Lou Reed - Metal Machine Music

Kris Needs dissects the beautiful beast...
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In 1975, Lou Reed was the most dangerously fascinating figure in rock ‘n’ roll.

With his old associates Bowie and Iggy having turned respectively into coked-up plastic soul man and aimless junkie, it was down to the Phantom of Rock to fly the flag for the sleazy, pharmaceutically-fuelled wild side in those timid, pre-punk times of prog excess and limpid singer-songwriters.


Reed hated his downered out but highly-successful Sally Can’t Dance album, but nothing could prepare his fans for the ‘methedrine sound poetry’ of 1975’s Metal Machine Music; not unless they were familiar with the dissonant drones of fellow Velvet Underground member John Cale’s time with LaMonte Young’s Dream Syndicate showing on early Velvets pure noise excursions like ‘Loop’ and Lou’s scrabbling guitar onslaughts with Warhol‘s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which he continued through the ear-splitting ‘I Heard Her Call My Name‘ on White Light White Heat.

Reed had been thinking of further exploring the wonderful world of guitar feedback on an album since hearing LaMonte Young in those early days and was so cheesed off with Sally Can’t Dance he set his guitars against the amps in his New York apartment and let fly with unusual tunings and overloading reverb levels, letting the torrential racket vibrate the strings so the guitars seemed to be playing themselves, all captured on a four-track recorder. At the time Reed talked about having to save up for the require technology which he also described in notes he later admitted were fictitious [‘I was out of my mind’].

MMM appeared in July, 1975 as a double album, each side listed as running 16.01 but slightly varying in length, side four a locked groove. It was also released on eight-track cassette and in Quadraphonic sound [which played the stereo version backwards in the rear channels].

On completion, Reed played the results down the phone to a mortified record company exec and said it was his new album. RCA wanted to keep their star happy while releasing the album via its Red Seal classical offshoot, but Reed deemed that elitist, insisting MMM was released on the main label with a Listen First warning on the sleeve [which eventually translated into a small line about the record featuring electronic instrumental music]. At first glance the cover didn’t give anything away about the double album’s contents, showing Lou with his current bleached blonde and leather look.

This writer knew what was coming and, being a big fan of both Lou and rampant feedback, willingly forked out on day of release for what was essentially four sides of coruscating, nerve-shredding sonic assault; ultimate provocation to many but, underneath everything, Lou in the raw and right back in the uncompromising spirit of the original Velvet Underground. Under the right circumstances, MMM revealed a barrage of textures and jagged melodic fanfares colliding in the melee. For annoying the guy next door with his Eagles albums it was unbeatable and I was with Lester Bangs, who described it as a ‘genius’ move. He was pretty alone though as the album incurred a spectacularly vicious barrage of flak from a bemused, hostile press, making comparisons to dentist’s drills and galactic refrigerators. Even recently, the album ranks in flippant worst album lists. Many critics dismissed the album as a giant ‘fuck you’ from a man not known for polite conversation [but renowned for disdain of journalists]. There were thousands of cases of fans buying MMM then returning it in horror, leaving RCA forced to apologise to shops now boycotting their releases [and deleting the album after three weeks]. Reed was unrepentant, declaring, ‘The worse the albums were the more they sold, so I decided to put a stop to it‘ and ‘Metal Machine Music was my first and last sentence.’ In a vaguely reconciliatory gesture, he followed it with the intimate songs of Coney Island Baby, but shortly after left the label.

Over the years, MMM’s status has changed from two-fingered folly to a work of great influence which would be crucially-influential on the acceptance of noise and even ambient, Throbbing Gristle and the industrial movement, while clearing the decks for New York to rise again [Lou already sported the image on the sleeve]. It should be up there with Cage, Stockhausen, Riley and other minimalist composers, which shows how that camp can be picky too.

MMM has since been sampled by Sonic Youth on Brave Men Run [In My Family] on Bad Moon Rising, also proving a great influence on Lee Renaldo’s solo work in his use of feedback and locked grooves. German industrialists Die Krupps named a single after it and it was adapted note-for-note by German acoustic ensemble Zeitkratzer.

Now it’s time for MMM to surface again, Reed having remastered it for double gatefold vinyl, audio DVD and Blu-ray. Also released is The Creation Of The Universe by Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Trio, which features the man handling guitars and electrics alongside Ulrich Krieger [tenor sax, live electronics] and Sarth Calhoun [live processing, continuum fingerboard], taking MMM’s original compositional ethic to spectacular new heights.

This lineup will be playing three UK gigs as part of a European tour in April: Cambridge Junction [17]; Oxford Academy [18] and the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank, as part of the Ether Festival [19].

Check here for availability and tickets for Lou Reed's Metal Machine Trio performance at the Ether Festival 2010.

Words by Kris Needs

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