As fearless musical pioneers of different generations, the combination of Lou Reed and Metallica was always going to deliver something startlingly different and exciting, on visceral and cerebral levels. They’ve achieved that resonantly on “Lulu”, a set of extended songs inspired by German expressionist Frank Wedekind’s early 20th century plays Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box (much admired by Freud). The plays, originally published in 1904 and set in Germany, Paris and London in the 1890s, whirl between the points of view of Lulu, an inverted-Eve-like cipher-mirror of desire and abuse, and the people who fall desperately in love with her. Then she meets Jack The Ripper…
“I have no real feelings in my soul/ Where most have passion I have a hole”, state Reed’s brilliantly uncompromising, harrowing, lyrics.
Reed had sketched out songs for director-choreographer Robert Wilson’s theatrical production of the Lulu plays – hugely controversial in their day and barely less so a hundred years on –
in Berlin. “He asked if we were game,” says Lars Ulrich, “and
we’ve been forever touched and changed by the experience.” Adds James Hetfield, “We thought: what can we do, what we can add to the potency of this, to take it to another level, make it heavy, make it rock?” “This is perfect,” says Reed. “The best thing I ever did, with the best guys I could possibly find on the planet. I wouldn’t change a hair on its head.”
The king of New York avant-rock, Lou Reed made innovative, iconoclastic music with the profoundly influential The Velvet Underground before “Walk On The Wild Side” gave him 1972’s most unlikely pop hit. He reacted to this development with admirable perversity, releasing a stream of diverse and challenging solo albums, from the macabre, monumental Berlin to the subtle, seductive Coney Island Baby, from the wallpaper-peeling Metal Machine Music to the punk pivot Street Hassle. More recent years have seen his always-present literary bent come increasingly to the fore on works like New York, Magic And Loss and The Raven. His aim has often been to set the spirit of Burroughs, Selby and Poe to three or four chords, to marry the gutter and the stars, to fuse trash and majesty. “I harboured the hope,” he once said, “that the intelligence that once inhabited novels and films would ingest rock.” He added back then, “I was, perhaps, wrong.” Or perhaps, after this, right.
“Give me enough hope and I’ll hang myself” – Delmore Schwartz.
Metallica, the world’s best selling hard rock band (with well over 100 million albums sold), formed in California in 1981, and it would be no exaggeration to say they’ve since redefined what we call rock. Like Reed’s, their lyrics have never been shy to discuss alienation, fear, death. Musically, they’ve expanded the boundaries of metal, using speed and volume not just to pound the listener but to enhance their song structures, take sound to new places. They’ve revived the heavy rock genre by grounding and earthing it before sending it through the stratosphere. Epic, enduring albums like Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets and 2008’s Death Magnetic have established the nine-time Grammy winners’ legacy.
These two giants of modern music first came together in October 2009, at the 25th anniversary Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame concerts in New York. Metallica – founder members singer/guitarist Hetfield and drummer Ulrich plus guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Rob Trujillo – played with the hometown hero Reed on Velvets classics “Sweet Jane” and “White Light/White Heat”. Reed pronounced, “We knew from then that we were made for each other.” Lars Ulrich takes up the story.
“We were invited to host a segment at the Hall Of Fame anniversary bash: I guess we represented the outsiders, the left-field artists. Top of our list to collaborate with was Lou Reed, who I think is like a solo version of Metallica in a way. He’s always done his own thing, for decades, continued to reinvent himself, challenging not only himself but his fans. And it just felt so right, so effortless. So we ran with it, inspired. Lou threw out: why don’t we do more, make a record together? We had to run around the world three times and finish our Death Magnetic endeavour, and then we were ready!”
The original plan was to revisit what Lars describes as “some of Lou’s lost jewels – songs that he felt he’d like to give a second spin, and we could do whatever it is we do to some of those songs.” That idea “hung in the air for a couple of months”. Then, a week or two before that session was to begin, “Lou called up and said, “Listen, I have this other idea…””
“We were very interested in working with Lou”, continues James Hetfield. “I had these giant question marks: what’s it going to be like? What’s going to happen? So it was great when he sent us the lyrics for the Lulu body of work. It was something we could sink our teeth into. I could take off my singer and lyricist hat and concentrate on the music part. These were very potent lyrics, with a soundscape behind them for atmosphere. Lars and I sat there with an acoustic and let this blank canvas take us where it needed to go. It was a great gift, to be asked to stamp ‘TALLICA on it. And that’s what we did.”
