Metal Machine Music 40 Years Later-Sheer Genius or the Biggest Scam Ever Foisted Upon the Rock World?

More ink has been spilled, more typewriter ribbons have been trashed, more teeth have been gnashed on the subject of this album than any album in the history of rock n roll. Why? Simple-nobody has ever been able to come up with a clear answer-is this record a scam to get out of a record contract? Is it some well thought out con and deep seated revenge plan against the record industry? Or is it one of the most brilliant and misunderstood albums in music history?. Let’s investigate the record that launched more returns than any album in the history of rock:

MMM

From Sonic Pariah to Cult Classic

In the summer of 1975, rock n roll was king. And getting huge in scope and in numbers. The Rolling Stones launched their debauched “Tour of Americas”, Yes took on stadiums with their second leg of the Relayer tour, Led Zeppelin pillaged the States like an unstoppable Visigoth invasion, The Who cut a swath from November to December-arenas were full, stadium shows started to get booked, and kids flocked en masse for the insanity that was a US mid 1970’s concert experience. Live albums (especially double live albums) started to sprout in the industry like mushrooms after a rain. Industry folks pushed for live albums from most of their artists. Kiss, Bob Marley, Santana, Grand Funk, Robin Trower, King Crimson and more initiated the era of live lp’s that is usually marked by the massive Frampton Comes Alive (recorded in ’75 and released January 1976).

So when Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music quietly slipped out in June of 1975, and little publicity surrounded it, the public was left to its own devices to figure it out. You can’t realy blame kids for being fooled. Look at the cover-Lou looking cool onstage. A double album. Esoteric electronic gobbledy-gook for liner notes. A live tour featuring Doug Yule of the Velvet Underground currently underway. Of course this had to be a live album, right? Rock n Roll Animal had exposed the more mainstream rock audience to the weirdness of Lou in a live rock format. Walk on the Wild Side had given him radio exposure. He was becoming a known and intriguing rock figure. Metal Machine Music sold well in chain and department stores across the country in the beginning of the summer, but then something happened. Kids opened it up, popped on side one, and were met by what the Rolling Stone Record Guide called:

“a two-disc set consisting of nothing more than ear-wrecking electronic sludge, guaranteed to clear any room of humans in record time”

What? That’s not rock n roll! What is it? Let’s give the reader a taste of what the listener encountered forty years ago. This is part 1.

People were frightened, perplexed and offended. Many assumed the album was defective. I mean-were these songs? Is it even listenable? (Lou once let slip this quote: “If you can stand to listen to the entire album in one sitting, you are truly a unique human being… maybe not even human… Myself, i’ve only listened to maybe 40 min of it before I felt like my head would explode.”) There is no discernible melody, nor apparently are there any instruments being played.  Some genuinely thought it was a pressing plant mistake, a huge defect and fuck up that somehow had escaped the attention of quality control. And to a clerk at a department store trying to judge whether the customer was telling the truth? How would they be able to tell? It sounded like a washing machine about to throw a belt mixed with a transmission gearbox about to fling wrecked splinters of metal all over the road. Of course it was deemed defective. It was returned in droves. There was no press on it, and most stuck with the view that it was a huge record plant mistake, and money back was offered, and the allegedly defective lps started to pile up in warehouses across the country. It was withdrawn from release within three weeks as RCA circled the wagons and tried to figure out who the joke was on, who’s head would roll, and more difficultly-was it even a joke? It did however claim the honor of garnering the most returns of any album ever released.

Some may see that words do not do this album justice in view of the ‘full experience’. Each side was exactly 16 min 1 sec in length according to the label( Some sides seem to vary from this standardized time, but are pretty close) Side four was labeled “16:01 or ∞”, as it had a locked groove, playing forever in a loop until you took the needle off the vinyl. A nice masochistic touch for one of the most notoriously torturous listening experiences ever (#2 in the Worst Albums of All Time 1991 book).

But if it was a scam, what was the purpose and what was the target? Lou himself has stood by the album up until his death. This essential question bugged one of the most famously cantankerous rock critics on the planet-Lester Bangs.

lester bangs

Enter Lester Bangs

Lester was famed as a free lance writer unafraid to throw himself into a story with wanton abandon. Booze? Drugs? Essential to the journey towards truth. Lester latched on to Metal Machine Music as a combination of cause celebre and enfant terrible. He penned many pieces on the subject of MMM, all are highly recommended. Read one here. All are worth seeking out. He hounded Lou for interviews, trying to get to the depths of the creation of the recording. Were there instruments actually on it or was it processed feedback? (The album says it was all table and rack mount generators and processors humming and squealing into each other, but later Lou said it was guitars feeding back set in front of amps and recorded. Yet another mystery unsolved)

Lou had always claimed that the album was supported by the RCA Red Seal classical division, and that according to Lou, this album was taken very seriously by the president of the RCA Red Seal . He insisted that there were many levels of sound going on (there are) and that buried deep inside are references to Beethoven’s Third Symphony and Pastorale symphony many levels down. “But show me exactly where” Bangs asked on the point of exasperation. Lou indifferently refused to answer and just said “it’s there”, as if he knew he was lying. Bangs remained doubtful of this ex post-facto attempt at legitimizing the classical stamp.

