Paul Morley once wrote about Metal Machine Music that “you cannot really call yourself a rock writer if you haven’t written at least 15,000 words on the damned thing…” (♣), and while that’s clearly hyperbole sometimes it doesn’t seem that far from the truth. Seemingly everyone has tackled it at some point. Lester Bangs wrote about it (and Reed) extensively, including an article simply entitled “The Greatest Album Ever Made”. Though to be fair he also mentions that it sounds great after drinking Romilar cough medicine and makes the dubious claim that the second greatest album of all time is Kiss Alive!, so you have to take Bangs with a grain of salt (and two swigs of Romilar). In the 1975 Rolling Stone review of the album James Wolcott described listening to all four sides as “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”. In his definitive 2017 biography Lou Reed: A Life, veteran music writer Anthony DeCurtis described MMM as “…a punk gesture on a scale that remains unrivaled, a screaming fuck you not only to Reed’s record company but to his fans.”
It’s impossible today to separate fact from fiction when it comes to MMM. An entire mythology envelopes the album, one created by both writers and the man himself, Reed having given many conflicting explanations about how it came to be. There seem to be two diametrically opposed schools of thought on MMM. Either it was groundbreaking, so far ahead of its time that people simply didn’t understand it, or it was a dumpster fire, an intentional provocation with no artistic merit. Where does the truth lie? I’m not sure anyone knows at this point. Jason Hartley, the originator of The Advanced Genius Theory, probably comes as close as anyone to reconciling these two camps, describing MMM as “the work of an Overt Artist in transition, but it is not the Advanced Irritant that many thought it to be,” then concluding that the “gradual acceptance of Metal Machine Music‘s greatness is yet another example of an Advanced Artist being years ahead of everyone, even though he was himself Overt at the time.” As is so often the case, the genius artist is so far ahead of the curve that people initially think the work sucks.
But that still begs the question – does it actually suck? What if it was just a big middle finger to everyone? Creating a big pile of crap with the intention of pissing people off doesn’t feel very Advanced. Plus Reed was clearly and self-admittedly rolling heavy on amphetamines while recording it. Surely drugs have positively contributed to artistic creativity, but they’ve also completely destroyed some incredibly talented people. Is the whole thing one big speed trip? I doubt we’ll ever know for sure. Reed himself made audacious claims about MMM, that it included frequencies that the federal government deemed illegal to include on recordings (wait, what?? (♦)), and that there were brief passages of classical music buried within under layer after layer of guitar distortion. How much of this was true? Was ANY of it true? And would it matter even if it was?
I’ve toyed with the idea of buying a copy of MMM for a while, but given that I preferred getting a 1975 original pressing and not one of the newer re-pressings (♠) I was having a hard time paying the $50+ that these typically sold for. But the other day I found myself with some some money burning a hole in my pocket and a 20% discount at Tacoma’s Hi-Voltage Records, and those were just the nudges I needed. As soon as I saw it on the wall I knew it was coming home with me.
So now I’m ready to listen to Metal Machine Music for the first time. Or am I? It’s been sitting on the “To Listen To” shelf for weeks, Reed eyeing me as records purchased after MMM get played while it just sits there, patiently waiting. I wonder when it was that someone last played this copy. Has it ever been played all the way through? The vinyl is pristine, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the answer was no. And who knows. Maybe after listening to all 64+ minutes I’ll come to think that the original owners were the smart ones.
About three minute into side A, I’m definitely leaning towards them being the smart ones.
First things first. MMM is a sonic assault. It’s not meant to be enjoyed, but instead experienced. There are people out there who claim to enjoy it, though my guess is that many of them are in fact only pretending to. I’m sure there are a few who actually do like it. But people like all kinds of things, including things that are not only bad for them but actually detrimental. I’m not going to go so far as to imply that MMM will hurt your health, or cause you to relinquish your vinyl and insist that you’re only going to consume music on 8-track from now on, but it may make other people question whether or not you might be a sociopath.
That being said, despite claims to the contrary there is sonic variance across MMM. There aren’t songs, nor are there even interludes – it’s one long, flowing set of sound waves. But different parts of the spectrum move to the fore and recede at intervals to give the entire thing at least some semblance of intentionality. The consistency of the highest parts of the range are, frankly, what I find most troubling, a tinnitus-like sensation that seems to mess with your inner ear in ways that almost make it hard to walk a straight line. And there are the briefest of moments where you sense it coalescing into something cohesive, albeit fleetingly and never long enough to give you a moment or two of respite.
Reed made it clear that heavy amphetamine usage was involved in the making of MMM, and considering how much it makes me want to clench my jaw and grind my teeth, I’m not surprised.
Did I get through all four sides of MMM for this post? In all honesty, no. I listened to A and D (which are on the same record) and then put it away for a while. Thirty-two minutes was enough for one sitting, plus my jaw muscles are getting sore and my dog is starting to get a crazed look in his eyes and a never-before-seen facial tic, all of which tells me I should open a beer and sit in silence for about 32 minutes as a way to get my chi back in alignment.
Verdict? Does it matter, really? I’m glad to have heard MMM, or at the very least half of it, and it did bring some minor revelations with it. Will I pull out the B / C record one of these days and spin it? Who knows. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it stays pristine for many years to come.
(♣) This post is just over 1,300 words, so I have almost 14,000 more to go…
(♦) Reed from a 1976 interview with Lester Bangs: “But anyway, if you check out the rules of the FCC, there’s certain frequencies that it’s illegal to put on a record. The masterer can’t put them on, and they won’t, and you can’t record it. But I go those frequencies on this record. I tested the thing out at shows during intermission. We played it very softly to see what would happen. Which was exactly what I thought would happen – fights, a lot of irritation.”
(♠) It’s ironic that an album that was apparently pulled from the shelves within a handful of weeks of being released and suffered from a shocking level of returns by confused and irate customers was eventually re-pressed decades later. That probably gives a bit of credence to MMM being Advanced.