The Original vs. The Cover – “Heroin”

For this episode of The Original vs. The Cover, we are going to talk about the song “Heroin” by the band The Velvet Underground. The song is off their 1967 debut album ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico” which I reviewed a few weeks back. The Cover version we will be bouncing up against the Original is by Billy Idol off his 1993 album ‘Cyberpunk’ which I have also reviewed on this site.

The song was written by Lou Reed and produced by Andy Warhol. That combination has to produce something interesting. And I am sure this is a shocker, but the song is about drug use. I know, I know, stunned right? According to Reed when he was working as a songwriter for a record company, the song was written when he was told to go in to a room and write some some surfing songs, well this is what came out. I think he missed the point and thankfully for us, he did. The song doesn’t condone or condemn drug use and seems to be about the effects of drug use. Whatever the meaning, the song works on so many levels.

We will go through each song and then at the end, I will tell you who I think has the better song…and it isn’t always the original which is why I like doing these posts. So sit back and enjoy.

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND

The song starts off slowly with Reed on guitar and singing softly. As the song continues, more instruments join in including John Cale on his electric viola, Sterling Morrison on guitar and Maureen Tucker on drums. The tempo builds until we get to the crescendo where the build up delivers a hell of a punch. Then it goes back to the original tempo and repeats itself over and over. Reed’s vocals become more urgent as well with the increased tempo and you feel the stress in his vocals to an almost panic feel. It is fantastic. With all the distortion and noises it seems like there is no method to the madness, but that is the brilliance I found in the music. The madness at the end is nothing short of genius and then to end how it began is magic.

There is a point in the song where the drummer, Maureen, stops drumming as things were so loud she couldn’t hear anything. She figured everyone else would stop and no one did. She quickly started back drumming. It was a mistake, but it is what also adds to the greatness of the song. From what I understand there are only 2 real chords used in the song (Gb and Db) so it is pretty simple, but sometimes simple is good…or great in this case.

BILLY IDOL

Billy Idol took the song and turned it on its ass and danced it up in full on techno glory.  It is almost unrecognizable from the original.  Wait, no it is completely unrecognizable. It is techno so full of bass, electronic drums and all sorts of keyboards. Billy seems to speak the vocals more than sing in a similar way that Lou did. The biggest difference is that Billy adds the line “Jesus Died for Somebody’s Sins, but not Mine” which is from the song “Gloria’ by Patti Smith. The line is repeated throughout the song and adds a completely different vibe to the song. If you’ve heard Billy Idol’s remix albums you will get an idea of what the song sounds like.

The intent and real meaning of the song are completely lost. It doesn’t mean it is a bad song, it means that the two songs are so far apart that you would never know this is a cover. As a Billy Idol song, it is actually a good song with some dance grooves and I can’t say it is a typical Idol song because the album ‘Cyberpunk’ is his most daring and different album he has ever done and this song showcases it very well. I honestly have a hard time comparing the two songs as the differences are so great.

THE VERDICT

The choice on this is real easy for me. The Velvet Underground version of “Heroin” is the clear winner. Even though the song is out there like Billy’s is out there, the real meaning of the song, the heart, the soul is all there. Billy’s verison has no heart and any true meaning of the song is completely lost. It sounds like he might’ve been doing some heroin while recording it. The VU version is better all around, Lou’s vocals have more emotion, more raw feelings and you can feel the urgency in his delivery. The song makes you feel something. Billy’s makes you want to dance. There is so much strangeness in the original in such a good way that I don’t know why I loved it so as it goes on for over 7 minutes that seems to fly by because with each crescendo you get lost again in the song and time has no meaning.

I am really interested in hearing what everyone else thinks of these two songs.  Let me know which version you like the best and why.  Feel free to leave a comment and talk about the song and tell me how right or wrong I am on this one.  Thanks for stopping by and have a great day.

Lyrics:

“Heroin”

I don’t know just where I’m going
But I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can
‘Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man
When I put a spike into my vein
And I tell you things aren’t quite the same

When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’ son
And I guess that I just don’t know
And I guess that I just don’t know

I have made big decision
I’m gonna try to nullify my life
‘Cause when the blood begins to flow
When it shoots up the dropper’s neck
When I’m closing in on death

You can’t help me now, you guys
And all you sweet girls with all your sweet talk
You can all go take a walk
And I guess I just don’t know
And I guess that I just don’t know

I wish that I was born a thousand years ago
I wish that I’d sailed the darkened seas
On a great big clipper ship
Going from this land here to that
In a sailor’s suit and cap

Away from the big city
Where a man cannot be free
Of all the evils of this town
And of himself and those around
Oh, and I guess that I just don’t know
Oh, and I guess that I just don’t know

Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life
Because a mainline into my vein
Leads to a center in my head
And then I’m better off than dead

Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don’t care anymore
About all the Jim-Jims in this town
And all the politicians making crazy sounds
And everybody putting everybody else down
And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds

‘Cause when the smack begins to flow
And I really don’t care anymore
Ah, when that heroin is in my blood
And that blood is in my head
Then thank God that I’m as good as dead
And thank your God that I’m not aware
And thank God that I just don’t care
And I guess I just don’t know
Oh, and I guess I just don’t know

Written by Lou Reed

32 thoughts on “The Original vs. The Cover – “Heroin”

  1. Billy’s version sounds like it should be called “Ecstasy.” It’s just odd, man. Definitely prefer the original. The VU version is tuned down a half step to better accommodate John Cale’s viola. So it’s a normal I-IV progression in D major tuned down to Db major. Lou used the I-IV a lot. See also “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Doin’ The Things That We Want To,” and several others.

    The best cover of this song is the one Lou did with Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner on Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal. Gonzo guitar goodness, but with the dynamics intact. I still prefer the original because it’s more evocative, dirty, grimy.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Eh. That Billy Idol version is something else. It’s not bad… just bizarre. It’s like M. People meets Bjork meets 2 Unlimited meets Radiator. It’s outright bizarre. Very much of it’s time. So aye, VU all the way.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. While you’re at it hear the whole album. It’s rock ‘n’ roll mayhem featuring 4/5 of Alice Cooper’s future Welcome to My Nightmare band.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. 2 of my favorites! Since I’m more into Lou solo I’m gonna go with the living one so Billy it is. Need to dig up Cyberpunk. Remember when this came out it was a wonder they didn’t just hand it out for free since no one was buying it or so it seemed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I prefer Billy’s voice to Lous voice but I also didn’t like Billy’s electronica period either.
    I think Bowie might have taken some of the vocal phrasing for “Heroes”. Listen to the first few lines, when Lou sings I and then holds it and then does a few more words.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is very possible. They were big fans of each others. I prefer Billy’s voice as well, but his version is so, so different to be nice. It actually works with the album Cyberpunk, but when butt up against the original…ummm…no.

      Liked by 2 people

              1. I would go the untitled sofa one first – with Candy says and Pale blue eyes, followed by the perfect pop song album with sweet jane on it – loaded after that. Enjoy the best band of all time!

                Like

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