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METAL MACHINE MUSIC: THE MELLOW SIDE OF LOU REED
In 1975, Lou Reed was rich but pissed off. After leaving the Velvet Underground and briefly working as a typist at his father’s accountancy firm (likely the least cool period of Reed’s life until he recorded Lulu with Metallica), Reed signed on with RCA Records to begin a solo career that included several commercial hits and several artistic triumphs, but usually only one or the other (“Take A Walk on the Wild Side” being the biggest exception to this rule).
It seemed like the best-selling stuff was all reworked and reproduced Velvet Underground material, usually with top-quality professionals like Rick Wakeman and David Bowie handling production, which resulted in cleaner, smoother songs about junkie prostitutes, something that many (including, most likely, Lou himself) considered a betrayal of the original songs’ aesthetic.
In any case, RCA was pushing for more albums, and soon after his commercially successful Lou Reed (again featuring several Velvet Underground reworks), the renowned guitarist/vocalist/typist set out to alienate as many fans, critics, and producers as he could with Metal Machine Music—a virtually unendurable hour-long double album comprised strictly of squealing feedback loops. Reviews called it “ear-wrecking electronic sludge” or “the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator,” but RCA was contractually obligated to release the album that legendary rock critic Lester Bangs described as “a giant FUCK YOU” to the recording giant.
Or was it? Bangs’ review also compared the music to the works of avant-garde composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis, and others claimed to identify subtle references to classical music and other hints that the album was more than just an hour of shrieking chaos.
While Reed’s initial comment on the album was “Anyone who gets to side four is dumber than I am,” he later came to claim the work was a deliberate exploration of new sounds (which may even be true—Reed’s VU partner John Cale was part of a musical troupe that spent a lot of time researching long, atonal musical performances) and Metal Machine Music is considered a foundational album among the noise and sound art genres.
If Lou had been hoping to embarrass RCA commercially, he failed in that as well, as the notoriety of what many reviewers considered the worst album ever released ended up boosting MMM sales to over a hundred thousand copies. Whatever Reed had intended, he ended up finishing out his six-album RCA deal and jumping ship to Arista the following year.