This is a live performance from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame concerts that were held in New York City. The performance is from 2009 and features Lou Reed and Metallica together on stage performing the classic “Velvet Underground” song “Sweet Jane”. Given that Lou Reed once released a feedback blast called “Metal Machine Music,” his new collaboration with Metallica might not be as unlikely as it seems. After performing “Sweet Jane” together at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert, the former Velvet Underground leader and the biggest hard-rock band in the world were inspired to unite again for an album, called “Lulu” and out Nov. 1 on Warner Brothers. The songs, which nod to Franz Wedekind’s “Lulu” plays about an abused dancer, were written by Mr. Reed for a stage production in Berlin. O.K., maybe this project is as unlikely as it seems.
Lulu – The Premise
The conception of the collaboration project began in 2009 when both Metallica and Lou Reed performed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th Anniversary Concert. After that performance, they began “kicking around the idea of making a record together,”but didn’t start working together until two years later. In February 2011, Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett announced that in May 2011 the group would start working on something that’s “not 100 percent a Metallica record. It’s a recording project, let’s put it that way.”The project was revealed to be a collaboration with Lou Reed once the recording of the album had been completed in June 2011.
The collaboration was originally intended to be Metallica re-recording various previously unreleased tracks Reed had written over the years. Among these unreleased demos was a collection of songs composed for a play called Lulu — a theatrical production of two plays originally written by the German playwright Frank Wedekind. Reed shared the demos of these songs with the members of Metallica to help bring the “piece to the next level,” and the group provided “significant arrangement contributions” to the material. David Fricke of Rolling Stone heard at least two of the songs from the project in June 2011—”Pumping Blood” and “Mistress Dread”—and described their sound as a “raging union of [Reed’s] 1973 noir classic, Berlin, and Metallica’s ’86 crusher, Master of Puppets.”
“Part of the role of the visuals here is to identify what it [Lulu] is. It’s not the next Metallica, it’s a new thing. A collaboration between these great iconic artists. It is art. They’ve done it purely for the art of it. It really is what art should be.”
David Turner, Concept and Design, Lulu
“Our Sound Sessions are designed to showcase our best-in-class performance with some of the finest artists in the world across all genres, and we are privileged that Lou Reed and Metallica have agreed to be part of this series to celebrate their new, collaborative release, Lulu.”
Tyler Fairchild, Director of Strategic Brand Development for Bowers & Wilkins.
Lounging in a luxury hotel suite 26 floors above Lower Manhattan, Lou Reed, the man who all but defined underground rock with songs like “Sweet Jane” and “Walk on the Wild Side,” and James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich of Metallica, the band that all but defined the mainstreaming of 1980s thrash metal, were discussing their new album, “Lulu.” In tones usually reserved for describing love affairs and exquisite desserts, they effused all at once about the moment they first cranked up together.
“Our jaws were dropping.”
“We were going, ‘This is amazing.’ ”
“Beyond, beyond, beyond heaven.”
And so on. Mr. Reed, 69, has never been prone to rosy exaggeration. Yet when it comes to “Lulu” — a set of wrenching, astonishingly profane songs inspired by two century-old German plays — he cannot contain himself. With unusual talkativeness he dominated a recent hourlong conversation with Mr. Hetfield and Mr. Ulrich, sometimes answering and sometimes ignoring a reporter’s questions as he celebrated “the glory of Metallica” and lavished superlatives on their project.
“This is a high point for me,” Mr. Reed said. “I’ve never sung this good. And if they’re not there with me, I don’t know if I can ever do that again.”
Meanwhile the Internet has been having its own discourse about “Lulu,” which will be released by Warner Brothers on Tuesday, and mostly it has been quite the opposite of gush. (“Is this a joke?” reads one typical blog comment.) Yet whether out of scorn or curiosity, all the chatter seemed to ask one question: What could the world’s hugest metal band and the co-founder of the avant-rock deities the Velvet Underground possibly have in common?
