Lou Reed, 1942 – 2013
This week began on a very low note with the sad news of Lou Reed’s passing on Sunday evening at the age of 71. Long-time friend and Transformer co-producer David Bowie was among many musicians to pay tribute to Reed, describing his former collaborator as ‘a master’.
Lou Reed was revered throughout the music industry as a pioneering songwriter and was one of those figures whose cultural impact far outweighs their commercial success. His work has been cited as an influence by a range of artists across a hugely broad musical spectrum – everyone from The Beatles to A Tribe Called Quest (who famously sampled Walk on the Wild Side’ for their breakthrough hit ‘Can I Kick It?’) can count themselves among those inspired by Reed’s career.
You only have to listen to the lyrics to that song to realise that Lou Reed was a songwriter and musician unlike any of his peers; here was a guy writing about heroin addiction and cross-dressing at a time when The Bee Gees and the clean cut pop of The Osmonds were topping the Billboard charts.
Reed was a man who, perhaps for the first time, applied a high-art, conceptual aesthetic to rock n’ roll music that influenced countless other scenes – he was punk rock years before the term had been coined. If there is any one album that embodies this better than any other, it is Metal Machine Music.
Rage against the machine?
The motivation for making an album like Metal Machine Music has long been the subject of much debate. It was rumoured that the album was, essentially, a ‘raised middle finger’ to RCA Victor - the record company who had released his four previous solo albums, and to whom he was contractually bound to deliver a fifth. Others declared that the album was simply a joke, but Reed himself always maintained that this was a serious, conceptual record inspired by the avant-garde minimalism of composers like La Monte Young. Consisting of 4 16-minute tracks, the music was created using screeching, feedback-drenched guitars – looped, cut up and mixed for stereo – and, as the liner notes proudly state, “no synthesizers”.
Upon its release in 1975, it was described in the Rolling Stone Record Guide as “consisting of nothing more than ear-wrecking electronic sludge, guaranteed to clear any room of humans in record time.” It is important to recognise at this point that Reed was riding a wave of relative commercial success on the back of his highest-charting solo effort, Sally Can’t Dance, as well as a very successful live album. Described by some as ‘career suicide’ at the time, it has since been hailed as the birth of industrial music and even the forerunner to punk and alternative rock.
Whatever your opinion of the album, Metal Machine Music is a vital and challenging record from an artist whose entire life was spent subverting the accepted way of doing things and creating music with a level of honesty and integrity that serves as an inspiration to any artist.
Goodbye Lou Reed, you will be missed, but never forgotten.