Why Does the Music Have to End?: An Interview with Lou Reed
Three decades letter, Metal Machine Music gets a classical reworking. Lou Reed talks with PopMatters about this legendary album and Zeitkratzer's interpretation of it.
Metal Machine Music is the greatest album ever made. It's a stunning, epic, multi-layered work that's retains its shock value 32 years after its initial release. You know what else is stunning? How Lou Reed described it to me when I asked him about it:
"It's just kind of, ya know, a guitar solo."
That's right -- a powerful, distorted, epic guitar solo. A guitar solo so maddening that it nearly killed Lou's career, put him in massive debt, and is considered to be the worst album ever released in the history of pop music. Even today, Metal Machine Music remains surrounded by mountains of mythology, hype, and controversy. Yet something strange happened at the dawn of the new millennium: an avant-garde classical ensemble named Zeitkratzer decided that they were going to do the impossible by transcribing the chaotic Machine in its entirety. As if that wasn't enough, they then performed it in front of a live audience in a single take. So impressed with their accomplishment, Lou Reed gave Zeitkratzer two very special things: his blessing ... and a new guitar solo.
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Lou Reed's solo career has been one of ups and downs, riches and regrets. Much like his time with the Velvet Underground beforehand, Reed's flirtation with commercial success was limited, at best. Every once in awhile he'd score a hit ("Walk On the Wild Side", "I Love You, Suzanne", "Dirty Blvd."), but Reed was more of an album man: able to craft whole, cohesive statements like Transformer without batting an eye. In 1972, the brightly-colored pop album Sally Can't Dance hit the shelves, and it -- surprisingly -- became a hit. Reed wasn't particularly fond of the results (something he made very public), and for his next release, he indulged his muse in ways that nobody saw coming.
Lou was gradually becoming obsessed with the possibilities of what he could create with his guitar, and before long, he began seeing what guitars could create by themselves. He tuned all the strings on his electric guitar to the same note (one of his more distinctive trademarks), and leaned it against an amp, just to see what sort of feedback it would create. Then, he did the same with another guitar, leaned it against another amp, and then faced these two amps right across from each other. Feedback was soon sparring with feedback, and this massive, chaotic loop of white noise was created. Lou simply hit the record button. He added some new layered effects, sped up and slowed down tapes, and the next thing you know, Reed had birthed Metal Machine Music.
And then the problems began.
Lou turned it in to RCA, who had not a clue what to do with it. It was suggested that Reed put it out on RCA's classical imprint -- Red Seal -- but Lou thought that it would then be deemed "pretentious". Yet the label was stumped: here we had a double album of white noise, four 16-minute movements of ear-splitting chaos. With a "rock and roll" cover, Metal Machine Music was released in the summer of 1975 on RCA. Due to Lou Reed's stature and reputation in the realm of rock, it sold in small-yet-respectable numbers. And then returned ... in droves. It was pulled from circulation three weeks later and with that, its mythology began to grow. Many speculated that Reed had created it as a contract breaker; that he wanted to prove that the public would buy anything, etc. Quotes and sarcastic remarks were taken out of context (most famously: "Anyone that gets to side four is dumber than I am"). Yet in talking to Lou, he noted how perhaps clearing up all those rumors was a mistake after all:
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Did you ever envision it having the legacy that is has now?
Never in my wildest dreams. Not at all .... I do sometimes wonder whether it was better to let [all] those rumors sit out there.
More myth? Who knows. Maybe it was more fun.
Or more fun for people to decipher in the long run.
Um, yeah. It makes a better story.
Are you still surprised that it's gotten the response it has?
Very. You mean that it's still around?
Yeah! Ya know ... it was savaged. It existed underground for a long time. I was very surprised when the young musicians would tell me that they were listening to it and it did this or it did that ...
