HOW TO LISTEN TO LOU REED'S METAL MACHINE MUSIC
There are fuck ups.
And then there are catastrophic, yet glorious, fuck ups.
(Think: God’s fuck up called Earth. And He is supposed to be perfect! If God is perfect, I am Maria of Romania.)
There are fuck yous.
And then there are fucking fantastic, yet catastrophic, fuck yous.
(Think: Hiroshima. No, I am not a fan of throwing atom bombs around willy-nilly and, yes, I know they cause a lot of particularly nasty problems like death and destruction but, as my mom always says, “Nothing says fuck you like an atom bomb.”
Furthermore, fantastic doesn’t necessarily mean good. Dear Mr. Webster defines fantastic as “conceived or appearing as if conceived by an unrestrained imagination; odd and remarkable; bizarre; grotesque.” (If you’ve ever been in the vicinity of an atom bomb doing its thing, you know it doesn’t take much to call it “odd and remarkable, bizarre [or] grotesque.”)
Now, once in the bluest moon, the catastrophic, yet glorious, fuck up and the fucking fantastic, yet catastrophic, fuck you meet in one. It’s like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of disaster: Half fuck up and half fuck you instead of half chocolate and half peanut butter.
Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music is one of those once-in-the-bluest-moon combinations.
What is Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music? It is nothing more than a two-record set—one disc of Metal Machine Music simply wouldn’t be enough—of nothing, as in absolutely nothing, more than ear-splitting guitar feedback noise recorded at various annoying frequencies piled on top of other various annoying frequencies ad infinitum and then looped resulting in a cacophony of completely inhuman shrieks, hisses, dins and clatters divided into four equal segments of 16:01 (the :01 really makes it). The fourth side was extra special: it ended in a locked groove that caused the last 1.8 seconds of Metal Machine Music to drone on endlessly until the listener got up and took the needle off manually, assuming of course—and this is a big assumption—any listener got that far.
Or, as Lou himself said, “It’s the only record I know that attacks the listener. Even when it gets to the end of the last side it still won’t stop. You have to get up and remove it yourself. It’s impossible to even think when the thing is on. It destroys you. You can’t complete a thought. You can’t even comprehend what it’s doing to you. You’re literally driven to take the miserable thing off.”
Rock on, Lou!
Or, as legendary rock critic Lester Bangs wrote, “When you wake up in the morning with the worst hangover of your life, Metal Machine Music is the best medicine. Because when you first arise you’re probably so fucked (i.e., still drunk) that it doesn’t even really hurt yet (not like it’s going to), so you should put this album on immediately, not only to clear all the crap out of your head, but to prepare you for what’s in store the rest of the day.”
Bangs went on to declare, “It is the greatest record ever made in the history of the human eardrum. Number Two: Kiss Alive!”
Rolling Stone begged to differ. They likened Metal Machine Music to “the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator” and claimed it the experiential equivalent of “a night in a bus terminal.”
Lou himself chimed in, “I was really serious about it. I was also really, really stoned.”
Speaking of Lou, no meaningful discussion of Metal Machine Music can take place without delving into the state of Lou Reed prior to the release of the record in July 1975.
It was not good.
Yes, the Velvet Underground was long gone. Never you mind that during its tenure and four artistically diverse studio albums, no more than a handful of rock critics and two handfuls of fans ever bothered to lend the Velvet Underground an eardrum. But a funny thing happened after the band broke up in the early ’70s: it developed a well-deserved underground following.
This did not sit well with early ’70s Lou Reed. Chairs did not sit well with early ’70s Lou Reed.
It would be easy to blame ’70s Lou’s prickly attitude on his—how shall we put this—fondness for large amounts of amphetamines, but we will not. Instead we will blame it on His Grumpiness’s inability to square his growing underground following with the—again, how shall we put this—demands of the marketplace.
In Round One of Lou vs. The Marketplace, Solo Lou put out a collection of Velvet castoffs in the rather unimaginatively titled album Lou Reed in 1972. It did not attract one new listener nor did it please the Velvet Underground faithful, the latter due to a rather unholy alliance with two members of Yes at the production helm.
Pardon the upcoming rant: YES? CAN THERE FUCKING BE ANY FUCKING BAND MORE FUCKING UN-VELVET THAN FUCKING YES?
