At the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, on the 28th of May in 1913, there was what many have characterized as a near-riot. The hostile and even violent reactions from the audience in the theater were in response to the premier of what was presented as a piece of music, but was perceived by quite a few in attendance as noise. That it was presented as music was, in the estimation of a significant number of witnesses at the time, a joke at best, and completely tasteless and deeply offensive at worst.
The alleged music was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
The level to which the unrest of the crowd grew at the time was surely due, in part, to the fact that some members of the audience greeted the premier of the piece with great enthusiasm, responding with delight at its transgression of conventional musical standards of the time. A joke is one thing, but the possibility of an obscene offense both intended seriously and taken as such by apparently demented listeners is quite another thing.
I’ve often played the first parts of the ballet’s music for students, asking those who don’t already know what it is whether they think there’s anything particularly strange or disturbing about it. Nowadays, they find it beautiful at best, or simply boring at worst.
In 1975, I was 16 years old, and not yet familiar with the story of the premier of The Rite of Spring. I was generally aware of the work’s existence, and had at least heard it once, mostly because I had heard that Stravinsky was an important influence on some prog artists (at the time, especially on Yes). But by that year, I was listening to WMMS out of Cleveland, Ohio (when we could pull it in; I was far enough away that reception varied a lot). I remember one of the DJ’s announcing that the station had just received Lou Reed’s latest album, Metal Machine Music. (The DJ may have been Denny Sanders, but I’m not sure; it could have been Kid Leo. I’d bet there’s someone else out there who heard it who remembers.)
The DJ, obviously deeply excited by what he was sharing, was lionizing Reed as a rock hero for having released MMM on the heels of a series of albums that had been (albeit to somewhat varying degrees) commercially successful. He then played an excerpt from the album. I don’t remember how long he let it play, but I don’t think it could have been more than about a minute. Fading out the brief sampling, he returned to explain, with near-adoration, that this was a DOUBLE ALBUM and that it was ALL LIKE THIS!!
I knew who Lou Reed was, and had heard some of his music, including especially the Transformer and Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal albums. Though I had not actually listened to any of the original Velvet Underground recordings yet, I was aware that they had, by the mid 70’s, already attained a sort of mythic status.
It was clear to me at the time that the primary reason why the WMMS DJ was so deeply enthused was because he understood Reed’s new album to be a gigantic “F$@# YOU” gesture at his own commercial success, and an indication that he was not interested in “selling out.” What I also remember from that first exposure to MMM is how much I liked — actually really LIKED — what the DJ had played. I liked it AS MUSIC, while also fully realizing that what most delighted the DJ was the fact that most people would NOT recognize it as music at all (to say nothing of recognizing it as good music).
I didn’t buy the album at first (due more to priority-setting than anything else), but I don’t think that year was gone before I borrowed it from someone. Now, here I will make a claim that some may doubt. My memory can be wildly inaccurate at times. But I do remember listening through the entire album, which is a little more than an hour in length. Even if this memory is inaccurate, there have been at least two occasions since 1975 when I know for sure that I sat down and deliberately listened to the entire album. (To my own copy, by then.)
By the time of my second complete listen (or if you’re skeptical, my first remembered-with-certainty complete listen), Which I believe may have been in about 1979 (it seems to me that it was earlier in the same year as Pink Floyd’s The Wall), I had become familiar with the events of 1913, associated with the premier of The Rite of Spring. Ever since the first moment I knew of the latter story, it has been connected in my musical psyche with Metal Machine Music.
Lou Reed, who left us just a few days ago, was a shadowy and uneven presence during my teen years. It was not until I was well into my 40’s that I actually became interested enough in Reed generally to go back and listen carefully to his entire catalog, including all of the available VU recordings. My appreciation for him became profound and deep relatively late. It is sufficiently profound and deep that I cannot forgo an opportunity to pay him tribute. But as I’ve thought in the last few days about how to do so, what I am most clearly drawn back to is the effervescence that washed over me when I first heard Metal Machine Music. The music that I most favored in those days was prog, though I was also enjoying a fair amount of what I was hearing from the Home of the Buzzard. I knew that there were at least some indirect connections between Reed and prog, especially by way of Bowie and “glam.” (Did you know that Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman are both credited on Reed’s first solo album?)
I now see that there is something very significant about this prog connection, in relation to how I experienced MMM. The element of boundary-transgression, the “go to hell” attitude toward attempts to place it outside the boundaries of music (political, like so many contested boundaries), the positive reactions rooted in bohemian delight of transgression more than real appreciation for artistic value. These elements have found numerous routes, more or less paved by now, into what gets called “prog.” But what I come back to here more than anything else is the fact that I really LIKE this album, as transgression, yes, but also AS MUSIC. It prepared me to take seriously some of the more extreme offerings by John Cage, the early minimalists (remember Steve Reich’s early tape-loop works?), and Alvin Lucier. It stood side-by-side with work by Frank Zappa in opening my ears to a cornucopia of musical expression, all of it following Charles Ives’ advice not to expect sounds that are “pretty.” (Reed’s well-known antipathy toward Zappa, by the way, is one of the things about him that I find difficult to forgive.)
For pushing me along toward this opening, I owe thanks to Lou Reed that could never be contained in a blog post. I owe it to him to keep telling people how much I like MMM, as well as how much I came to appreciate and admire ALL of his output in recent years. I owe it to him to recommend to you that you listen to Metal Machine Music, all the way through. You may not be able to do it. You may continue to think that both it and my recommendation remain no more than a joke. Whatever.
But you may be surprised. And if a few of you are, THAT is much closer to the homage that I want to offer to Lou Reed.