|Illustration by Gina Triplett|
In the 25 years since it was first released, Metal Machine Music has manifested itself more frequently as a form of critical epithet than it has as a musical work. Lou Reed’s two-LP, 64-minute noise suite in four movements has come to represent, in the view of many, a certain type of unlistenable self-indulgence. Now, handsomely reissued on CD (after years out of print) in a jazzily designed, slipcased, individually numbered edition, MMM reveals itself anew as an entertainingly multileveled record — at once a brazen joke, a bold record-biz fuckjob and a literally dizzying art-rock challenge.
It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with its creator’s spiky temperament that the making of MMM was animated by Lou Reed’s anger and disgust. In 1975, the onetime guitarist-vocalist and putative leader of the Velvet Underground was at the height of his success as a solo artist. After breaking into the Top 20 in 1972 with the David Bowie–produced album Transformer, Reed worked at a burnout clip, and issued in quick succession the creepily elegant song cycle Berlin, the forceful live album Rock n Roll Animal (and a sequel, Lou Reed Live), and the grotesque collection Sally Can’t Dance, which actually managed to reach the national Top 10.
Most labels would consider Reed’s track record not too shabby for a guy whose songs usually focused on such subjects as drug addiction, shock treatment and suicide. But his voracious label, RCA, demanded still more product. So the put-upon Reed hit on an original notion of vengeance: To feed RCA’s marketing maw, he would deliver an album that was basically unmarketable. And, in the spring of ’75, Reed sat down in his apartment with his guitar, his amps and a four-track Uher tape machine and created Metal Machine Music.
People who ignored MMM’s subtitle, “An Electronic Instrumental Composition,” might have been conned into thinking the record was just another Reed rock opus by its cover photo, a concert shot of Lou in studded black leather, hair dyed maize yellow and nails painted jet black. But the average fan could only scream in horror when confronted with the unrelenting cacophony lurking inside the sleeve. Atop sheets of massively sustained chords, a roiling vortex of roaring feedback, circuitry squeals and varispeeded, reversed barrages of notes — recorded with maximum stereo separation for a head-shredding effect — pummeled the listener over the course of four 16-minute sides. (The CD reissue doesn’t attempt to replicate the vinyl version’s coup de grâce: side four’s locked runoff groove, which would endlessly play a scream of feedback until the tone arm was lifted.)
In his astute notes for the reissue, David Fricke rightly states, “To truly love Metal Machine Music, you have to learn to laugh with it.” Beyond any doubt, one has to be able to appreciate the humor in the blather and mock-scientific mumbo-jumbo of Reed’s liner notes, and the sheer over-the-top chutzpah of the endeavor. (One also has to be able to enjoy the multiplied ironies of the current release — the pretentious packaging of these living-room recordings, and the fact that the album is being issued by a company that, in another lifetime, specialized in bubble-gum music.) Certainly, the late rock critic Lester Bangs, the set’s greatest champion, saw the humor in MMM; his 1976 Creem exegesis “The Greatest Album Ever Made” mocks the record even as it exalts its mean-spirited DIY resourcefulness.
But, as loopy as it is, Metal Machine Music must also be considered in light of the serious experimental musics that Reed embraced as the bedrock for his work in the Velvet Underground. One can’t take his MMM liner-note citation of La Monte Young’s inspiration as mere japery, despite the fact that he misspells the composer’s name; the New York drone-music overlord’s work with the Dream Syndicate, an early-’60s collective that also included the Velvets’ John Cale and the band’s founding drummer, Angus MacLise, among its members, had an unmistakable impact on MMM’s uncompromising sonic blitz. (Those seeking evidence are directed to Inside the Dream Syndicate, Volume 1: Day of Niagara , a recent quasi-legal release of one overamped live performance by the Young-Cale-MacLise unit, issued by Table of the Elements.) While Reed was unquestionably giving his label the ol’ razzoo by crafting a work with zippo commercial potential, he was also undoubtedly flexing his art-music chops by pushing the most punishing aspects of electric-guitar manipulation (as opposed to guitar playing) to their limits.
So, Metal Machine Music may be infuriating, perverse, excessive, and even potentially harmful to those subject to seizures, but it’s hardly worthless, and it’s due a fresh reconsideration. However, we recommend CAUTION! in the use of headphones, and babies and household pets should not suffer prolonged exposure to MMM’s extravagant, damaging tones.
LOU REED | Metal Machine Music | (Buddha)