Lou Reed – “Metal Machine Music” (1975)

Paul Morley once wrote about Metal Machine Music that “you cannot really call yourself a rock writer if you haven’t written at least 15,000 words on the damned thing…” (♣), and while that’s clearly hyperbole sometimes it doesn’t seem that far from the truth. Seemingly everyone has tackled it at some point. Lester Bangs wrote about it (and Reed) extensively, including an article simply entitled “The Greatest Album Ever Made”. Though to be fair he also mentions that it sounds great after drinking Romilar cough medicine and makes the dubious claim that the second greatest album of all time is Kiss Alive!, so you have to take Bangs with a grain of salt (and two swigs of Romilar). In the 1975 Rolling Stone review of the album James Wolcott described listening to all four sides as “one of the better feats of endurance in my life, equal to reading The Painted Bird, sitting through Savage Messiah and spending a night in a bus terminal in Hagerstown, Maryland”. In his definitive 2017 biography Lou Reed: A Life, veteran music writer Anthony DeCurtis described MMM as “…a punk gesture on a scale that remains unrivaled, a screaming fuck you not only to Reed’s record company but to his fans.”

It’s impossible today to separate fact from fiction when it comes to MMM. An entire mythology envelopes the album, one created by both writers and the man himself, Reed having given many conflicting explanations about how it came to be. There seem to be two diametrically opposed schools of thought on MMM. Either it was groundbreaking, so far ahead of its time that people simply didn’t understand it, or it was a dumpster fire, an intentional provocation with no artistic merit. Where does the truth lie? I’m not sure anyone knows at this point. Jason Hartley, the originator of The Advanced Genius Theory, probably comes as close as anyone to reconciling these two camps, describing MMM as “the work of an Overt Artist in transition, but it is not the Advanced Irritant that many thought it to be,” then concluding that the “gradual acceptance of Metal Machine Music‘s greatness is yet another example of an Advanced Artist being years ahead of everyone, even though he was himself Overt at the time.” As is so often the case, the genius artist is so far ahead of the curve that people initially think the work sucks.

But that still begs the question – does it actually suck? What if it was just a big middle finger to everyone? Creating a big pile of crap with the intention of pissing people off doesn’t feel very Advanced. Plus Reed was clearly and self-admittedly rolling heavy on amphetamines while recording it. Surely drugs have positively contributed to artistic creativity, but they’ve also completely destroyed some incredibly talented people. Is the whole thing one big speed trip? I doubt we’ll ever know for sure. Reed himself made audacious claims about MMM, that it included frequencies that the federal government deemed illegal to include on recordings (wait, what?? (♦)), and that there were brief passages of classical music buried within under layer after layer of guitar distortion. How much of this was true? Was ANY of it true? And would it matter even if it was?

I’ve toyed with the idea of buying a copy of MMM for a while, but given that I preferred getting a 1975 original pressing and not one of the newer re-pressings (♠) I was having a hard time paying the $50+ that these typically sold for. But the other day I found myself with some some money burning a hole in my pocket and a 20% discount at Tacoma’s Hi-Voltage Records, and those were just the nudges I needed. As soon as I saw it on the wall I knew it was coming home with me.

So now I’m ready to listen to Metal Machine Music for the first time. Or am I? It’s been sitting on the “To Listen To” shelf for weeks, Reed eyeing me as records purchased after MMM get played while it just sits there, patiently waiting. I wonder when it was that someone last played this copy. Has it ever been played all the way through? The vinyl is pristine, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the answer was no. And who knows. Maybe after listening to all 64+ minutes I’ll come to think that the original owners were the smart ones.

About three minute into side A, I’m definitely leaning towards them being the smart ones.

First things first. MMM is a sonic assault. It’s not meant to be enjoyed, but instead experienced. There are people out there who claim to enjoy it, though my guess is that many of them are in fact only pretending to. I’m sure there are a few who actually do like it. But people like all kinds of things, including things that are not only bad for them but actually detrimental. I’m not going to go so far as to imply that MMM will hurt your health, or cause you to relinquish your vinyl and insist that you’re only going to consume music on 8-track from now on, but it may make other people question whether or not you might be a sociopath.

That being said, despite claims to the contrary there is sonic variance across MMM. There aren’t songs, nor are there even interludes – it’s one long, flowing set of sound waves. But different parts of the spectrum move to the fore and recede at intervals to give the entire thing at least some semblance of intentionality. The consistency of the highest parts of the range are, frankly, what I find most troubling, a tinnitus-like sensation that seems to mess with your inner ear in ways that almost make it hard to walk a straight line. And there are the briefest of moments where you sense it coalescing into something cohesive, albeit fleetingly and never long enough to give you a moment or two of respite.

Reed made it clear that heavy amphetamine usage was involved in the making of MMM, and considering how much it makes me want to clench my jaw and grind my teeth, I’m not surprised.

Did I get through all four sides of MMM for this post? In all honesty, no. I listened to A and D (which are on the same record) and then put it away for a while. Thirty-two minutes was enough for one sitting, plus my jaw muscles are getting sore and my dog is starting to get a crazed look in his eyes and a never-before-seen facial tic, all of which tells me I should open a beer and sit in silence for about 32 minutes as a way to get my chi back in alignment.

Verdict? Does it matter, really? I’m glad to have heard MMM, or at the very least half of it, and it did bring some minor revelations with it. Will I pull out the B / C record one of these days and spin it? Who knows. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it stays pristine for many years to come.

