Small Town Girls: Lou Reed and Metallica’s “Lulu”

There’s a tendency, when one examines something so weird and improbable as Lulu, to say something such as this: “I’m not interested in whether or not Lulu is good, I’m interested in how something like this even got made.”

Let me be clear: I don’t give a shit why this record exists. It just does, and we’re gonna have to deal with that. A bunch of dudes with emotional issues who once sued their fans made a weird album with rock and roll’s senile grandpa.

This record opens with some flowery little acoustic guitar strums. The best word to describe these strums might be something like “arrhythmic.” After that, Lou Reed’s familiar New York accent chimes in with the unforgettable album opening line, “I would cut my legs and tits off.” This is followed by undecipherable allusions to Boris Karloff and The Isle of Doctor Moreau. After that, Metallica turns on their amps and we get a crunchy power chord. I won’t sugar coat it: it’s hilarious.

“Brandenburg Gate,” the album’s opening track, is reminiscent of the Franz Kafka rock opera written by Dwayne on Home Movies. Reed is rambling incoherently[1] while James Hetfield shouts the words “small town girl” over and over again. This is backed by some frat-metal guitar stuff that I would describe as cartoonish. This all being the case, this song really isn’t that bad.

Now, this album is supposedly based on a couple of plays by Frank Wedekind, but I don’t know anything about that, and neither do you[2]. But if I had to guess I’d say that the main character of this play is probably from a small town, given that Hetfield does not ever stop shouting “small town girl.” I’m charmed by the idea of Hetfield prioritizing the main character’s small town roots, and emphasizing that character trait as such. What’s more, the repetition of the phrase throughout the song creates a real schism with Reed’s monologuing. The created effect is a notion of authority. “Brandenburg Gate” sounds incoherent but that might just be intentional. For the rest of Lulu, this is not always the case.

On “The View,” Lou Reed and Metallica feel pretty mismatched. I realize that “Lou Reed and Metallica don’t sound like they would go good together” is the most basic and obvious analysis I can possibly provide, but it’s the most glaring aspect of this particular song. Reed’s singing feels like it has almost nothing to do with the 90’s-metal-porn-parody guitars hammering away in the background. This total sonic failure is only amplified when Hetfield takes over the vocal duties and the song instantly turns into the shittiest Metallica song ever written. This song sounds like Metallica recorded a song in one room, Lou Reed recorded a poem in another room, and then some lazy sound engineer just copied one on top of the other, and then that was the final product. For what it’s worth, I think it’s perfectly plausible that is in fact the case. Not likely, but perfectly plausible.

What I can say of “The View” is that it’s the source material for “I am the table.” For those of you not familiar with the finer details of professional wrestling internet culture, there are these videos by some guy named Maffew called “Botchamania.” “Botchamania” are these video compilations of professional wrestlers making humorous errors. Commonly in these videos, a wrestler will attempt to fall through a table, but for whatever reason, the structural integrity of the table does not give, and the wrestler just thuds off the unbroken table. This is always accompanied by a soundclip of a man yelling “I am the table!” As it turns out, that man is James Hetfield on the “The View.” Just a fun little tidbit. You can bust that one out at parties, people will love it.

The third song on this increasingly daunting album is called “Pumping Blood.” Most of the beginning of this song is Lou Reed crooning, “pumping blood, pumping blood/pumping blood, pumping blood.” His vocal style on this record is somewhere between “New York City performance art” and “Professor Farnsworth.” At one point he says something bizarre about “wagging [his] ass like a prostitute” while Lars Ulrich is banging away at some ham-fisted toms and it legitimately sounds like Judy Funny reading poetry set to cartoon bongos. But this is another instance of Loutallica accidentally unearthing some charm here. The fact that Reed sounds like a blithering old man here ends up being its real virtue. It’s kind of, well, cute.

If you saw a YouTube video of an old man doing Metallica at karaoke you’d squeal with glee. How wonderful, we’d say. Bless this geezer for having such enthusiasm, and behaving as though he were young at heart. Bless him for refusing to conform to our standards of senior living. But in this context, I’m supposed to be critical of Reed? It’s ok for an old person to sing metal songs, but not if that old person invented the Strokes. That’s the precedent we’re setting? I’m not buying it. This song is adorable. It’s kind of like a seven minute recreation of keyboard cat.

