Sister Ray is the final track on The Velvet Underground’s sophomore record, White Light/White Heat. As such, it is interesting in that it represents the band reaching the end of its original, strongest line up (provided we ignore the earlier presence of German chanteuse Nico). While John Cale has always been important to the band’s identity and style, and is style dominated on numbers such as The Black Angel’s Death Song and The Gift, Sister Ray represents him at both the peak of his influence and powers. It is widely considered that the timeless energy of the first two Velvets records is a product of the tensions and contradictions between Lou Reed and Cale, and Sister Ray epitomises this. On the one hand, Sister Ray is the perfect Reed song. A few rather simple chords blasted out with volume and distortion, and a lyrical collage of sex, drugs and death (Reed’s preoccupations rarely change). Where it thirteen minutes shorter, quieter, more polite and better produced, it would have been the perfect radio song, in the model of Sweet Jane. It also contains the best and worst of John Cale. It exemplifies what many detest in Cale’s work… atonality, rejection of traditional song writing, a seeming eagerness to irreparably damage the eardrums of the listener. What of course we must remember is that this is not due to any musical ignorance on Cale’s part, in fact the opposite. It his classical training and intuitive understanding of what makes “good” music that allows him to subvert expectations so effectively. And herein lies what makes Cale so special, and why the The Velvet Underground never really replaced him. Whereas many in the later punk movement (of which Reed and Cale may rightly be considered founding fathers) felt the trappings and rules of pop and rock music to be irrelevant, Cale’s knowledge and abuse of these rules is what makes his music so intrinsically exciting.
On a much sadder note, when the distortion finally fades out at the end of Sister Ray, we are listening to the exact moment when The Velvet Underground “Jump The Shark”. As you have probably guessed, I would argue that the loss of John Cale was the primary reason for this, although replacing him with Doug Yule (the worst thing to happen to a band since Yoko Ono) compounded matters. Which is to mean no disrespect to the Velvets' third and fourth albums, The Velvet Underground and Loaded. They are both excellent pop records, and had they been produced by say, and The Mammas And The Papas or, dare I say, The Beach Boys, as opposed to the pioneers of punk and alternative rock, they would be universally lauded and fondly remembered.