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Reed isn't kidding when he says that Metal Machine Music was savaged. Critics loathed it with a passion. All but one, that is. In March of 1976, Creem magazine ran an article by Lester Bangs called "The Greatest Album Ever Made". Bangs, of course, is a long-time self-professed Lou fan, but his adoration of MMM is unflinching. As he so eloquently quips, "If you ever thought feedback was the best thing that ever happened to the guitar, well, Lou just got rid of the guitars."
Somehow, despite its lack of positive anything (sales, critical love, etc.), Metal Machine Music has survived. Certainly having Bangs champion the album didn't hurt, but ultimately, it was the music itself that lead to MMM's staying power. If you were to play it right now, it would sound like you've been thrust into the middle of a war zone: scratches, buzzes, and screeches all come flying out of the left speaker, then the right. Yet once your ears get accustomed to the chaos, you soon realize that the overarching feel of MMM is a lot simpler than you could ever mistake it for. You hear these long "droning" sounds, like elongated tones that somehow cohere out of the waves of white noise. For classical nuts, this will immediately bring to mind the work of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, who strove for the same thing. In fact, before the Velvet Underground, John Cale was quite interested in the work of Xenakis, as was Reed before recording MMM (though in Reed's own words: "I was listening to not a lot ... a bit ... I was just aware of these things").
Ulrich Krieger, Luca Venitucci, and Reinhold Friedl are, quite possibly, insane. Krieger plays the saxophone, Venitucci plays the accordion, and Friedl is a very talented pianist. They are all a part of Zeitkratzer, a German avant-classical ensemble. Playing the works of Iannis Xenakis to them is just like your own local symphony playing an evening of Beethoven or Vivaldi: it's practically second nature. Naturally, something like Metal Machine Music would hold great interest to them. It's not clear exactly when the idea of turning MMM into a symphonic work struck, but the process was a lot less complicated than one would expect. Reinhold is also the "director" of Zeitkratzer, and he had this to say about their process:
"I would not call it a transcription; I would call it a material-list for an oriented improvisation. This list has been written down during the rehearsal one week prior to the concert."
One week was all they needed to rehearse this epic cacophony of noise. If that sounds impressive, then just imagine how impressed Reed was when these musicians sent him a mere five minutes of the transcription.
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Did it jar you at all to hear Metal Machine Music] done in this new context?
I thought it was amazing. The real person to talk to is Ulrich Krieger -- he did the transcription. He's the one that's really responsible, because I didn't really think it could be done, and he said, "Well, let me do five minutes of it, and see what you think." And they did. I was very, very stunned by it.
Do you think that they captured [the sound of the original] perfectly?
I'm amazed by how accurate it is. Also when you listen to the original piece you can hear it a lot of different ways. It depends on where your mind focuses.
Also depends on what context you hear it in: whether through surround sound, headphones, car speakers, etc. All because it's just so densely layered ...
I was just enormously thankful and impressed by the work these guys did. It was incredible.
Reinhold tells me that you actually had reservations about performing the entire MMM with Zeitkratzer initially.
Well, yeah! It's not like it had been greeted warmly. But, they were enthusiastic and the stuff sounded amazing so -- why not? It was … trying to do something beautiful.
Naut Humon has a job I do not envy. He is the head of Asphodel Records, a dance label that got up the guts to release not only Zeitkratzer's MMM performance, but also their live "tribute" to Xenakis as well. Obviously, Humon does not expect these things to top the charts. Yet he feels very strongly about what Zeitkratzer are trying to do. In watching the DVD of the 2002 performance of MMM, the stage is ablaze with cellists attacking their instruments with near-violent force, Reinhold playing his piano from the inside, and percussionist Adam Weisman drawing a violin bow across a cube of packing styrofoam. Somehow, it all gels together; and with the ever-darkening lights designed by Rolf M. Engel, it feels like you're slowly being lowered into melodic hell. Yet the only thing more hellacious than recording such an event is releasing it.
