The Patch

March 23, 2009

I Don’t Like Mondays: Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music

Filed under: I Don't Like Mondays,Music & Film — freshlysqueezedcynic @ 11:31 pm

Some people should really know better. Others do know better and do the exact opposite, and we love them for it regardless. Those others include one Lewis Allan Reed, who is perhaps justifiably considered one of the elder statesmen of rock music, and a contrarian bastard, especially when someone’s trying to put the guy on a pedestal. Nothing suggests this more than Metal Machine Music, an hour of feedback drone in which anything approaching tonality is, frankly, nonexistent.

I knew as soon as I started this project that I was going to have to listen to Metal Machine Music. How could I not? It’s infamous, considered by many to be the worst album of all time. A piece worse than anything Yes could produce. Worse than a Razorlight album, as utterly baffling as that is. It’s considered so bad that it’s widely considered to be a joke, a fulfillment of a contractural obligation, or a “fuck you” to the people who adulated his sublime glam-rock extravaganza Transformer, then abandoned his more challenging, downright depressing Berlin, a rock opera about two junkies whose love affair is ultimately doomed. As myth, I think I like the latter; it encourages you to imagine Lou Reed, so pissed off at people who were expecting another Transformer, alienated by the darker subject matter and downbeat tempo of Berlin, rejecting it like a cast-off jizz tissue, that he spends months of painstaking studio work and where he sets up the guitars to basically play themselves to come up with an album so offensive to the ears that thousands of people return the album after buying it. A middle finger cast in noise.

I like that Lou Reed. But the rational part of me suggests that Lou Reed is not that bitter and twisted, more’s the pity, and Metal Machine Music is at least semi-serious, even if, to paraphrase the great man himself, he was pretty much stoned the whole time. The “Metal Machine Music is Lou’s revenge for the poor treatment of Berlin” theory kind of goes out the window when you remember that there’s an album between Berlin and Metal Machine Music, one which was actually the highest charting album Lou Reed has made. People always forget Sally Can’t Dance; then again, it is instantly forgettable. At least Metal Machine Music will be permanently seared into my brain, a hot branding iron of pure twisted musical hell into my noiseholes.

Again, I was prepared to be charitable; some people have found something to love in it. Certainly Lou Reed has, who claims rather grandiously from time to time that he invented the entire genre of heavy metal with this album. (One doesn’t have the heart to tell him Black Sabbath existed at least 7 years before Metal Machine Music was a whine in a guitar’s amp.) Others have made similar, though less utterly laughable, claims; from punk to electronica, to industrial and yes, heavy metal, anything vaguely discordant have been suggested as genres inspired by Metal Machine Music. So I went into this with my prejudices ready to be disabused, if not discarded.

It’s an hour of feedback.

Let me say that again. It’s an hour of feedback.

For those hard of reading, once more. It’s an hour of feedback that I had to listen to.

That’s really all I need to say on the matter; it’s all you really can say on that matter. There’s no real breaks, no real pauses, it just drifts on and on, a screeching squall of useless noise. But that would be kind of a cop-out, so let’s explore this a little bit further. What are the effects of listening to a full hour of feedback on the human body?

One starts almost bemused. “Surely it’s not as bad as people have been suggesting?” And you begin to listen, and you hear feedback. You’ve heard it before. It’s been used to great effect; most successfully, in my opinion, in Gang of Four’s song Anthrax. So you begin to think “hey, this can’t be that bad. I quite like feedback. Then it begins to get hypnotic. The repeated, discordant sounds fill your brain and you can begin to think about nothing else. Here’s a short, sharp squawk which sounds like a hawk swooping down on an unsuspecting prey, followed by what sounds disconcertingly like the scream of something frightened and dying. Over here, the repeated vibrato that reminds you of echoes in a dark, dank cave. If I close my eyes, it’s probably as close to an experience in a sensory deprivation tank as you can get for free, you mooching bastards, without being caught doing naughty things for Allah in some desert hellhole and being sent to Guantanamo, and even that’s nearing the end of the line (cheers, Big Barry Obama).

The smartest of you will realise I have just compared Metal Machine Music to torture. That’s because it is, after a while. The noises, after worming their way into your brain, begin to take on a more concrete form in your brain. It begins to throbb. This is what a migraine sounds like, and after Part II you will begin to wish you hadn’t been born. The initial Metal Machine Music had a cunning little groove which meant that the last 3 seconds or so looped on infinitely if the record wasn’t stopped, making the album technically infinite. I think that was removed because of the Geneva Conventions. Honestly, more than an hour of this and I think you would begin to go slightly loopy, especially if you were doing the whole sensory deprivation experiment on the cheap.

Then very loopy. To go into a slight tangent here, the experiments into sensory deprivation (which were secretly funded by the CIA in order to find out ways to prevent Soviet brainwashing and possibly carry out some of their own, along with good ol’ fashioned torture; I know I sound like a ranting hippy here but this shit really is true) noted that one became, initially, first hallucinating, then very suggestable when faced with total sensory deprivation, (that is, placed in a darkened capsule, floating so you can’t really touch anything, and with white noise not unlike Metal Machine Music‘s distorted feedback pumped in so you are unable to think) to the point where one would abandon one’s sincerely held beliefs quite readily. The experiment was cut short after it was found people really found it utterly unbearable, and the experimenters noted that it would be quite a lapse in ethics to take the experiment further, since it seemed to actually be a form of torture, as severely mind-shattering and awful as any form of physical abuse. Remember that the next time some spineless, lisping jackbooted twat from the Daily Mail scoffs that these unruly Dusky Hordes just can’t handle a bit of white noise, scoff scoff scoff we’re not electrocuting anyone’s genitals so it’s not torture (well, we’re not, we just employ those that do).

So, yes. Metal Machine Music is pretty much migrane-inducing at the micro level, and very probably torture at the macro. But I can’t, wholeheartedly suggest that it’s the worst album ever. I’m not really sure that it even counts as an album, in any kind of way that we’d normally think about it. It’s just there, seeping into your very pores until you can’t stand it. It loops before those last two seconds, by the way, a dull, throaty roar that makes your ears itch and your fingers begin to tremble. And then it stops, and you breathe a sigh of relief. Metal Machine Music is not really an album in the normal sense. It’s an experience. Now I know that sounds unbearably wanky and stupid, but I mean it in a very physical sense, not in the way most music journos use it, when they want to claim that yer latest three-chord-wonder is some kind of superlative visionary and “experience” is the only word they’ve got to express that in the Big Book of Music Journo ClichĂ©, visionaries only in the sense that Zack Snyder is “visionary” (“What?!?” I spluttered as I saw the trailer for Watchmen. “I guess in the sense that he is able to see.”) It’s an experience in the same way BASE jumping for non-mentals, or running with the bulls in Pamplona, or cycling the Tour De France as a rank, wheezing amateur is an experience. Something it’s interesting to do once, to test your tolerances, and as a point which commands instant bragging rights, but something you’d be insane to want to do again. That’s as close as I can explain the appeal of Metal Machine Music, although obviously getting a bit headachey is a very poor comparison to things that involve genuine mental and physical strength. But I’m a wimp, so it’s the closest I’m getting.


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