In 1975, two already-legendary artists released albums that caused much bafflement and anger among fans and journalists alike: Miles Davis’s Agharta and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Both LPs turned 40 this year, and they're both sounding better than ever. The albums represent a rare phenomenon in popular music: Established stars daring their substantial audiences to follow them into harrowing, dense thickets of sound that, especially in Reed’s case, tested their loyalty and endurance. All these years later, both works remain contentious and divisive, and both illustrate the everlasting value of being difficult.
Let’s start with Agharta, which isn’t so much of a dramatic departure as Metal Machine Music was, as it is a summation of and exclamation mark on Davis’s insanely fertile electric era (1968-1975); Pangaea—which was recorded on the same day as Agharta—can be viewed as the era’s sigh of resignation and exhaustion. Davis had already innovated several times before he built these twin towers in 1975 (they were originally issued only in Japan; they wouldn’t reach American shops until 1976 and 1990, respectively, because Columbia Records execs perhaps thought heads weren’t ready for their sprawling, headstrong brilliance. Some heads still ain’t ready, and never will be.). But, back to those innovations. Bitches Brew opened the floodgates of fusion. In a Silent Way and “He Loved Him Madly” from 1974's Get Up with It influenced ambient musicians like Brian Eno, Harold Budd, and Jon Hassell. The viciously funky On the Corner and Dark Magus forged coked-out strains of proto-drum & bass two decades before the fact.
After the Agharta and Pangaea concerts—which took place in the afternoon and evening of February 1, 1975, in Tokyo—the trumpeter began a five-year hiatus from music-making. Davis was 48, but suffering from numerous health problems stemming from drug and sex addictions. He returned to the studio in earnest in 1980, but would never again harness the outré creative impulses that fired his greatest music.
On Agharta, Davis and his crack squad formed what could be the ne plus ultra of jam bands. They’re closer in spirit to the Grateful Dead and Funkadelic than they are to the decade’s mainstream jazz currents, or even to fusion giants like Weather Report and Return to Forever. The 26-minute “Prelude (Part One)” sounds like the most bulging-muscled blaxploitation score you’ve ever been slapped upside the head with. The swagger is off the scales, with Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas chikka-wah-ing and freaking out with Olympian steeliness and a scorching orneriness that prefigures extreme Japanese noise rock like High Rise and Acid Mothers Temple. Drummer Al Foster and bassist Michael Henderson create an undertow of irrepressible funk that should be setting the scene for orgies until kingdom come. Sonny Fortune on saxes and Miles on trumpet masterly orchestrate high-end acrobatics, with our leader sporadically punctuating things with absolutely horrifying organ stabs. “Prelude (Part Two)” simmers down a bit, but it still exudes panther-like stealth. Mtume’s congas really dazzle and Henderson tears off bass riffs off of which you could trampoline to the top of the Space Needle. Returning from Get Up with It, “Maiysha” is a cool, Latinate breeze of relative conventionality, with Fortune’s gently curlicuing flute a buoyant delight before the guitarist Cosey starts soloing with a roiling beauty. Even when this band’s in laid-back mode, it snarls and radiates dangerous intensity.
The nearly 27-minute “Interlude” starts disc 2 with a bang. The beginning of it foreshadows the absurdly swift propulsion of Squarepusher’s mid-’90s experimental jungle productions. The deceptively generic title belies one of the most exciting openings in Davis’s gargantuan discography. Of course, that breakneck pace cannot be sustained and things eventually decelerate into some deeply tranquil flute and hand percussion passages redolent of prime-time Yusef Lateef. Nobody could see that coming, but you know Miles: He breathed unpredictability (literally, into his trumpet). “Theme from Jack Johnson” (no slouch at 25:17) continues the relaxed mood for a few minutes, but soon it seems a funk-rock storm that could straighten Sly Stone’s hair is brewing. Oops, no. That was a feint. What we have here is an ominous bit of brothel-creeper funk, but topped with wild, burnt-sienna guitar calligraphy.
