: …it'll lock back in with the drums.
16:05: A few snare hits and…
16:06 – 16:46: Eighth Verse. We are ready for the last verse. Which is the first verse. Which was also the fifth verse. Got all that?
16:17: Organ starts echoing a bit of the riff we heard in the early verses after the lyrics.
16:21: "Mainline" #8 and final
16:29: Three more "Just likes"
16:44: A stuttering "Amphetamine!" Not Sister Ray! Or, are they one in the same? Is this an elaborate drug metaphor? Better listen to it again! But wait, just under a minute on this run to go.
16:46 – 17:27: Outro. It had to end sometime, right? Though live versions were known to last 25 to 30 minutes.
16:48: Guitar line emerges for a relaxed, halting solo. The organ, meanwhile, is just noise.
17:13: Let's kick it up for the big finish.
17:20: The final chord.
17:25: And…cut it. A few seconds of silence to take it all in and catch your breath. Whew!
So…who's ready for another go?