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[whitespace] The Art of Noise

'Metal Machine Music' clatters back

By Greg Cahill

PITY THE POOR neighbors. It's the hot summer of 1975 and Lou Reed--an unlikely superstar with five solo albums, including the 1972 classic Transformer and 1973's conceptual masterwork Berlin, and the underground cache of having been a member of the Andy Warhol-created art-rock band Velvet Underground--is squirreled away in his New York apartment experimenting with feedback. Lots and lots of feedback.

"Just for fun," as he recalls, Reed would explore unusual tunings, stand a pair of guitars in front of one of these amplifiers--one of these really big amplifiers--crank up the volume, and just let 'em rip! The guitars would go through a series of tortured transmogrifactions, making all kinds of weird and eerie sounds and blending an electric brew of harmonics previously unheard by the human ear.

It was as if the damn things were alive.

Reed decided to document the effect. Armed with a trusty four-track recorder, he laid down a series of tracks, mixing the album himself in his apartment (the neighbors! The poor fucking neighbors!), manipulating the speed and tone of the basic tracks and separating them into distinct stereo channels--one blaring into the right ear, the other blaring into the left ear, with no middle channel--to give a most disturbing and almost schizophrenic effect, like listening to two pieces of music at the same time.

Then Reed--who was pissed off at his record company for demanding too much product and wanting another "Walk on the Wild Side"-type radio hit--unleashed the finished product, on a major label no less, on an unsuspecting public (bear in mind that Peter Frampton was the biggest thing around at that time). The recording was split into four 16-minute segments (which fit neatly onto four vinyl sides), with a lock groove at the end of side 4 so the damn thing would play for an eternity unless you pulled your stunned self off the sofa to lift the tone arm.

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, Metal Machine Music: An Electronic Instrumental Composition (RCA) hit the record-store racks. It caused an immediate sensation, which is to say no one listened to it at the time and folks are still arguing today if it is high art or a bad joke. Now, the limited-edition 25th anniversary CD version has been released on the Buddha label. It's still unlistenable, but we have a chance to argue about the meaning of Metal Machine Music all over again.

Of course, gonzo music journalist Lester Bangs of Creem immediately hailed the recording as "the greatest album ever made in the history of the human eardrum." The more staid Rolling Stone dismissed Metal Machine Music as "a gigantic 'fuck you' disguised as a groundbreaking experiment." In fact, in his 1975 Rolling Stone review, critic James Wolcott likened the recording to "the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator" and "spending the night in a bus terminal." The Trouser Press Record Guide has since noted that "if [Reed] was simply looking to goad people and puncture perceptions, [the album] was a rousing success."

Reed himself has called the album "the perfect soundtrack for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

LOVE IT or hate it, there is no question that, in those still innocent pre-punk days--the Sex Pistols and their offspring wouldn't rattle the rafters for another two years--Reed delivered a powerful Dadaist avant-rock statement that has since drawn comparisons to the experimental works of jazz-great Cecil Taylor and such contemporary classical composers as Stockhausen and Elliott Carter. Indeed, Metal Machine Music, for all its atonal ambiance, was a revelation to a handful of young and influential industrial and indie-rock musicians, including Sonic Youth and even Neil Young (who released an entire CD of feedback on 1991's Arc/Weld), who helped set the tone for modern rock, pop, and techno music in the '80s, '90s, and 2000.

"I wasn't just squealing and making noises," Reed insisted on the fake spec notes on the back of the original 1975 release, "But if you just like loud feedbacking guitars--well, there it is."

Judge for yourself. But, dear god, pity on the poor neighbors.

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From the February 15-21, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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