Album #57: Lou Reed – Metal Machine Music

  • Released: 1975
  • Origin: Freeport, New York, USA
  • Label: RCA
  • Best Track: Er…???

When I reviewed Green Day’s Father of All… a few weeks ago, I was pretty scathing, but I’m starting to think I was a bit generous all the same. Music-reviewing YouTuber Anthony Fantano awarded the album 0 out of 10, while Sputnikmusic’s 1.5 out of 5 was only marginally kinder. There’s no doubt it is, was, and always will be a right toilet of a record.

But a rumour is doing the rounds that, if true, helps the album restore a degree of credibility, and Fantano somewhat cryptically alludes to it at the end of his review. Are Green Day so sick of their record deal, they’re deliberately phoning in vacuous, half-arsed music just to see out their contract, and stick two fingers up at Warner in the process?

The fact that Rolling Stone and The Telegraph both somehow saw fit to give Father of All… a 4 out of 5 rating suggests that any such stunt might have backfired, but nonetheless it raises the question of whether music can be good by being deliberately bad. Is there artistic merit in writing wretched material out of protest or petulance? And who is to say what “bad music” actually is?

Artists suspected to have employed this tactic include Joss Stone with her 2009 album Colour Me Free!, the title, artwork and content of which were widely suggested to be a lash out at her record company EMI. Bob Dylan once claimed that his poorly received Self-Portrait album in 1970 was an attempt to quell the hype surrounding himself, although he has backtracked on this somewhat as the years have gone on.

However, one highly controversial album I’ve never got round to listening to is Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. If you’re not familiar with what Reed’s fifth album is all about, it’s basically one continuous piece (divided into four tracks to suit the medium of a vinyl double LP) that consists of wordless, structureless and all but tuneless noise. Why Reed chose to express himself in this way has never entirely been cleared up.

What’s more, not content with subjecting the listener to a full hour of bleeping, grinding feedback, Reed, perhaps with wry humour, even saw fit to add a locked groove to the end of the record, ensuring that if the record was not physically removed from the player, it would in theory torture the listener for eternity.

I didn’t really find this record torturous though. In truth, I found it a little bit boring. Though completely abstract, Metal Machine Music is not particularly abrasive, ethereal or ambient. It kind of just exists, like a car alarm going off outside without anyone doing anything about it. And while it’s not true to say it’s the same all the way through, and in fact there is some melody buried deep within the hubbub, it is fair to say they you could skip from any part of the record to another and not notice a marked difference or a new “part” of the piece.

The most interesting bit is actually the ending and the “infinity loop”, which is replicated in the form of a couple of minutes on the CD and digital version. This has some of that effect minimalists like Steve Reich and Philip Glass achieve by repeating the same vocal or music section until some form of rhythm and melody appear.

I suppose I’m judging this with 2020 ears, aware of what the likes of Merzbow and the Boredoms have done with abstract noise since, and how much today’s acts like Fuck Buttons can milk out of one passage of music with the help of modern electronics. In 1975, before punk had exploded, I suspect I’d have thought Lou Reed was ballsy and cool for doing this.

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