Perfect Sound Forever


A Spectral Look at Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music
by Logan K. Young
(March 2011)

Be it Gaussian, Cauchy, Brownian or Laplacian; pink, black or pure Don DeLillo white; Russolo or "Revolution No. 9," noise is essentially a negation – a deliberate dithering of all things affirmative. And while everyone from the heady information theorist to the heavy chairman of your neighborhood association has his own working definition of the term (e.g. "unwanted signals present in a transmission system," "early morning barking from Old Man Cooper's fenced in schnauzer"), noise is perhaps best described by what it indeed is not.

Noise is not pretty. Noise is unacceptable. And noise is definitely not music. And as no-wave guitarist cum no-way memoirist Alan Licht once pointed out (in a brilliantly-titled article in the Wire, "Give Them Enough Nope, no less1), "The word 'no' crops up a great deal around Lou Reed."

From perhaps the most nihilistic nook of New York (that is, Long Island) - apropos - singer, songwriter, Warhol hanger-on, glam iconoclast, et cetera ad infinitum, Lou Reed certainly needs no introduction. From his salad days as an in-house composer at Pickwick Records to his present halcyon days with new wife Laurie Anderson, the inimitable Reed remains every bit an American musical institution. And as the academic Paul Hegarty asserts, while noise may in fact be lacking a precise "canon," it too, "has a history."2 To wit, approaching a piece as loaded - in both scattered, distorted frequencies and distorted, scattershot legend - as Reed’s Metal Machine Music (MMM) would definitely be ill-conceived.

The album Lester Bangs notoriously called "the greatest record ever made in the history of the human eardrum" (he voted Kiss Alive! a close second3), MMM was released to hammers, anvils and stirrupses everywhere by RCA in July of 1975. And apropos yet again, it was not good.

A disconcerting, disaffected LP of nothing but hard-panned guitar feedback accompanied by Reed's surly, amphetamine-induced machinations, the record was an abysmal failure. The High Modernists might have made a point - perhaps a raison d'etre even - in alienating the very audiences who read them, but Lou Reed was not James Joyce and MMM certainly wasn't a Finnegans Wake. It was the studio follow-up to Sally Can't Dance, however, Reed's highest-charting record of the '70's.

Ten years earlier and multiple worlds apart, IBM's James W. Cooley and John W. Tukey from Princeton had developed a computationally efficient means of calculating what, a priori, was as thorny and onerous as listening to Part IV of Metal Machine Music through 1/4 inch headphones at a locked 33.3 rpm groove – that is, the Fourier transform. Their fast Fourier transform (FFT) was a divide and conquer algorithmic paradigm that could recursively break down a discrete Fourier transform of any composite size (n/2) log2 (n).4 If one reduces the original temporally-based waveform into a series of magnitude, frequency and phase-unique sinusoids, and subsequently charts them with respect to their innate frequency content, a power spectrum then emerges where the original waveform is now expressed within the frequency domain.

Unlike elder brethren such as sixteenth century vocal polyphony, common practice tonality, fin de siecle Teutonic dodecaphony or even post-World War II musique concrete, noise "music" - a seemingly oxymoronic endeavor, nevertheless somewhat standardized in terms of style and substance here in the fledgling twenty-first century - has long suffered from not having a codified set of overarching postulates and procedures. In short, there is no Fux or Rameau or Schoenberg to explicate, albeit after the fact, Psychic TV, Panasonic or Prurient.

Granted, proffering a specific, if not all that idiomatic theory of noise "music" is well beyond the limited scope of this severely limited article, but in the absence of such - and especially in regard to Lou Reed's self-anointed "electronic instrumental composition" Metal Machine Music5 - I propose that formal development and perhaps more significantly, overall aesthetic worth comes not from the traditional methodologies of the aforesaid precursors but instead from distinctive frequency distributions…hitherto unexplored sans Cooley and Tukey's fast Fourier transform.

Performing the FFT function6 on each of the four sections of Reed's MMM (courtesy of Lucius Kwok's Felt Tip Sound Studio 2.0.7) yields the following results:

Even upon the most cursory inspections, several observations regarding frequency uniformity and/or unconformity are readily apparent in the above charts. In all four of MMM's sections, the majority of spectral activity seems to occur above the 1kHz threshold. As for the low end, all but three of the sections have some energy content extant at or around 20Hz. This might not be enough for Linnaeus to classify the quartet as one and the same (and not even Webern would group them together as a symphony). However, the FFT function does in fact provide some semblance of cohesion to an otherwise garbled composition of noises. Whether or not one can hear that math, well, that's another story altogether.

Some 30 odd years later, the fact that Metal Machine Music still lingers in discourse of any kind might be the ultimate redemption for the then confrontational, speed-addled Lou Reed. Writing on the piece's 25th anniversary, perhaps William Ham said it best:

"Here, in a realm governed by market shares, demographic profiles, and the star-fucking machinery behind the popular song, is malfunction made good, a runty, hobbling rock 'n' roll animatron that managed somehow to take a couple of turns in the center ring before being mercifully put down."7

And yet, like a true champ, Reed's RCA kiss-off refuses to go down at all. By now, it is part and parcel of our culture. Extolled 17 times over by Lester Bangs, sampled wholesale by Sonic Youth and even transcribed by Zeitkratzer, it will fall--if it goes down at all--at the hands of posterity as either the best or the worst thing Lewis Allan Reed has ever done.


1. Alan Licht, February 2003.

2. Paul Hegarty, "Just what is it today that makes today's noise music so different, so appealing? " Organised Sound, 2008.

3. Lester Bangs (ed. Greil Marcus). Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Anchor Books, 2003.

4. Ronald N. Bracewell. "The Fourier Transform." Scientific American, June 1989.

5. Lou Reed. Metal Machine Music. RCA Red Seal, 1975.

6. "As the FFT utilizes a base2 logarithm, it necessitates that the range of the evaluated time series contains an aggregate number of data points mathematically equal to a precise 2n number – thus the four 'FFT Size' choices available. Because of the obvious implied discontinuity (theoretically, there is an infinite number of waveform periods that can exist bounded to enclose 2,048 points), window weighting functions - the four 'Window' choices made available - exist to minimize spectral leakage." L. K. Young.

7. William Ham. "Start the Industrial Revolution Without Me: Metal Machine Music Turns 25, Part 2."

Also see our Lou Reed tribute

Bookmark and Share

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER