Noise alloys: The gory story of Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’

❉ “As a statement it’s great, as a giant FUCK YOU it shows integrity.”  Forty-one years of Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’. 

There’s a new Lou Reed box set out, from Sony BMG. A ‘heritage’ collection of state of the art remasters of his albums from 1972’s ‘Lou Reed’ to 1987’s ‘Mistrial’, overseen by the man himself just before his death.

“I’m not gonna apologise to anybody! They should be grateful I put that fucking thing out, and if they don’t like it, they can go eat rat shit. I make records for me.” – Lou Reed.

Nestled within this Aladdin’s cave of aural wonderment is the prodigal son of Lou Reed’s back catalogue, 1975’s ‘Lou Reed Metal Machine Music’. Let’s take a moment to rewind forty-odd (very odd) years and get into the headspace of why and how an unlikely ’70s FM radio superstar pulled the plug on his newfound status with an album charmingly described by one periodical as “A gargantuan slab of maggoty rancour.”

“They should have put a warning sticker on it… Sounds like: static on a car radio. Recommended cuts: none” – Lou Reed.

Rock babylon has seen numerous acts of commercial suicide but, in terms of a major artist single-handedly destroying his fanbase at the height of his commercial stock, Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’ stands head and shoulders above the rest. ‘Metal Machine Music’ is a double album featuring four sides of electronic feedback, each side exactly 16 minutes and 4 seconds long. It is one of those albums many people name-check but hardly anyone has actually heard. Hardly surprising, an exec at Reed’s label RCA described it as “fuckin’ torture music!”

The story of how this beast of a record, the soundtrack to a techno-Sadean nightmare, came to be is one of rock’s most fascinating and fabulous tales of excess and bitterness, an unbeatable act of career sabotage, and the ultimate punk statement.

In 1970, Lou Reed split up the Velvet Underground – although they became one of the most influential alternative rock bands ever, during their short career none of their four groundbreaking albums reached any higher than 199 in the Billboard charts and members dropped like flies with each album. After a period of ‘self-imposed exile’ in Oakfield Avenue as a typist for his father’s law firm, and a patchy solo debut album, Reed bounced back with the help from David Bowie, as a glam rock icon with the ‘Transformer’ album and its hit single Walk On The Wild Side.

What happened next is a fabulous tale of a modern-day Faustian pact between rock star and record company. Having reinvented himself as a bona fide solo star, Reed wanted to make the first epic of his career – ‘Berlin’, an unrelentingly depressing album about a doomed love affair in the then-divided city between a speed freak and a prostitute who kills herself in the bath after her children are taken away. A morbid, unflinchingly harrowing album, ‘Berlin’ was too much for RCA, whose recent bestsellers (prior to the Bowie velvet goldmine) included ‘The Sound of Music’ and The Archies’ Sugar Sugar. It certainly proved too much for the critics, who didn’t write reviews so much as death notices. Try the following for size:-

“A gargantuan slab of maggoty rancour”, “the most naked exorcism of manic depression ever committed to vinyl”, “a distorted and degraded demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide.”

‘Berlin’ was a top ten album in the UK, Reed always having a warmer reception in Europe than stateside, but RCA struggled to gain any airplay from putative hit singles such as Caroline Says and How Do You Think It Feels.

Despite the lack of a teenybop-friendly sequel to Walk On The Wild Side, RCA duly released the record, with the provision that he gave the label an ‘FM radio’ album of live favourites and another glam-style studio album. Reed duly complied, becoming the ‘Rock’N’Roll Animal’, donning a S&M leather boy look – black leather, studs, cropped hair – and playing the schlock-rock to the hilt as his band cranked out glam-metal versions of Velvets song.

Reed became a grotesque self-parody, some nights so high that his roadies had to carry him on and offstage, simulating shooting up with a mike flex and needle during Heroin. The ‘Rock’n’Roll Animal’ album went on heavy rotation on ‘album rock’ radio stations and sold by the shedload, and RCA milked the leftovers for a second LP, ‘Lou Reed Live’ – although Reed cheekily left in the sound of a fan screaming “Lou Reed sucks!” echoing from the speakers in the closing run-off groove! (Side note: ‘Lou Reed Live’ is not part of the RCA/Arista box set, and the single CD has been out of print in Europe for 20 years).

“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 …” – Lou Reed.

