Saturday, August 13, 2011

Lou Reed 6: Metal Machine Music

Speed and alcohol are a dangerous mix, so we’re told, and perhaps it took a well-read individual like Lou Reed, who purported to keep a copy of the Physician’s Desk Reference around to consult on what he was ingesting, to survive such fuel and maintain a career. Being a staunch contrarian, he also seemed determined to deflect any false praise that came his way.
Metal Machine Music helped to accomplish that. Over an hour of multi-tracked guitar feedback filling four sides of vinyl, this album was either a middle finger to his label and the unsuspecting public, an advanced musical experiment that said public was too stupid to comprehend, or an expensive joke. (Actually, considering that the recording costs amounted to whatever the master tape cost plus the electricity consumed, it was easily his cheapest album to produce.) At various times, both upon release and in retrospect, Lou insisted that classical motifs were hidden within the frequencies, and that he wanted it to be released on Red Seal, RCA’s classical arm.
Despite the rock star pose, the cover proclaims it to be “an electronic instrumental composition”, and lists the equipment involved on the back. But make no mistake: this is an album of feedback, recorded at various speeds and mixed in stereo. Of all the people on the planet who have claimed to have listened to the whole thing—and your humble correspondent has, if only to complete this review (thanks, Spotify!), and we did notice something like a classical melody seven minutes into side three—the only two claims that cannot be refuted are those of Lou himself, though he could’ve left the room at any time whilst recording or mixing, and Bob Ludwig, who had the privileged task of mastering it for release.
There are much more palatable recordings that incorporate feedback than Metal Machine Music, and noise rock remains a viable genre today. Just ask any fans of Sonic Youth or Limp Bizkit. The album has its fans, not least of them Lester Bangs, and it was even given an official CD release on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. Sadly, digital technology could not replicate the original fourth side’s locked groove, which kept the sound going ad infinitum, or until the needle was lifted.

Lou Reed Metal Machine Music (1975)—1

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