More of an urban legend than a recording that people listen to in any conventional sense, Lou Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music may be the most uncompromising album in the annals of “rock” history. It consists entirely of shrieking guitar feedback and high-pitched processed electronic noise. In its original vinyl form, each of its four sides ending with an abrupt tape slice at a listed time sixteen minutes and one second. With this work, Reed took the concept of “full artist control” to its defiant extreme, although exactly why has been the subject of a decades-long debate. Was it a giant F-U to RCA Records, who was pushing him to release a new record when he felt he wasn’t ready? Was it an earnest tribute to electronic music pioneers like LaMonte Young? A perverse attempt at career suicide? During his lifetime, Reed variously implied “yes” to the first two questions (while many pundits in 1975 suggested the third), the real motives behind this sonic assault may never be fully resolved. All for the better: both reviled and revered for pretty much the same reason—namely, that it ever saw the light of day bearing the imprint of one of the world’s biggest record companies—Metal Machine Music remains one of rock’s great conversation pieces, even if the number of folks who have listened to all sixty-four minutes could fit comfortably inside a minivan.
If you want to claim a place inside that minivan, here’s your chance.
Of course, Reed was no stranger to controversy before this. He was a primary figure in the Velvet Underground, the legendary band that countered the prevailing Aquarian ethos of the late 1960s with odes to heroin, S&M and the gritty New York City demimonde in general—pre-figuring punk by a full decade. Anyone that’s heard the atonal rave-up at the end of their first album, or the transgressive 17-minute anti-epic “Sister Ray” on their second, knew that Reed was an envelope pusher. But that stuff sounded like the Carpenters compared to MMM, where the last vestiges of actual music was swept away in favor of pure ear-splitting white noise. Reed took variously-tuned guitars, set them to face directly into their own amps, then fed the resulting feedback into a self-generating loop of reverb, ring oscillators and God knows what-all, then mixed it for maximum effect. The media response was swift in coming though not all had the expected reaction of scorn or disbelief, as seen in the initial Creem magazine review.
In a rebuttal review for the March 1976 issue of Creem, uber-critic Lester Bangs called it “the greatest album ever made” (his Number Two? Kiss Alive!, of course) and listed 17 reasons to back up his assertion. These included the album’s handy application as a “guaranteed lease-breaker” or as a way to “clear all the crap out of your head.” Metal Machine Music became a bit of an obsession with Bangs who, like Reed, was apt to stretch the boundaries of his chosen craft. In the same magazine a month before, in a piece called “How to Succeed in Torture Without Really Trying”, the two of them tangled in an interview where Reed shifted effortlessly from monster to mensch, while making a series of outlandish claims about a record he thought was one of his best. Supposedly there are sections of MMM where there are 7,000 different melodies going on at once (anyone care to count?) and Reed also insisted he wedged snippets of Bach, Vivaldi and Beethoven into this unholy squall. A little more plausible is the assertion that he snuck onto the record “dangerous frequencies” banned by the FCC, which likely had a subliminal appeal to the “hate buffs” and “drug-numbed weirdos” that Bangs saw as the albums natural constituency.
Lou and the Metal Machine trio, performing in 2010.
Love it or hate it, it’s clear that in his own way Reed took this work seriously even if he couldn’t always bring himself to say so at the time. Nowadays, when anything this radical wouldn’t rise head high above the underground (never mind emanate from a major artist on the imprint of a media conglomerate) MMM will always get its props in certain circles. When pop mediocrity is usually what one gets from the “major artists” ruling what is left of the charts, the creative audacities of a lost era become greatly enhanced. Even Reed’s Berlin, his 1973 exquisite downer of a concept album about doomed junkie lovers (which upset Rolling Stone’s reviewer so much that he professed a desire to kill its maker) is now performed as if in repertory and made into a concert film. Metal Machine Music is too wickedly spontaneous to get that treatment, though in 2010 Reed did perform with an avant combo called the Metal Machine Trio, inspired by you-know-what. Like the endless locked groove its maker slyly worked into the end of side four of the original vinyl edition, this work has stubbornly held its ground and been reflected in the noisy experiments of everyone from Neil Young and Crazy Horse to Sonic Youth to Radiohead. It has thrived in the Internet age, bringing out the wise guy in everyone. YouTube comments range from “Does anyone have this transcribed for ukulele” to “Kids today don’t understand great music like this.” Middle-aged respectability is probably something Reed never expected for this record when he foisted it on world so long ago.