While we’re on the subject of unholy alliances, let’s discuss Round Two of Lou vs. The Marketplace: David Bowie and Lou’s Transformer or Lou and David Bowie’s Transformer.
While the album was a hit and houses Lou’s only hit single (“Walk on the Wide Side”), it may as well be called Lou Does Bowie. Transformer was all glammed up like an early ’70s Bowie album and rumor has it that Lou, at best, occasionally showed up for its recording in London. It was, at best, a gross oversimplification of but one component of the Velvet’s ethos (decadence), and you could dance to it.
Oversimplification is good for business and this oversimplification was no exception. Before you could say oversimplification is good for business, Lou became a glam rocker complete with makeup all hopped up on decadence, as well as his usual hefty supply of amphetamines.
Which leads us straight into Round Three of Lou vs. The Marketplace: Undanceable Decadence or Berlin.
Berlin is a grandiose and hugely depressing album about domestic violence, screaming kids, divorce, amphetamines, depression, alcohol and suicide as opposed to all the grandiose and hugely undepressing albums about domestic violence, screaming kids, divorce, amphetamines, depression, alcohol and suicide.
Lou proclaimed it his masterpiece. Lou and his amphetamines were alone in this opinion; Berlin bombed with both the Transformer set and the critics. Rolling Stone signed off its blistering review with the epithet “Goodbye, Lou.”
Lou wasn’t going anywhere. He was back for Round Four of Lou vs. The Marketplace: Rock ’n’ Roll Animal or Who Does Lou Think He Is—Alice Cooper?
By most accounts, Rock ’n’ Roll Animal is a very good live album.
Yes, Lou sings on it. Well, sorta.
Yes, it has “Sweet Jane” on it.
Yes, it has “Heroin” on it.
Yes, it has “Rock and Roll” on it.
It just isn’t a Lou Reed album. It’s a heavy metal album masquerading as a Lou Reed album and, to help in this hoax, Lou hired Alice Cooper’s band to back his attempt at singing. Unfortunately, this attempt was further hindered by the increasing amount of amphetamines Lou was ingesting. Fortunately, Lou attempted to counter the effect of the amphetamines. Unfortunately, Lou attempted this counterbalance with heroin, which he simulated shooting up on stage during his attempt at singing—you guessed it—“Heroin.”
Lou will be Lou.
Lou also shaved his head and donned full-body leather S and M outfits as well as other bondage accoutrements for the show—you know, just in case people didn’t get the whole overcooked decadence thing Lou’s management wanted Lou to peddle.
Yes, I’m a drugged and burnt-out person filled with equal parts anger and ennui, and I play one on stage!
Trouble is and much too much to Lou’s chagrin, it sold and sold well.
And here’s where corporate logic comes in. If something sells well, let’s order another one or 100 more just like it.
This corporate logic leads us to Round Four of Lou vs. The Marketplace: Lou Reed Live or “Lou Reed sucks!”
Corporate logic: if Rock ’n’ Roll Animal sold well and only culled half the songs from Lou’s—ahem—performances recorded live on December 21, 1973, at Howard Stein’s Academy of Music in New York, let’s release another live album with the other half!
And 13 months after Rock ’n’ Roll Animal was released, Lou Reed Live was released. And, like its predecessor, it was not a Lou Reed album although it ends with a disgruntled Lou Reed fan yelling from the balcony “Lou Reed sucks!”
Lou insisted the shout-out remain on the album. Lou knew it was the best part of the album.
Unfortunately, Lou was going to prove that fan fucking clairvoyant and add injury to that insult with his next album.
Part Five of Lou vs. The Marketplace: Sally Can’t Dance or Lou Don’t Care or Commercialized Decadence with an R & B Twist Complete with a Yellow-Haired Lou.
We’ll let the lyrics from one of the songs from this album speak for the astoundingly cynical waste of wax of tossed-off shallowness that permeates the nadir of Lou Reed’s career.
The song is called “Animal Language” and it sucks.
