Approaching St Mark’s Chapel, a 19th century church in the east end of Brighton, a low rumbling note begins to filter its way in among the noise of the busy hospital traffic nearby. As you head up the church drive, the frequency grows rapidly louder, increasing to a roar, as if St Mark’s is possessed by an electric spirit from a 1970s horror movie.
In a sense, it is. For the fiftieth Brighton Festival, St Mark’s (nowadays an arts venue, The Spire) is hosting the UK premiere of Lou Reed Drones, a cacophonous live installation of the late New York musician’s guitars and amps, humming to themselves at enormous volume in the afterlife.
This year’s Brighton Festival is curated by Reed’s widow, the musician, artist and filmmaker Laurie Anderson, and the Drones installation was the idea of Stewart Hurwood, Reed’s guitar technician in his later years.
Once inside the church, its windows covered in thick black drapes expect for the sunlight streaming through the stained glass window over the altar, the noise is overpowering. St Mark’s has been emptied of pews and in the centre, on a low stage, six of Reed’s guitars lean against a semi-circle of his amps, feeding back and droning. A glitterball sparkles overhead. In the centre, Hurwood, in shades and Lou Reed tour t-shirt, makes slow, careful adjustments to the din, increasing one amp’s output, decreasing another, creating gradual changes to the immersive guitar hum.
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Drones and feedback have featured in Reed’s work since The Velvet Underground in the ’60s, influenced by his early VU colleagues John Cale and Angus MacLise’s participation in La Monte Young’s Theatre Of Eternal Music Ensemble. While Reed’s notorious 1975 album ‘Metal Machine Music’ consisted of an hour of dense, complex feedback, the sound of Lou Reed Drones is more meditative and hypnotic. Hurwood is presenting the performance for five hours solid, over five days. As Anderson states in the programme notes, it’s, “The closest you can now get to Lou’s work”.
This afternoon when we stop by, there are around two dozen people inside, some standing, some sitting, taking photographs or taking notes, some laid flat on the floor, eyes closed, absorbed in the roar. Even with the essential use of the complimentary ear plugs handed out on the door, within five minutes my hearing is starting to buckle and crackle.
In recent years I’ve sat through consecutive nights of My Bloody Valentine at their most aggressive and seen a Sunn O))) show so loud my clothes flapped as the volume threatened to strip them from my body. Foolishly I didn’t use hearing protection on those occasions, and each time it took several days for my ears to return to normal. Having dodged tinnitus on so many occasions, I’m taking no chances, even with ear plugs.
After 15 powerful minutes, I stumble outside where other attendees are now sprawled on the grass in the sunshine. At least the hospital’s next door.