Fans who’d eagerly bought Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music when it came out in 1975 soon returned to their music stores in droves, demanding refunds and complaining that the record was broken. MMM is Reed’s most controversial record, the black sheep in his catalog: a 64-minute double album that consists almost entirely of jarring, swelling guitar feedback. Was it a joke? Was he serious? The argument endures among music fans to this day, but regardless of his motives, the album has a secure place in rock history as one of the most unlistenable records of all time. Last night Reed recreated the chaos of the album with his Metal Machine Trio in the first of two shows at the Gramercy Theatre in New York.
The small venue was probably only half full and its patrons consisted mostly of intellectual types and hard-core Reed fans. Long before the band came on, the sound system was playing an unnerving dissonant loop that seemed to keep getting louder. When they took the stage, Reed and his band, tenor saxophonist Ulrich Kreiger and Continuum (a touch sensitive MIDI keyboard) player Sarth Calhoun wasted little time for pleasantries before they dove into the apocalyptic rush, although Reed announced appreciatively beforehand, “I just want to tell you how happy I am to see you all here tonight.” There were no “songs,” but instead the musicians churned out a continuous blaring fog that rose and decreased in its deafening intensity, marked by shrill electronic shrieks, long demented sax solos and Reed’s occasional yelling voice.
Although the music was played in the same spirit as the original album, it had much more direction, making it more listenable. Saxophonist Kreiger was an extremely talented soloist. He saw the noisy mass not as an opportunity to play as manically as possible, but as landscape ripe for tasteful musical exploration. His soloing, which provided a leading musical voice throughout the performance, ranged from strange and jagged to bluesy.
Reed, who seemed good-humored, looked youthful and vibrant. He was seated behind a tall rack stuffed with dozens of pedals, effects and switches. He would viciously attack and twist the buttons, adding a deafening warble, a squealing death howl or some other unearthly sound to the mix. At one point he shouted the lyrics of “Coney Island Baby” into the microphone, looped his voice, and then manipulated it to frightening and unrecognizable degrees.
Toward the second half of the show the music calmed down and Reed got ready to play guitar. This was when people started to leave. It was as if a quiet illness had come over the audience. People would slowly get up and then stagger through the aisle to get out. Others had started staring at a young man near the front row who kept erupting into inexplicable fits of laughter.
As Reed started chugging a low note on his guitar, the band proceeded to play its most coherent and listenable passage of the night. Calhoun started playing his Continuum as if it was a throbbing Hammond organ, creating a low undulating swarm of sound. The band then ferociously climaxed and Reed emerged with a triumphant power chord riff. He kept on playing it, letting it ring out against the otherwise thorny music.
At the end of the show the controversy surrounding the album had manifested itself visibly: almost a quarter of the original audience had left. Many people who had stayed seemed to have done so as a matter of pride. Their faces looked pained and anguished. Some people had a look of pleasant calm, however. The band themselves had been grinning through their performance, having a good time as the music got louder and more unbearable. The guy who’d kept on laughing near the front row, he’d got it right.