Lou Reed Interview: Metal Machine Music Revisited
, October 28th, 2013 05:00
The Metal Machine Trio tour of the UK and Europe starts this Sunday. Their leader Lou Reed has always trod the fine line between 'rock & roll star' and 'serious artist', and never more so than on his 1975 album, Metal Machine Music. John Doran asks him about this period . . . and waits a painfully long time for the answers
"I was trying to do the ultimate guitar solo. And I didn't want to be locked into a particular drum beat, or pattern or a particular key or beat that was the idea. Just guitars, guitars, guitars."
There can be something of a schism between those who collect records and other kinds of serious music fan. The latter can approach fandom of a group or artist from a more emotional spectrum, reacting first and foremost to the grain of the artist's voice and their accomplishments as a musician and how they look on stage or present themselves in interviews. Those who collect vinyl and CDs sometimes seem more like archivists or historians interested in the minutiae and the ephemera associated with the artist; with having a detailed account of the factual history. The latter might have nothing more than a handful of albums and compilations and a mound of ticket stubs and oft-recounted colourful anecdotes from the music press. The former is more likely to have a dizzying array of foreign pressings, picture discs and withdrawn singles and might not even have watched the artist in question live or even, in some cases, listen to them that often. This, of course, is a very extreme depiction of events and most of the time it is less of a schism and more of a Venn Diagram with both circles mainly overlapping. However, once in a while a record is released that kind of sums up the differences between music fans and record collectors eloquently yet without words and probably the daddy of all these records is Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed.
This double album of cacophonous racket, of feedback, squealing white noise, tape loops of static and mind-numbing drone is simultaneously one of the most reviled and celebrated albums of all time amongst fans of extreme rock, followers of the avant garde and vinyl enthusiasts alike. It certainly is in contention for taking the prize for album least listened to and most talked about. Reed himself, speaking from New York says the following about the record: "My goal at the time was to have a sound in which to surround and intoxicate yourself. I made it out of love for guitar-driven feedback and the squall of the metal machine."
It has certainly collected urban myths and gossip to the level that is usually reserved for the likes of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Variously people say that it was recorded as a grand ‘fuck you' gesture to RCA to get him freed from a restrictive recording contract with the label; that it is the most returned album in the history of recorded music; that listening to it could cause epilepsy and other brain dysfunctions among certain types of people; that record labels began to write the Metal Machine Music clause into band contracts, stating that artists could not turn in an album that "didn't sound like themselves". But also after a time lag of decades rather than years it has also proved to be an extremely influential album, though possibly only by accident. Metal Machine Music had a deep impact (outside of the very narrow NYC avant garde scene) on a young Thurston Moore, who was only four years away from forming Sonic Youth with Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo. Its atonal wall of screeching noise would inform them on and off over the next three decades. If the album was treated by most as some kind of dark joke being played by a crotchety junkie directly on his audience at the time, it now seems prescient in predicting the whole noise scene, decades rather than years later. Fans of leftfield music who attend All Tomorrow's Parties festival held at the enormous Butlins complex in Minehead will find alongside bigger acts such The Fall and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, bands such as doom/drone titans Sunn O))) and noisemongers Wolf Eyes playing in front of literally thousands of people. It is the ultimate example of what your dad would say to you in incomprehension when you first listened to rock & roll, punk, grunge, or heavy metal: "That's not music, that's just noise." Except now your dad has actually been proved right. It is just noise.
But to understand where this record has come from you have to go back to his original roots. Lou Reed is and always has been a completely conflicted person. He is unsure whether he is an old school rock & roller or part of the avant garde pushing back sonic boundaries. He vacillated between being the extrovert, leather clad, make-up wearing, junkie (Rock n Roll Animal Live, Transformer, Street Hassle) and the relatively sensible, introverted, singer song writer (Coney Island Baby, Growing Up In Public). However this conflict was visible from the start.
Long before The Velvet Underground, in 1957 Reed recorded a doo-wop single called ‘Leave Her' as a member of The Jades (formerly The Shades). Yet it seems that a darker more socially transgressive side to him was also being pushed under the surface. He underwent electric shock therapy in a psychiatric institution in order to try and "cure" him of homosexual tendencies. He later stated dryly: "They put the thing down your throat so you don't swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. That's what was recommended in Rockland County to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. You can't read a book because you get to page seventeen and have to go right back to page one again."
While at Syracuse University he also got exposed to the burgeoning avant garde jazz movement. His obvious talents as a down home rock & roller were spotted by Pickwick records in the mid 60s and they employed him to churn out juke box tunes as a staff writer. It was during this time that he met John Cale, the classically trained student of La Monte Young and John Cage who also prompted him to explore more leftfield avenues with his music.