With abrasive sounds and no shortage of attitude, both have etched their places into music history and proven time and again their knack for polarizing audiences, a skill Mr. Reed has perfected over his nearly five-decade career with albums like “Metal Machine Music,” his feedback apocalypse from 1975 that has come to symbolize rock at its most uncommercial extreme.
Yet as the three men talked shop and quoted Mr. Reed’s lyrics like smitten fanboys, their most fundamental connection seemed to be simply the camaraderie and worship of really loud noises that come with being a rock ’n’ roll lifer.
“The way I look at it, I couldn’t think of a more obvious collaboration,” said Mr. Ulrich, 47, Metallica’s drummer and default communicator. “We’re both outsiders. We’ve always hovered in our own autonomous little bubble, and if you look at Lou’s career, he’s always been on the periphery, on the fringes.”
For their peers the pairing — inevitably nicknamed LouTallica — makes sense as both a sonic match and the kind of shake-up that mature artists need now and then to keep things fresh.
“Success is like being embalmed,” Iggy Pop wrote in an e-mail. “It’s a wonderful preservative, but sometimes you want to take a walk to the corner. ‘Bitches Brew’ worked out pretty damn well for Miles Davis, and to me this feels like a parallel. Of course, I’m the guy who always liked ‘Metal Machine Music.’ ”
The Lou Reed-Metallica alliance dates to October 2009, when they played together at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert at Madison Square Garden. Overjoyed with the results, Mr. Reed proposed making an album together, and eventually a plan was hatched to record some of Mr. Reed’s “lost nuggets,” said Mr. Ulrich, who wore a black and gold T-shirt advertising the 1980s British metal band Venom.
Two weeks before the recording sessions began Mr. Reed changed his mind and suggested the “Lulu” songs, which he had originally written for a theatrical production in Berlin by the director Robert Wilson. Mr. Reed e-mailed sketches of 10 songs for Metallica to write new arrangements, and when he and his producer, Hal Willner, arrived at the band’s studio in San Rafael, Calif., lightning struck.
“Within the week that they were supposed to be investigating the place, we had more than half the album recorded,” said Mr. Hetfield, 48, Metallica’s singer and rhythm guitarist. “We just went out and started jamming.”
Mr. Reed described Metallica — besides Mr. Hetfield and Mr. Ulrich, it includes the lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, 48, and the bassist Robert Trujillo, 47 — as the high-volume backing band he has always heard in his head.
“There’s this idea I’ve had almost forever,” said Mr. Reed, in denim, black leather and flip-up eyeglasses of his own design. “It needed a very, very powerful backing so that it would make sense. And there they were, right off the bat. That made it possible for me to do this. And then when we really went at it, the sky opened.”
On its surface the album’s concept does not seem exactly Monsters of Rock material: an adaptation of two plays by the proto-Expressionist writer Frank Wedekind (who also wrote “Spring Awakening”) about a serial femme fatale who becomes a prostitute and is killed by Jack the Ripper.
But even longtime fans of Mr. Reed and Metallica may be shocked by the gruesomeness of “Lulu.” Mr. Reed depicts the story’s abject lust and loathing with some of his most disturbing lyrics, like “I beg you to degrade me/Is there waste that I could eat?” and “To be dead to have no feeling/To be dry and spermless like a girl.” (Depending on your perspective, they might also be among his most comical.)
Beneath Mr. Reed’s unblinking recitation, Metallica’s serrated guitars and drums churn like a torture device. With some familiar riffs, including the speed-metal gallop in “Mistress Dread” and the heavy lurch of “Frustration,” the band risks being accused of what the 2004 documentary “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” revealed to be the ultimate intra-Metallica insult: using “stock” parts. But Mr. Reed also introduced elements otherwise unthinkable on a Metallica album, like the two-chord vamp of “Iced Honey” — this band’s “Sweet Jane.”