Miss Riley had a dog
she used to keep it in her backyard
And when the dog began to bark
all the neighbors began to shout
Then came a stormy night
Miss Riley let her dog out
And when the neighbors found him ’round
they put a gun down his mouth and shot him down
and he went
Miss Murphy had a cat
on her lap it sat
And once in a great big while
it looked like that Cheshire cat did smile
But often it used to chase
anything that crossed its face
But one day it got so hot
that Cheshire cat had a blood clot
and she said
And then the dog met the cat
the dog was hot and the cat was wet
Then came some sweaty dude
he put a board between the two
Then they couldn’t get at it
got frustrated all about it
So they did the only thing you could do
they took the dude’s sweat and shot it up between the two
and they said
Ooohhh-wow, bow, me, wow
Trouble is—there’s that word again, trouble, and it seems to be Lou’s constant companion around this time in his career—it sold and to this day is Lou Reed’s—Lou fucking Reed’s—only Top Ten album. Lou, unpleasantly surprised by the album’s success, said, “This is fantastic—the worse I am, the more it sells. If I wasn’t on the record at all next time around, it would probably go to number one.”
It also was the straw, or needle, that broke the Lou’s back and set the table for what was to follow. To recap: a man named Lou—bombarded on all sides by managerial, personal, mental and creative issues, and exhausted, cynical, bored, pissed off, convinced and pained that he has sold out his long-held ideal that rock ’n’ roll can be an equal of literature even for beer-swilling, porn-addicted frat boys, and completely, if not irrevocably, blasted out of his mind on speed, heroin and booze—had a contract that said a new album of the same old slop as Animal Language was due right fucking now. What was a man named Lou to do?
Short of walking into the RCA offices and burning the place to the ground, which would have been downright mean and punishable by a substantial prison term, Lou did the next best thing.
Lou did Metal Machine Music.
He’d been dropping hints about his colossal fuck you—I mean, next album—while bullshitting his way through press junkets about Lou Don’t Care, I mean, Sally Can’t Dance.
“I’ve got something here . . . I had to wait a couple of years so I could get the equipment, now I’ve got it and it’s done. I could have sold it as electronic classical music, except the one I’ve got that I’ve finished now is heavy metal, no kidding around . . . Hendrix was one of the great guitar players, but I was better. But that’s only because I wanted to do a certain thing and the thing I wanted to do that blew his mind is the thing I’ve finally got done that I’ll stick on RCA when the rock ’n’ roll shit gets taken care of. Now most people can take maybe five minutes of it . . .”
Lou’s insidious warning was missed by all: “Now most people can take maybe five minutes of
It. . .”
Plus, it was an exaggeration. Most people can take maybe one minute of it.
Never mind any of that. Just imagine our stoned and drunk and angry hero marching into the aforementioned offices of RCA, which at the time just so happened to be one of the biggest media conglomerates on the entire planet, with the master of Metal Machine Music tucked under his arm, his tongue tucked in his cheek and, maybe, a needle tucked in a vein.
Lou makes his way to a conference room.
Lou shakes hands with the assembled big wigs and yes men at RCA.
Lou knows they are just waiting, praying and hoping for the next Animal, Liveor Sally.
Lou presses play.
And out comes RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVV VVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRR ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEEKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEENNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZR.
(The following is a made-up conversation between Lou and RCA after Lou showed a tad of mercy and pressed stop but it is based on quite a few real things Lou said in interviews, regardless of whether those things were exaggerations or flat-out lies. It also gives RCA some semblance of common sense in the whole Metal Machine Music thing, which is totally false if not completely insane.)
RCA: Ahem, well, then . . . that’s no Sally Can’t Dance.
LOU: Yes, that was no Sally Can’t Dance.
RCA: It seems to be missing a few things.
LOU: Like what?
RCA: Lyrics. Harmony. A beat, perhaps.
LOU: That’s not true. If you had a small mind, you’d miss it, but the beat is very, very fast. And on each side there’s a harmonic buildup, whether people believe it or not I don’t really give a fuck anymore.
RCA: It’s kind of—what’s the word—distorted.
LOU: It’s using distortion but it’s not distorted. It should be listened to on headphones because there’s left and right but there’s no center. There’s infinite ways of listening to it. What you people don’t seem to realize is that you don’t listen to it on speakers, because if you do you miss half the fun!
LOU: Yes, fun.
RCA: I’m not sure what we just listened to could exactly be described as fun.
LOU: If people don’t realize how much fun it is listening to Metal Machine Music, let ’em go smoke their fucking marijuana, which is just bad acid anyway . . . I don’t make records for fucking flower children.