Together they formed the nucleus of The Velevet Underground who would be the first expression of his love for the fusion of ‘low' culture rock and ‘high' brow avant-garde. The group recorded their most challenging pieces for their second album White Light/White Heat. The tracks ‘The Gift' and ‘Sister Ray' in particular sound like the destruction of rock & roll, its rigid and simplistic structures breaking down and melting in the hot furnace of overdriven noise.
But having punctured through this wall in 1967, it wouldn't be until 1975 that it was destroyed altogether by Metal Machine Music. Speaking at the time Reed was in much more combative spirits claiming: "Most of you won't like this, and I don't blame you at all." Since then, as is his nature, he has swung back and forth either defending the album to the hilt or dismissing it as some kind of joke (he has often claimed to have never listened past side three, something he angrily denies today). When I speak to him he is in a foul mood. (My good friend and colleague Jeremy Allen spoke to him just prior to me and his similarly traumatic and stressful interview with him is republished in Stool Pigeon's new Grace Under Pressure book.)
To be fair to him he isn't outright rude in a straightforward manner. True, he doesn't answer any question you ask, but just lets it hang there amidst an uncomfortable silence until you ask the next question which prompts him to immediately start addressing the previous inquiry. He gets round the thorny issue of not answering questions he doesn't want to by either pretending not to hear or just answering a totally different question altogether. And this is after the list of all the stuff you are briefed by his publicist and two different PAs and a manager not to ask him about. Drugs? "Absolutely not." Punching David Bowie and making him cry? "No way." Lester Bangs? "Ha ha ha! No." The Velvet Underground? "Under no circumstances." Did he really get married to a man in the early 70s? "Please don't ask him that." And so on. This said his voice is rich and his humour is so dry as to be almost arid or parched but occasionally laugh out loud funny nonetheless. And each time your finger hovers over the phone about to hang up in exasperation you think exactly what he wants you to think: "I can't hang up – it's Lou fucking Reed. Maybe if I soldier on I'll crack him right open." Dream on, thinks Lou the enigma; a man who once stated good naturedly: "I have given up speaking to journalists. They are a species of foul vermin."
My first question about the album is a plea for him to set some of the historical facts straight. For example, is it an urban myth that he used the album to get out of his contract with RCA? He answers unwaveringly: "No, it's not the truth. I wouldn't put out a record I don't like just to get out of a contract. That's ridiculous but it is a great story. It's almost a shame to say it's not true. But in fact it's not true. I made it because I liked it not to get out of a contract." He pauses for what feels like half a life time and just as I start saying something else he adds in a sinister tone: "There are other ways of getting out of a contract." That said, nearly everything he says sounds sinister. It probably sounds sinister when he asks for a pint of milk.
Is it true now that there is the euphemistically termed Metal Machine Music clause in most record contracts to prevent people from releasing "unhinged" albums?
Lou Reed: That's another urban myth that I've been told. I'm not sure if it's true or not but on the other hand David Geffen sued Neil Young for giving him an un-Neil Young record. Who knows – I've been told there's such a thing but generally under the heading of ‘you must give in a record that's the kind of thing that we signed you for in the first place'.
Presumably when RCA first got handed the record they must have generally been horrified, but was there anyone in your corner?
LR: I had the president of RCA in my corner. I mean the idea was not to put it out as a rock record and to let people know it was electronic and it didn't have songs on it. It was going to be released under their Red Seal imprint as a classical record. But then they put it out as a rock & roll album, with a rock & roll sleeve. Well, it was taken off the market in three weeks, it had the highest levels of returns of any record ever released. And record stores said that they would never carry any of my records ever again. And that was the end of me. That's what happened.
Did it take much persuasiveness on your part to get Coney Island Baby released a year later?
LR: No one wanted me to go near a studio after Metal Machine Music. But my friend Mr Ken Glancy at RCA gave me another chance.
I just wanted to talk about the actual process involved in the making of the original album. How hard a process was it to make the equipment do all these things that it wasn't designed to do?
LR: It was great, great fun. I was trying to do the ultimate guitar solo. And I didn't want to be locked into a particular drum beat, or pattern or a particular key or beat that was the idea. Just guitars, guitars, guitars.
Presumably you didn't have neighbours to worry about. You recorded it in a loft space.
LR: Yup. I used to live with my amps. It's a good title for something. I had a loft in the garment district and would record at 5am in the morning when no one was around. I would set the guitars up to feedback and then the two waves of sound would hit each other causing a new sound and then another and then another... Across these I played various melodies and manipulated the speed they were recorded at. I thought of it as energy music and a continuation of my work with the Velvet Underground.
