In David Quantick’s positive review of the Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration record Lulu, he describes it as “a very big and horrible noise with lyrics and vocals that completely match.” For Quantick, this “horrible noise” is apparently a good thing, but finding other critics (or even fans) that share his thinking is an unenviable task. Lulu has been panned almost without exception in every corner of the critical world, from Entertainment Weekly to the Quietus.
In fact, in Reed’s decades-long career, you would have to go to 1975’s Metal Machine Music to find another instance of a record so universally loathed. Stories about the reception of Metal Machine Music read like urban legends: fans, assuming from the cover that it was a live album, returned the record to stores in droves, complaining that it was defective. Nobody knew what to make of this monolithic, 64-minute long attack of feedback. Reed himself was no help, either, saying at some times that it was classically influenced and carefully constructed and at other times that he simply turned on an amp connected to a series of distortion pedals and left the room. The assumption was either that Reed wanted out of his record deal or that this was some big joke.
The kicker here is that Metal Machine Music – which is almost the definition of “horrible noise” – has become a classic. It has influenced bands from Sonic Youth to Prurient. Bands operating from both sides of the noise/music barrier cite it as an important work, informing the work of drone, ambient, and noise artists alike. Lester Bangs famously called it the most punk rock record ever made. And, while listening to it for 64 minutes might be asking a bit much of his audience, Reed did something entirely and radically new with Metal Machine Music. Saying that you like that album is a proclamation, an immediate declaration of alliance with all the other outsiders – outsiders to art, to music, to popular opinion. At this point it is fair to say, I think, that Lulu will never be regarded in even this generally speciously favorable light. So what is the difference between these two types of “horrible noise?” Where did Lou go wrong?
It is hard to imagine the songwriter who wrote “Heroin” writing these self-consciously “literary” spoken-word pieces (calling them songs is at most times a stretch). The story is that the “songs” form a narrative arc based on Frank Wedekind’s “Lulu” plays. The crux being that while a song like “Venus in Furs” takes its content from a literary work, it does so for the subversive potential inherent in the sadomasochistic element of the novel, while there is absolutely nothing subversive in recording a spoken-word record about a 19-century German playwright with the most popular metal band in the world.
The math is easy to do: Lou Reed gains an audience, while Metallica gets to work with the icon of underground rock. But this equation is missing one of the most important elements; namely, a sense that something new is being accomplished. Reed obviously believes something new is being accomplished. The lede for Quantick’s article is a quote from him: “It’s maybe the best thing done by anyone, ever. It could create another planetary system. I’m not joking, and I’m not being egotistical.” The fact is, though, that Lulu is painfully predictable, and absolutely forgettable (unless you count the haunting of the ghost of Reed’s integrity as a memory).
Reed’s quote brings to mind his evasiveness about the actual intention behind Metal Machine Music. If he says he’s not joking, that means he is absolutely joking, right? Aside from the “horrible noise” that these albums take part in, the main connection between the two is that both seem to be some meta-prank, as if Reed is pulling one over on the fans he gained through the Velvet Underground and those brilliant early albums. The difference between them, though, is that there is no intentionally antagonistic element within Lulu. Reed seems to genuinely believe that it is good. Metal Machine Music, on the other hand, implies such a disregard for his audience that it became a touchstone for generations of similarly antagonistic bands.
Subjecting oneself to Lulu and Metal Machine Music back-to-back is something that no one should do without pay. Despite it’s reputation, though, Metal Machine Music is actually a fairly enjoyable listen. When compared to Lulu’s misguided poetic tendencies, the pureness of the sound of the record is refreshing. It is nothing if not pure: the sound changes frequently and rapidly, but only within the strict boundaries it has set itself. It is no wonder, really, that it has had such an impact on subsequent artists. Aside from the statement that it makes culturally, its composition is something to aspire to. It represents an almost ascetic dedication to form. The combination of ambiance and aggression causes, at a certain point, a hallucinatory state in the listener. And when it’s over, the silence that ensues becomes music in and of itself, in the way that John Cage insisted upon. Ultimately, that is the project of ambient music: to make close listeners of us all, within our daily life as well as our musical endeavors.
Metal Machine Music, then, is purposeful. If it can be said that Metal Machine Music is tasteless, it can be said that Lulu is in bad taste. With one, we have a patent disregard for the audience, but with the other, we have an unawareness of the audience’s desire. Metal Machine Music is like medicine, or school, or piano lessons. It may be hard to take, but in the end it’s edifying. There is a reason to move toward it, and to take from it what you can.
With Metal Machine Music we saw an exaggeration of the concept of ambient music before Brian Eno officially designated it as a genre, the most punk rock record ever made before punk rock existed, and a brilliant demolition of the expectations of the music-buying public. The release of that record played out like a bad movie: initially disregarded, disliked, and almost comically misunderstood, the hero eventually makes good. He was right all along, and the masses are now converted. Lulu acts as Metal Machine Music’s foil – if this is a joke, it is a joke with no truth behind it; if this is not a joke, both Reed and Metallica are operating under some very misguided assumptions. Either way, I will gladly ally myself with Metal Machine Music’s horrible, beautiful noise.