Firstly, the music itself is perhaps the ultimate destination of a man whose aural journey was influenced so strongly by his one-time Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale, himself a former pupil of feedback pioneer La Monte Young. Reed’s early post-Cale work included Loaded, the most poppy and accessible of the Velvets albums and the commercially successful solo album Transformer, also loaded with catchy hits including Walk On The Wild Side and Perfect Day.
But the grass is always greener on the other side, and by 1975, Reed was edging back towards the furrow Cale had dug, eschewing commercial success for abrasive exploration of a style that was still way ahead of its time. Metal Machine Music was not only a commercial failure that left critics and fans alike bemused, but it was even accused of being a deliberate attack by Reed on his record company RCA, an effort to escape his contract. In short, it bombed. So badly, in fact, that it was withdrawn after just three weeks.
Now, with three decades of Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Suicide, Godspeed! You Black Emperor and dozens of other sonic soundscape maestros behind us no-one can still credibly accuse Metal Machine Music of being 50 minutes of racket. This style of sound is so ingrained in the musical landscape of the 21st century that it is more respected, more considered a form of contemporary classical, more likely to be heard in orchestral venues such as the Royal Festival Hall or the South Bank Centre, than any of that silly pop nonsense.
Metal Machine Music’s carefully crafted feedback is up there with Mozart, Beethoven and Bach, and the only people who don’t ‘get’ it now are the same ones who think David Shepherd is a better artist than Pablo Picasso.
Okay, so it’s seminal. But the real question has to be – is it any good? The answer is yes. Yes because it’s historically important. Yes because it influenced so much else that came after it, also yes because it’s very, very enjoyable to listen to. You just have to get the context right.
Take a dimly lit or even dark room. Take an evening after a particularly grating day at work when you feel rundown, emotionally battered, more than slightly frazzled. Take a mood in which you need to destress but in which if you heard so much as a whisper of dolphin music you’d haul the shiny little bastard out of its tank and batter it to death. This is the perfect time to listen to Metal Machine Music.
Close your eyes, lie back, breathe evenly and feel the coiled tension in your muscles. Let your ears drift to the sounds of the equally stressed, equally coiled strings of a demented guitar. Drift along with its squalls and squeals and before you know it you’ll hear not only the coarseness of the feedback but also the gentler moments in amongst it: the beat of a solitary drum or the stray lament of a saxophone. And it’s beautiful.
That Zeitkratzer (which means ‘time scraper’ in German) could even conceive of transcribing Reed’s original album in the first place almost defies belief. That they could take the score from there to a position where they could play it live is sheer genius. That the Berlin Opera House was willing to let them put on the show, on March 17, 2002, was a perfect vindication of a work that has stood the test of time and will continue to do so long after all of us are gone. If you buy it in this format, you can even watch the performance live on DVD, too.