RCA: Speaking of fucking, Lou, do you think anybody could make love to Metal Machine Music?
LOU: I don’t know. I don’t care. I never fuck. I haven’t had it up in so long I can’t remember when the last time was.
RCA: Let’s change the subject, Lou. What exactly did we just listen to?
LOU: Classical music.
RCA: Classical music?
LOU: I think it’s more a classical piece, after all there’s all kinds of symphonic rip-offs in there, running all through it, little pastoral parts, but they go by like—bap!—in five seconds. Like Beethoven’s Third, or Mozart . . .”
LOU: Just sit down and you can hear Beethoven right in the opening part of it. It’s down here in, like, you know, about the fifteenth harmonic. But it’s not the only one there, there’s about seventeen more going at the same time. It just depends which one you catch. And when I say Beethoven, y’know, there are other people in there. Vivaldi . . . I used pretty obvious ones.
RCA: Can you point those out to us?
RCA: Because they are not all that obvious to us.
LOU: I don’t care. Why should I sit down with you and show it to you? It’s hard to do, because they occur at the same time. They overlay and, your mood determines which one you hear. I mean like you’ll have Vivaldi on top of the other ones and that’s on top of another one and meantime you’ve got the drone harmonic building.
RCA: Well, if it’s classical music we should release it on our classical label, Red Seal.
LOU: No way.
RCA: Why no way, Lou?
LOU: Because it seems dilettantish and hypocritical, like saying, “The really smart, complicated stuff is over here, in the classical bin, meanwhile the shit rock ’n’ roll goes over here where the schmucks are.”
RCA: We thought you said it was classical music.
LOU: Fuck you, if you want it out you put it out on the regular label with all the other stuff. All you do is put on a disclaimer.
LOU: Yes, fuck you, a disclaimer.
RCA: And what, Lou, should that disclaimer say?
LOU: WARNING: Before you buy it listen to it for two minutes, because you’re not gonna like it.
RCA: I think we can all agree on that, Lou; it will not be liked.
LOU: I don’t care. I’m not going to apologize to anybody for Metal Machine Music. Just because some kid pays $7.98 for it, I don’t care if they pay $59.98 or $75 for it, they should be grateful I put this fucking out, and if they don’t like it they can go eat rat shit. I make records for me.
RCA: Let’s talk about you, Lou. Lou, you are stoned. Lou, you are fucked up. Lou, you are cranky. Lou, you are following up your most audience-friendly album with something that sounds like angry and untuned lawn mowers hopped up on speed running over a lawn of glass and metal guaranteed to wreak havoc on, if not rape, any set of human eardrums it comes into contact with.
LOU: This record is the closest I’ve ever come to perfection.
RCA: Well, Lou, we’re sure you know what you’re doing so let’s do it; let’s release Metal Machine Music.
LOU: Did I mention it is a double album?
LOU: One more thing: anybody who makes it to side four is dumber than I am.
Well, there was plenty of dumb to go around.
RCA released the record in July 1975.
RCA released it as a double album.
RCA gussied up the cover to make it look like another Rock ’n’ Roll Animal.
Lou gussied up the back cover with a list of equipment utilized and a bunch of scientific language and symbols that went into the making of Metal Machine Music: “Drone cognizance and harmonic possibilities vis a vis Lamont (sic) Young’s Dream Music”; “Avoidance of any type of atonality”; “No Synthesizers; No Arp; No Instruments?”; “Combinations and Permutations built upon constant harmonic Density Increase and Melodic Distractions.” Problem was it was all gibberish lifted from recording magazines. Lou recently said, “I made up all the equipment I listed on the back of the album. It’s all bullshit.”
The best line in all this back-cover gobbledygook: “Special thanks to Bob Ludwig.” Mr. Ludwig’s the poor bastard who had to master Metal Machine Music and is, therefore, quite possibly the only person who has listened to it in its entirety.
Lou wrote the most common sense–defying liner notes of all time. In fact, the only way to describe those notes is to imagine a dialogue between common sense and those liner notes. Once again, Lou’s words are real; common sense’s role in the whole Metal Machine Music affair can only be imagined.
COMMON SENSE: What the hell is going on here, Lou?
LOU: Passion, REALISM—realism was the key.