The following album Reed – or rather his producer, as Reed was too out of it to stand up during the recording sessions – knocked out ‘Sally Can’t Dance’, a tacky caricature of ‘Transformer’ and a hideous, hilarious self-parody. Tellingly, one of the best songs was called Ennui. The album was Reed’s only US top ten hit, and received some of his best reviews.

Reed could hardly conceal his self-loathing, snarling, “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 … I hate that album. ‘Sally Can’t Dance’ is tedious. Could you imagine putting ‘Sally Can’t Dance’ with your name on it? Dying my hair and all that shit? That’s what they wanted that’s what they got. ‘Sally Can’t Dance’ went into the top ten without a single, and I said, ‘Ah, what a piece of shit.’”

By mid-1974, Lou Reed could be found in Max’s Kansas City, cadaver-thin, pallid complexion, sporting cropped blond hair with Iron Crosses shaved into the sides. Journalist Nick Kent recalled, “I’ve never seen a man so utterly paralysed, so completely devoid of life while managing to keep breathing, as Reed had looked that night.” During their conversation, Reed summed up his current situation: “It depends on boredom… And tension. Getting interested, y’know, in things after you get things settled. Getting involved again… Not being bored. Because when I get bored…uh, funny things happen.”

No question, Lou Reed was bored. And funny things were gonna happen. So it was that he became determined to hammer the last nail into the coffin of the ‘rock’n’roll animal’ and shit on the middle America teenagers that bought ‘Sally’, the critics that panned ‘Berlin’ and the label that wanted another ‘Transformer’.

What he created featured no glam-shlock songs about transvestites, junkies and make-up for thrill-seeking teens to scare their parents with. With a guitar, a bank of effects pedals and a mixing desk, Reed created the most inhuman-sounding album ever made. Exactly sixty-eight minutes of screaming, grating, roaring pure white noise that sounds like World War Three, subtitled ‘The Amine ß Ring – An Electronic Instrumental Composition’, and mischievously packaged in a gatefold sleeve depicting Reed onstage in leathers, shades and peroxide crewcut as if it were the rock’n’roll animal’s latest live offering. The Velvets had dabbled in feedback and noise on ‘White Light/White Heat’, but they were an underground band with nothing to lose. Reed was currently a solo star at his commercial peak in FM Radio Land.

As an exercise in aural aggravation, it takes no prisoners. In a neat trick previously used on the Velvet Underground flexidisc ‘Loop’, the final side of the record is cut with a closed groove, meaning the listener has to get up and switch off the record to stop the relentless sonic attack!

Reed loved this: “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. You can’t control that record.”

Interviews on ‘Metal Machine Music’ suggest that creating and releasing this atonal atrocity was the biggest highlight of his ’70s career, cackling with malevolent glee at having pulled off such an audacious fast one. Lester Bangs: “Just imagine that wired little weasel, marching through the offices of one of the biggest media conglomerates in the world with his machine tapes in his hand, not just confident but downright cocky that what he had here was the greatest masterpiece in musical history. Lou took Metal Machine Music straight to the top, to Kenneth Glancy, President of RCA Records, and worked his way down from there…”   Biographer Victor Bockris recounts, “On getting home he told friends he had to run to the men’s room, after presenting this highly unusual product to the RCA people, in order to explode with laughter.”

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RCA execs didn’t know what they were supposed to do with the record, except that they were contractually obliged to release it as Lou Reed’s latest album. They tried sneaking it out quietly on their ‘Red Seal’ classical label, but Reed nipped that plan in the bud. A Quadrophonic mix was also released, and it even appeared on eight-track cartridge. Funnily enough, with its four programmes of equal length and on a continous loop, ‘Metal Machine Music’ is the only album custom-made for the 8 Track format!

As mentioned before, the sleeve was designed in the style of a live album. Doubtless this would have led unsuspecting consumers to purchase the album expecting another “Rock’N’Roll Animal” – presumably something Reed intended, as the back cover described the content as “Rock orientation, melodically disguised, i.e. drag.”

Even if the musical content is indigestible, the sleeve continues the album’s raison d’etre as a blatant ‘fuck you’ to its intended targets. More ‘drag’ appeared in the form of pseudo-technical jargon on the credits – which Reed copied from a hi-fi magazine. “I made up the equipment on the back of the album…It’s all bullshit.”

