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Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Trio, The Academy, Oxford, April 18th 2010

April 21, 2010

Hotfooting it from Wiltshire, we made it to the Cowley Road as a crowd stood outside the venue – a sure sign that the doors hadn’t opened yet, but I didn’t want to miss getting a good spot, so I joined them, musing on my memories of Lou Reed, Oxford and Metal Machine Music.

In my far-off student days of the early 80s, I tracked down an expensive import copy of MMM (the 1975 album had barely been released at all in this country) and eagerly told my fellow Lou buff, a dissolute young man who’s now the Professor of Film Studies at a respectable Midlands university. I see that he’s now regarded as an expert in ‘exploitation and horror’, which explains a lot.

Both of us loved all that mad, out-there New York art-scene stuff, so we decided that the correct way to appreciate MMM was to set up the speakers for that ‘binaural’ sound, drink a pot of mushroom tea, draw the curtains, turn off the lights and let Lou take over. I think I’d put a sign on my student-room door saying something like, ‘Do not enter – recital in progress’.

Our ears were then assaulted by a blizzard of feedback, looping in and out between low rumbles, high squeaks, blips and wailing crescendos. Four sides of it, at 16 minutes and 1 second a side. It was, well, quite an… experience, believe me. I later heard it all the way through ‘straight’ and the experience was surprisingly similar – despite some aural harshness, there’s a lot of white noise in there that clears the mind and allows the ear to start weaving patterns into the noise. After a while, it’s impossible to tell if you’re ‘hallucinating’ these patterns or if they’re ‘really’ there. I loved it, as did the Film Professor.

We urged others to listen to it, but they must have read some of the reviews – Rolling Stone described it as ‘the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator’ and ‘ear-wrecking electronic sludge, guaranteed to clear any room of humans in record time’. The great Lester Bangs was one of few to give it a sympathetic reception and wrote, ‘As classical music it adds nothing to a genre that may well be depleted. As rock ‘n’ roll it’s interesting garage electronic rock ‘n’ roll. As a statement it’s great, as a giant f*ck you it shows integrity – a sick, twisted, dunced-out, malevolent, perverted, psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless.’

Time has perhaps been kinder to MMM. In 1995, Brian Eno noted, ‘Metal Machine Music was released the same week – twenty years ago – as Discreet Music… [which is] soft, calm, melodic and reassuringly repetitive, without a single sound other than tape hiss… whereas Metal Machine Music is as abrasive and unmelodic as possible, with almost nothing below – and yet they occupy two ends of what was at the time a pretty new axis – music as immersion, as sonic experience in which you float. The roots of Ambient.’ I think that’s true and I don’t understand people who call the album a ‘joke’, any more than Neil Young’s feedback-drenched Arc is a joke. You might not like it, you might even hate it, but it’s not a joke. Like Arc, MMM was an experiment by an artist who’s profoundly interested in sonic textures. And like many experiments, it might fail, it might be difficult (or even dull) to experience, but if you want to dig deeper, it’s quite possibly essential.

Lou’s Metal Machine Trio came into being when sax player Ulrich Krieger and computer-keyboard wiz Sarth Calhoun contacted him about permission to play music inspired by MMM and he liked the idea so much that he asked to join them. Before the gig proper, the three of them trooped on stage and fiddled with the set-up – five amps of various sizes, makes and vintages, along with two guitars, propped up on two of the amps, strings facing inward. They then successfully engineered setting up a low fuzzy feedback but without playing either of the guitars, at which point they trooped off again for twenty minutes, leaving an empty humming stage.

Now comes one of my audience rants. The people behind me (young, dumb and loud) saw this as background music to their painfully inane conversation. Eventually I glared at them and they toned it down, but I don’t think they quite understood. This sound was there to be listened to, but I seriously wonder how many people are capable of just listening. It’s not difficult, though it can take some concentration, but that’s not asking for the world, is it? Sheesh – mind you, before the show, one of their number asked the others what songs they thought Lou was going to play. As I say, dumb.

When the trio came on again, the sax immediately started a wailing feedback as the amps were miked up to it. Simply by waving it in the direction of his monitor and/or the amps. Krieger managed to get some fabulous noises out it. Eventually they did start to play their instruments – sax, guitar and computer/drum machine – but only with large doses of feedback looping between instruments and, on occasion, with just one of them playing with the background hum continuing.

This carried on for something just under an hour and a half, which, strange as it may seem, flew by. Several times, I was aware of building sonic structures and patterns in my own mind. It’s almost as if the music were a mantra. When the hum got louder and louder, it oddly became less distracting and reminded me of a ‘calming’ white-noise cassette tape we used to play to son Humungous when he was a little baby and wouldn’t sleep. Here’s a modern equivalent – a free downloadable hairdryer-noise mp3.

We often overlook odd everyday noises and discount their claim to be ‘music’, which I think is similar to the negative reaction to listening to MMM. Just this morning I read the following comment from 1937 by John Cage which was quoted in George Berger’s very readable The Story Of Crass:

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.

I think Lou would approve.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Taylor K, London permalink
    April 21, 2010 10:37 pm

    Great review. I saw the Metal Machine Trio at the London Royal Festival Hall this past Monday and was struck by how loud and all-intoxicating the concert was. Overall an brilliant performance form Sarth Calhoun, Ulrich Krieger and Lou Reed. Can’t wait to get my hand’s on the Blu-ray and vinyl edition of Metal Machine Music on May 10th.

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