COMMON SENSE: Lou, this record has no songs, no words, no hooks; it’s one great big no. No, it’s one great big FUCK YOU. In other words, it’s a Lou Reed record!
LOU: The records were letters. Real letters from me to certain other people who had and still have basically, no music, be it verbal or instrumental, to listen to.
COMMON SENSE: Lou, not to belabor the point, but one could argue this record we have here is also a letter—a great big FUCK YOU letter to your label, to your career and to your fans.
LOU: This record is not for parties/dancing/background romance.
COMMON SENSE: That is one way of putting it, Lou.
LOU: This is what I meant by “real” rock, about “real” things.
COMMON SENSE: This album is what I mean by “real” pain. If anybody can stand to listen to the entire thing in one sitting, he is a truly special human being but, in all likelihood, he is probably not a human being.
LOU: No one including myself has listened to it all the way through. It is not meant to be.
COMMON SENSE: Common Sense would agree with you, Lou: this album is not meant to be listened to any of the way through, let alone all the way through. Myself, I’ve only listened to maybe one 16:01 side of it all the way through and I thought my head would explode. Of course, this begs the question, Lou: how does one listen to Metal Machine Music?
LOU: Start any place you like.
COMMMON SENSE: I suppose you’re right, Lou. All RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR VVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRR ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR RRRRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEEKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEENNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZR all sounds the same.
LOU: It is the only recorded work I know of that was seriously done as well as possible to be a gift, if one could call it that, from a part of a certain head to a few other heads.
COMMON SENSE: If this is a gift, Lou, please cross me off your Christmas list. Hell Lou, with friends like you who needs enemies?
LOU: Most of you won’t like this and I don’t blame you at all. It’s not meant for you. At the very least I made it so I had something to listen to.
COMMON SENSE: You listen to some strange things, Lou.
LOU: Certainly Misunderstood: Power to Consume (how Bathetic): an idea done respectfully, intelligently, sympathetically and graciously, always with concentration on the first and foremost goal.
COMMON SENSE: Huh? Is that supposed to be a sentence? Lou, you are delusional. Intelligence, sympathy and grace have nothing to do with this album.
LOU: For that matter, off the record, I love and adore it. I’m sorry, but not especially, if it turns you off.
COMMON SENSE: Even though you and I seldom see eye to eye on things, I love and adore you, Lou. I love and adore the fact that Metal Machine Musicand speed and heroin and booze make you happy, Lou. I also love and adore that commercial suicide makes you happy, because that is what this album is, Lou. Oh well.
LOU: I’d harbored hope that the intelligence that once inhabited novels or 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.
COMMON SENSE: I’ll say it’s not meant for the market. It is meant, at best, as either an alternative to electroshock therapy or an extremely cruel way to euthanize dogs.
LOU: As a way of disclaimer, I am forced to say that, due to stimulation of various centers (remember OOOOHHHMMM, etc.), the possible negative contradictions must be pointed out. A record has to, of all things, anyway, hyper tense people, etc. possibility of epilepsy (petite mal), psychic motor disorders, etc, etc, etc.
COMMON SENSE: Funny you should bring up mental disorders, Lou. Speaking of, in your words, negative contradictions and epilepsy and other various psychic motor disorders, is there anything you’d like to say to all your fans out there that this record will undoubtedly inflict the aforementioned epilepsy and other various psychic motor disorders upon them?
LOU: My week beats your year.
Yes, the fans, the fans whose year was trumped by Lou’s week. Keep in mind, Lou had made more than a handful of new records thanks to the aforementioned decidedly un-Lou Reed albums such as Transformer, Rock ’n’ Roll Animal and Sally Can’t Dance. You know, heavy metal and pasteurized decadence fans. Lou and his Metal Machine Music said to these new fans, “You want heavy metal, dumb fuck? You want decadence? Well, here they are sealed with a fuck you.”
And fuck them Lou did. Again, one can only imagine the image of these newfound Lou Reed fans plunking down $7.98 of their hard-earned 1975 paper route money for the slickly packaged Metal Machine Music eagerly awaiting their latest injection of faux-Velvet sleaze and decadence.
Dude, I just got the new Lou Reed album.
Dude, Lou Reed rocks.
Dude, it’s a double album.
Dude, double albums rock.
Dude, Lou’s got this really cool orange hair and really cool studded leather jacket on.
