Picture the scene: you’ve found yourself the proud owner of a cult hit single. It’s one of those songs that’s at once effortlessly cool and easily accessible, meaning that it will come to wrap its tendrils around the world countless times over, capturing the imaginations of young guitar enthusiasts and aspiring songwriters. Now, imagine this: they’ve all been playing the song wrong for years. Well, Lou Reed knows how you feel. In fact, a few years before his death, the one-time Velvet Underground member sat down with Elvis Costello to set the record straight about the group’s 1970 track Sweet Jane.
The history of ‘Sweet Jane’ is a complex one. It was first released in 1970 on The Velvet Underground’s record Loaded but was later featured, in different forms, on Lou Reed’s Live at Max’s Kansas City (1972) and Rock n Roll Animal (1974). The track was one of the first songs Reed wrote for his bandmates in the Velvets but was only released on their last album, at which point the group was on ther cusp of implosion. Indeed, Lou Reed abandoned his bandmates halfway through recording Loaded, leaving them to complete the partly recorded ‘Sweet Jane’ without him.
The remaining members pruned the track back to its bare bones, cutting away the bridge section entirely. Despite the fact he’d left of his own accord, Reed didn’t like the idea that his song was being tampered with. “I would have stayed with them and showed them what to do, he once recalled. So many years later, Reed had to do the same thing, but this time for the benefit of the innumerable fans who had been playing the evocative central riff wrong for so long.
“I actually did this for Sterling [Morrison] in the Velvet Underground once,” Reed began. “I showed him this and he said, ‘So?’ Anyway, Sweet Jane is the same three chords,” Reed continued, proceeding to strum the main riff on a nearby acoustic.
“Not really,” Reed suddenly interjected, “there’s a secret chord for the chorus.” He then began strumming the same pattern, but with a slight, nearly imperceptible modification that saw him add in a little transitionary chord, a B minor barre chord with all 6 strings pressed firmly down, rather than just the root and the fifth.
“It makes all the difference,” Costello noted, leaving Reed to return once again to the main riff. “I mean there’s so many ways to do it,” he began, unleashing all manner of variations on the central theme. “You know, the hour, the day you recorded it you had this [strums chord] and so that’s the way technically it goes.” Make sure you check out the full video below.