Saturday, 22 March 2014

In Praise of the Grotesque: Metal Machine Music

I've just spent a very nice hour or so listening to Metal Machine Music, Lou Reed's "Electronic Instrumental Composition" from 1975, or for the uninitiated a 64min double-album of densely layered, heavily processed guitar feedback. Forty years on, it remains the most fiercely debated album in Lou Reed's long and eclectic career, conservative listeners swept along by the likes of Transformer, Coney Island Baby and New York will inevitably hate it, dismissing it as either a career suicide note, or a cynical record-contract breaker; while the more progressively-minded will recognize the pivotal influence of Metal Machine Music on the Industrial scene, and the avant-rock and power electronics movements that followed. It's one of my three favourite Lou Reed albums, jostling for pole position alongside Lou's 1971's doom cycle Berlin, and a more recent arrival, 2007's Hudson River Meditations, a collection of soothing tones and drones which was to be Lou's curtain call. The first time I heard any music from Metal Machine Music was back in the mid-90's, not from the album itself but on Sonic Youth's 1985 record Bad Moon Rising - a few seconds of music from Side 4 was looped for the segue way from Brave Men Run into Society Is A Hole (track 2, 3:22min). Around this time Metal Machine Music was not easy to hear, copies of the original double LP had long since dried up and the first CD edition which arrived courtesy of the Great Expectations label in 1991 was difficult to get hold of. For ages I combed through the pages of Record Collector magazine looking for an affordable vinyl copy and as luck would have it I found an original RCA pressing in a steep-stair-cased basement record store in Dublin (on Wicklow St). Finally, after an exchange of 30 pounds (a fortune for this teenager in 1997) Metal Machine Music was mine.

My Metal Machine Music collection: top - the original gatefold RCA double album
bottom left - 2000 Buddha remastered CD edition, bottom right - 1991 Great Expectations CD edition

In the years of writing about Metal Machine Music, it's become a well worn cliche to award the listener some sort of citation for making it to the end of the album. Reed himself who famously blew hot and cold about his creation once remarked "Anyone who gets to side four is dumber than I am". I began this post after listening to the complete album and in the time it's taken me to marshal my thoughts to get to this point, I'm well into my second pass of the album. The music is so staggeringly pyschedelic I find my mind straying from the task at hand to ride in Metal Machine Music's whirlwind of sound, its mad chorus of voices, each one trying to get its spoke in before being shouted down by another. And in that sense I think the music is closer to the volcanic free jazz of Coltrane's Ascension and Peter Brötzmann's Machine Gun than the electronic soundscapes of Stockhausen or Xenakis. Unfortunately I no longer own a record player so nowadays my weapon of choice is the Buddha CD from 2000, and despite it sounding less spikier, less grainier than the vinyl edition, it's still the best CD version of the album and contains about 30secs of the famous locked groove at the climax of Side 4 which resulted in the last few seconds of the album looping ad infinitum until the listener manually lifts the needle off the groove.


  1. You know, I've never listened to this album. So, I just went and did something I've been meaning to do for the last 15 years.

    My first impressions; it's definitely a lot less abrasive than I was expecting. I can see what you mean in terms of 'staggeringly psychedelic', the swirls of sound can be hypnotic in parts. I tend to lean more towards the darkwave/ambient stuff when it comes to experimental/noise records, more so than the likes of merzbow (who I just can't get into, he kills me), but I could see this getting listened to again.

    Oh, I love the photo, by the way. Always great to see actual collections. I can imagine the fairly innocuous record cover resulted in many angry music fans back in the day!

  2. John, I love the idea of avant-garde music being smuggled into the bed-rooms of unassuming rock fans, like Metal Machine Music or The Beatles' Revolution No. 9 which sounds very like Stockhausen's Hymnen... I know what you mean about Darkwave/Ambient and am in complete agreement. I would especially prefer Drone music over Noise music, I do have a few Merzbow CDs (and his contemporary Aube) but they rarely get an airing these days, and are usually reserved for occasions when only carnage will do...