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The inside gatefold, an essay entitled ‘Notation’, is worth the purchase price on its own. A hilarious statement-cum-essay providing a few hints as to where Reed’s head was currently at. It begin by reinforcing the ethic behind his work since the Velvets, that had been obscured by the glam posturing -“…my concern was not, as assumed…the exploration of various ‘taboo’ subjects, drugs, sex, violence. Passion – REALISM – realism was the key.” Drug references and the deadpan wit of the speed-freak hinted at Reed’s chemically altered state of mind – the album was aimed at serious users, “for those whom the needle is no more than a toothbrush”, calling it “a gift, if one could call it that, from a part of a certain head, to a few others.” The front cover contained references from Remington’s Pharmaceutical Science and British Pharmacopia. That the record was a reprisal for the commercial failure of “Berlin” was evident in Reed’s wistful comment, “I’d harboured hope that the intelligence that once inhabited novels or films would ingest rock. I was, perhaps, wrong.”, before joking, “This is the reason Sally can’t dance – your rock’n’roll animal.”

Unsurprisingly, the album’s release in Reed’s home country went down like a lead balloon. RCA’s British division didn’t give the album a domestic release, wisely importing a handful of copies. Years later, in Smash Hits, the lead singer of Doctor and the Medics mentioned that it was his rarest album in his record collection but he couldn’t part with as it cost so much to buy in the first place and no bugger would take it off off his hands, so he was stuck with it.

Reed had anticipated the cries of critics and fans being ripped off in the album’s liner notes, with an unapologetic non-disclaimer: “Most of you won’t like this, and I don’t blame you at all. It’s not meant for you… For that matter, off the record, I love it and adore it. I’m sorry, but not especially, if it turns you off.” In interviews after the album’s release, Reed was similarly defiant. “I’m not gonna apologise to anybody! They should be grateful I put that fucking thing out, and if they don’t like it, they can go eat rat shit. I make records for me.”

Ouch! A year earlier, when questioned about the overwrought yet underbought ‘Berlin’, he scoffed “My bullshit is other people’s diamonds”, but at least that album had some saving graces.

The only other record recorded that year which came anywhere close to capturing the nihilistic fall-out of the glam diaspora was ‘Metallic KO’, the live album of Iggy and the Stooges’s last show, which ends with the sound of beer glasses being thrown onstage as a bunch of Hells Angels attacking the Mighty Pop.

Like ‘Metallic KO’, ‘Metal Machine Music’ ended one era but bled into the beginning of another. Rather than wiping out his career, this musical suicide note placed him at the vanguard of a new musical movement which owed much of its existance to the Velvet Underground. The magazine which gave its name to the scene – Punk – featured Reed in its first issue, the cover featuring Legs McNeil’s spot-on illustration of Reed as a metallic bug-man, and inside McNeil and editor John Holstrom spoke to Reed about MMM and other things.

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The feature saved Reed from obscurity for a new generation. Says Holmstrom, “Metal Machine Music almost ended his career. He could have become another forgotten Elton John kind of person if we hadn’t put him on the cover. Instead, he became the godfather of punk and it resurrected his career.”

Holmstrom later said, “I saw Metal Machine Music as the beginning of the punk rock movement. It was the ultimate punk rock album. It was the greatest punk statement ever made. It was fuck you to the record company and everyone who bought it. It was, ‘This is what I want to do the way I want to do it.’ How can you get more punk than that? It was more punk than the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, everything that came out afterward. I think he meant it that way, and we treated it that way.”

Despite being almost completely unlistenable – an opinion that can itself be countered, as if one adheres to the Velvets-esque belief that drone and repetition has its own kind of hypnotic beauty, one may find passages to admire (and just a year earlier, Fripp & Eno’s ‘No Pussyfooting’ pulled a similar trick with systems music) – ‘Metal Machine Music’ was a spectacular folly that paid off spectacularly. Its nihilistic sound perfectly coincided with the beginnings of punk, and made Reed more relevant than he had been since ‘Transformer’. It kick-started an artistic rejuvenation, which reached a kind of peak with the brilliant Street Hassle, his most coherent, compelling statement since ‘Berlin’, with its sha-la-la song cycle of two fucked-up losers, a reimagining of the Velvets outtake Real Good Time Together that starts out with nothing more than shimmering, reverbed looped guitar chords, and ends with some hilariously out-of-sync call and response doo-wop vocals on Wait. At the height of this period as ‘Godfather of Punk’, Reed released a brilliant live album ‘Take No Prisoners’, as close a companion to ‘Metal Machine Music’ as you could get.