When promotional song snippets hit the Web last month, fans of both acts took to the blogs in confusion, outrage and disbelief. But for those who have followed Mr. Reed through the hard-rock muscle of his “Rock ’n’ Roll Animal” band of the mid-1970s to his clamorous recent improvisations with the composer John Zorn, the turn to Metallica’s coiled guitar machinery is no big surprise.
“Lou has always expanded the parameters of what’s permissible sonically in rock ’n’ roll,” said Lenny Kaye, the Patti Smith Group guitarist and rock scholar. “In their sense of noise the Velvets set up a frequency response in ‘Sister Ray’ that was metal if not in riff then in texture.”
The album’s themes of sexual deviance and spiritual exhaustion echo the Velvet Underground song “Venus in Furs,” as well as “Berlin,” Mr. Reed’s notoriously bleak 1973 album about a collapsed romance. They may also conjure other experiences known to rock stars of all ages.
“It’s a vehicle for a certain kind of problem men have with women — a particular kind of a woman,” Mr. Reed said. “The music is trying to give you that feeling of being upset or angry, wherever she takes you. You’re up, you’re down; now it’s gone. Is there a man amongst us who has not run into something like that?”
Mr. Hetfield chuckled knowingly.
In their hotel suite — rented for interviews while Metallica was in New York last month to perform at Yankee Stadium — the men had an easy rapport, yet also the slightly awkward dynamic of three alpha figures who are each accustomed to a room going silent when they speak. Despite their vastly greater record sales, Mr. Hetfield and Mr. Ulrich tended to defer to Mr. Reed as the elder statesman, although his sales history became a running joke.
“Have I ever done anything to sell records?” Mr. Reed responded when asked if he was overstating his excitement for promotional purposes. “I’m not the guy you go to to sell records. I wouldn’t know where to start.” Mr. Hetfield and Mr. Ulrich began to giggle. “And my track record speaks for itself,” Mr. Reed added, as riotous laughter exploded all around.
(Metallica’s last two studio albums have sold 3.7 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Mr. Reed’s: 67,000.)
“Lulu” was recorded in 10 days — unheard of for Metallica, whose perfectionism typically causes album sessions to last for months or even years. But in the studio the parties were productive opposites. Mr. Reed gained the monster backing band he always craved, and Metallica had the liberating experience of playing second fiddle to a musician who prefers the spontaneous intensity of first or second takes.
“In 30 years I have never been part of that kind of creative outpouring,” Mr. Ulrich said. “It was cathartic. It was otherworldly.”
During down times they shared musical touchstones like diplomats exchanging cultural gifts. The Metallica camp gave Mr. Reed and Mr. Willner their first tastes of Angel Witch, a member of the so-called new wave of British heavy metal of the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Mr. Hetfield, in turn, was introduced to the sounds of Antony Hegarty, the androgynous, quavering singer of Antony and the Johnsons. “He got it right away,” Mr. Willner said. “He said: ‘This is beautiful. I’ve got to get this stuff.’ ”
As to the album’s commercial expectations, most parties involved shrugged or used euphemisms like “modest.” Cliff Burnstein, Metallica’s longtime co-manager, seemed prepared to be underwhelmed.
“They’ll be scratching their heads,” Mr. Burnstein said of Metallica fans’ likely response. “They’ve scratched their heads a lot about this band, and it’s never stopped them from coming back later on.”
Discussing the album the three musicians seemed too excited to care about anyone’s response but their own. After an assistant brought out a set of dental floss picks, Mr. Reed cleaned between his teeth and yet again extolled the album’s sound (“Our guitars match as if they were hatched in the same hospital”), then abruptly stood up and made his way to an adjacent room.
Picking up the conversation Mr. Ulrich started to detail the musicians’ excitement further, but before he reached his point Mr. Reed returned and shook his arms and legs in a little dance, shimmying his way back to his seat.
“It’s true,” Mr. Reed said, to roars of approval. “Every last word of it is true.”
We’d be interested to know what fans of Metallica or Lou Reed thought of this project. And if you’re not a fan of the music, is it still viable as art?