We Won’t Stop ’Til Our Ears Bleed Out

by Daniel Warren

“This record is not for parties/dancing/background romance,” says Lou Reed in the liner notes to his opus soundscape Metal Machine Music (1975). Allegedly, the former Velvet songwriter and at-the-time egomaniacal rabble-rouser tracked MMM in one continuous take. Leaning two plugged-in guitars against their respective amplifiers and hitting record on a tape deck, Reed posited the future of ambient noise and minimalist drone, nearly killing his commercial career. He made sure to label the album “an electronic composition.” Upon release, Rolling Stone described the 65-minute phenomenon as “the tubular groaning of a galactic fridge.”

The MMM double-LP is divided into four tracks of roughly even length. The first three are listed with duration between 15:50 and 16:04 minutes. The last track’s length (aptly titled “Metal Machine Music, Part IV”) is listed as infinity. On vinyl, MMM’s fourth side is notched so that the final 1.8 seconds play continuously until a listener removes the needle. By this point, it has descended into an enactment of WWIII—a horrifying merging of civil defense sirens and anti-aircraft artillery.

Towards the end of the beefy two-paragraph liner notes, Reed rambles, “the Tacit speed agreement with Self. We did not start World War I, II or III. Or the Bay of Pigs, for that Matter.” Ironically, the record aurally reflects that which it claims to negate; namely mass destruction and ensuing, monotonous, premeditated obliteration.

MMM could be described in infinite ways, as variations of bulldozer-sized crickets delaying an infinite encore, or garbage disposal choirs filibustering Congress. Keep in mind—Reed achieved this sonic resemblance to the utterly inhumane with only two guitars he technically wasn’t even playing. At the time, fans were losing appreciation for his hands-on storytelling. Songs like “Carolyn Says II,” blatantly depicting domestic abuse in Berlin, were released to lackluster response two years prior, Velvet-heads weren’t impressed with Reed’s hands-off execution this time either.

“In the Velvet Underground, my guitar solos were always feedback solos,” Reed told Pitchfork in 2007, “It wasn’t that big of a leap to say I want to do something that’s nothing but guitar feedback, that doesn’t have a steady beat and doesn’t have a key.” Buyers were appalled. As Reed’s already diminished fan base returned MMM in droves, some record stores ensured customers a complete refund if they were dissatisfied, while other stores warned people not to buy it outright. Of course, noted contrarian Lester Bangs heralded this conceptual sound-sculpture in an essay in Creem in 1976. Though today his proselytizing comes across as meritoriously ambivalent, the esteemed critic’s appreciation stemmed from a belief that he himself could record his own MMM, while both celebrating meth use (semi-ironically) and concluding on an awkward, homophobic note.

“No one I know has listened to it all the way through including myself. It is not meant to be,” Reed mentions in his addled liner notes, “This is not meant for the market,” he adds, about a record he offered sincerely to those still loyal in his fanbase. It’s not outside possibility that Reed laughed, somewhere, someplace, at some time, knowing that out there, somewhere, someone was hoping the next “Sweet Jane” would enter from underneath his aural calamity. Alas, MMM offers no melodic succor, only modal destruction and a testament to sonic catharsis, and genius’ only true revelation—what best-selling author Haruki Murakami once called “the baptism of time.”

Forty years after its release, MMM still confounds people, still stirs up heated debates as to its artistic intent, can still make waves in obscure corners of the blogosphere when mashed up with Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports. It can even re-energize its curmudgeonly creator after being transcribed for chamber orchestra by German contemporary composer Ulrich Krieger.

“It can’t be done. It’s impossible!” Reed decried when he heard about Krieger’s efforts. But Krieger explained to him, “Well, you know, I’ve always loved this thing, I know I can do this, and I know we can play this. Let me transcribe a little bit of it and we’ll record five or ten minutes of it and you listen to it and decide whether it’s OK or not.”

Reed told Pitchfork in 2007 about the experience: “So he did and it was amazing. I just couldn’t believe it.” In 2002, for the first time, MMM was performed in part by Zeitkratzer, an 11-member acoustic ensemble helmed by Krieger. Reed joined them for multiple performances up to around 2007. “It requires a certain energy from the audience,” Reed admits in later interviews. Most impressive is Krieger’s obsessive acoustic genius. Using clarinet, trumpet, trombone, piano, bowed guitar, percussion, violin, violincello, and doublebass, Zeitkratzer can consistently execute a sublime interpretation of Reed’s conceivably inimitable vision. “If Metal Machine is anything,” Reed told Pitchfork in 2007, “it’s energy and physicality, and you should be able to physically feel it, it takes a lot of energy to perform it.”

MMM through the lens of acoustic instrumentation knowingly lacks the threat, the attack, the impending danger of its livewire-ish studio incarnate. Although the whole 65-minute composition was transcribed, the live sets chose to play select passages, never playing the piece in entirety. Here that intersection between high art and classical and folk music and noise becomes apparent; here is a classical composition that sits easily in the sphere of live rock.

In 2007, after Reed’s departure, Zeitkratzer successfully performed all 65-minutes of staggering layers and timed contradiction that emerged from the original version of MMM. Released as a live CD in 2014, Pitchfork immediately praised Zeitkratzer’s Metal Machine Music. They identified its underlying success as the ability to “pay particular attention to what’s changing in the music, where our ears initially lock in to what stays the same.” Adding that, “There’s a sense that the piece is in a constant state of collapsing and re-assembling itself.”

“[Lou’s] a joker in a way that people often don’t know he’s joking,” Krieger says during his conversation with Bomb magazine in 2010, “They take him dead seriously, and he just smiles internally.” To Krieger, Reed fetishizes sound, “this was a really serious piece for him, and he was heartbroken and frustrated about the very bad reception the piece had.”

In the simplest terms, MMM is what happens when an egomaniac taps into meth and the demimonde. It’s what happens when a burn-out trusts his genius will topple commerce. It’s what happens when Brian Eno respects your old band infinitely more than the public. It’s what happens when you conduct feedback like some Faraday-Bach. It’s what happens when too much talent smokes too much crystal. It’s an object like nothing before, and nothing after. It will survive an apocalypse by transcending its own disintegration.

More than sound art, more than noise, more than modal sound sculpture, more than a fuck you to a depressing record contract, more than an infinite jest from a junkie joker, MMM is its own posit, proof, dismantling and reassembling of truth. Ecstasy arises from the harmony of its impossible definitions.

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