As with ‘Metal Machine Music’, it’s a warts-and-all statement of where Reed was at. “It’s not only the smartest thing I’ve ever done, it’s also as close to Lou Reed as you’re probably going to get, for better or worse.” Comparing ‘Take No Prisoners’ to ‘Metal Machine Music’, Reed said, “I wanted to make a record that wouldn’t give an inch. If anything, it would push the world back just an inch or two. If Metal Machine Music was just a hello note, Take No Prisoners is the letter that should’ve gone with it.”

There’s an addendum during this period, too. Reed’s one-time producer David Bowie had decamped to Paris and Berlin in 1976 to craft ‘Low’, an album which with hindsight we know invented the sound of the 1980s, but landed on the laps of RCA executives Christmastime 1976 with the same mixture of bemusement and personal offence that ‘Metal Machine Music’ had been dumped not long before. Word is the corporation’s receipt of Reed’s monster coloured their reception of Bowie’s own abrupt volte face from glam and soul, and that Bowie’s ex-manager Tony DeFries willingly offered Bowie big bucks to dump ‘Low’ and go back to Philadelphia and make ‘Young Americans II’.

All the above considered, and knowing how closely Bowie watches the highs and lows of his peers and imitators, it is probably not entirely coincidental that when Bowie performed his own act of commercial suicide and rebirth – Tin Machine – the project’s name echoed ‘Metal Machine Music’. Tin Machine, too, was an act of self-sabotage by an artist keen to jettison his mainstream audience with a deliberately alienating, unapproachable, album, and in the process, reconnect with his primal drive.

During the ’80s and ’90s Reed cleaned up his act, got married, briefly reunited with fellow Velvet founder John Cale, and later the other band members, and lived happily for many years with fellow New York musician Laurie Anderson. There’s been intermittent extreme close-ups of the Reed psyche – ‘The Blue Mask’ with the feedback-drowned, pummelling intensity of its sadomasochistic title song and the voyeuristic The Gun, ‘Magic And Loss’ with its naked admonishments against the Grim Reaper – but these have been few and far between, and the raw intensity of ‘Metal Machine Music’ and ‘Take No Prisoners’ only appeared in flashes, until his last album, ‘Lulu’.

‘Lulu’ is certainly a companion piece of ‘Metal Machine’. Like its forefather, it is one of the most brutish, unlikeable and noisy pieces of work crafted by the master. It divided audiences before its release, with the announcement that Reed was to be backed by Metallica. It’s the aural equivalent of a snuff movie, as Reed howls and Metallica grinds, spinning a borderline unlistenable industrial rock opera storyline loosely based on the silent movie ‘Pandora’s Box’.

Reed’s widow, Laurie Anderson, recalled: “And this was really challenging, and I have a hard time with it. There are many struggles and so much radiance. And after Lou’s death, David Bowie made a big point of saying to me, ‘Listen, this is Lou’s greatest work. This is his masterpiece. Just wait, it will be like ‘Berlin’. It will take everyone a while to catch up.’”

Meanwhile, ‘Metal Machine Music’ – the creature that nearly, and deliberately, destroyed Reed’s career, and that his label didn’t even want to release – still casts a long shadow from its obscure corner of rock history.

In 2002, RCA released a digitally remastered 25th Anniversary CD, something which must have given Reed a good hard last laugh (not least because the new mix was created by Bob Ludwig, the massively successful engineer responsible for the original unholy mess), and its aural analogue scream and nihilistic blitzkreig can be heard in sonic terrorists and noiseniks like Atari Teenage Riot, Waterhouse, Skinny Puppy, Front 242 and Mogwai. And now it is a cornerstone of a fancy, expensive, canonical, audiophile box set that doubles as Reed’s tombstone. Well played, Lewis Allen Reed.

In the twenty-first century, is it time to rehabilitate Metal Machine Music? Lester Bangs said it best: “As classical music it adds nothing to a genre that may well be depleted. As rock ‘n’ roll it’s interesting garage electronic rock ‘n’ roll. As a statement it’s great, as a giant FUCK YOU it shows integrity—a sick, twisted, dunced-out, malevolent, perverted, psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless.”

Looking back on the 1970s, Reed was as unrepentant as ever about his walk on the wild side of the musical and experimental fringe: “I’ve probably had more of a chance to make an asshole out of myself than most people, and I realise that. But then not everybody gets a chance to live out their nightmares for the vicarious pleasures of the public.”


❉  ‘Lou Reed: The RCA & Arista Album Collection’ was released on 7 October 2016 by Sony Music.

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