In Defense of … Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’
We defy you, absolutely defy you, to get more than two minutes into Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music.’ You can’t, not even to win a sizable bet. And indeed, it’s odd to defend an album that’s this unlistenable, especially when we’re supposed to be encouraging people to give albums another try.
So why defend ‘Metal Machine Music’? First of all, it was the album that opened the door for industrial music and bands experimenting with feedback loops. (Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth has called it “an incredibly influential record.”) Second, it’s been rumored that the album was, in part, Reed’s big F-you to his record company and a way of fulfilling a contractual obligation, which is certainly a cool way to give the middle finger to the industry.
Which isn’t to say that some of Reed’s fans, as well as critics, didn’t get what he was going for. As Rolling Stone has pointed out, “This was obviously not done to make anybody at the record company happy! No songs, no words, no hooks, it’s so pure that it’s kind of beyond rock ‘n’ roll.”
(Speaking of rock ‘n’ roll, here’s Reed performing his classic song in 1974:)
Legendary rock critic Lester Bangs wrote that “as a statement ['Metal Machine Music' is] great, as a giant F— YOU it shows integrity — a sick, twisted, dunced-out, malevolent, perverted, psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless.”
And indeed, this wasn’t Reed taking a dump on a table, varnishing it and calling it art. On ‘American Masters,’ Reed said, “John Cale had made me more aware of electronic music. I decided to make a piece of music that didn’t have lyrics, didn’t have a steady beat and concentrated on feedback and guitar not being in any particular key, and playing with speeds. I was serious about it. I was also really stoned.”
Everybody loves experimenting and taking risks, as long as it pays off commercially. If an experiment fails, people blame it on artistic overindulgence and ego. Which isn’t to say that ‘Metal Machine Music’ is a failure. We agree with Bangs that as a statement, it is great, especially considering Reed did it without giving a single, solitary s— about commercial potential or potentially alienating his audience, which makes this album a true work of art. Painful to endure, but art nonetheless.