Dude, orange hair and studded leather jackets rock.
Dude, it’s called Metal Machine Music.
Dude, heavy metal rocks.
Dude, I think it’s another live album.
Dude, Rock ’n’ Roll Animal rocks.
Dude, come over; we’ll rock out to Metal Machine Music together. Bring weed.
Dude, weed rocks.
Dude, what’s an Amine B Ring?
The dudes were about to discover what an Amine B Ring was. The pot is smoked, but it won’t help. The bodies melt into the basement couch, but the relaxed posture won’t help. The record is opened—look at all the cool pictures of Lou—but they won’t help. The stereo is turned on. Loud. Side one is put on the turntable. The needle is dropped—dude, this is going to be so fucking awesome—and out comes RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR VVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEEKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEENNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZR.
Dude, what the fuck?
Dude, what’s that noise?
Dude, what the fuck?
Dude, I think the record is broken!
Dude, what the fuck?
Dude, did you plug the speaker jacks into a blender?
Dude, what the fuck?
Dude, is the needle broken?
Dude, what the fuck?
Dude, is this Beethoven?
Dude, what the fuck?
Dude, is the stereo plugged in backward?
Dude, what the fuck?
Dude, where did you get this weed?
Dude, what the fuck?
Dude, I think this weed is made from Drano!
Dude, what the fuck?
Dude, I think aliens are attacking us!
Dude, what the fuck?
Dude, I think my ears are broken!
Dude, what the fuck?
Dude, Lou Reed sucks!
Everyone agreed Lou Reed sucks.
“Lou Reed sucks,” said the naïve, confused, bewildered, stoned and pissed off fans. Hey, Lou warned you, you naïve, confused, bewildered, stoned and pissed off fans, when he said he didn’t make records for you! Within days of the Metal Machine Music’s unleashing, record stores were overrun with what the fucks? and the returns that come with what the fucks?; in fact, to this day, Metal Machine Music remains the most returned album ever.
And, three weeks after its release, Metal Machine Music was unceremoniously taken off the market.
Well done, Lou.
“Lou Reed sucks,” said the critics. Apparently, like fans, critics like lyrics, vocals, melody, rhythm, guitars, etc. Billboard assessed its radio-friendly quality with the bald statement, “Recommended cuts: none.” (Hello and duh, Billboard. Metal Machine Music contains no cuts.) Rolling Stone declared it the preemptive Worst Album of the Year, and it was only July! (Hello and duh, Rolling Stone. There were still more than five months left in the year and, with Lou being Lou, he could release Son of Metal Machine Music by the end of the year.
Well done, Lou.
“Lou Reed sucks,” said Lou Reed. Metal Machine Music was an extended middle finger directed at Lou’s fans, Lou’s management, Lou’s record company and anyone or anything else that Lou thought had conspired to take control of his artistic dreams in any way whatsoever. In 1978, Lou said, “It was running a real risk. I wasn’t going to make any more records after that. That was going to be it. I didn’t care about the backlash from retailers or jobbers or all that rest of the stuff that I’ve learned about. I knew exactly what I was doing. I was going to finish recording, leave it at that. I would have been perfectly content. If this is where you people are—business people in particular—you wanna play games . . . You’ve almost killed me but you’re not going to. So here you go with it.”
Lou also said, “That record is the closest I’ve ever come to perfection.”
Yes, it was perfection. It was the perfect end to the Lou Reed everybody wanted Lou Reed to be, with the notable exception of Lou Reed. It was commercial suicide, but it was the death of the packaged, marketed and commercialized Lou Reed, the un-Lou Reed.
Commercial-suicide Lou said, “I put out Metal Machine Music precisely to put a stop to all of it. It was a giant fuck-you. I wanted to clear the air and get rid of all those fucking assholes who show up at the show and yell ‘Vicious’ and ‘Walk on the Wild Side.’ It wasn’t ill advised at all. It did what it was supposed to do. I really believed in it also. That could be ill advised, I suppose, but I just think it’s one of the most remarkable pieces of music ever done by anybody, anywhere. In time, it will prove itself.”
It almost proved the death of any Lou Reed whatsoever.
After the dust of Metal Machine Music settled, Lou found himself up to his neck in lawsuits and counter lawsuits and with $15 in his pocket, no apartment, no guitars, no equipment, no band and no career.
