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What kind of nut would buy the new CD reissue of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music? Don’t ask me; I bought a German copy years ago.
Admittedly, I did that more as gesture than anything else. I have a vinyl copy, after all, and it’s not as if I was expecting to listen to the thing. (The only person I’ve ever known who played it regularly is a former girlfriend, who claimed she put it on every time she defrosted the refrigerator.) In fact, the first time I saw MMM on CD I walked away from it. Buying an alternate-format copy of this near-unplayable album seemed too much the obsessive record collector’s gesture.
But, of course, I regretted my decision, and so I looked for MMM whenever I was in a European record store. It took a few years, but I was pleased to finally find a copy. Surely no one would ever re-release Reed’s 64 minutes of harsh, arrogant, uncategorizable din in the United States.
Well, someone eventually did: Buddha (née Buddah), the ’60s bubble-gum dispenser that’s been reactivated as a reissue imprint by BMG (parent company of both of Reed’s 1972-1986 labels, RCA and Arista). I haven’t even seen a copy, but published accountswell, one published account, by rock writer Douglas Wolkindicate that the Buddha reissue includes Reed’s complete liner notes, famous for such semicoherent taunts as “My week beats your year.” (This was the period when Reed was trying to establish a reputation as the world’s leading speed freak, although some of his acquaintances at the time have reported that he was actually subsisting on Scotch and coffee ice cream.) So maybe I actually do need to buy the Buddha disc, although I can listen to the incompletely liner-noted 1992 German issue while reading the notes of the 1975 vinyl editionwhich is what I’m doing now.
Why bother? Because MMM is the most obnoxiouswell, most intentionally obnoxiousalbum ever released. Wolk opined that “there’s an entire subculture of noise music that leaves MMM in the dust” and that the album’s electronic tirades are “actually kind of…pretty.” All I can say about his judgment is: How this man must have suffered!
Seriously, I’ve heard the Boredoms, Einstürzende Neubauten, Merzbow, early Swans, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. In fact, I’ve heard just about every noise band lower Manhattan produced before someone slipped LSD into an upstate reservoir and created Wetlands’ audience, as well as a lot of what’s come out of Osaka, Berlin, and other places where they use pile drivers to make ambient music. And MMM still irritates me.
Cited by The Rough Guide: Rock as “the ultimate statement of rock misanthropy,” MMM came out of a period when Reed seemed just as disgusted by commercial success (“Walk on the Wild Side,” Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal) as critical disparagement. Reed is the most unpleasant interview subject I’ve ever encountered, but in my two scrimmages with himboth in the ’90shis manner was mild compared with his rancorous ’70s mood. His disposition then was exemplified by bellicose exchanges with Lester Bangs (a steadfast admirer through all the hostilities), a live album that was mostly offhand acrimony (Live: Take No Prisoners), and MMM, whose treble-heavy cacophony was one long howl of negation.
Reed’s “specifications” for the album make that clear: “No synthesizers, no Arp, no instruments, no panning, no phasing, no.” Still, he couldn’t help showing off. Even though it sounds like a kamikaze assault on accepted audio standards, MMM is the first great expression of Reed’s stereo snobbery. The album lists all the gear used, from Sennheiser headphonesdon’t get Reed started on the subject of headphonesto a “ring modulator/octave relay jump.” It shouldn’t have come as a great surprise when, three years later, Reed began his ardent but ultimately unrequited romance with binaural sound.
After explaining that “at the very least I made [the album] so I had something to listen to” and that “no one I know has listened to it all the way through including myself,” Reed tried to describe the din as “drone cognizance and harmonic possibilities vis-à-vis La Monte Young’s Dream Music.” This is really reaching, and it shows yet again Reed’s competitiveness with former collaborator John Cale’s certified classical/avant-garde résumé. (It was Cale, not Reed, who played with Young.) Yet the boast is savvy, too: Young has never released any recordings of his early-’60s ensemble, the Theatre of Eternal Music, so there’s no direct evidence of what the group sounded like.
Still, it’s possible to infer that it didn’t sound a lot like MMM. There are dreamy drones amid the album’s noise, but they’re submerged in fluttering feedback and high-end squealing (or “harmonic possibilities,” if you prefer). And the album doesn’t much resemble Indian musicone of Young’s major influencesor ex-Young collaborator Tony Conrad’s Early Minimalism Volume One, either. The prominent work it most suggests, in fact, is George Crumb’s Black Angels, the buzzing violin piece that inspired the founding of the Kronos Quartetand turned up on the soundtrack of The Exorcist.
Metal Machine Music, in short, is as irksome as it wants to be. A lot of it is simply an aural distillation of Reed’s cussedness: His week beats your ears. Playing it again, however, revealed that the piece has lost none of its sheer physical power: Once again, it gave me a headache. Mark Jenkins
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