From Rolling Stone:
This seven-minute, two-chord track on the Velvet Underground‘s first album spiked out its territory with lyrics about shooting up until you felt like Jesus’ son. It gave the Velvets their dark image as New York decadents. “Heroin” speeds up and slows down, becoming a whirling spectacle of guitars and viola. “It wasn’t pro or con,” Reed said. “It was just about taking heroin from the point of view of someone taking it. I’m still not sure what was such a big deal. So there’s a song called ‘Heroin.’ So what?” Drummer Moe Tucker disagreed: “I consider it our greatest triumph.”
“Heroin” was among a three-song set to be re-recorded at T.T.G. Studios, Hollywood before being included on the final release of The Velvet Underground & Nico (along with “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Venus in Furs“). This recording of the song would be the album’s second longest at 7 minutes and 12 seconds, being eclipsed only by “European Son” by about thirty seconds.
“Heroin” begins slowly with Lou Reed’s quiet, melodic guitar and hypnotic drum patterns by Maureen Tucker, soon joined by John Cale‘s droning electric viola and Sterling Morrison‘s steady rhythm guitar. The tempo increases gradually, mimicking the high the narrator receives from the drug, until a frantic crescendo is reached, punctuated by Cale’s shrieking viola and the more punctuated guitar strumming of Reed and Morrison. Tucker’s drumming becomes hurried and louder. The song then slows to the original tempo, and repeats the same pattern before ending.
The song is based on D♭ and a G♭ major chords. Like “Sister Ray“, it features no bass guitar; Reed and Morrison use chords and arpeggios to create the song’s trademark sound. Rolling Stone magazine said “It doesn’t take much to make a great song,” since the song only featured two chords.
Maureen Tucker actually got lost during the recording and stopped drumming for several moments in the middle of the song before picking up the beat again. This coincidental pause came at a dramatic shift in the song, however, and her “mistake” remains an essential element of the song.
In 1966, when the Byrds‘ “Eight Miles High” and Bob Dylan‘s “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” were generating no small controversy for daring to flirt with the subject of recreation drug use, the Velvet Underground crossed a then-unthinkable threshold and began performing a song called “Heroin.” Actually, Lou Reed had written the song in 1964 while still a songwriter for hire for Pickwick Records, but his employers were understandably wary about allowing him to record it, and it wasn’t until the Velvet Underground began performing in late 1965 that the song made its public debut. While “Heroin” hardly endorses drug use, it doesn’t clearly condemn it, either, which made it all the more troubling in the eyes of many listeners; at a time when marijuana was still legally classified as a narcotic, the notion of a rock & roll song discussing a dangerous drug without openly condemning it was practically the same thing as a ringing endorsement. Musically, “Heroin” was every bit as challenging as it was thematically; few rock songs of the period made better or more intelligent use of dynamics, and the slow build through the verses into the manic frenzy of the song’s conclusion sounded like nothing else in rock music at the time. In addition, John Cale’s screeching, atonal viola helped introduce the use of serious dissonance to pop music; along with Roger McGuinn‘s guitar breaks in “Eight Miles High,” it was one of the first examples of the lessons of free jazz or the avant-garde finding a willing student in rock music. While Lou Reed’s solo recording of the song on the live album Rock n Roll Animal smoothed out a few of the rough edges, even in its meekest recorded version the song remained a dark and troubling masterpiece.