That is interesting, because I was reading the original liner notes before and there was a bit where you describe it as possibly being a gift and how maybe this was a link between Metal Machine Music and the Velvet Underground song ‘The Gift' from White Light/White Heat?
LR: No, that was just to say, you know, this isn't an assault – it is a present. This is a long, long time ago and you're asking me to interpret myself?
I have done my home work. I am aware that you've said in the past that your liner notes should be taken with a pinch of salt.
LR: A pinch? Perhaps a gallon.
At the time I think you were actually treated unfairly. Given the amount of people involved with avant garde noise in New York City from La Monte Young to the various members of the Velvet Underground, why did they pick on you?
LR: There were other people around that is true. There were people like Ornette Coleman and his free jazz. There were certainly electronic composers like Stockhausen and Xenakis.
Yes. Exactly. So why did people react so violently against you? Was it because you were a rock & roller?
LR: Who knows? I mean I really don't know, so... I can't tell you something I don't know.
That's alright. Do you see that there's any kind of link between what you did then and other people who may or may not claim you as an influence; other New Yorkers such as Sonic Youth or drone groups such as SunnO))) or Earth, who sometimes do quite atonal pieces.
LR: Oh. I don't keep score of these things. I really don't know.
How did you come to remaster the original in the 90s?
LR: I went in to remaster this for an art show in Germany and they wanted to use Metal Machine... So I thought before the tapes completely disintegrate in the warehouse in Jersey where they are stored, where they're just lying on the floor, it would be great to get Bob Ludwig to remaster it to get it into digital format. [Editor's note: while Lou supervised the remastering of MMM Scott Hull was the actual mastering engineer who did the job at Masterdisk studios... with the close exegetic help of the former VU front man. Bob Ludwig was actually the mastering engineer on the original issue of the album.]
Was there any kind of method behind the three identical side lengths and then the final locked groove?
LR: Andy Warhol once said to me in the Velvet Underground: ‘Why does the record have to end?' And we tried to do that on a single but of course we never sold any singles so no one ever saw it. Raising the groove so the record kept on going. Even on the digitally remastered CD we tried to have that a little bit by having the ending repeat itself like it did on the vinyl format and the grooves were raised. That was a Warhol idea that one. He was so smart. Great ideas! The reason it was that length because that was going to the original piece and then when I was doing whatever processing I was doing to it I was doing it to the original piece so by definition it was the same length.
How many times did you have to do it before you thought: ‘This is it. I have now got this right.'
LR: I think I kept going until I couldn't go any more with the equipment that I had.
In between all of his sighs and colossal pauses, you realise that it isn't so much like getting blood out of a stone as getting a fully functional set of human organs out of one.
Luckily when we mention the contemporary composer Ulrich Kreiger and his work with Zeitkratzer, he becomes much more animated. Enthusiastic almost. And the passive aggressiveness subsides, if only for a short time. He waxes lyrical about the German saxophonist who had the painful job of producing a musical score for the piece that the classical ensemble could follow: "Ulrich's score is a work of art and should be viewed as such." He also reaffirms his love for Germany and its approach to art and music: "Look who is building so many of these programmes and machines right now. I wouldn't have a clue if it's anything to do with the German psyche but look where Logic and Ableton come from. Look where the Virus comes from. The Waldorf. Wow... amazing."
Where you aware of Zeitkratzer before they started work on a classical version of MMM?
Lou Reed: I'd heard of them but I wasn't deep into them but the saxophonist and gentleman who was going to transcribe it, Ulrich Kreiger, got in touch with me and asked if they could perform it and whether he could transcribe it and I said that I didn't think it could actually be done. And he said: 'Sure it can. And I'm the guy to do that'. So he said let me do five or ten minutes and let me see what you think and they did and I was... amazed by what he could do and what they could do.
Did you recognise it as being identical to the noises that you heard when you last heard the album?
LR: Oh yeah, they nailed the opening it was pretty amazing how they could do that. I had been listening to it a little bit because I had done a remastering job because it was being reissued somewhere and Bob Ludwig who had done the original record did the remastering so I was familiar with the little details.
I take it you've actually seen the physical score?
LR: His transcription I think is a work of art and should be released as such. I wanted to have it printed. It's just too good. These days there are some insanely talented young guys out there. They're... wow! Their writing chops and computers, it's amazing what these guys can do. Ulrich's a sax player!
I presume it must be quite strange looking at something that was obviously quite free when it was recorded in the form of strict musical notation?
