Photo by Max Touhey.
It’s known as the most returned album of all time, career suicide, and a practical joke—Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed has a storied history that begs a deeper listen and appreciation. It was the fifth studio album of Reed’s solo career, thought of as one of the first-ever noise albums released on a major record label, but calling it just a noise album is an understatement. It’s an onslaught of sound, and reviews use words like “unlistenable,” “cacophonous,” “ear-wrecking,” but also “the ultimate conceptual punk album.” Even today it still can get a rise out of even his most ardent fans.
However, Jason Stern and Don Fleming, co-curators of the exhibition, Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars at the Library for the Performing Arts, made it a central piece of their programming at the Listening Room area of the exhibition. Why? They contend that Metal Machine Music is one of Reed’s greatest and most influential contributions to music history.
One version of the story goes that because Reed was held to produce five studio albums for his record label RCA Records and he produced this one to get out of making more music. Another version purports that Reed was tired of playing his fan favorites, after songs by the then defunct Velvet Underground and his solo album Transformer began to catch on with his growing audience. Whatever the truth may be, the audience and the record label were not at all prepared for what Metal Machine Music (or MMM) sounded like. While it initially sold 100,000 copies, many of them were returned, and RCA removed the records from the shelf. The album became known as the most returned album of all time.
But for Reed, ultimately, the album was an expression of the sound he loved to hear and create. While he knew that it might not be received well, he felt proud of the album and later said, “the truth is that I really, really, really loved it.” It was also a continuation of the sound he had created with his collaborator in Velvet Underground, John Cale. Cale had studied under avant-garde musician, La Monte Young, who was known for his drone sound. Together, Cale and Reed added that feedback noise to VU songs like “Heroin.” An early demo tape from around 1966 when VU was still together, titled “Electric Rock Symphony,” shows the two experimenting wildly with the type of sound that later could be heard on MMM.
The existence of that demo tape, which can also be heard in the Listening Room, “rebuts the idea that Lou was doing a throwaway thing by handing in some noise album” to his record label, said Stern. “It was deliberate, it’s a real demo.” Despite initial outrage, decades later the album went on to influence musical groups like Sonic Youth, Merzbow, and even Neil Young, not to mention the movement of noise groups that followed in the 1990s and early 2000s to today. Reed even formed a trio to perform the music live, called Metal Machine Trio featuring Reed, Ulrich Krieger, and Sarth Calhoun, also featuring guests including John Zorn and Laurie Anderson.
It was also an intensely personal album not just because Reed loved the sound of guitar amp feedback, but because it’s the only album he made by himself. “The key to understanding MMM is its physicality,” wrote Mark Richardson in a 2017 review for Pitchfork. “Reed has underscored its connection to the body, which gives it a ‘functional’ utility that separates it from the more cerebral end of experimental composition.” To listen to MMM is to embody Reed in the recording studio, hearing what he hears, feeling, perhaps, what he felt making it—there is a one-to-one connection between artist and audience.
That ultimate bodily experience may have been exactly what Reed was going for. “I’ve never been able to make a studio album make it sound exactly like it did to me on stage,” Reed once told Raj Patel, principal at Arup, as he recounts in the video above. Using cutting edge audio recording technology, Patel worked with Reed to record Metal Machine Trio live and do exactly what Reed wanted: to recreate the sound as if the listener was on stage with Reed himself. It was the ultimate conclusion of the intimacy of Metal Machine Music: to bring the audience onstage with Lou Reed.
So, why is Metal Machine Music a central part of the library exhibition? When asked about their curatorial decision, Jason Stern and Don Fleming laughed about the idea of blasting noise music at the library every day. “Lou is just smiling about this one,” said Stern. Ultimately, though, as the exhibition tries to “right many wrongs” about the myths of Reed’s career, the focus on MMM aims to steer away from the myths and focus on the sheer brilliance of the work.
As Jamie Kahn wrote in a review about the exhibition for Far Out Magazine, while it may seem a little out of place at first, it’s actually a “perfect fit.” Metal Machine Music is “there to make you stop, be still, and take in the full learning experience, which is what being in a library is all about.”
Through March 4, 2023, visit Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars, the first large-scale exhibition from Reed’s archive, at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.