It’s probably cool now – in fact I know that it’s regarded as pioneering, it’s also been performed (in tribute) by large ensembles. There’s an official orchestra version. But that was never Lou Reed’s plan. And the album Metal Machine Music still exists as shorthand for Belligerent Artist Does Whatever The Fuck He Wants.
I read about MMM before I heard it. I read a bunch of Lou Reed biographies – because as a teenager I very quickly became obsessed. I had Lou Reed T-shirts and posters. I had a couple of VHS tapes. I had dubbed cassettes and later CDs. I had the boxset. And I was collecting the Velvet Underground CDs as and when I found them – there was a time when things like this were hard to find, people.
But Lou Reed’s solo career was the thing for me. Back then. I’m more a VU guy if anything now – but in the 90s it was all about Lou. And I was collecting everything.
So when I read about Metal Machine Music – and you had to read about it before hearing it back then – I was intrigued. Four sides of a double album (or four 16 minute tracks on a single CD) that looped feedback and had no lyrics, no beat, no groove, no discernible single melody or real thread to it. For all intensive purposes…this was NOISE. Not even pure, unfiltered noise. Manipulated, messy noise.
I was diving in.
In a move that was nowhere near as stubborn as anything Reed did but was clearly inspired by the man himself, I pretty much decided that I would be liking Metal Machine Music. One of the bios told me that pretty much no one had listened to it right through. And certainly not more than once. So that was my goal. To listen through. And more than once.
The day I found a copy of the album in a CD store I felt like shouting eureka. I took it home and felt like shouting something else the moment the disc hit the tray and the assault of processed feedback-guitars hit my ears. But I stayed.
I made it through a first listen – and onto a second. I then made it my alarm for most of my final year at high school. I had a stereo that let you wake up to whatever you wanted, tape, CD or radio – I would load in the MMM disc and have the rudest awakening – it was a good way to get up and turn off the “music” and get started on the day. As I got more used to it I’d have a wee lie-in and listen for a while.
One thing that MMM did for me was prepare me and introduce me to the world of noise as music.
A couple of years on, and living in Wellington, I’m starting going to noise and improv gigs. I’m listening to the weirder things that Sonic Youth members are offering on the side. And through them and the labels associated I’m finding my way to all sorts of things. Heroes old and new – names I’d heard of but never heard from. And plenty of first-time things. Some of them only-time things.
Marc Ribot and Ornette Coleman and Audible3 and Dead C and Steve Lacy and Joe Morris and David S. Ware and Gastr del Sol and Aphex Twin and Autechre are just a few of the things I can think of straight away that I might never have heard – or might never have rather quickly understood – were it not for my immersion into the world of Metal Machine Music.
I’m listening to it now and it makes a whole lot of sense. It’s awful. And so many people have decided to never listen to it just from hearing about it and others have heard a snippet only and gone “That’s enough!”
But for me it was an eye-opener and a world-opener.
I can play it now and then – right through – still. And marvel. The career-suicide of it is hilarious. The petulance. But also you listen and it’s like seeing the picture under the picture in a scribble pattern. You start to notice ugly/beautiful melodies in and around and under the squall.
Reed would revisit this – in tranquil mode – near the end of his career with his Hudson River Wind Meditations. And of course more directly with his Creation of the Universe and named Metal Machine Trio. Unreal to think. Back in the mid-70s when he was just trying to piss everyone off he created something that became a weird and wild and wonderful gateway. And that gave him the eventual platform of being considered an avant-garde composer.
Well, you wouldn’t read about it…