Ian Carr, author of Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography, asserts that Agharta “suffers from a monotony of sound caused mainly by the perpetual ‘freaking-out’ of the lead guitarists...” I respectfully disagree. Cosey and Lucas really capture Miles’s monomania and desperation with their relentless outbursts. In his weakened state, Davis couldn’t blow with the robustness of his early-’70s sides, and his axemen responsibly brought the fire and brimstone for their ailing leader. However, Carr astutely notes, “Although [Davis] is in good lip, and often creates strong rhythms, his sound is intensely mournful—almost weary. It is characterized by sadness which seems all-pervasive… And his lamenting sound is at strange odds with the band’s heavy and driving rhythms.”
While Agharta doesn’t astound like peaks such as Bitches Brew, On the Corner, Get Up with It, or Dark Magus, it is yet another Miles marathon of febrile funk and compellingly glowering atmospheres. (His electric period works compose a banquet from which musicians have been feeding for decades, yet they’ve never been surpassed.) In the first half of the ’70s, Davis was asking a lot from his fans and it takes a serious commitment to absorb the frenzied and fiercely wrought activity ebbing and flowing over Agharta’s voluminous tracks. You’ve got to be a real motherfucker (Miles’s ultimate term of endearment) to get into it, but once you do, almost everything else seems malnourished by comparison.
By contrast, Reed’s Metal Machine Music ranks as one of the starkest ruptures in a canonical rock artist’s catalog. (What I would give to see the faces of RCA’s brass upon first hearing it.) Nothing preceding the 64-minute double album in Lou’s solo career really prepared his following for the unrelenting shrillness and needling torrents of rusty tones emitting from its grooves. (Although moments in the Velvet Underground’s work hint at this sort of extreme dissonance—think the ending of “I Heard Her Call My Name,” for example.) We’re not in Berlin anymore and not only can Sally not dance, she can’t even stand.
Many Reed fans and music journalists viewed MMM as a shit-encrusted middle finger repeatedly being jabbed in their ear, but not revered critic Lester Bangs. He deemed Metal Machine Music “folk” and the perfect thing to play when hungover. And the clincher? “It sounds better on Romilar than any other record I have ever heard.” Beyond those things, MMM is also the Big Bang of noise rock, a monument to artistic freedom and hubris, a testament to the superiority of uppers, and an efficacious lease-breaker.
In his original liner notes, Reed writes as if he’s just swallowed a fistful of amphetamines. He seems to be jiving and edifying readers with utmost seriousness. “This record is not for parties/dancing/background, romance,” Reed writes. “This is what I meant about ‘real’ rock… Most of you won’t like this, and I don’t blame you at all. It’s not meant for you.” All those folks who bought “Walk on the Wild Side” must’ve walked out of the room before “Part I” of MMM even reached the two-minute mark.
Unlike most avant-garde artifacts, MMM hasn’t accrued a cuddly aura around it. It refuses to be excerpted and used to sell luxury goods. However, it has entered the respectable domain of classical music and has been transcribed by the maniacal disciples in Zeitkratzer ensemble and performed live in venues with dress codes. It was also recorded in 2007, with Reed donating a guitar solo to “Part III”—the best part, in my considered opinion. (Imagine Lou’s rueful chuckle here.)
In my most perverse reveries, I envision Metal Machine Music becoming Lou Reed’s most lasting creation, superseding even his Velvet Underground masterpieces. Because MMM really does exist outside of time and place. It’s a fathomless howl from a tormented soul who’d undergone shock therapy yet also written some of the tenderest ballads ever to coax tears from curmudgeons. It’s an aural signifier of a significant portion of the human condition, splattered onto tape with surgical care, ready to be dipped into at any point in its hour-plus trajectory of disgust. There is a kind of bruised-armor dignity in its occasional spikes of triumphal fanfares. Metal Machine Music commiserates with your misery—with more of the same. It’s a barbed-wire blanket for your eternal sleep.
He may be dead, but Lou Reed’s week still beats your year.