NOTATION - When I started the Velvet Underground and it's various springoffs, my concern was not, as was assumed, abidingly lyrical, verbally oriented at heart, 'head' rock, the exploration of various 'taboo' subjects, drugs, sex, violence
-From the cover of Metal Machine Music
Many of you are undoubtedly familiar with Lou Reed, lead vocalist of seminal art-rockers the Velvet Underground and a rock icon in his own right. After changing rock 'n roll forever with the Velvets, Lou went on to pursue a solo career fraught with both brilliant moments and embarrasing failures.
After his 1972 self-titled debut failed commercially, Reed turned to the androgynous glam-rock stylings of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. His second release, Transformer, was produced by Bowie and Spiders guitarist Mick Ronson. Transformer revived Lou's career, gave him his biggest hit single to date ("Take a Walk on the Wild Side") and established his musical direction for several years to come. A more serious follow-up effort, Berlin, was panned by critics and stateside record buyers alike. Reed then spent the next few years living out his drugged-up, glam punk image with live albums such as Rock 'n Roll Animal, and the flaccid but commercially successful studio release Sally Can't Dance.
By this time, Lou Reed was dealing with legal complications, a critical public, and a record label that demanded more product. Feeling frustrated, Lou set out to unleash an unprecedented and controversial album.
Metal Machine Music was released on an unsuspecting public in the summer of 1975. The album featured a tough, leather-jacketed Reed on the cover and a cool-sounding title. Many fans at the time unwittingly bought the album, thinking it to be another Lou Reed glam-rock release. Instead, the listener was treated to four sides of squealing, chaotic and unlistenable feedback. The album reportedly sold 100,000 copies, many of which were returned to the record store by angry buyers.
Lou created the album by leaning two guitars against two gigantic amplifiers. By experimenting with guitar tuning, reverb, and recording speed, Reed managed to create a variety of high-pitched squeals, distortions and shimmering waves of feedback. These sounds, randomly layered atop one another, create a cacophonous, confrontational and virtually unlistenable wall of noise. Strict stereo seperation was maintained, creating an almost schizophrenic effect with different sounds emanating from each speaker. This non-stop experimentation continues for over an hour, split up into four 16-minute segments which differ little in their basic composition.
The biggest question is why Lou made this album in the first place. Several theories have emerged. Number one, Lou was reportedly pissed at his record label. RCA was demanding yet another release after the commercial success of Sally Can't Dance. Contractually bound to release anything that Lou gave them, RCA had no choice but to put out Metal Machine Music despite their misgivings. (This incident led to the provision, common in record contracts today, that stipulates an artist must create works of "significant commercial potential") RCA briefly considered releasing it under their Red Seal imprint for classical releases, but instead dressed it up as another rock release and sent it out to stores. According to Reed, "There was supposed to be a big warning on it - 'Has no songs, no vocals'. Somewhere that got lost."
Theory number two is that Lou was probably pissed off at his fans. His most laborious musical efforts were undervalued, and Reed had since resorted to pandering to his fans' perception of him as a drugged-out, trashy street punk. He was notorious for his depictions(?) of shooting heroin onstage, and his androgynous tough-guy persona came off as provocative and outrageous. The unexpected release of such an difficult, experimental album after his biggest commercial success to date seems to confirm the suspicion that he was trying to surprise and anger his fans. In the album's liner notes, Lou acknowledges the blatantly non-commercial quality of Metal Machine Music and seems to lament the quality of his earlier albums:
"One of the peripheral effects, typically distorted, was what was to become known as heavy metal rock. In Reality, it was of course diffuse, obtuse, weak, boring and ultimately an embarrasment. This record is not for parties/dancing/background, romance... No one I know has listened to it all the way through, including myself... Most of you won't like this, and I don't blame you at all... I'm sorry, but not especially, if it turns you off... I harbored hope that the intelligence that once inhabited novels and films would ingest rock. I was perhaps, wrong. This is the reason Sally Can't Dance -- your Rock 'n Roll Animal. More than a decent try, but hard for us to do badly. Wrong media, unquestionably. This is not meant for the market."
The other theory is that Lou was inspired by post-modernist composers, free-jazz pioneers, and the collaboration of ex-bandmate John Cale with composer Lamonte Young. The more experimental works of the Velvet Underground often flirted with extended freeform atonality. Many observers, including Metal Machine Music mastering engineer Bob Ludwig, saw the correlation between Lou's work and that of modern 20th century composers. Perhaps it was assumed that beneath Lou's glam-punk image beat the heart of a modern experimental composer. Perhaps with Metal Machine Music he was trying to create a serious work of art with which to redeem himself; although it has also been surmised that perhaps Lou was simply trying to thumb his nose at these pretentious musicians.
Despite admonishments that Reed would never again record another album, in 1976 RCA released Coney Island Baby, a gentler, doo-wop style album that was much better-received. The glam-rock image was soon gone, and Lou's work started to mellow out. He continues to release albums to this day.
Regardless of why it was released, Metal Machine Music stands as an unprecedented and seminal work, a big "fuck you" to the world. In it's wake, punk, industrial, metal and noise soon followed. The original album has since become a prized collector's item, not for the music itself but for what it represents. Most owners and listeners of Metal Machine Music readily acknowledge the difficulty of listening to the album in it's entirety. To be able to sit through an entire listening of this album more than once demonstrates a rugged musical stamina possessed by few people. (I myself have listened to it thoroughly on several occasions, mostly as background music or while stoned).
But if one is able to listen to Metal Machine Music with an open mind, astounding patterns and textures emerge from the cacophonous roar. Amid the squealing sonic destruction lies an almost transcendent, cathartic beauty that can only be experienced from excessive noise and volume. Succeeding generations of experimental artists such as Sonic Youth, Merzbow and others have recognised the hypnotic and cathartic qualities of unadulterated noise.
A Limited Edition re-release of Metal Machine Music from Buddah Records, complete with deluxe packaging and liner notes, is currently available.