Unfortunately, that would be Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, which doesn’t quite fall into the “so bad it’s good” category but rather the “so bad that decades of amusing conversation have not quite discerned what Reed was trying to do, but the theories are great.” I first heard of this album in the great book The Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time, a must-have. This is #2. That’s an accomplishment.
They cheat a little with #1 — it’s an album of Elvis Presley’s between-song mutterings. I’d argue that’s a spoken-word album, which means Reed’s effort is #1. But maybe they’re cheating with this one, too. It’s basically guitar feedback minus the guitar playing. Like Elvis’ “work,” this is a byproduct of rock and roll packaged on its own, like having a big tub of MSG instead of the Chinese food it’s supposed to accompany.
This came up because the great music bloggers Jefito and Jason are doing one of their strange male-bonding things in which they send each other crappy stuff to read, hear and generally endure. I think Jason may have to concede now that Jefito has sent him MMM. (The album, not the blog. I hope no one finds my blog difficult to endure. Hee hee … pun on my last name. Anyway.)
But Jason makes the most of it. He took a bunch of pictures of himself listening to MMM, put it over the first 1:45 of the 64-minute epic and put the whole thing on YouTube. You can see Jason’s agony while experiencing only a small taste it. You could even experience none of it if you just mute your computer.
Enjoy (though it’s NSFW):
I’d say Jason’s as good an actor as he is a blogger, but he’s clearly not acting here.
So now I’ll offer a couple of attempted explanations what you just heard (or turned off).
The basic theories are: career suicide, a flip-off to Reed’s record label, a flip-off to music critics, a slow-motion drug overdose, an experiment in avant-garde classical music.
The latter isn’t that far-fetched. In case you wonder why classical music essentially died out as a creative force a couple of decades into the 20th century, it’s because the genre fell into the hands of people who were so busy trying to make grand artistic statements that they didn’t give a crap whether you listened to it.
This happened gradually. Everyone freaked out when Stravinsky unveiled Rite of Spring, but that piece stands up today as a viable piece of music. Then you have Carmina Burana, a very cool song cycle that pops up in ads and movies all the time (the blood-drinking scene in The Doors stands out). Then you have the WWII-era output of Aaron Copland. Anything after that, well, you’re not going to hear it on NPR anytime soon. You may have heard of Philip Glass, but can you hum anything by him?
I’ve met Philip Glass, oddly enough, through the professor who taught my composing class. And as proof that someone out there is still listening to classical music, that professor has his own Wikipedia entry, one that mentions the fine young composer Anthony Kelley.
So it’s not that the genre is dead — it’s just that the most famous guys created unlistenable music. In small doses, it’s amusing. You should’ve seen the sweet, innocent flute players in my music classes when the professor dropped some Stockhausen in the house. But I can assure my CD collection is Stockhausen-free.
And indeed, Stockhausen as an influence of this … um … work in the excellent Wikipedia entry, which refutes the Worst R&R Records notion that veteran mastering specialist Bob Ludwig deserves some special prize for withstanding this album. Ludwig apparently thought it compared favorably with the avant-garde classical people. That praise is fainter than that of a Class D star 50 billion light-years away.
Lester Bangs is credited with a great review seeking the bright side of MMM. But the Rolling Stone review is better because it calls bullshit: “Avant-garde artists (Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Andy Warhol) have been experimenting with ennui as a concept for so long that it’s no longer daring to tax the audience’s patience by being deliberately, intensely boring.”
In terms of avant-garde rebuttals, that’s right up there with Hobbes refusing to buy Calvin’s “found art,” despite its grand statements of the pointlessness of art itself, because it doesn’t match his furniture.
Wikipedia also has this: “The German new music ensemble Zeitkratzer have played Metal Machine Music in concert, with Lou Reed as soloist, using tradition classical concert instruments from a score transcribed from the original recording.”
Jason endured a listen, though he shared the experience with his cat. Bob Ludwig got throught it. Rock critics pride themselves on getting through it once. But the members of Zeitkratzer actually sat down and transcribed … something … out of this album.
To the members of Zeitkratzer — you are braver than all of us. Or perhaps you have powerful narcotics that should be studied as a possible cure for all human ailments. In any case, congratulations.