Lou Reed (guitars, percussion & electronics)
Ulrich Krieger (saxophones, percussion & electronics)
Sarth Calhoun (laptops, percussion & electronics)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 19 April, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Thirty-five years after its release and the role of “Metal Machine Music”, whether in rock music as a whole or Lou Reed’s career in particular, is still debated – a conceptual breakthrough from a musician clearly intent on reclaiming his experimental past, or a straightforward ‘up yours’ by a disenchanted songwriter to a record company clearly intent on milking him for as much ‘product’ as was feasible? Whichever, those two weeks in the summer of 1975 that Reed spent overlaying guitar parts in his New York apartment gave rise to a double album which continues to infuriate and excite in equal measure.
Having already appeared at the Royal Festival Hall to perform his ‘classic album’ (1973’s “Berlin” two years ago), the recreating of MMM might be thought a step too far in the revisiting of one’s ‘back pages’. In fact, what was heard, as part of Southbank Centre’s Ether programme, was not an attempt at literally recreating its 64 minutes – which would have been perfectly straightforward in terms of projecting the original album from loudspeakers around the auditorium with a sound-desk to regulate the feedback – but an interpretation of its contents by Reed along with two experimental musicians who together constitute Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Trio.
Although scheduled to commence at 8 p.m., the initial 15 minutes of the evening consisted solely of ambient sound generated automatically and projected around the RFH so that an incremental increase in intensity became apparent. While this clearly unsettled numerous punters, uncertain as to whether what they were hearing was the point of their being there and if they should therefore be listening intently or using it just as backdrop to repeated visits to the bar, it ‘set the scene’ for the performance itself in appropriate terms: ominous, even menacing yet at a remove from the listener.
Thus it was around 8.20 when Reed and his accomplices took to the stage – Reed heading towards an elaborate tuning console which he duly activated before seating himself amid a collection of guitars; Ulrich Krieger heading to a stand of saxophones, and Sarth Calhoun to a bank of laptops and other electronica. What unfolded was just over an hour of controlled improvisation in the spirit of MMM – utilising its sounds and textures in the creation of a dense but never opaque wall of sound such as gave each musician ample space to project their contribution. Although the album’s four 16-minute spans were not strictly adhered to, the marking-off of time by recourse to tam-tam and bass drum gave a sense of focus to the performance as well as a Stockhausen-like sense of ritual. It was Reed’s striking of the tam-tam that signalled the imminent end of proceedings 62 minutes on.
Reaction to the performance was generally enthusiastic, for all that the hall was not filled to capacity. Clearly MMM’s reputation precedes it as something not to be taken lightly, not least by those for whom ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ might bring back fond memories. That said, experimentation has been a part of Reed’s musical armoury since the early days of Velvet Underground and there is no reason why he should not pursue it in the autumn of his career. “Metal Machine Trio lives!”, he exclaimed after introducing the musicians at the close – a sentiment with which one could only concur.