One of the rare things that can be said with any confidence about The Velvet Underground is that the New York avant-garde rockers were a little too ahead of the curve. Dressed in black from head to foot, Lou Reed, John Cale, Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison stood in stark contrast to the flower-power pop stars that dominated the airwaves in the 1960s.
Despite The Velvets’ belief that they were creating something fresh and vital, the West Coast overlords found their gnarled sound to be the very antithesis of good music – good being a byword for marketable in this case. No, it wouldn’t be until the rise of punk that The Velvet Underground’s influence would be felt in any meaningful way. This rare recording of Joy Divison performing the White heat/White light track ‘Sister Ray’ gives a remarkable insight into how they came to inform the sound of post-punk.
The songs that a band chooses to cover are, more often than not, a good indication of their influences. ‘Sister Ray’ was certainly a fitting choice for Joy Divison, a group whose blend of angular post-punk contains much of The Velvets’ DNA. Peter Hook’s minimalistic, crystalline guitar lines, for example, could easily have come from Sterling Morrison, while Ian Curtis’ confessional lyrics reflect the same desire to escape oneself that dominate Lou Reed’s notebooks. The original song by The Velvets feels more like a track from The Jesus And Mary Chain than it does a band working in the midst of the hippie movement. It’s a fizz-driven masterpiece of warped blues songwriting; 17 minutes of unrelenting Booker T-infused carnage. And it’s bloody brilliant.
Joy Divison made the smart move to cut those 17 minutes down to five while amping up the bass and removing any unnecessary guitar twiddling. In this live cover, Joy Divison take post-punk minimalism to its logical conclusion, pruning the densest leaves to reveal the original track’s dark, pulsating heart before ripping into a freak-out of dissonant feedback. It’s proof of Joy Division’s remarkable ability to alternate between order and chaos at the drop of a hat, a wonderfully poetic reflection of Ian Curtis’ own unstable mental state.
Joy Division wasn’t the only band to be inspired by The Velvet Underground. Througout the late 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, countless groups adopted The Velvets’ outsider sound and re-shaped it in their own image, blending it with other influences to create an array of astonishing new sub-genres such as shoegaze, goth and noise rock. Well into the 2000s, the music world was still fascinated by The Velvet Underground’s enigmatic aura and provocative style, with bands such as The Strokes lifting much of their aesthetic from their fellow New York rockers. But, as this live recording demonstrates, there are few bands that have come as close to capturing the otherworldly charm of The Velvet Underground as Joy Division.
Check out their cover of ‘Sister Ray’ below.