Lou Reed - Metal Machine Music
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
I guess we could have expected something akin to Metal Machine Music to come from Lou Reed. Take the Velvet Underground, for example. Each successive release that was made during his tenure in the band sounded completely different from the other, with only lightly connected bonds between the releases. Despite the small audience of the original Underground, Reed's solo work began to adopt critical and, finally, public acclaim. This led to a conflict inside of Reed. Should he pander to the lowest common denominator and pursue pop for the sake of making money or should he instead go onto the road of the Velvet's, to make music that was less accessible but ultimately more personal and of better standing, in the long run? This question has been asked of many different artists over time, but it was only Reed that ended up with the answer in the end product of something like Metal Machine Music.
Coming in at a lovely 64:04 of time, the "instrumental electronic composition" was split into four distinct segments each measuring 16:01. On the original vinyl version each side had a locked groove, which forced the listener to get up out of their seat and end the side manually rather than let the record player take the needle off of the track automatically at its end. In its essence each track is feedback. It is stereo separated, ear splitting, and mind-altering feedback, but it's feedback, nonetheless. Understanding that this was released before punk rock, Sonic Youth, and Merzbow; Reed can be classified as one of the most prominent popular innovators of noise rock.
The waves of distortion are a bit to get through, and by the time that the record has ended you know that you have completed quite a task. Your ears, if the piece is turned up loud, feel as though they have been through a war. No one can really know exactly why Metal Machine Music was released by a major label, let alone one as large as RCA. I suppose that many music consumers came home after buying the new Lou Reed album and were shocked to hear what was coming out of their speakers. Without the internet to read the multitude of reviews available, I can just see an average Joe buying the record on blind faith that Reed would repeat his pop sensibility of albums such as Rock n' Roll Animal and Sally Can't Dance. The joke was on them and Metal Machine Music soon went out of print. Thankfully, it was re-released earlier this year on Buddha Records and I was able to pick it up.
In sum, if you want to indulge the pretentious art student residing in that pretentious indie rocker shell that you have constructed so well I'd definitely recommend Metal Machine Music. If all else fails, it's good as a conversation piece. And be sure to remember what Lou Reed said about it, "Well, anyone who gets to side four is dumber than I am."