Eat Your Vegetables: Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music

Consisting of nothing more than one hour of two overlaid tracks of guitar feedback, Metal Machine Music ranks near the top of music history's shit list in terms of total amount of critical bile received. Houston's own Ramon Medina summed up the album's status succinctly on the NonAlignment Pact blog:

"There are two general reactions to Metal Machine Music. The first is that is utter unlistenable crap. The second is that Lou Reed was playing an elaborate prank on RCA's classical label and enjoying it should be done while basking in irony."

From reading about MMM on the Webernet, it really seems like those are the dominant and even canonical responses to the album. Lester Bangs, who supposedly had a more positive opinion than most, said, "As rock 'n' roll, it's interesting garage electronic rock 'n' roll. As a statement it's great, as a giant FUCK YOU it shows integrity - a sick, twisted, dunced-out, malevolent, perverted, psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless."

I'm not sure what "garage electronic rock 'n' roll" is, and I see his point at the end there, but it doesn't really sound like Bangs liked it much, deep down. Hey, at least he tried.

Another common reaction is shock that anyone would listen to the thing all the way through. All Music Guide makes no bones in its one-star review: "confronting Metal Machine Music from front to back in one sitting is an experience that's both brutal and numbing... for the record, I did get to side four. But I got paid for it."

Good for you. Maybe AMG should have hired someone to review the record that didn't mind listening to a noise record now and then.

For you see, they do exist. Yes, there are people who find it pleasant, even relaxing, to put on a noise record. In this case at least, I am one of them. Ramon is another. I had never heard MMM before researching this post, but I tell you what, it is far from the most abrasive music in the world, far less harsh than I even imagined.

If you don't like noise, fine. You don't have to listen to it. But you should at least be able to recognize after 20-plus years that it is a real form that should be judged on its own terms. And on those terms, MMM is a quite enjoyable minimalist feedback piece. It probably didn't (and did) help that Lou Reed was (sorta) a rock and roll star and not an unknown academic weirdo. I don't see any one-star reviews of that record where Iannis Xenakis recorded train cars coupling.

Protein: 50%. Fugazi and Sonic Youth both do feedback workouts that don't sound too different from MMM; hard noise surely owes it some kind of debt. But my gut feeling is that noise artists don't at MMM as a canonical work. I could be wrong, though.

Fiber: 60%. There aren't many specific musical lessons to be learned from MMM in terms of noise; it's pretty self-explanatory. Although it is instructive to see how the unlistenable cacophony of 1975 compares to experimental music today, of both the mainstream and underground varieties. As a jumping-off point for a conversation about genre, objectivity and audience expectations, it's hard to beat.

Sugar: 70%. I enjoyed it. Sure it goes on a little long, but it might take me ten seconds to come up with 20 hour-long rock records I have trouble getting through (...And Justice For All, looking your way). Maybe I was at KTRU for too many years, but I really don't see what the big deal is about this album being all "unlistenable."

Fat: 50%. This is a tough call, as it depends both on Reed's motivation and the critical reception (i.e. drubbing) of the record. Was he serious or is it a childish joke? Did he expect people to like it? Does it get points for being named No. 2 in the book The Worst Rock 'n' Roll Records of all time, and do those points also depend on Reed's reasons for making it?

Part of a balanced breakfast? Hell yeah. Suck it, Q magazine.

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Daniel Mee