A required preamble before this review.
This was not a concert it was a celebration. It was like going to the MoMA to see a Pollock retrospective or to the City Light bookstore to hear Ferlinghetti reading Beat poetry.
I don’t have anything against celebrations but they are something different from a live performance. First refreshes an event from the past, seconds happens here and now.
Metal Machine Music was published in 1975. It is a small but cardinal chapter in the long book of Rock music. It is like those two pages in the middle of a long novel that abruptly and dramatically change the plot.
Today Lou Reed celebrates it, actually, he celebrates himself 35 years after he recorded what was believed to be his artistic suicide. He already did something similar recently touring Berlin for the first time but tonight it’s a different matter. Different because Metal Machine Music is the most controversial album that has ever been recorded and this is the only assertion that everyone still agree.
Before going deeply into the event, one more clarification.
Free Form in arts, depletion of rules, knocking-down conventions happened well before 1975 and it’s much older then Lou Reed. Over a century ago abstraction got rid of figure in visual arts.
Few years later Schoenberg and some friends reviewed scales, tonalities and harmonies and convene notes are twelve and not seven. Dodecaphony (Twelve-tone) was born. With it contemporary music, avant-gardes and intellectual elites followed.
A couple of decades more, on the other side of the ocean, Ornette Coleman (not alone but let’s simplify) spent the fifties moving the idea into Jazz. It took shape in 1959 (The Shape of Jazz to Come) and a name in 1960 (Free Jazz); an album in which he put two quartets on each canal asking them to improvise freely. A Jackson Pollock painting is the cover. From now on even popular music could explore avant-garde, experimentalism or chaos without feeling inadequate.
What Lou Reed did in 1975, fifteen years after Free Jazz, fifty after Schoenberg and a century since Cezanne was to adapt this concept to rock music.
For an hour the sound of his distorted guitar (by the same Arbiter distorsor Jimi used) overlays unbound to more guitars who play themselves, better, their strings are resonating with their own amplifiers. Feedback literally.
Four pieces interrupted only because of the technical limit of having to turn the side of the double vinyl. The last groove on the fourth side was pressed in order to spin endlessly.
When Metal Machine Music was out the reaction of most of the critics were rigid, disappointed, in denial so that the first thing Lou Reed showed was that rock audience was the most conservative among music lovers. A difficult truth to bear but so true that still subsist.
Reed didn’t go into the discussion. He released contradictory statements among which that he recorded the album to have something to listen in a period where he judged everything unlistenable. Rumours also want he did it to fulfil a signed contract.
Let’s not forget the year. We are in the middle of the 70s an era in which Rock had a lot of difficulties to get out of the impasse. In England it got lost in the wood, to the sound of a pan flute soundtracking Dungeons and Dragons. In USA a shameless and vulgar rock-blues used to show off guitars that instead of aiming to the heart of people aimed to big stadiums.
Punk was just in embryo. It would have taken another couple of years to cry out its first wails. Then, as a tornado, it will sweep away everything including this foreseeing noise experiment.
April 2010. 35 years later Reed decided time has come. Music has changed and has seen any extreme. Extremes that owe a lot to this isolated chapter.
So while I am stranded in UK because of the ashes, Metal Machine Music, as a phoenix, has born again from his own ashes.
As any proper self-celebration must be, it is brought on stage by its author. As an installation that is taken from the repository and mounted back for a last exhibition.
Lou Reed supervise the assembly with the help of technology, technicians and two further musicians. There are the (in)famous guitars (four) lined facing the amplifiers which volume feedback them in a constant buzz. He came on stage, older and wobbling, to operate the knobs in search of the (his) right balance.
When Metal Machine Music Trio enters, the venue is overwhelmed for half a hour by the metallic humming of those guitars waiting patiently to be decorated and coloured by Lou’s wild guitars. He also wanted the desperate cry of Ulrich Krieger‘s sax and the electronics intervention offered by two laptops and two million switches handled by Sarth Calhoun.
This is a first, important difference. Thirty five years ago Lou Reed‘s solitude in his room, was accompanied by his guitars, ampli, effects and the chemical structure designed on the cover subtitling the album “the Amine β Ring”.
Today Lou is too old to do drugs and to do all alone but his mind is as bright as ever.
Saxophone adds unexpected lyrical moments and clearly is an homage to the one who dedicated the past 35 years to expand Lou original concept: John Zorn. The symbol of radicalism, the weapon against the orthodoxy of the listener.
The other is the advent of personal computers. What in 1975 was a mystery in the hand of the Pentagon or hidden in the basement of some rich mathematic departments, out of budget to rock musicians, today is routine. Anyone can have one and produce music with it. Two laptops on the left merge with cables and knobs to join the controlled chaos. Sarth Clahoun seems the one to be overcome by the binary creativity of the machine.
Who doesn’t lose control is Lou Reed. One of those five names in rock music that can’t be discussed. Sit behind a wall of effects with his three guitars, hidden from sight, he becomes a metaphysical presence.
90 relentless minutes. A constant noise where the ones aware of what is going on are the trio and the two technicians that, understanding a prearranged but unperceivable body language, know when it is the moment to change guitar or check the volume of the amplifiers generating the feedback.
It doesn’t make sense to mark, star or say good or bad. This is the most subjective experience someone you can have. Among the 500 people who paid the expensive 25£ for the ticket there are several who gave up after few minutes, some that stayed mouth open till the end and few that called for a proper song in the encore. They will go home disappointed by the fact there there is, obviously, no encore.
Tonight the “Walk on the Wild Side” was not a song but an adventure. An adventure that will keep the opinions split for further 35 years.
In the meanwhile the most open minded sons and nephews of Metal Machine Music expand. They have entire festivals dedicated. Trent Reznor, John Zorn, Thurston Moore, Kevin Shields (present at London show with Bob Gillespie, Nick Cave, Warren Ellis). From them industrial, noise, post-rock, extreme metal, electronica, grindcore, shoegaze and everything that rotates around the dangerous and feared words of “Avant-garde” and “conceptual” have to confront with this hour of noise, buzz and feedback that today is thirtyfive and adult enough to be celebrated by its composer Lou Reed. He even got a standing ovation at the end.
No photopass. No proper photos. Lou Reed doesn’t want photographers to this Cambridge gig.
I brought my point and shot… I tried to snap a couple of images but after the second jpeg my P&S camera was confiscated by the security guy at the Cambridge Junction that has a personal one with me for a long time.
Many other person was flashing and videoing, but he concentrates on me, always. Nevermind, I concentrated on the writing, plenty to say, and as Lou Reed deconstructed music rules to record Metal Machine Music I deconstructed my 2 shots (plus one further i-photo) to decorate this review.
You can prevent a photographer’s hand from shooting, you can’t prevent a photographer’s mind from creating.
~ by Valerio on May 6, 2010.