In a Nutshell
Drugs and rock n' roll. In the minds of many early critics, they went together so naturally that they formed – along with sex, of course – a kind of unholy trinity of moral decay and musical danger.
Now that we're half a century into the rock revolution and Western Civilization hasn't crashed into mayhem, it's probably fair to say that those fears were a little bit overblown. That said, drugs (and sex) have
played a big role in rock's history. And while most songs about
drugs are rather lame – "White Lines," anyone? – this one is, in a word, harrowing. To hear this song is to feel
heroin addiction, the exhilaration of its highs and the world-destroying oblivion of its lows. Something quite distinct from the escapism that has often marked rock n' roll, "Heroin" brings a devastating dose of stark realism. It may not be too pleasant to listen to (especially toward the end) – but then that's exactly the point, isn't it?
About the Song
|Artist||The Velvet Underground
||Musician(s)||Lou Reed (vocals, guitar), Maureen Tucker (drums), John Cale (electric viola), Sterling Morrison (guitar)
|Album||The Velvet Underground & Nico|
Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
The Velvet Underground's "Heroin," released in 1967, marked something of a turning point in both the history of drugs in America
and the history of rock n' roll
. As the tumultuous 1960s advanced toward the even more fragmented 1970s, more and more young people began moving from "soft" drugs like marijuana toward the hard stuff, like heroin. Cities began to worry about being overrun by "junkies." The government started moving toward the official launch of the "war on drugs" (which came in 1971).
Meanwhile, in rock music, the happy-go-lucky themes of an earlier era began to give way to heavier material. The Velvet Underground helped to pave the way for every dark, brooding musical artist who followed. Not to mention every heroin-afflicted rock star, from Kurt Cobain to Amy Winehouse. For better or worse, the themes first explored here – "I'm gonna try to nullify my life" – remain powerfully relevant today.
On the Charts
"Heroin" was never released as a single, and did not chart.
Nevertheless, Rolling Stone
magazine named "Heroin" the 448th greatest song of all time in its "500 Greatest Songs of All Time." Mental Floss
called "Heroin" one of the 10 songs that changed the world. The Velvet Underground & Nico
was virtually ignored on its first release, peaking at #171 on the Billboard 200.
Regardless, The Velvet Underground & Nico
was also named the thirteenth greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone