Eine Kleine Nichtmusik:
Metal Machine Music Turns 25

by William Ham

In an industry where the consolidation of success is arguably more important and harder-won than success itself -- look out your window and on a clear day you can see the pop culture icons of a few moments ago Wallendaing off the razor wire of grace by the dozens - it's hard not to feel a perverse sort of admiration for those few who, out of purity of vision, foot-stamping obstinance or a self-loathing as big as the Ritz, are willing to blow up the bridge connecting their fans and themselves just to watch it go down. And if they wind up plunging into the drink alongside those followers trusting and unfortunate enough to be crossing to meet them at the time, so much the better.

It's all the more impressive when you consider that, in a medium filled with more varieties of bad behavior and worse attitudes than Screamin' Jay Hawkins has bastard offspring, pop music isn't exactly rife with examples of this type of willful self-destruction. Certainly, many's the artist who has gone out of his way to challenge his audience with works of ratcheted-up and less immediate virtues, to which the critics usually tip their promotional baseball caps, the audience typically yawns, and that's that. Or if an artist finds himself trapped within the unbreakable bars of an iron-clad contract, he can merely slam out an indifferent live record or a closet-emptying sack of tossed-off table scraps (and if not, the label will be more than happy to do it for him). All of which are fine ways to thwart the desires of the faithful, to deny them their insatiable need for more of the same, and thus regain a modicum of self-respect by sluicing off whatever respect others had for them.

But even the most egregious insults to a musician's fan base can generally be chalked up to laziness or indifference, often coupled with the cynical notion that the unthinking rabble that buys their records will happily shell out list price for anything bearing the familiar brand name and suck it up gratefully and unquestioningly - witness the abominations visited on Elvis fans under Col. Parker (some of which, like the infamous proto-Rollins Having Fun with Elvis on Stage , were even doled out before the King toppled pants-down off his throne) or the embarrassments puled out by the Beach Boys under Mike Love's, er, direction. It's something else altogether when an artist goes out of his way in no uncertain terms to deliberately alienate every follower in his path with an act so brazenly nihilistic that it amounts to opening fire in a crowded theater. Forget commercial suicide -- we're talking commercial genocide.

In retrospect, it's not hard to understand what led Lou Reed to inflict Metal Machine Music, his "instrumental electronic composition" that is nothing less (and possibly nothing more, but let's set that aside for later) than two albums' worth of ear-splitting, stereo-separated feedback given form only by being neatly divided into four equal segments of 16:01 (gotta love that :01) each, upon an unsuspecting pop world in 1975. After all, Reed had been performing artistic salchows with impressive consistency since his recording career began eight years before. The four official studio albums released in the Velvet Underground's lifetime were all quite distinct from one another in sound, lyric and mood, though subsequent releases (at this point, practically every note from this notoriously under-recorded band that somehow made it to tape has been issued in some form or another) have demonstrated that these stylistic variances were far more organic and graceful than they must have seemed to the two dozen rock critics and self-conscious downtowners that comprised its audience at the time. Left to his own devices, however (and we will tastefully refrain from speculating as to the specific nature of said devices), and unable to reconcile his growing underground reputation with the demands of the marketplace, Reed's musical mood swings began to take on a violent, reactionary tinge.

At this late date, it's rather amazing how well Reed's early-'70s solo albums hold up, less musically than as pretty clear evidence of one man's struggle with the deadly forces of commerce, fame, hipness and identity. The failure of his (caution: rock-critic lingo ahead; drive carefully) eponymous '72 debut to either open up his audience or please the Underground faithful (whether due to half-hearted counterculturalisms weighing down otherwise perfectly decent songs, bad production, or having two members of the Anti-Velvets [aka Yes] in tow, it's hard to say) led to a shrewdly unholy alliance with David Bowie, which gave him a surprise hit record (Transformer), an even bigger surprise hit single ("Walk on the Wild Side"), and a glam-junkie image that was the perfect oversimplification of the Velvet ethos (it says a lot, and not much good, about the early seventies that doom-laden gaysploitation -- let's call it death-camp - and intravenous envy set to music -- let's call it skin-pop -- for young dilettantes was the key to commercial success). Flush with success, he proceeded to flush his success by pushing the vicarious decadence his newfound fans reveled in right into their horrified faces by concocting Berlin, a grandiose, extremely depressing album about domestic violence, speed, alcohol and (probably) death that stripped off the downtown glitz of Transformer to reveal the gray, shot skin underneath. As anyone except Lou could have predicted, it bombed miserably. It may well have been an attempt to challenge his audience and not a (semi-)conscious affront, but its miserable failure in both the charts and the rock rags set the tone for a series of contentious turnabouts and foul plays that landed face-down in a two-record hunk of burnt-out, squealing metal a couple of years later.

To speed the tale along (if there's a pun in there I don't want to know about it): Reed regained his commercial capital with Rock 'n' Roll Animal, further debasing the avant-garde textures of the Velvets into arena-friendly (and, admittedly, quite effective) twin-guitar heavy metal, which RCA wasted no time in exploiting with a second, inferior disc culled from the same concerts, Lou Reed Live (on which the only bit of subversion was the cry from the balcony of "Lou Reed sucks!" at the very end, which Reed insisted remain on the album). And as the final insult, Sally Can't Dance, the astoundingly cynical platter of tossed-off, shallow slickness that followed, vaulted him into the Top Ten for the first (and to date only) time in his career. So here's the rub (and maybe the chafe): a man, beset on all sides by managerial, personal and creative troubles, worn to the nub by exhaustion, convinced that he's sold out his ideal that rock music can be the equal of literature for the approbation of a bunch of beer-puking kids, out of his mind on booze and speed, and with the record label on his back demanding that he deliver some new product right fucking now...what can such a man, having gained the demimonde but lost his cred, do? Walking into the RCA building in Gramercy Park and shooting up the place would have been bad PR, so he did the next best thing.

Reed began dropping hints about his insidious plans while doing press for Sally Can't Dance, telling one noted rock journalist (whose name I'm trying to keep from mentioning for as long as possible), "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..."

The renowned music writer (who I really don't want to mention by name just yet) brushed him off with a dismissive "sounds promising" and moved on to more salient topics (well, all right, mostly just trading insults -- yeah, you probably know which pop scribe I'm talking about by now, but let's just feign ignorance for a little while longer, please), but the bad seed had been sown. Lou Reed's musical flower of evil (or maybe just an unsightly weed -- mustn't get too dramatic here) was shortly to bloom.

It's still a bit hazy how, exactly, Reed was able to palm this particular piece of product off on the caretakers of His Master's Voice (note to self: test this album out at the local kennel after hours -- a possible low-budget alternative to canine euthanasia?). That he was contractually obligated to deliver a new album is fairly obvious; that he had an "artistic control" clause in said contract is quite likely, which would mean that Sally Can't Dance was deliberately designed to be the self-negatingly commercial sop that it was, which further suggests the delicious possibility that Lou, with a touch of the Jewish comedian in him, meant it as the setup to a monstrous practical joke. But there are limits to what even the most benevolent (cough, sputter) major labels will put up with. Was RCA so blinded by success (Animal, Live and Dance had all made money for the label) that they would... Ah, no need to even finish that question; of course they would. Corporate logic is a wonderful thing. Something original becomes a hit? Let's order six more just like it! Low-budget project earns back ten times its cost? Give 'em ten times the budget for the next one and it'll earn a billion! Unstable recording artist given to acts of hostility and perversity wants to follow up his most audience-friendly album with something that sounds like Marshall stacks being pack-raped by angry kitchen appliances? Well, I'm sure he knows what he's doing...

As best as anyone can figure, given our hero's penchant for exaggeration unto flat-out lies, Lou Reed waltzed into the corridors of power chords, master tape in hand, and managed to charm, cajole and/or terrorize the assembled execs into releasing it, as a double album no less (perhaps as payback for their last-minute refusal to do the same for Berlin two years earlier), talking up the compositional merits of the piece enough that RCA even suggested putting it out on their Red Seal classical imprint (this last detail has been cited in so many of the "official" sources -- from Victor Bockris' horrifying biography/smearjob Transformer to the liner notes for Reed's solo-era boxed set Between Thought and Expression -- that I felt I had to mention it, though the only original source I can find for it is one of his contentious confabs with that notorious scree-scrivener whose handle I'm trying to keep my mitts off of for at least a few more paragraphs, which leads me to suspect that it's bullshit), and otherwise pushing this bit of grist(le) through the new-release mill when not ducking out to the washroom to laugh his skinny white ass off at the folly he was perpetuating.

Whatever the means, it worked, and in July, 1975, accompanied by very little pre-release promotion and a cover that suggested a third live album, a cheap trick I'm quite willing to pin as much on the label as Reed himself -- surely, a hit-and-run, hope-the-kids-are-too-lazy-to-examine-the-sleeve marketing strategy would have been to their advantage, Metal Machine Music -- The Amine b Ring stole its way into the record stores of America. Somewhere around 150,000 copies were sold. And the listening public, well...

Look, I'm as strong an adherent of consumer rights as anyone this side of that dude who came within a couple hundred million votes of the presidency last year. Scams and con jobs played off by charlatans preying on the weak and the gullible leave me quivering with barely-contained outrage. But still, the image of that average schmuck kid lowering the needle onto the first disc of his hard-earned $7.98-in-1975-dollars purchase onto his bad-ass Marantz turntable, maybe settling into his bitchin' beanbag chair with his oversized Koss headphones to wring every ounce outta his annual dose of vicarious Velveteen sleaze and decadence, closing his eyes with a stoned half-smile playing about his zit-speckled mug, only to be greeted by an unrelenting, amusical screeeeeeeeeeeeeeech, frankly cracks me the hell up. How long did it take that naïve, trusting face (smirk) go from excited to (titter) confused to bewildered to (snigger) pissed off? Did he adjust (giggle) the speaker jacks? Blow off the (chuckle) needle? Check to see if the grounding wire hadn't (chortle) accidentally fallen out? Which did he do first, kick the (guffaw) speakers in or fling the record (laugh) right at the Enter the Dragon poster on the (yip) wall? Did the sense of (yowl) disillusionment and betrayal (howl) send him into a deep suicidal (yawp) funk, a fatal dalliance (yerk) with hard drugs, or maybe (yerk?) the People's Temple? Stop, stop, you're killing me! Within weeks of MMM's release, the stores were flooded with returns from burned consumers flim-flammed into laying out for the rear-ended Pinto of rock 'n' roll.

