Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Lou Reed—
Metal Machine Music


Released 1975 on RCA
The Seth Man, November 2000ce
This must have been as much of a shock to the majority of Reed’s fans as it was to their central nervous systems, as well as a fork in the socket to their expectations as well. Because from the moment side one begins until the locked inner groove that prevents side four from ending, it is a split channel, pole-axing severing of the nerves even for the first few minutes it is experienced for the first time. Why? Because it is NOISE: for noise’s sake, for art’s sake foe Pete’s sake, even. It doesn’t matter: noise it is and noise it will always be -- which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s to Lou Reed’s credit he chose to make such an utterly fan-alienating album such as this. A mere four years prior to the release of “Metal Machine Music” Bob Dylan released “Self Portrait” in an effort to cut back his fan base in an ‘Not everything I do is messianic, devotional or anything you might THINK it is or means and by the way the way I couldn’t give a rat’s ass’ gambit that STILL had A.J. Weberman reading hidden meaning into “All The Tired Horses.” And all the fans bought it anyway, while the Isle of Wight tracks were included as a sop to stem bootleggers and offer at least a little bit of Dylan to chew over and read into until the next album.

“Metal Machine Music” offered no such polite escape route. I bet Greta Garbo would’ve loved to have released it instead of Lou (and me too, come to think of it) because only then would she well and truly have been left alone. What the hell was Lou Reed thinking when he cut this? All that malarkey about snatches of Vivaldi or some such other classical verse deeply hidden and ingrained in what is a dense mist of overdubbed electric guitar feedback and signal distortion? That’s pure bullshit, but then again, what would -- or could -- you do after The Velvet Underground? Bowie took Reed’s solo career and made it his own -- as he also did to Iggy and Mott’s. Fuck it -- he’d created this rock’n’roll Frankenstein called Lou Reed, so he’d destroy it, too.

And he decided to do it the slow way: by feedback, and feedback alone.

And since it was 1975, and this was a double album with a ludicrously misleading and mysteriously FANTASTIC cover with a live shot on the back, even the most unforgiving soul could easily understand at least a fraction of the initial purchases to be chalked up in the name of “Oops: thought it was a live album” even though two of THOSE had recently been released. But the tip-off should’ve been the archival reference ‘sticker’ on front, giving it the feeling of a laboratory experiment that escaped the clutches of its creator and the studio it was created in, fiendishly making its way to the pressing plant uttering “Feedback…GOOOD” as the sticky rolls of black vinyl became pressed into a hilarious amount of records that found themselves boomeranging immediately back the stores, the nearest garbage can or filed to the back of the record collections next to the sound effect and comedy records. Fittingly enough, as it IS a sound effect record: that of a disaffected pop star at his most brain-wrecked apogee. And it’s a comedy album, too -- Have YOU ever played this to someone for the first time? After a few seconds of side one, they’ll ask if it builds, or do any of the other sides have ‘songs’? And after you gleefully shake your head, they demand you take it off. But you don’t, because it starts to cross your mind how ridiculous it would look to a fly on the wall. Two friends in a room transformed into a psychologically airtight cell of feedbacking imprisonment, and one’s laughing his head off, as the other gets up and puts on his coat and leaves. Yeah, but this is only the entrée, as the album runs for (technically) as long as you want, and you’re only a few minutes into it. Straight feedback for ONE minute can be unendurable, so what’s the chance that 16x4 minutes...that’s 64 minutes! Over an hour, and that’s not counting the locked inner groove on side four! And who the hell ever got THAT far except maybe Reed himself and Lester Bangs?

Well, I did. And I’m not proud of the fact. In fact, it smacks of the sort of heroism I generally find myself getting snide about. But it all started when a friend wanted a tape of it (No, I’m not kidding.) And I thought it was so special a request that I decided to honour the proceedings by listening to it in its entirety while I taped it and fill up a C-90 with the whole thing. This would leave the locked groove to repeat for -- what -- however long it took to fill up the second side; twenty five minutes, maybe? And no cheating, either: no gnawing nails watching the tape spool into the first sign of the clear leader of the cassette through the smoked grey glass of the deck. No way. This would be art or masochism or whichever came first.

Side one started off OK, it being the most ‘familiar’ territory of “Metal Machine Music” only because that’s about as far as most people ever get. Completely understandable. By side two, emotional and psychological barriers began to crumble at the edges as the album blared out its discord all around the room with nowhere to go but inside my ears. It was torture when I thought about it, but I persevered. The feelings of agitation and a growing rage at everything for no reason began to build on side three. My pulse and breathing had accelerated within the course of 16 minutes, and now I was practically panting. By the time side four rolled around, I had pretty much confirmed that “Metal Machine Music” was somehow changing my chemical makeup. I didn’t think so -- because my thought process had mutated into a kind of mental trench warfare while the wall of buzzing white noise continually erupted. I was holding onto a thread as the repeating inner groove approached. And after this, that most precious freedom: silence. Non-“Metal Machine Music” for life. And I could inform others and tell them it wasn’t just a ‘fuck you’ to his fans but art that was as demanding and debilitating as anything I had ever heard. It pins you like a butterfly to a collector’s matte board. It’s jarring, and sonically speaking, there’s no way out. By side two, you’ll start hearing EVERYTHING: Alka Seltzer commercial jingles, cut ups of old Elton John singles distorted and at the wrong speed, ’68-period Beatle backward maskings, your parents yelling turn it off and every other orgasm you’ve ever had in your sleep staggered and stuttered into a mindless oblivion of repeated ness until the chipmunk squealing starts in again and you were wishing you were listening to “Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict” instead. The whole effect is that of an ever jerking, blurry video camera shoot that only captures contour not line and bleeding over-saturated colour, not shade. And speaking of shade, there’s none to be found on “Metal Machine Music.” It’s completely exposed to the sun, staring at it for hours without fear of blindness. And while listening to it, even the mere act of sitting becomes oddly objectified. Everything you do becomes ‘Something you did when you listened to “Metal Machine Music”’ and language, sound and soon all thought whatsoever are wiped out by the constant strains of overdubbed feedback guitars singing your body electric in a fry out of the most epic proportions. By side four, the harmonics start to favour more high-end frequencies, and something approaching melody begins to faintly appear behind the heavy curtain of distortion, but…backwards...sort of. But in this kind of extreme musical terrain, aural hallucinations run rampant as there are no conventional compass points like rhythm, vocals or the like to rein them in. There’s no beginning or end to “Metal Machine Music” -- it’s all middle. It’s minimalism at its ultimate terminus.

It’s like an impressionistic painting, but rendered only in violent streaks of red, purple and black. And those colors are of the highest frequency in the spectrum; here they are painted over with not merely black but with jagged tar that congeals forever upon its surface.
It’s a cleansing of the aural palette, but on the level of cleaning a tabletop by sandblasting it to smithereens.