I was a fan of Lou Reed first; then The Velvet Underground and then John Cale. Truth be told – and I don’t mind admitting it a) I was young b) there was no internet then – for a while I thought John Cale and J.J. Cale was the same person. I was 12 years old; digging the fact that J.J.’s originals of After Midnight and Cocaine were so much cooler than the famous versions by Eric Clapton. And I thought he’d been in The Velvet Underground too.
It didn’t take long to notice the vocal differences between the laidback bluesy troubadour and the art-punk experimenter. The geographic differences added to the vocal timbres too; one an Oklahoman, the other a Welshman. It didn’t take long to confirm that the J.J. Cale that strummed on the porch, a beer in reach
was not the John Cale that flailed at viola strings, produced pioneering punk and made a series of amazing albums as a singer/songwriter that could never be pigeonholed in to one of the convenient singer/songwriter molds.
So it was from The Velvet Underground that John Cale emerged as both a producer and solo artist. And what an incredible run he had from 1968-1978. There have been magical moments since then – my first real understanding of Cale outside of the Velvets was his collaboration with sparring partner Lou Reed for the Andy Warhol requiem, Songs For Drella. And every time Cale seemed to go away for a while he’d bob back up with something worthwhile (1996’s Walking On Locusts, 2003’s Five Tracks EP and HoboSapiens album; 2005’s blackAcetate). It was a rum 1980s. But it seemed that most people who had been making music since the 1960s struggled through the 1980s. It was, in many cases, the drugs catching up; paying them back. That’s certainly a fair accusation to level at Cale anyway. And there are one or two songs on those 1980s albums – as with Reed and the rest – that still stand up. Look closer, listen again, there are one or two whole albums that are pretty fucking magical. Cale didn’t have himself together at all in that decade but he was still making some pretty great music.
I’ve been listening to Cale’s music for 25 years now and in the last few weeks I’ve re-watched the Fragments Of A Rainy Season DVD, listened to a bunch of my favourite Cale albums and watched various clips online. In fact I think it all started by hearing the Agnes Obel cover of Close Watch. I’ve always loved Cale’s original and I guess hearing this cover version offered a fresh start. Then it was Cale’s turn to rework and reassess – his Music For A New Society reissued and fully reworked as well. (See: not such a rum 80s).
It’s worth mentioning that Cale was an experienced improviser and player – immersed in the avant-garde – before he joined the Velvet Underground. His work with and tutelage under the likes of John Cage and La Monte Young showed a young musical mind that had been shaped far from the mainstream. (See Theatre Of Eternal Music for more).
Cale was only with the Velvet Underground for the first two albums – but he is a crucial component.
And then he embarked on his solo journey – so far his discography barely even nods to The Velvet Underground, certainly not in the way that Reed’s (or Moe Tucker’s for that matter) does.
A case could be made for John Cale as a vital influence, an intriguing voice and important musical component outside of the VU if he never made a solo album. Cale would go on to offer soundtrack albums, music for Andy Warhol’s films and shows, theatre pieces and this stunning set of idiosyncratic solo albums that we’ll get to shortly. But he would be worthy outside of the VU for his producer credits and credentials.
Cale produced seminal punk/punk-influencing albums The Stooges (by The Stooges), The Modern Lovers (by The Modern Lovers) and Horses (by Patti Smith). He also worked with Nick Drake, Sham 69, Squeeze and stuck by the old VU ingénue/siren Nico – creating the correct sound-castles for her watery voice to tease and then punish.
Later on he would help Alejandro Escovedo regain his audience with The Boxing Mirror.
And that is just some of the material Cale worked on and some of the artists he nurtured, fought with and created music with and for.
In 1970 Cale released Vintage Violence, described by many as a folk-pop album or, I prefer, a baroque-pop album – check out Gideon’s Bible or Amsterdam. Amazing songs, pop songs that were never meant for the chart; 45 years on they still sound glorious, smart and, well correct.
