Metal Machine Music

[This was originally published in the soon to be defunct Philadelphia Independent‘s post-election issue (vol 1 issue 20 early winter 2004). It is slightly edited from that version (which isn’t online anyway).]

Lou Reed. Metal Machine Music. RCA: 1975. 25th Anniversary CD edition from Buddha Records (2000).

The story goes (and for the sake of the metaphor, I’ll go along with it) that Lou Reed set up two guitars and two amps and then let them feedback into each other. Thus we have Metal Machine Music: screeching, wailing, droning feedback (more than every Sonic Youth album put together). That’s all. The great Lester Bangs, in his exaggerated way, proclaimed it “the greatest album ever made in the history of the human eardrum” and the “best medicine” for the “worst hangover… to prepare you for what’s in store for the rest of the day.” [1]

In its time, the double album consisted of four tracks, each on one side. Now the four tracks are on CD, each about sixteen minutes long, though sadly unable to reproduce the locked groove on the last track of the original album which forced the listener to get up and turn it off (or it wouldn’t stop). Sixteen minutes of feedback, modulated to different frequencies is not as repetitious as you might think. A lot of variation can be created from feedback, but you have to listen to Metal Machine Music on headphones (I walk around with it playing on my iPod). Each ear is a completely different channel, competing with the other. Sometimes the left side comes to the fore, sometimes the right. Sometimes they both blast away at once: dueling “voices”. Sometimes the high wail sounds like a baby screaming, or maybe an engine, a motor, a plane, a bird.

At first it is completely obnoxious, disturbing, an assault on your ears, on your conscious surroundings (the noise gives everything a sharp edge), but the longer it goes on, the more you become accustomed to the assault. It fades into the background; you start thinking again over the noise. And then the silence, the tracks don’t so much stop as just cut off, abruptly. Blessed silence. After that noise, the silence is an enlightenment, a presence in the absence, palpable. For a few seconds things are clear… until the next track starts.

Language eventually fails us. The point comes where sense is lost, where meaning can no longer be conveyed with words, where expression is impossible. Metal Machine Music has no words.

[1] Bangs, Lester. “The Greatest Album Ever Made.” Cream March 1976. Rpt. in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Ed. Greil Marcus. New York: Anchor Books, 2003.