Even better was the reaction of the critics, Lou's closest foes, which amounted to true Rorshach treatment - in the absence of standard musical touchstones like lyrics, vocals, guitars, etc., the response of the pop punditocracy to the nasty little ink blot Reed spilled wound up revealing more about the self-appointed arbiters of art than the artist himself. Billboard, coolly professional and business-focused as always, assessed its radio-ready quality thusly: "Recommended cuts: none." Rolling Stone, as humorless and overprotective of the now-entrenched rock nouveau bourgeoisie as they were (and are) covertly contemptuous of any noise that might disrupt their agrarian-capitalist buzz, leveled an outraged finger in its direction, pronouncing it Worst Album of the Year. Even a staunch supporter like John Rockwell of the New York Times, one of the relative few to take Berlin seriously as an artistic statement, chose his words carefully lest he appear either dupe or traitor: "One would like to see rock stars take the risk to stretch their art in ways that might jeopardize the affection of their fans. But one can't help fearing that in this instance, Mr. Reed may have gone farther than his audience will willingly follow."

And then...

(sigh)

I guess I can hold off no longer...

And then there was Lester.

Listen, far be it from me to contribute yet another dollop of laudatory goose-grease onto the already overkilled corpse of America's Greatest Rock Critic (an honorific up there with Ethiopia's Finest Sous Chef or something), but it's not much of an exaggeration to say that, without Lester Bangs, MMM (and maybe, just maybe, Lou Reed himself) would not have fascinated for as long as it has. For as much as Reed professed to despise Creem magazine's Jester Emeritus, he may as well have designed MMM with L.B. in mind. A passionate acolyte of noise in all its forms, a fan of broached decorum, and the man for whom Reed's twin poles of idealism and nihilism were the axis upon which all of rock 'n' roll spun, MMM must have clouted him upside the head like day-old manna from Heaven. So perfect was its timing, coming shortly after Bangs' infamous "fight" interviews with Reed and at a moment where, in Bangs' eyes, nothing interesting was happening in pop music, that Lester was moved to write, not one, but two full-length articles in successive issues of Creem on the subject. This, he argued, was the ultimate statement - a cry for emancipation couched in the stoniest wall of impenetrable cool, a depersonalized work with the human touch all over it, the heaviest of all possible metals, the purest of the puerile. Bangs also proved the perfect sounding board for Reed's best pronouncements, pranks, and prevarications -- Lou claimed with a straight face that he wove in very brief passages from Beethoven's Pastoral and Eroica and Mozart's The Glass Harp into the feedback, that he'd been working on the piece for six years, that he brought his years of classical training and appreciation of LaMonte Young (misspelled on the back of the album) and Iannis Xenakis to bear when composing it, and on and on and on in an amusingly unnerving speed ramble. Bangs, for his part, matched Reed blow for blow in the second article, which he titled (with about a dozen levels of sincerity, mockery and irony -- the ideal punchline to Reed's deadpan joke) "The Greatest Album Ever Made."

The MMM myth was manufactured wholesale here. Bangs' article amounted to a seventeen-point plan for approaching this unapproachable work; hidden in plain sight among the testimonies for its use as a purgative, a sedative, and even an aural pheromone ("I was cruising in my car with Metal Machine Music blaring the other day, when this beautiful girl crossing at a light smiled and winked at me!" he exulted to a cackling Reed), as well as fantasies and fabrications so convincing they turned up as fact in later sources (Bangs was a supreme prankster-satirist, which is to say a great liar -- you can stop trawling eBay for a copy of the Count Five's Snowflakes Falling on the International Dateline now), is a chunk of honest admiration for its pore-clearing audacity. "It is the greatest album ever made in the history of the human eardrum," he concluded. Number two, he said, was Kiss Alive! Joke or not (and I honestly can't tell in this case myself), it does bring to mind Lou's less-heralded experiment in unlistenability a few years later, Music From "The Elder", a collaboration with the Kabuki-metal dweebs and Berlin producer Bob Ezrin worthy of an investigative report in itself, though not by me -- there's only so much horror even the hardiest journalist should be expected to endure for the sake of the truth.

There's big enough game awaiting us as it is -- fasten your fan belts, comrades, and keep your mixed metaphors inside the car at all times; we are now about to leave this comfortable wavelength and descend into the depths and gnaw on the breadths of where one man's worst creative impulses will take him. And once we're done with my writing, we can deal with this Metal Machine Music business. Maybe even listen to the cursed thing.

Part 2: Discordant Notes on a Silver Anniversary, or "What? No Bonus Tracks?"


Artists l Essays l The List l Sites & Sounds


New Issue l Best Of l Fave Links l About Us