(♣) This post is just over 1,300 words, so I have almost 14,000 more to go…

(♦) Reed from a 1976 interview with Lester Bangs: “But anyway, if you check out the rules of the FCC, there’s certain frequencies that it’s illegal to put on a record. The masterer can’t put them on, and they won’t, and you can’t record it. But I go those frequencies on this record. I tested the thing out at shows during intermission. We played it very softly to see what would happen. Which was exactly what I thought would happen – fights, a lot of irritation.”

(♠) It’s ironic that an album that was apparently pulled from the shelves within a handful of weeks of being released and suffered from a shocking level of returns by confused and irate customers was eventually re-pressed decades later. That probably gives a bit of credence to MMM being Advanced.

The Velvet Underground – “Live at Max’s Kansas City” (1972 / 2004)

A few years back I picked up one of the 2004 re-releases of Live at Max’s Kansas City, played it once, and promptly forgot about it. But a few days ago I came into possession of a brand new release of this record, which has not only been remastered but also expanded to a double album with five additional tracks. While I was somewhat ambivalent the first time around, I figured what the hell, let’s give it another play and see what’s up.

Now, to be clear, I’ve never really paid any attention to The Velvet Underground or Lou Reed. It’s not that I dislike them or anything. I just never listened to any of it growing up, with the exception of the seemingly unavoidable “Walk on the Wild Side,” and never dug too deep into the music. In recent years I’ve picked up a few albums here and there, but I’ve never been blown away by them. I realize this is heresy to some. Certainly people way smarter and talented than me have praised the genius and influence of the band and Reed’s solo work, from journalists like Lester Bangs to David Bowie. Hell, Jason Hartley’s Advancement Theory was specifically built around Lou Reed. I’m perfectly willing to accept that likely I’m just missing something.

But back to Live at Max’s Kansas City. (♠) The quality of this pressing is excellent, both from a sonic standpoint as well as the packaging. One thing I enjoy about this show is that it feels intimate, like there wasn’t a big crowd in the room, and Reed sounds exposed on stage when performing and speaking to the crowd, almost shy. At times the small room is a detriment though. While it’s cool to actually be able to hear a little of what people in the crowd are saying, at one brief point we actually are hearing a conversation in the crowd with the music way off in the background. This recording gives an interesting sensation of actually being inside the audience listening to the show as opposed to being on the stage with the band and hearing the audience in a very impersonal way.

Many of The Velvet Underground’s classics are here – “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “White Light/White Heat,” and “Sweet Jane.” “Heroin” is perhaps their biggest missing song, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by someone in the crowd who asked them to play it, only to have Lou reply that they don’t perform it any more. Which is too bad, because while I think Live at Max’s Kansas City is very good, the addition of “Heroin” might have taken it to the next level.

I’m still not a convert to the church of The Velvet Underground, but Live at Max’s Kansas City will continue to find itself on my turntable.


(♠) Which was, in fact, located in New York City, not Kansas or Missouri.

Lou Reed – “Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal” (1974)

Lou Reed died today.

You don’t need to tell you who Lou Reed was, or about how influential his musical was both with the Velvet Underground and as a solo artist. The late Lester Bangs wrote about Reed more effectively than I could ever hope to, so I’d point you in that direction (keeping in mind that Bangs was pretty gonzo in more ways than one). I never went through any kind of Lou Reed phase, other than thinking “Walk on the Wild Side” was a pretty cool song back when I was in high school, probably as much because it had the audacity to say “…and she never lost her head, even when she was giving head…” as for any other reason. That and the Velvet’s version of “Heroin” that appeared on The Doors Movie Soundtrack. He had his hits, he had his epic commercial and critical failures, and he had whatever the hell Metal Machine Music was supposed to be. His career was also the cornerstone of the creation of “Advancement Theory.” He did it with the Velvet Underground, he did it solo, and he even did it with Metallica in 2011’s Lulu. He pretty much did it all.

I’m not entirely sure why I bought Reed’s 1974 live album Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal a few months ago. It was probably because his name just seemed to keep coming up over and over and over again in the books I’ve been reading about punk and popular music. It was recorded live, so I figured it might capture some of his raw energy, and it was used, so it was cheap. So why not. I think I only listened to it once before hearing the news of Reed’s passing today, but it seemed as good a time as any to dust it off for another listen.

Probably the most notable feature of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal is Reed’s great backing band. The guitar playing is fantastic and the group does an excellent job of building the framework that Reed needed in order to play the part of “Lou Reed”. Nowhere is that more evident than on the 13+ minute version of “Heroin,” a song with slow, lethargic, smack-inspired pacing that gradually picks up tempo in a way you don’t notice initially, but eventually becomes a building wave of music and lyrics that spirals seemingly out of control as it reaches it’s apex… but the band always keeps it in control, just moments away from flying apart into a million pieces. It’s a brilliant piece of work, one that is perfect for the song. And, of course, only Lou Reed can follow up a song about heroin with one that is at least in part about taking speed, “How Do You Think It Feels” (“How do you think it feels / When you’re speeding and lonely?”)

I won’t say that Reed left us too soon. He was 71 when he died and had by his own admission put his body through a tremendous amount of drug, alcohol, and sex related abuse, and though all that was seemingly long behind him he still required a liver transplant earlier this year. He lived an interesting life to say the least, experiencing some of the highest highs and the lowest lows that life had to offer, and he left behind a substantial body of work, one which he indicated represented the story of his life just as would a novel.

RIP Lou.