Archive for April, 2009

Metal Machine Music

Monday, April 27th, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

In 1975, Lou Reed released one of the most radical albums in rock history. Metal Machine Music consists of looping guitar feedback, orchestrated dissonance, 65 minutes of noise. Released a year after the pop-oriented Sally Can’t Dance, the album has puzzled historians. Was it a joke? was it a redemptive avant-garde gesture? did it fulfill an earlier record contract? However skeptical some critics may have been, this monumental double album had a huge influence. Not only did it invent New York’s Post-Punk “No Wave” movement but also a new rock genre known today as industrial music. It also aligned Punk with contemporary classical music, the rarefied mechanical universe of Ioannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. In an interview with Lester Bangs, Reed points out that he originally sought to release the album in RCA’s classical division.

In 2007, the German ensemble Zeitkratzer performed the piece with Lou Reed and released it on CD. See Pitchfork interview (Sept.17, 2007). Last Thursday, Reed performed Metal Machine Music once again at the Blender Theater in New York, with Sarth Calhoun and Ulrich Krieger (who first transcribed the work for Zeitkrzatzer). See review in New York Times (Apr. 25, 2009, p. C1)

It’s amazing to think that 34 years have passed since the album’s original release. Excluding Sonic Youth’s success, the dissonant New York scene of No Wave is completely unknown to the general public. The situation might be changing, however, through a bibliographic explosion. In 2008, Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth) and Byron Coley have published a documentary visual history, No Wave: Post-Punk Underground. New York. 1976-1980 (New York). Two other books were released in 2007,: Mark Masters, No Wave (London); Paula Court and Stuart Baker, New York Noise (London). A biography of Sonic Youth has also just been published: David Browne, Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth (New York, 2008). In so many words, the New York punk scene has found some solid scholarly footing in the last couple of years.

There have also been some serious attempts to document the visual tradition of punk rock. While attending the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meetings in Chicago (January 2008), I got a chance to see, Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll since 1967, an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art that tried to present rock’s visual tradition after 1967. I must admit that the exhibit was disappointing (for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into here) but at least it made me contemplate the difficulties of trying to display the connection between art and music. At least, it inspired me to design a class on Punk Aesthetics (which I doubt anyone would ever let me teach). For those that missed the show, the catalog is just as good, see Dominic Molon and Diedrich Diederichsen (Chicago, 2007).

Although not explicitly connected to Punk, a relevant show just opened in New York, believe it or not, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Pictures Generation 1974-1984 reflects on artists like Cindy Sherman that flourished at the hey day of Punk. Some of the artists were also part of the music scene. Robert Longo is a good example. He designed The Replacements’ album cover Tim (1985) and shot music videos for New Order and R.E.M. Robert Longo’s Men in Cities painting series (1979) stands out as the greatest visual statement of Post-Punk aesthetics with which I grew up (left). The Met show includes another work by Longo, a three-dimensional leaping man, American Soldier (1977). Holland Cotter uses Longo’s leaping metaphor in his review, “At the Met Baby Boomers Leap on Stage” (New York Times, Apr. 23, 2009). It’s unusual that this shows takes place at the Met, “a fusty backwater for contemporary art and an object of scorn in the art world” (Cotter). But the change is very much welcome. The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Guggenheim have become so annoying with their “contemporaneity” and steep admissions. The Met for me has become a default in the good old world of public service.

The Pictures Generation show at the Met runs parallel to a new “Generational” series at the New Museum. The Generational: Younger than Jesus surveys a new crop of artists born after 1976 (hence younger than Jesus when he was crucified). The title is so annoying. For Harold Cotter’s review of this show, see “Young Artists Caught in the Act” (New York Times, Apr. 9, 2009). The Generational series at the New Museum are trying to out-do the Whitney Biennial.

The object of this blog posting was to offer a general overview of recent phenomena in the historization of Punk. The bibliography is growing. Biographies, photographic archives, new performances, and museum exhibits entrench Punk deeper into the halls of academic legitimacy. Still, however, there is little on Punk Archaeology. If the reader had the slightest doubt that Punk has accumulated an institutional patina, consider the following. On November 24, 2008, Christie’s held its first Punk Rock Fine Art auction. You can see all the 236 lots (and respective prices) on Christie’s website here.

Finally, congratulations to Holland Cotter, who has won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. His reviews in the New York Times have been a guiding light.

For links and images, see copy of this posting at