LR: However he did it, it's amazing. They're using all analogue instruments. Pretty startling, making notations of harmonics, that's pretty amazing.
It seems to be at almost the exact same frequency as my tinnitus. I was hoping that it might somehow end up blotting it out but it seems to have made it worse.
LR: Tinitus? In your ears? You have that? Are you being serious?
I'm being totally serious. The first few seconds of it are almost at exactly the same frequency.
LR: WHAT?! You should probably stay as far away from that record as possible.
I tell you what though I've found myself listening to it in the bath a few times this week and it's been quite relaxing. It's not something I could imagine doing with the original.
LR: Well, yeah... What are you listening on headphones?
No, on speakers.
LR: What kind of speakers could you possibly have in your bathroom?
I'm not being funny Lou, but my flat is probably a lot more compact than yours. I can hear the speakers in my bedroom just fine from the bathroom. Not that I'm suggesting you have a big flat, just that mine's very small. Apart from the really obvious thing that you can hear that this new version is played on traditional instruments, what do you think are the most notable differences?
LR: Well, I'm not really looking at the differences but it's live, it's multi-tracked only in the sense that different things are recorded. Everybody's playing at once and it has the energy of ten people going at it. If you watch the DVD and have a look at the cello player he's starts at 100 miles per hour and he stays there. It's incredible. It's really so exciting and so much fun.
You may not know about the effect that the original album has had on others but it certainly has affected your own output over the last few years. MMM rears its ugly head on your 9/11 song ‘Fire Music' off your Edgar Allen Poe album The Raven.
LR: Little baby sons of Metal Machine... were running between the tracks and then there was a real attempt to do a two minute version called ‘Fire Music' and that was a real attempt to do Metal Machine Music but with synths this time. The other one obviously was without and ‘Fire Music' was with. How much energy can you create using this?
Given the nature of analogue versus digital. Presumably it must have been harder to make ‘Fire Music' given the nature of digital recording.
LR: Much harder. I can't explain the process but there are certain things that I wanted to do to do with speeding up tapes and I just couldn't do in the digital and have it still have it have the same power in the same key. They have these programmes that allow music to stay in the same key when you speed it up so it doesn't change key. Anyway you start losing frames as I understand it and that causes it to be not so powerful. That was like one less tool in the metal machine bag.
But Lou is getting snappy now and any attempts at putting the record in any wider context are either met with a withering reply or are disingenuously misunderstood. For example when asked what kind of headspace he was in at the time he replies: "A loft. I lived in a loft with my instruments and my amps. Where I stored my amps was where I lived. I slept on the floor with my amplifiers." And even when the question is clarified thus: That's not what I'm asking. Psychologically what kind of headspace were you in when you recorded this? He still only manages: "I'm a guitarist. I wanted to an old time guitar solo."
He says after revisiting both Berlin and Metal Machine Music in recent years that he has no plans to resurrect any other earlier works. In one final attempt to tease some minor details out of him as how he views the album as a piece of art I enquire if the album could possibly be the high water mark of extreme music, in the same way that a Marc Rothko painting is as extreme as non-figurative painting can ever get? Eliciting the none more sardonic reply: "Well, that's certainly not for me to say." And this time there is no wait for a pause as I can hear myself barking angrily down the phone at one of my heroes before hanging up on him: "Maybe I'll fucking say it then, eh? Not that anyone'll listen. Thanks for your time, eh?"
Almost immediately there is a deep sense of regret.
You aren't there after all, to paraphrase his old sparring partner Lester Bangs, to be their friend, just to get information out of them. Getting upset with someone who has a four decade long reputation for being reticent and curmudgeonly when they become reticent and curmudgeonly seems slightly daft at best. The clash that powers the best and most interesting of Lou Reed's work (with MMM being strictly the latter and not the former) is never that far away and days later word reaches back to me from several different sources about how much Lou "enjoyed" the interview and how professional he and his personal assistant thought I was; when basically I couldn't have disagreed more.
Metal Machine Music is the essence of the man himself, you will never quite be sure if he's joking or deadly serious, not sure if he's a forward looking seer or borderline idiot savant. He is as inscrutable and unknowable as a never ending wall of feedback.
'Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Trio' on tour:
Cambridge, The Junction, April 17 - Box Office: 01223 511 511 Oxford O2 Academy, April 18 - Box Office: 0844 477 2000 Ether Festival, London Royal Festival Hall, April 19 – Box Office: 0844 875 0073
Metal Machine Music, newly re-mastered by Lou Reed and Scott Hull, is released on double vinyl, audio DVD and Blu-ray. Further information visit LouReed.com