‘METAL Machine Music’ may be the record about which more mythology
– good and bad – has grown up than any other in the history of popular
music (a category to which it distinctly fails to belong). It may also be the
most misunderstood.

Immediately after its original release in 1975, Lou Reed’s double album
became the most reviled record of its era. Three weeks later it was withdrawn
from sale, and Reed was informed that anything similar would lead to a
prompt severance of his recording contract. To this day (so he claims), there
is a standard ‘Metal Machine Music clause’ in record contracts, committing
artists to make music that bears a clear resemblance to the kind for which
they were initially employed.

Following his years with the supremely infl uential but commercially
unsuccessful Velvet Underground, Reed had found solo success with a string
of hit singles (‘Walk On The Wild Side’, ‘Vicious’, ‘Satellite Of Love’) and the
album ‘Transformer’ (1972). Typically, he followed it with the determinedly
downbeat (and also critically reviled) ‘Berlin’ (1973), a brilliant conceptual
work which has been subsequently reappraised and revived as a live show.
Yet nothing, least of all the poorly received (but moderately successful) ‘Sally
Can’t Dance’ (1974), could have prepared audiences for ‘Metal Machine
Music’ (1975).

That year the music scene was metamorphosing as never before:
glam’s make-up had started to run and prog rock was spawning the
monstrous new beast of AOR; funk was dancing to a new disco beat, and
even Bowie had turned into a soul singer with ‘Young Americans’. The
backlash began with Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’, while the UK’s
pub-rock circuit was about to spit out a mewling infant called punk. Against
this background, Lou Reed presented RCA Records with ‘Metal Machine
Music’ (subtitle: ‘The Amine Ring’) – a self-styled ‘electronic instrumental
composition’ divided into four precise quarters of 16.01 minutes apiece
of tuneless feedback and amplifi er noise devoid of recognizable rhythm or

‘This record is not for parties/dancing/background, romance,’
wrote Reed, rather unnecessarily, in his notes for the original vinyl release,
provocatively describing the contents as ‘real’ rock. ‘No one I know has
listened to it all the way through, including myself,’ he added helpfully, ‘it’s
not meant to be. Start any place you like … It’s for a certain time and place
of mind.’ Its composer apparently had no illusions about how it would be
greeted. ‘Most of you won’t like this,’ he predicted, ‘and I don’t blame you
at all. It’s not meant for you … Off the record, I love and adore it. I’m sorry,
but not especially, if it turns you off … this is not meant for the market…’
He signed off with a sneer, intended as a Warholian sound bite: ‘My week
beats your year.’

In contemporaneous interviews, Reed, who was at the time mired
in drugs, embarking on a new romantic relationship and splitting from his
manager, repeated his message, stating that, ‘anyone who gets to side 4 is
dumber than I am’. Those of us dumb enough to do so found that the fourth
disc’s vinyl groove ended in a loop, ensuring that the aural torture would
never end.

More than 30 years on, attitudes have changed, and ‘Metal
Machine Music’ is regarded as an infl uential blueprint for what came to be
known as Noise, Industrial and even Ambient music, while Reed is given
to delivering academic discourses on the record as if he was all along a
serious avant-garde composer in the spirit of Stockhausen, Cage, or La
Monte Young. That’s certainly how he played it when Ulrich Krieger of the
German ensemble, Zeitkratzer, came up with the idea of transcribing ‘Metal
Machine Music’ for classical instruments and staging it as a live concert at
MaerzMusik, Haus der Berliner Festspiele on 17 March, 2002. He even
managed to persuade Reed to come along and give an interview onstage,
before playing a brief barrage of warped, distorted, effects-laden guitar for
the fi nal three minutes.

‘I always really loved it,’ Reed told Diedrich Diedrichsen, when he
sat down to discuss it onstage – an encounter that can be witnessed on the
album’s accompanying DVD, along with superb fi lm footage of Zeitkratzer’s
spellbinding performance. ‘There’s all kinds of rumours about this record
– that I made the record to get out of the contract, that it was a joke, that I
didn’t really like it … I really loved it. That’s why I am here.’ A not altogether
alternative theory, to which I like to subscribe, is that the record is/was a
conceptual response to the very notion of ‘pop’(-ular) music.

Reed, whose avowed aim was to make ‘a keyless album of everchanging
rhythm with no lyric or vocal – pure guitar-driven sound in which
to surround and intoxicate yourself,’ explains that the inspiration for it was
his love of guitar feedback and that the record grew out of experiments with
different tunings, leaning guitars against amplifi ers at his loft in Manhattan’s
Garment District, and looping the resulting noise. ‘I like very physical music,’
he elaborates, ‘I like the sound to affect your body, to have the sound
physically touch you. When a sound wave hits another sound wave it makes
something happen ... It was what I liked about rock – freed from a song.’

Reed says in his newly written sleeve notes to the Kreitkratzer release that he
considers it ‘energy music’ (a new genre?) and a continuation of his work
with the Velvets, and asserts that, despite evidence to the contrary, ‘there are
melodies all over the place but you might not catch them at fi rst. It was not
meant to just be a cacophony of noise ... it was not just an assault on you,
some sort of atonal attack, it was more complex than that.’

Listening and, more thrillingly, watching the ensemble perform the
work in its entirety, it’s apparent that there is far more to ‘Metal Machine
Music’ than meets the ear; maybe there always was. Beyond the abrasive
scraping (and there’s pleasure to be had in seeing a stocky German sawing
intently at his instrument, perspiring with concentration as he contributes to
the arrhythmic crescendo), it’s possible to ‘tune in’ to different elements, to
hear the seemingly formless composition gather and change form, to hear
fragments of melody emerge and shift before the ear has identifi ed them.

The intercepting of the fi lm enables us to focus on them in a way that mere
listening (and the overwhelmingly insistent electronic hum of the original
recording) could not do. Within the ‘unlistenable’ framework are individual
moments of bizarre virtuosity: bare fi sts banging on drums in a vain bid to
anchor the maelstrom in some sort of rhythm; a man leaning into the belly
of a grand piano with a block of wood or metal to mute the keys with an
industrial clang; violin bows sawing on cymbals in an effort to create a
climax that never comes; the scratching/screeching/scraping sound of silver
foil on xylophone keys; and, fi nally, Reed himself: the orchestra’s acoustic
cacophony dying down to let his shimmering solo send shards of electronic
noise around the auditorium.

At this moment the piece achieves catharsis: metamorphosis from
the preceding pain/pleasure dichotomy into the reward of a transcendent
moment of pure beauty.