Calxie #4 – Dr. Feelgood: Albums with medicinal properties.
I first saw the the sharp off-beat comedy/drama (and functional contraceptive advertisement), ‘Juno’, in the back of my local Odeon with four friends and a capacious hip-flask. I’d had a little too much of my friend Hannah’s whiskey, so there was one part that I wasn’t ready for. In a towering rage, the title character lashes out at Sonic Youth, a band beloved by both the person she’s shouting at and me who was wearing a Sonic Youth t-shirt at the time. “It sucks! It’s just noise!”. I stood up, all inhibitions forgotten, and called her a philistine bitch in front of a crowded Saturday night audience. Not one of my proudest moments. Still, it got me thinking, once I had calmed down, that if I thought that an album like ‘Daydream Nation’ was a masterpiece, but Juno thought it was “just noise” (I’ll forgive her, seeing as she was angry at the time), then is there a record out there that everyone can agree is pure unassailable aural torture? Well, ladies and gentlemen, look no further.
Lou Reed, the man who put feedback and noise on the map as a form of power and art in the field of rock n roll, finally went too far in 1975. Two differently tuned guitars are placed in front of their enormous amplifiers and left to spew the most unholy howl; an irredeemable racket that sounds something akin to Predator in continuous labour with Robocop’s illegitimate love-child. Reed then mixed this sound at different speeds producing different tones and textures, but this doesn’t help in the slightest. Maybe it’s slightly more interesting than if it was just one continuous tone, but that doesn’t make it any more listenable. The concept might have worked if it was an installation art project to simulate the horrors of mental illnesses, or if it lasted 5 minutes as a brief experimental interlude, but no. Instead we are treated to a staggering 64 minutes of the searing feedback. 64 minutes!!! It was released as a double LP!!! Why??? Rubbing salt into the wound, Reed then talked the album up as if it was a work by Beethoven and even tried to get it released on RCA’s classical label “Red Seal”. He also proclaimed it “invented” heavy metal music. Some people have a right to be arrogant and, in the light of his contribution to pop music as a whole, Lou Reed is one of those people. Is it therefore ironic that the work that he is probably most arrogant about is the one that no one is able to sit through without emerging battle-scarred?
However, this album is in this category for a reason. Have you ever been in one of those moods where no music sounds good anymore? You’re frustrated with yourself because your head is too full to deal with any decent records or coherent thoughts? Enter ‘Metal Machine Music’. Seriously, four minutes of listening to this and it’s like a mind enema. When it’s on, it feels like your entire soul is constipated, but as soon as you turn it off, your brain relaxes and it’s ready for anything. It’s a bit like being hungry and you’re offered a bowl of strawberries. You don’t really fancy the strawberries, so you refuse; however, you are then force-fed a handful of ash and salt. Suddenly, the strawberries don’t sound like such a bad idea do they?
Often when my mind is feeling turbulent and turgid, ‘Metal Machine Music’ is an absolute godsend. It’s a kind of therapeutic catharsis and I may even go as far as to say that it’s a work of art. Even so, to say it’s a work of art is not the same thing as to say that I enjoy it. It is merely functional like colonic irrigation. Sonic Youth on albums like ‘Daydream Nation’ made use of noise, certainly, but they wove it brilliantly into their songs, using it as a short diversion before kicking you in the teeth again and sending you back to reality. ‘Metal Machine Music’ makes no such creative use. It really is “just noise”. Uninspiring, boring and deeply unpleasant, the greatest pleasure you will gain from this record is the moment you switch it off. And what a pleasure it is.