“History’s Greatest Monsters” is a regular evaluation of albums deemed some of the worst in history. We do this not for the sake of schadenfreude, but to try to understand how these reputations were earned. Certainly, there are bound to be pleasant surprises. And certainly, there will be some truly unpleasant experiences in the months ahead. But we’ll all be better people for it, and hopefully we will have all learned something, and had a good laugh. Periodically, we will publish a Progress Report, to recap just where all of our candidates stand on the hierarchy of bad music, if they do at all.
Lou Reed – Metal Machine Music
I’m still in the process of cleansing my palate from enduring the absurd and grossly mismatched pairing of Lou Reed and Metallica on Lulu, but Reed has pissed off fans in heroic fashion before. To wit: Metal Machine Music. Like a sonic equivalent to Godwin’s Law, any online discussion of music and its artists disappointments and atrocities will inevitably lead one to Lou Reed’s 1975 feedback vomitorium Metal Machine Music. Not that anyone is saying Lou Reed has committed anything so unspeakable. But you’d be surprised how loathed this album is, or, perhaps after listening to it, you wouldn’t.
Metal Machine Music has made a lot of “worst-of” lists, landing at number two in Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell’s book “The Worst Rock ‘n’ Roll Records Of All Time.” It ranked number four on Q magazine’s list of the worst records of all time, and later was featured in the magazine’s list of top 10 career suicides. And, with straight faced hilarity, Trouser Press described the album as “four sides of unlistenable oscillator noise (a description, not a value judgment).” Then again, Lester Bangs referred to it as “the greatest record ever made in the history of the human eardrum.” There’s not a lot of middle ground.
Where Transformer, Berlin and Coney Island Baby used pop music as a form of provocation (albeit in some cases lighter than others), Metal Machine Music is pretty much just Reed letting his middle finger fly for an hour. Were that literally the case, it might be easier on the ears, but this recording of feedback, four ways, is about as listener unfriendly as music comes. In fact, calling “music” is sort of subjective here. Yeah, “music” is in the title of the record, but it’s almost entirely a pure noise recording. In essence, Reed placed guitars, fed through distortion pedals, in front of amplifiers cranked high, which allowed the vibrations to rattle the guitar strings, creating a kind of loop that rendered any actual musician unnecessary. In a way, it’s absolutely brilliant. Frankly, if this were an art installation, I’d pay to see it first-hand.
But here’s where Metal Machine Music gets a bit sticky. Conceptually, as a piece of art, it’s not only respectable, it might actually be genius. I haven’t quite figured that out, but I’m at least leaning toward it being an admirable experiment. But as an album, and one that could conceivably be meant for human listening, it’s a tough slog to endure. These aren’t songs, nor are they classical or ambient pieces in the sense that we know them. While supposedly the album was inspired by the likes of LaMonte Young and Karlheinz Stockhausen, the sheer aggression of the noise and piercing frequencies of the feedback make Metal Machine Music almost unbearable to listen to at times. Sure, it’s artful and innovative, but it’s also something so shrill and destructive that I am loath to think of a reason to ever want to actually experience this as a whole repeatedly.
Rumors abounded around the time of its release and for decades since that releasing four sides of 16-minute noise shrieks was either a joke, or a move intended to piss off Reed’s label. I don’t know for sure if the latter happened, seeing as how RCA did actually release it (and it sold surprisingly well at 100,000 copies). But it most certainly was not a joke; Reed stated in a Pitchfork interview that he never would have released it if he didn’t actually believe in it, and knowing his history, I have no trouble believing that.
The legacy of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music has endured, however, and the sheer audacity of releasing something that, in essence, is so non-commercial and antagonistic is a big part of that. Some people genuinely love the bold statement that Reed made. Others still haven’t forgiven him, even 36 years later. But the curiosity still lingers, in new listeners and those who have been inundated with the folklore for the past three decades and change.
No matter how much some critics play up the idea of Metal Machine Music as the worst crime ever perpetuated on the record buying public, it’s not. It will definitely stand as a testament to poor (initial) marketing and, perhaps, a monument to Reed’s arrogance, but I’m sympathetic to what he attempted on the album. It’s not something I’d ever really want to listen to again, but the concept and the effort alone have led me to determine that Metal Machine Music is not, actually, History’s Greatest Monster.
Final Grade: C
Next time: R.E.M.’s Around the Sun
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.