But Cale was not going to be typecast as some singer/songwriter – so he followed Vintage Violence with Church Of Anthrax, a collaboration with Terry Riley. The only song with lyrics is The Soul Of Patrick Lee. The rest of the tunes are instrumental: jams, strays, loose odds and ends. The Protege gives you an idea. It’s worth a listen – Riley and Cale both claimed it was unfinished or under-realised. It’s worth hunting out for the gems included.
Paris 1919 (from 1973) features members of Little Feat helping Cale to realise his vision. It’s back to the baroque-pop, but with a twist. The band of session players can’t be ignored (Child’s Christmas In Wales).
Things turned darker with Fear in 1974 – the start of a very fine and brutal trilogy of albums where Cale got his punk sneer on and let his psyche hang out; dangling it in the faces of his audience. The opener, Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend, sets the tone – it’s a punk-song for piano. Then there’s Barracuda and Gun. That’s punk with a noir-ish diversion. These songs are dark, possibly evil; almost always beautiful in their raw construction, their ability to take the listener somewhere. To a new place. There’s also the superb song title, The Man Who Couldn’t Afford To Orgy.
Just six months later Slow Dazzle featured Cale’s ominous transmogrification of Heartbreak Hotel; I’d argue now that this was a pioneering cover-version. The band has Chris Spedding and Phil Manzanera on guitars; Brian Eno (Cale and he have collaborated often) is in the mix. There’s plenty of killer Cale originals here, Guts has about the best opening line a bitter revenge-song could have, “The bugger in the short sleeves f**ked my wife”.
Later that same year there was another new album, Helen Of Troy. It’s one of my absolute favourites – John Cale was unhappy with it; the album was released without his consent. It features his masterful ballad, I Keep A Close Watch; his cover of Pablo Picasso (well, The Modern Lovers had borrowed enough from Cale’s earlier group) and with the title song Cale was showing he could match David Bowie and Lou Reed and was arguably more consistent than either of them at this point in time.
The first compilation of these fine solo works, Guts, was released in 1977.
In 1979 there was Sabotage/Live – a live set from CBGB’s featuring all new material.
It’s an incredible decade of work when you remind yourself that Helen Of Troy was (apparently) unfinished because Cale was finishing off Patti Smith’s masterpiece. At other times he was working with Nick Drake, Eno, Nico, The Modern Lovers, Kevin Ayers…
I’m still convinced this is a decade of near-perfect alternative-pop. And if you want to hear Cale’s sound carrying across to more recent times the opening seconds of LCD Soundsystem’s All My Friends gives the game away. They even had Cale record his version of the song for the single’s B-side (Here’s how he chose to interpret it).
John Cale has been a leader from the fringe – a bassist, pianist, composer, guitarist, arranger, producer and viola player. A musician who, at his best, was fearless in his determination.
I travelled to Auckland to see him perform live in late 2007. He only played one Velvet Underground song. That was fine by me. I liked that. I like that he’s never rested back on that. He did the collaboration with Lou Reed (superb) and the VU reunion (worthy for its time). He’ll play a song or two from the past now – but he’s moving forward. I’m sure there’s another good album (or two) in him. But it wouldn’t matter if there wasn’t. As he showed last year, he’s capable of revisiting his material and turning it on its ear, draining out something brand new as a result.
There is so much – as surveyed above – from one decade of his artistic life. There’s also a fascinating and frank autobiography, What’s Welsh For Zen?, which is a triumph of both style and content. There is so much in this man’s career – so much influence, so much to go back and study. This is a good companion biography too.
Most importantly – as I see it – John Cale is capable of just flooring me with a song, over and over. His covers were always worthy; his original work feels like it is without obvious antecedent, almost without precedent. And I can think of at least a dozen songs by Cale that blow me away. Most of what I’ve linked to here – and so many more beyond that. A vat of great material is there to discover and rediscover.
So, what do you think of John Cale? Have you followed his solo career? Do you value his contributions as a producer? Do you have favourite albums he’s released and favourites he’s worked on? Or can you not see the appeal?
What are your thoughts on John Cale the musician?
Postscript: One of my absolute favourite Cale songs I didn’t mention in this post: Dying On The Vine (again, from that pesky mid-80s period).