Though Metal Machine Music initially came out on RCA, it was subsequently pulled, later distributed through the niche label Buddha Records. No wonder it took five years to finally acquire the proper licensing to distribute the Zeitkratzer performance. Yet in talking to Humon, it's obvious that profit is not an issue for him: he's much more content with simply releasing great music. Of course, the Zeitkratzer performance does have one nice little point of commercial interest to it: Reed dropped by during the third movement to add a new guitar solo, one that Humon called "riff-based", aka: it sounds nothing like the original. Friedl described Reed's new solo thusly:
"I think he thought it to be an interesting thing to check out, if he can 30 years later play the same sounds, conceived in a studio situation with tape manipulation, in real-time on stage with his special effect board. This was also not written out at all, he just played it. "
One needn't look too far to find Metal Machine Music's influence on Reed's solo career. On his 2003 effort The Raven, he had a suite called "Fire Music", which Reed describes as trying to do MMM in an all-digital format. His '04 tour DVD Spanish Fly features a blazing cello solo by Jane Scarpantoni during "Venus in Furs" that immediately harkens to the Zeitkratzer performance (Reed: "[It was] one of the most wonderful solos [that] she would do constantly. It was very much from that mindset. She was just running. Go, Jane."). Yet his guitar solo during Zeitkratzer's show is something that has to be heard to be believed, like a wah-wah pedal that's dangerously close to destroying itself in overdrive. I asked Reed about this, Quad Sound (a Surround Sound-like format that Lou mixed MMM in initially) and more, only to discover that there's a Warhol-ian connection lying at the very bottom of this whole avant-experiment.
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Zeitkratzer performing Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music at MaerzMusik, Haus Der Berliner, Festspiele, March 17, 2002
I was talking to Naut over at Asphodel, and he describes your guitar solo as more riff-based than anything you'd done before. How did the solo for this performance originate?
I was just trying to do a contemporary version of it with a multi-layered guitar going through some effects. The [original album] was a lot of guitars and this was just one, and it was goin' through some things that were built for me by a guy named Pete Cornish. […] I've actually had someone get in touch with me who has a quad copy of it -- in Boston. And he went and got a quad system so he can hear it in quad.
Have you ever thought about re-releasing it in Digital Surround so people could get that experience again?
I have no idea where the original quad version is. It was very, very difficult. Years ago, someone wanted to do an installation of Metal Machine Music, and we tried to get the original tape from RCA ... as though they cared. They wouldn't even let us. It's complicated, but they wouldn't let the original tape out of their warehouse, which is interesting ... the fact they even have it ...
Well that's RCA for ya.
That was the version of Metal Machine that was re-mastered by Bob Ludwig, who did the original.
And also invented the locked groove at the end of the fourth movement.
That was, ya know, actually a Warhol idea 'cos he had said, "Why does the music have to end?"
"Why can't it go on forever?"
Yeah, so we raised the groove.
Does MMM stand more as a musical triumph or a philosophical one ... or both?
Well, I mean, I really like it. I really love it. Not just the idea -- the actual thing. I wouldn't have done it if I didn't love it.
I'm amazed by the context that it appears out of, sandwiched between the joyous pop albums Sally Can't Dance and Coney Island Baby. Did you feel like you were "stepping up" or "stepping down" between releases?
It's like a different color.
Like a different palette almost?
Yeah. It's just kind of, ya know, a guitar solo.
Any regrets about it?
It's like one of my songs -- I love it.
Even if Lou Reed had dropped out of music after the break-up of the Velvet Underground, his name would still be forever etched in the history of rock music. Yet his solo career, filled with eccentric detours and radio-ready rockers in equal measure, remains one of the most fascinating canons in all of rock music. Metal Machine Music, however, is a unique entity in itself, proudly pushing at the very boundaries of what pop music is capable of. Zeitkratzer's performance not only makes the original album ripe for critical re-evaluation, but it's a performance that stands on its own ground: a chaotic masterwork that would make even John Zorn blush. When Metal Machine Music came out in 1975, it stood out for it's brazen originality, bearing no influences to speak of. In 2007, few releases since then even come close to matching its genre-busting influence, and at this rate, none ever will (Zeitkratzer excepted).
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