What did you expect Lou, a Grammy?
Lou later recalled the whole mess, “It was 1975 and I was being sued by a manager and his producer brother. I had released an album called Metal Machine Music which had had an unusually high number of returns and was taken off the market in three weeks. I had no money and no guitars. The roadies had taken them when they hadn’t been paid. I was in debt to everyone, including the musicians union. RCA put me up in a hotel while the future fell, to be decided.”
Fortunately for Lou, he had an unlikely guardian angel in the president of RCA, Ken Glancy—the big cheese at the very label he flipped off with Metal Machine Music. Glancy put the homeless Lou up in the Gramercy Hotel and told him to make a record. He also made Lou, in Lou’s words, “promise not to do Son of Metal Machine Music.”
Lou was better than his word.
Lou released an album of love songs.
Oh Lou, only you would follow up the hate-filled Metal Machine Music with love songs.
The annihilation caused by Metal Machine Music provided Lou with a clean slate. Lou discarded all the Lou’s that other people wanted him to be—Yes Lou, Bowie Lou, Packaged-Decadence Lou, Heavy-Metal Lou and R & B Lou—and returned to the Lou he wanted to be and released the best album of his solo career at the time, Coney Island Baby.
Coney Island Baby was the Lou mentioned in one of the few lines that made any sense in those nonsensical liner notes of Metal Machine Music: “I’d harbored hope that the intelligence that once inhabited novels or films would ingest rock. I was, perhaps, wrong.”
(Metal Machine Music–obsessed critic William Ham claims Lou got his wish with Metal Machine Music: “If Metal Machine Music can be a rock ’n’ roll record with no roll and only the most jagged of rocks, then why can’t it be considered literature though it has no plot, characters or, huh, words? . . . A dense to the point of impenetrable work with no beginning or end that only the most obsessive have gotten all the way through? Why, it’s the Finnegan’s Wake of rock!”)
Coney Island Baby was a Lou, a forgotten Lou, who was very much a part of the Velvet Underground, the Lou who wrote such beautiful songs like Pale Blue Eyes and Sunday Morning. Since Lou had left the band, all too much of his solo work had been a cheap, crass, prepackaged and sensationalized self parody of the sleaze-ridden side of the Lou Reed persona—again, the prepackaged Lou that everybody except Lou wanted Lou to be. Oh sure, the few remaining fans of that Lou Reed who loved the contrived outrageousness of the drug-crazed Lou who weren’t driven away by Metal Machine Music were a little more than nonplussed by the musical beauty and lyrical poetry of Coney Island Baby.
But, as Lou himself had said about that preceding album, “If they don’t like it, they can go eat rat shit. I make records for me.”
This is not to say Coney Island Baby is a sanitized-for-your-protection Lou or a sappy Lou. Far from it; for instance, “Kicks” is about a murderer who loves his trade “way better than sex.” Rather, it was the balanced Lou of the Velvet Underground, a man who could write both “Heroin” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”
Lou also got rid of the silly haircuts and equally silly S and M attire. He did, however, hang on to the black fingernail polish for a while. It was, again, all about balance.
It also re-launched his career on his terms. Brilliant and diverse albums such as Street Hassle, The Mask, New Sensations and New York followed over the next 30 years and Lou claimed his rightful place within rock ’n’ roll’s elite.
And he owes it all to Metal Machine Music. Creativity demands reinventing yourself and the commercial suicide that was Metal Machine Music forced Lou to reinvent Lou.
Oh sure, there were occasional returns to the Fuck You Lou. His 1978 live album Take No Prisoners contained very little actual music, giving center stage to Lou’s best Lenny Bruce impersonation and some hysterical rants against, but not limited to, the New York Times rock critic Robert Christgau, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Patti Smith, political activism, Wyoming, Broadway musicals and Lou Reed—on one occasion, he heckles himself. He also complains about having to play “Walk on the Wild Side”—“It’s not that I don’t want to play your favorites but there are so many favorites to choose from!”—and then tells his backing singers to shut up during the song.
And, like Metal Machine Music, it was a double album. But, unlike Metal Machine Music, it contained a warning label: THIS ALBUM IS OFFENSIVE.