“Stamped?” chuckles Reed. “Branded! It’s in and it’s not coming out…”
“This idea sounded like an even better situation for us,” suggests Kirk Hammett. “It gave us an opportunity to truly collaborate with Lou on something that wasn’t already established. We ended up writing and recording with him there and then, just like that, without a lot of afterthought or reworking. It was an exercise in spontaneity, in improvising: there are things we just could not recreate. We bowed to the magic.”
Lou Reed picks up the tale of Lulu’s birth. “I’d worked on this thing for a while. Frank Wedekind didn’t get it right first time either, so he tried again. In Berlin they told me there were fourteen versions of this play floating around with differing emphases, but the main thrust of is like Pandora’s Box. Lulu is the great femme fatale. She was conceived as immoral. Or amoral. Shocking for the bourgeois in those days, which I guess is why it was written.
“And then I got my paws on it, tried to make sense out of it with my significant other, Laurie Anderson. It was almost impossible at first. We had to figure who Lulu was, her psychology. We had to bring her to life in a sophisticated way, using rock. And the hardest power rock you could come up with would have to be Metallica. They live on that planet. We played together, and I knew it: dream come true.
“My Lulu had a head but she needed a body. They said: let’s go, let’s do it, can’t wait. I’d been submerging my psyche in Lulu and the various characters, and in the studio we’d examine this further. It’s not always Lulu singing; in my mind I’m switching gears, characters. It’s not easy. It’s not a party record. It’s like: what happens if you try to bring the whole thing up to the level of Selby, Poe, Burroughs, Inge, Tennessee Williams…? There’s an argument that if you have to think, you can’t rock. But the mind is the most erogenous zone I know, so that’s an unusually dumb comment. This is a new genre here, and we punch it out. This is where I like to exist.”
How should the listener feel after hearing Lulu, with its graphic lyrics of jealousy, lust, violence and revenge, its grinding riffs and tantalising tones? Is it a journey into the heart of darkness?
“I wouldn’t call it the heart of darkness”, muses Reed. “I’d call it the heart of illumination.”
“It could be disturbing,” suggests Rob Trujillo. “At the same time it could be beautiful. It’s a marriage of attitudes.”
Ask if the project took Metallica out of their comfort zone, and Reed laughs, “Have you ever heard their “comfort zone”?” Lars adds, “We were psyched to be thrown into a situation with no specific structure. We were reinventing the wheel! We’ve tried over the years in certain instrumental pieces to get as far out there as possible, but nothing we’d ever done prepared us for where this went. We spent four weeks in our studio, and Lou showed up on the first Monday – by lunchtime we were deep in it, faster than anyone could keep track of. It’s been an authentic, intuitive and impulsive journey. We weren’t always sure where it was going, but it sure as fuck was an exciting ride to be on.” “We all felt the same way”, adds Lou.
James concurs, “It’s so great to have another powerful force in the room like Lou. There was the feeling-out period, but soon I couldn’t stop saying yes. I thought: we need to just agree that this is awesome. What’s steering the ship at that point? The moment is. As soon as we let go of that fear of no control, we were in Heaven. So many ideas, but all agreeing that this is magic, don’t mess with it. Celebrate what’s happening here…”
“It’s definitely not a Metallica album, or a Lou Reed album”, offers Kirk. “It’s something else. It’s a new animal, a hybrid. Nobody in our world, the heavy metal world, has ever done anything like this.”
“It’s made us a better band. It’s going to freak some people out”, says Rob. “And that’s good.”
“This,” concludes Lou, “is the best thing I ever did. And I did it with the best group I could possibly find on the planet. By definition, everybody involved was honest. This has come into the world pure. We pushed as far as we possibly could within the realms of reality.”