B12 Solipsism

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Metal Machine Music’s Improbable Second Act

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“Metal Machine Music” (Lou Reed)

I am endlessly amused that Lou Reed’s famous Fuck You album has gotten a second life, and is being performed by live musicians. I was foolish enough to have owned a copy of it once, but have since sold it. Just not something I could ever bear to hear more than a few seconds of. In concept, a rather clever idea, but in practice, pretty difficult to enjoy.

Reed recorded his 1975 album “Metal Machine Music” (RCA) by leaning guitars against amplifiers, cranking them up until the feedback screamed, playing melodies amid the sonic melee and layering and manipulating the results, including changing the tape speed of some parts. Then he chose four segments for 16-minute LP sides.

It sounded like a riot in a shortwave radio factory: a fusillade of sustained, pulsating and scurrying electronic tones that adds up to a hyperactive drone, as consonant as the overtone series. It was proudly anticommercial and defiantly arty. It was Minimalistic process music at rock volume, an impersonal wall of sound. Now, 35 years later, it also sounds unexpectedly merry.

Ulrich Krieger had the bizarre idea of transcribing that thicket of tones to be played by live musicians. It took considerable time and the help of a partner, Luca Venitucci, to analyze the welter of information; they had finished only three of the four sections when the transcription had its premiere in 2002. Now they have four. At the Miller Mr. Krieger directed a 16-member, amplified ensemble of strings, winds, guitar, accordion, piano and percussion, though there was no conductor. The music is in proportional notation, played to a clock; a violinist periodically stood up to signal.

The transcription changes everything. It corresponds to some of the more perceptible events of the original: sudden dropouts and surges of certain registers, rhythmic throbs, the squeal when a high overtone suddenly appears, the suggestion of a melodic moment. But the original “Metal Machine Music” has no narrative line, no direction. It simply, and wildly, exists. There are few intentional phrases or interactions between parts, and no sense of ensemble. That’s what humans bring, no matter how conceptually disciplined

[Click to continue reading Music Review – Fireworks Ensemble – More Strings for Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’ – NYTimes.com]

Like I said, I am amused that this piece of agit-pop is being performed by classically trained musicians.

From the Metal Machine Music wikipedia page:

According to Reed (despite the original liner notes), the album entirely consists of guitar feedback played at different speeds. The two guitars were tuned in unusual ways and played with different reverb levels. He would then place the guitars in front of their amplifiers, and the feedback from the very large amps would vibrate the strings — the guitars were, effectively, playing themselves. He recorded the work on a four-track tape recorder in his New York apartment, mixing the four tracks for stereo. In its original form, each track occupied one side of an LP record and lasted exactly 16 minutes and 1 second, according to the label. The fourth side ended in a locked groove that caused the last 1.8 seconds of music to repeat endlessly. The rare 8-track tape version has no silence in between programs, so that it plays continuously without gaps on most players.

A major influence on Reed’s recording, and an important source for an understanding of Reed’s seriousness with the album, was the mid-1960s drone music work of La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music (whose members included John Cale, Tony Conrad, Angus Maclise and Marian Zazeela). Both Cale and Maclise were also members of The Velvet Underground (Maclise left before the group began recording). The Theater of Eternal Music’s discordant sustained notes and loud amplification had influenced Cale’s subsequent contribution to the Velvet Underground in his use of both discordance and feedback. Recent releases of works by Cale and Conrad from the mid-sixties, such as Cale’s Inside the Dream Syndicate series (The Dream Syndicate being the alternative name given by Cale and Conrad to their collective work with Young) testify to the influence this important mid-sixties experimental work had on Reed ten years later.

In an interview with rock journalist Lester Bangs, Reed claimed that he had intentionally placed sonic allusions to classical works such Beethoven’s Eroica and Pastoral Symphonies in the distortion, and that he had attempted to have the album released on RCA’s Red Seal classical label;

[Click to continue reading Metal Machine Music – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]


“Metal Machine Music” (Lou Reed)

original Rolling Stone Magazine review from James Wolcott, 1975

Lou Reed’s new set, a two-record electronic composition, is an act of provocation, a jab of contempt, but the timing is all wrong. In its droning, shapeless indifference, Metal Machine Music is hopelessly old-fashioned. After a decade of aesthetic outrages, four sides of what sounds like the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator just aren’t going to inflame the bourgeoisie (whoever they are) or repel his fans (since they’ll just shrug and wait for the next collection). Lou Reed is disdainfully unveiling the black hole in his personal universe, but the question is, who’s supposed to flinch?
The critics. In a recent interview, Reed’s metabolism was in its usual inert state until the subject of critics came up, at which point he became agitated, lashing out at several. Reed probably conceived M/M/M knowing that only critics would pay serious attention to the damn thing. In the liner notes he admits that he hasn’t listened to it all the way through, and in the interview the claim that he made for M/M/M was that playing it “would clear the room.”

Well, I have. Played it, that is. Once. Which is one of the better feats of endurance in my life, equal to reading The Painted Bird, sitting through Savage Messiah and spending a night in a bus terminal in Hagerstown, Maryland. Yet, when my turntable mercifully silenced Lou Reed’s cosmic scrapings, I felt no anger, no indignation, not even a sense of time wasted, just mild regret. Avant-garde artists (Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Andy Warhol) have been experimenting with ennui as a concept for so long that it’s no longer daring to tax the audience’s patience by being deliberately, intensely boring. By now, one knows how to respond to such distended buzzing: One simply tunes out and tunes back in when the action picks up. Reed himself understands this: “I’m like everybody else, I watch things on TV,” he sings on “Satellite of Love.”

[Click to continue reading Lou Reed: Metal Machine Music : Music Reviews : Rolling Stone]

and from an interesting Lou Reed interview with Pitchfork writer Amanda Petrusich

Reed: The myth– depends on how you look at it, but the myth is sort of better than the truth. The myth is that I made it to get out of a recording contract. OK, but the truth is that I wouldn’t do that, because I wouldn’t want you to buy a record that I didn’t really like, that I was just trying to do a legal thing with. I wouldn’t do something like that. The truth is that I really, really, really loved it. I was in a position where I could have it come out. I just didn’t want it to come out and have the audience think it was more rock songs. It was only on the market for three weeks anyway. Then they took it away.

Pitchfork: Right, I read that it was the most returned record at that time…

Reed: It still may be the all-time champ.

Pitchfork: Do you think the critical and commercial response would have been different if it had been released on a classical label or an avant-garde label?

Reed: I haven’t a clue. I tried to have it released on the classical label at RCA. And on it, it says “An Electronic Composition”. That means no words.

Pitchfork: Plus it’s got that cover…

Reed: That’s a rock’n’roll cover, that’s for sure.

Pitchfork: As a songwriter in 1975, what kinds of contextual or personal cues made you want to experiment with things like drone, volume, and sustained sound?

Reed: In the Velvet Underground, my guitar solos were always feedback solos, so it wasn’t that big of a leap to say I want to do something that’s nothing but guitar feedback, that doesn’t have a steady beat and doesn’t have a key. All we have to do is just have fun on the guitar, you don’t have to worry about key and tempo. We just had tons of feedback and melody and licks flying around all over the place. I had two huge amps, and I would take two guitars and tune them a certain way and lean them against the amps so they would start feeding back. And once they started feeding back, both of them, their sounds would collide and that would produce a third sound, and then that would start feeding and causing another one and another one, and I would play along with all of them.

[Click to continue reading Pitchfork: Interviews: Lou Reed]

Written by Seth Anderson

February 9th, 2010 at 6:00 am

Posted in Music

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