At least Lou Reed sounding old is something I haven’t heard before. The guitar playing on this record is no such thing. I’ve alluded to it in previous paragraphs but let me very forcefully reiterate: the guitars on this album are very bad. The tone is lacking any individuality[3], and they provide absolutely nothing in any kind of understanding or enjoyment of this project. They may very well have been written on the spot. One exception here is on “Iced Honey” which has this 50’s-drive-in-punk aesthetic. It sounds like it was written by a band who used to listen to a lot of the Velvet Underground. “Iced Honey” is the closest this album has to a song that sounds like an actual song. Beyond that, there is nothing resembling an interesting guitar riff. There are no fun solos. Scant a melody worth thinking about[4]. When Hammet and Hetfield are playing guitar on this album at their best, they’re hardly noticeable. When they’re at their worst, they’re distracting as shit.

Here’s another pardon-the-obvious-criticism criticism: this record is maybe a little long. You could cut a half an hour from this bad boy and it would still clock in at just under an hour. When “Cheat on Me” ends and you’ve finished side one, you’ve still got like, 45 minutes to go. LuLu is mildly more interesting than I thought it would be, but it’s also pretty abrasive and not terribly listenable. 90 minutes of Lulu seems callously designed to taunt any potential listeners. Kicking off a 45-minute side two with a song called “Frustration” is a little too on the nose[5]. If the most important part of revising is cutting things, then I think Loutallica might have done well to cut the meandering eight-minute “Little Dog,” a song one might describe as “probably music[6].”

The album closes with 19 minute ballad “Junior Dad.” This is the closest Lou Reed gets on this record to singing the way he used to with the Velvets. I would also argue that this track is probably the only thing on this record that was meant to be “catchy”, and it sorta kinda succeeds. This is one of the only tracks where Hammet and Hetfield’s guitars have any kind of personality. I still wouldn’t necessarily call this song “good”, though. It’s awfully scatter brained, and there’s a perfectly reasonable spot for this song to end at about 11:00 before it needlessly, brutally marches on for another eight goddamn minutes. Nothing even happens in these eight minutes. It sounds like maybe Lou Reed let John Cale use their recording space to tune a viola. Please. Let this end. Lou. James. Let me go home.

So that’s this record. It’s about as bad as people said it was but it’s not irredeemable. There’s some interesting things going on here periodically, although I doubt any of them were intentional. This is not the worst record I’ve ever heard, but I’m also definitely never listening to it again. Except for maybe “Iced Honey.” That track has some guilty pleasure potential.

In a certain sense, Lou Reed and Metallica really is a match made in heaven. In the wake of a full blown revolt against their own fans, why wouldn’t Metallica team up with the patriarch of non-commercial rock and roll? Metallica was fed up with their fans pirating their tracks and not buying their records, so they teamed up with the guy who is indisputably best at not selling records. No one would possibly want to pirate this record. No one is stealing from you anymore Metallica. Problem solved.

[1] “I dreamt of breezes going through the treeses/And stars were still illumed/I have three hearts that I keep apart/Trying to relate/To normal feelings and the nighttime reeling/And some absinthe drunk so late”

[2] If you’re familiar with Wedekind at all it’s probably for Spring Awakening, which, from what I remember, is about a bunch of German teenagers who want to fuck each other.

[3] Imagine the “metal” setting on a cheap amplifier.

[4] . At 3:38 on “Cheat on Me,” I swear to god, Hetfield strums a chord by accident and it just got left in the song. I’m serious. There’s no way anybody played that chord on purpose, put it where it was intentionally, and then left it in the mix because they thought it worked. An accident is the only explanation.

[5] This track also features Reed borrowing the melody from The Sound of Music’s “Do Re Mi,” adding to the creeping sense that the listener is simply being fucked with.

[6] This is the most uncomfortably sexual song I’ve ever heard. Reed describing a “tiny dick” and “tasting” a “cold hearted pussy” is the kind of thing that could only ever possibly exist on Lulu.

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