But could this album actually be what Lou claimed, an avant-garde electronic classical piece? There is some evidence to back this up. Before the Velvet Underground had come along, John Cale had been working with famed electronic composer LaMonte Young in New York City. Along with Tony Conrad, they were experimenting with sonic drones, some pieces being over 24 hours in length. The effect on the consciousness of the listener was the end game here. Reed had been exposed by Cale to this scene, and the noise of the early Velvet’s feedback sessions (see: Sister Ray) reflects some of this influence. Was he teasing Bangs and testing his knowledge of the electronic scene of  the mid and early 60’s? Bangs was not unaware of the work of Stockhausen, Young and Xenakis, but felt Lou was a pretender to the scene, and dismissed this release…then was intrigued… then tongue in cheek worshipped it (read that one here.). He obsessed over it until his death.

Tales of Madness

I had heard of this album spoken of in hushed tones when I was younger. ‘A dangerous album’ big kids said. Others dismissed it as a scam. It commanded high prices even in the early 80’s on vinyl. I found a copy in the dollar bin of a college record store when I was 17. I was a bit incredulous but noticed it only had one of the albums in it. “That’s more than plenty” opined the clerk when I asked if I needed the whole thing and why so cheap. Later in life I had an acquaintance that had an eight track player bolted to his bedroom ceiling. Metal Machine Music was in it and it played non-stop, 24-7 for months. If he needed to listen to his stereo, he played his regular record player and turned it up loud  to be heard over the munching away of MMM. He did this for years, on endless loop (what 8 Tracks do) forever. What this would do to the psyche of a fragile 70’s rock kid is unknown, but he later took to cruising in his sixties Oldsmobile shitbox chugging cough syrup and cranking Black Sabbath at aircraft landing volumes around town. I recently got a mint copy on eBay, and was delighted in the holy relic in its entirety. I strapped into the record room and hit launch. Strangely, I found much of it soothing. It was a bit like Terry Riley on speed. Hypnotic mantras repeating whispers of insanity that just made you pay attention despite your probably knowing better. But I liked it, and got through the whole thing in one sitting. Forty years later, and in view of what has come since, it hung together pretty well.

The Final Cut

ln the final run, this album ended up hugely influential. Everyone from Sonic Youth to Nine Inch Nails to Throbbing Gristle owe a significant debt to this record. Hell, the whole industrial and noise scenes could be viewed as direct progeny of this unassuming record. Is it one of the most accurate portrayals of the simultaneous delights and horrors of extensive amphetamine shriek? Is it as Lou said in a 2007 interview “the greatest and longest guitar solo ever”? Reed obfuscated until the end. So one part overwhelming affront to the senses, one part mid 60’s electronic classical music, one part musical joke, one part “Fuck You” to the industry he delighted in screwing with? Remember, he was trained by Andy Warhol from 1965-1967 in promotion and perception. Multi leveled pranks that masquerade as art were Andy’s forte, and it is quite possible that we will have to forever leave this mystery unsolved. Reed has left few clues, but gave evidence that he was chuffed at not being taken seriously as a modern classical musician- something John Cale had effortlessly accomplished (see his 1971 album with Terry Riley-Church of Anthrax),  and something Young and Xenakis had done a decade before with some very similar approaches to sound. Will we ever know the truth?  As a record store colleague once said to me, “there’s certainly months more of work to investigate further, but I just avant-garde the time.”. .

A quick addendum: With decades of retrospect at this point, Metal Machine Music occupies much of the same territory of music history as George Harrison’s much maligned 1969 Moog synthesizer album, Electronic Sound on the Zapple imprint. People took both of these albums as perplexing and perhaps insulting. Many people felt ripped off in general, while critics remained split. Did Harrison and Reed create works so ahead of their time that nobody understood them? This argument holds more water with Metal Machine Music than Electronic Sound, yet that question will always linger…”Was it all a self indulgent workout that was better left unheard, or a scam to screw with us, or were these guys just that far ahead of the curve?”  Let the sounds wash over you and then decide.

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