Lou Reed, Royal Festival Hall, London. April 19th 2010.
Not a toe-tapper. That’s obvious though. The Metal Machine Music LP re-imagined by Uncle Lou as a Night of Deep Noise. On bass, guitar and drum. And sax. And gong. And gizmos. The Festival Hall is half empty.
The original album is 4 sides of electronic squall. Cycling white-noise. Distorted, tinny drone. Shifting frequencies. Famously, people took copies back on its release, assuming the vinyl was defective. Some reckoned sides 3 and 4 were actually sides 1 and 2 backwards. The wags.
To be honest, I never listened to the whole thing. Legend has it that Lou wanted to kill off his Glam Rock Star image, and piss his record company off at the same time. Part true, probably. But Lou has always liked noise. He was in the Velvet Underground, fercrissakes.
I always liked the idea of the album. The conceit. The challenge. Something so “other” that you had to admire it, just for its weirdness. And this from a guy who wrote songs as fragile and beautiful as, “Femme Fatale”. A proper concept-album. Back then, it was as out-there as you could get. Still is.
Lou’s assembled a Metal Machine Trio, improvising, based on the theme of the record. So, it’s not a note-for-note recitation. Which is a shame. The sheer skill to recreate exactly the white-noise sound of the original, with real instruments, would have been something to behold.
Tonight was intense, churning sounds but, strangely, also quite quaint. Quaint in its old-school Avantgardeness, which as we all know is French for “bullshit”. Lou Reed is officially an old man. He looks frail and moves like an old guy. How he manages to grind through a show like this has to be applauded. From the bleachers, it’s physically draining. My ears took a pounding just from the intro-tape.
The noise was big and repetitive and droning and feed-backing and pitch-shifted and reverb-ed. It was like the climax of a Sonic Youth gig, slowed down, and spread over 70 minutes.
It started off sounding like early Hawkwind at their most trippiest, with a pulsing digital didgeridoo-type throbbing bass, only, not as much fun. The sounded recede. Lou fiddled with his amps, whilst sat on a wheeled office-chair, shuffling between them like a mad scientist. Lots of FX pedals and wringing of guitar strings. No tune, just dings and stabs and distorted harmonics, processed and filtered through an array of boxes onstage. It went on for a long time…
Suddenly, the sound dipped and Lou was creating a sound like My Bloody Valentine being played on a Stylophone. I laughed. It was preposterous. That’s not a slag. I enjoyed it. It was like one of Nigel Tufnel’s guitar solos. I almost expected to see Lou tune his guitar halfway through.
The sax player threw his all into squonking out notes on his sax. Somehow it seemed out of place with its organic, natural sound. Didn’t do it for me really. Curiously the show wasn’t overly loud. If it had been face-melting all the way through it might have been more effective. Total immersion. Shock and Awe. This was more sedate. Tame even.
Things only really took off when Lou actually stood up and blammed out a few chords. The sound, for a split second, was like the album. Big, grinding noise. My mate Nick always thought Lou’s guitar sounded like a toilet flushing. Dirty.
So, was it any good? Really? Yes. It went pear-shaped, sure, but that was the risk. A totally improvised show. I’ve seen Lou Reed loads and at least this was different. He deserves his eccentricities. As part of the Ether Festival, which celebrates all things electronic, it was spot-on. And brought a little Rock Star magic too.
As Art, with a capital A, it was just the right side of Emperor’s New Clothes. It had the feel a proper classical music recital, only louder. Like the album, though, it’s the idea behind it that makes it work. Not an every day thing. Laughing Lou Reed. Legend.