Today, Metal Machine Music remains one of the most discussed, if not discussed to death, albums ever. (I’ve even heard rumors it’s discussed in advertising schools.) Never mind that very few, if any, describers have actually listened to the thing. That has not stopped some scribes from writing that Lou’s FUCK YOU paved the way for punk, drone, noise, industrial and German post-industrial music.
Scribe David Fricke wrote, “Metal Machine Music was made with rock & roll tools, built from the base elements of electric teenage revolution: rage, joy, sabotage, righteousness. Metal Machine Music was not a new kind of rock; it was every kind of rock, boiled down to its molten essence.”
Lester Bangs said it better when he said, “I realize that any idiot with the equipment could have made this album, including me, you or Lou. That’s one of the main reasons I like it so much.”
Yes, Metal Machine Music was influential with musicians. Einsturzende Nebauten’s lead singer’s Bilixa Bargel said their song “Der Tod Ist Ein Dandy” was “Metal Machine Music with vocals,” then gleefully added, “It’s always been one of my favorite albums—it’s the only thing that gets me out of bed!” And, of course, Sonic Youth’s de-tuned guitar spasms owe their annoying dissonance to Metal Machine Music. Hell, their Bad Moon Rising goes so far as to sample Metal Machine Music’s infamous locked last groove.
But, wait there’s more!
In 1976, Lou is greeted in the Tokyo airport by the president of RCA Japan. The president has Metal Machine Music piped through the airport’s loudspeakers. No airplanes crash.
In 1979, Japanese noise artist Merzbow entitles his first release Metal Acoustic Music. He goes on to make more records.
In 1999, Metal Machine Music is used as a soundtrack in the Kunsterhuas Museum in Stuttgart, Germany. I can think of nothing wittier to say about this than it figures.
In 2002, German ensemble Zeitkratzer plays Metal Machine Music in concert using classical instruments. Lou Reed performs as a soloist.
In 2002, Ulrich Maiss performs a solo cello version of Metal Machine Musiccalled CelloMachine. Lou Reed raves, “If you ever saw what Ulrich’s doing you would, you know, open a fan club for him . . . It’s like a rock approach to the cello—if you thought of the cello as a guitar with feedback: off you go!” In 2007, the concert is released on CD.
In 2006, the avant-garde Swedish ensemble The Great Learning Orchestra performs Metal Machine Music in its entirety. Thirty-one musicians are involved in the fun.
To top it all off, in 2000 Buddha Records releases a fancy 25-year anniversary edition of Metal Machine Music on compact disc. It has fancy digital remastering. It has fancy packaging. It has a fancy booklet. It has a fancy essay from a fancy rock journalist. It has everything 25-year anniversary editions are supposed to have . . . except bonus tracks.
What no bonus tracks? Boo-hoo.
To recap the Metal Machine Music story:
Lou starts solo career. Lou’s solo career starts slowly. Lou starts disillusionment.
Lou starts second chapter of solo career with David Bowie. David Bowie attempts to turn Lou Reed into David Bowie. It sells. Lou’s disillusionment grows.
Lou starts third chapter of solo career doing what he wants to do with a decidedly unhappy album, Berlin. It doesn’t sell. Lou’s disillusionment continues to grow and so does his drug habit.
Lou starts fourth chapter of his solo career as glammed-up heavy-metal rocker. It sells. Lou’s disillusionment grows expediently but not as expediently as his drug habit.
Lou continues fourth chapter of his solo career as glammed-up heavy-metal rocker via outtakes. It sells. Lou’s disillusionment is now the size of France and his drug habit is the size of Australia.
Lou starts fifth chapter of his solo career as a complete parody of himself with an R & B twist. He also dyes his hair yellow. It is the nadir of his career. It sells. Lou’s disillusionment is now the size of Saturn and his drug habit is the size of Jupiter.
Lou commits commercial suicide with Metal Machine Music. Metal Machine Music tells Lou’s label, FUCK YOU. Metal Machine Music tells Lou’s fans, FUCK YOU. Metal Machine Music tells Lou, FUCK YOU. It doesn’t sell.
Lou survives commercial suicide attempt and embarks on new life as highly respected solo artist on his own terms.
Metal Machine Music enjoys second life as art.
Moral of the Metal Machine Music story: dare to reinvent yourself whatever the cost.
With every single thing you do.
Or take a lot of drugs.