Boy George, Dome, Brighton<br/>Lou Reed, Southbank Centre, London

The Culture Club star can still entertain, but Lou Reed's attempt to show his metal falls flat

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:59

There's a mum in the audience of Boy George's Up Close and Personal show with one gay son, one straight daughter, one straight son and two gay daughters: Brightonian pluralism encapsulated in one family.

It's to her that a song with the words "You always knew, didn't you, mother?" is dedicated. "People don't celebrate what they are," the singer complains, "even in these so-called liberal times. I've done too much to apologise."

No kidding. The angelic, genderless Boy George my 15-year-old self ran away from home and slept rough to follow (well, for one night) would later be replaced by a more flawed and realistic persona. But in recent years, through all his crimes and misdemeanours, he's attained a new nobility. And it's this battered-but-unbroken George who stands before us tonight in a lime green titfer and (hopefully) fake ermine stole, and he's all the more loved for it.

"This is a song I wrote when I was on holiday last summer," he says to gales of knowing laughter from a crowd only too familiar with his bizarre 2009 sentence for false imprisonment and assault. The song is "Pentonville Blues", and features the refrain "HD7073, that's what they call me ..." – a reference both to Toots and The Maytals' prison memoir "54-46 (That's My Number)" and C33X, Oscar Wilde's number in Reading Gaol.

These new compositions are scattered lightly in a set that spans the Culture Club years with "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me", "Karma Chameleon", "I Just Wanna Be Loved" and an ovation-grabbing "Victims", solo hits such as "Generations of Love" and "Everything I Own", as well as covers of "Blue Moon" and Marc Bolan's "Get It On".

This hardcore atheist could live without the Krishna-pimping "Bow Down Mister" and the trad spirituals ("Down by the Riverside", "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen", "This Little Light of Mine"). That said, he delivers the best version of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" I've ever heard, as if Dylan's song had been waiting 37 years for the right voice to sing it.

One of the first things they teach you at Music Journalism School is that Lou Reed's 1975 album Metal Machine Music is the very byword for unlistenable noise. It is, as a result, the most-namechecked, least-heard album of all time.

An hour of pure free-form feedback, split over four 15-minute sides of vinyl – essentially an inversion of John Cage's totally silent 4'33'' – it was widely interpreted as a joke, the ultimate two-fingers-up to his label RCA. It's rumoured that labels subsequently included a special Metal Machine Music clause in artists' contracts to prevent anything like it happening again.

Despite, or because of its perverse hostility to aesthetic sensibilities, the album has accrued a following over the years. Some were quicker than others. Lester Bangs immediately hailed it as "the greatest record ever made in the history of the human eardrum". In his 1995 diary, Brian Eno compared MMM to an equally extreme album of his own: "Discreet Music is soft, calm, melodic and reassuringly repetitive, without a single sound other than tape hiss ... Metal Machine Music is as abrasive and unmelodic as possible ... and yet they occupy two ends of what was at the time a pretty new axis: music as immersion, as sonic experience in which you float. The roots of Ambient."

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Amazingly, Metal Machine Music is now available both as a high-spec audio DVD and as a live re-recording of sorts, entitled The Creation of the Universe. On the back packaging of the former, Reed jokes: "You're still with us! " Regardless of the recent flurry of rehabilitation, it nevertheless raised eyebrows when Reed announced his intention to take Metal Machine Music on tour. The task of replicating it, surely, would be akin to recreating a cloud formation using a massive kettle. How do you do it?

The answer lies in a mix of ancient and modern, MacBooks and giant gongs, analogue and digital in perfect disharmony. In this, Reed is assisted by two studenty-looking chaps with long hair. Visually, it's unsatisfying. Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but the sight of a man pulling passionate faces in front of a laptop does not belong at a concert. On the opposite side is a saxophonist, making noises that sound like a Dalek's death throes. And there, dead centre, is Davros himself, surrounded by gadgets and gizmos, looking like a PG Tips chimp playing a professor.

The cabin-pressure drone they conjure is at first impressive, then boring. If you're the sort of person who can stare at a Rothko for hours and see beauty slowly bleed through, maybe Metal Machine Music is the perfect soundtrack. If you think (as I do) that Rothko was a charlatan, then it ain't.

Eventually notes emerge, like whale song, from Reed's fretboard, and something almost recognisable as music appears, in the forms of free-jazz squalls of saxophone and rhythms beaten out on a drum the size of a mini-trampette, until Reed bad-temperedly signals for them to stop and get back to the ongoing ominous rumble.

I'll stand 30 seconds of this at the end of a Berlin-era Bowie track, but 90 minutes is collecting the catheter. Being here at all is a statement of commitment to a certain set of values, but so is not being here. Looking around me, there are many empty seats, and the VIP boxes are deserted (those who like their proto-punk legends a bit more melodic are watching New York Dolls on the other side of town).

Congratulations, Lou. You did it. Now, any chance of "Walk on the Wild Side"?

Next Week:

Simon Price salutes LCD Soundsystem on its final tour of duty, and ponders the popularity of Scouting for Girls

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