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In Praise Of John Cale, The Superior Velvet, By Daniel Dylan Wray
Daniel Dylan Wray , January 11th, 2021 09:39

It seems odd to argue that a member of one of the most celebrated rock bands of all time, the Velvet Underground, is under-appreciated, says Daniel Dylan Wray in this subscriber only essay, until you consider just how absent he is from conversations about popular music

Author portraits by Natasha Bright

People have some very strongly held beliefs about the roles of John Cale and Lou Reed. A few years ago, when interviewing Cabaret Voltaire’s Richard H Kirk, I lightheartedly made a Reed/Cale comparison between him and ex-Cabs member Stephen Mallinder due to their fractious yet potent creative relationship. It was met with a stern look, a furrowed brow and the reply, “Well it depends who’s who.” It turned out the idea of being painted as Cale in that partnership was deeply offensive, and of course Kirk would be Reed in any such scenario.

Similarly, when chatting with Mark E Smith about Stewart Lee’s ATP (where Cale pulled out last minute due to non-payment), The Fall frontman - a huge Reed fan - was derisive of Cale and his decision not to play. “It was getting to the point where I said, ‘I know some fucking John Cale songs, I’ll fucking do it’,” he told me. “I can do 'Lady Godiva's Operation' - and better than him.” We went on to speak about the roles of Cale and Reed, and it was clear that there was really only one of those two names worth discussing as far as he was concerned. Even tQ’s own John Doran began this series with a piece that suggested the Velvet Underground were at their most potent and arresting after Cale had left.

See, people who love Reed have a lot invested in him. Author David Keenan, in his recent Baker’s Dozen feature, proclaimed: “Lou Reed is my God.” Spend some time perusing other artists’ entries in that series and you will see Reed’s name pop up time and time again, along with many similar proclamations about how his solo work changed lives. This is something that has filtered down through the history of music writing too; despite their antagonistic relationship it was obvious Lester Bangs thought the same of him all those decades ago. Reed’s name, for many, is still shorthand for rock deity. (Although, the names of Reed and Bangs will forever be linked in rock crit infamy, the writer actually claimed, in a 1978 article, to prefer the music of the Welshman and appeared live with him on stage at CBGB during the same year.)

When have you ever heard anyone declare Cale as their God? There’s a weight and a bluster that follows Reed, whereas with Cale there’s more of a gentle breeze. For many, Reed stands as a decadent and depraved embodiment of a kind of rock & roll figure that doesn’t exist any more. There’s a package that comes with Reed that is bigger than just his music.

Cale seems much more singularly defined by his output and despite the odd reissue here and there over the years, his solo work has never really drawn the kind of retrospective attention and focus that Reed’s has. Barely a year goes past without another reissue campaign for Reed or a new book out - be it Ezra Furman’s 33 1/3 on Transformer or another biography, the latest by Anthony DeCurtis.

Plus, you’re never far away from encountering a hardcore Reed fan loaded with an absurd argument that one of his perceived missteps, like, say, Mistrial, is actually some overlooked masterpiece, or how The Raven is his true magnum opus. In the last ten years I've read more words written about Reed’s Metallica collaboration album Lulu, and whether or not it’s one of the greatest misunderstood contributions to rock & roll history (or the opposing ‘actually it’s a toilet put to record’ argument), than I have for all of Cale’s solo albums combined.

I should add at this stage that the point of this article isn't to dunk on Reed. I love his music dearly and like every other clichéd music journalist he changed my life; his repeated presence here is simply as a familiar, foundational rock to weigh this discussion against. Nor is this an argument about who is better - they are both beautiful colours from the same fucked-up rainbow.

But, have you ever heard someone make the case for Honi Soit, Cale’s highest (and only) Billboard-charting 1981 album produced by Mike Thorne (Soft Cell, Wire) which saw him reunite with Andy Warhol for the artwork, as some overlooked gem? Of course you haven’t. Chances are you’ve never had a conversation with anyone about that album. Fancy checking it out for yourself if you’ve not heard it? Well, head to Discogs, because you won’t find it on Spotify. Ditto Helen Of Troy, Caribbean Sunset, Walking On Locusts, countless Cale soundtracks, collaboration albums such as Church Of Anthrax [There's a Cherry Red remastered CD available though and Honi Soit is also available on CD via Music On CD, Reissues Ed], recorded with Terry Riley, or some of his many live albums. Cale is not just an overlooked and underexplored solo artist; at times he’s entirely absent.

Hang on; I know what you’re thinking at this stage. Are you about to make me sit through several thousand words arguing that John Cale is underrated? The same John Cale from one of the most revered and canonised bands of all time? A member of the Velvet fucking Underground? Aye, sorry, I am.

Lou Reed has been forgiven, arguably even celebrated, for his patchy solo work. One could put forward, with some logic, that Reed’s solo career was so inconsistent – maddeningly so at times – that one of his most consistent traits was inconsistency itself. That fucking up was part of the ride. That to love Lou Reed is to hate Lou Reed. It is to experience unparalleled highs followed by spirit-crushing lows – or sometimes both at the same time. (See 1978’s live album Take No Prisoners, the most perfect/ imperfect example of Reed simultaneously being at his best and worst.)

John Cale by Shawn Brackbill

You may be thinking there’s a good reason Cale’s solo work exists just below the surface; that perhaps he just didn’t have the same songwriting chops as Reed and that the proof is in the pudding. And there’s some small truth to that. Did Cale ever make anything that crossed over and had the commercial success and longevity of Transformer? No, and he didn’t have David Bowie on board either, but I'd still argue he wrote songs that were of an equal calibre. The soaring ballad ‘Perfect Day’ might be one of Reed’s most enduring and endearing, but the subtle majesty of Cale tracks like ‘Buffalo Ballet’, ‘Close Watch’ or ‘You Know More Than I Know’ are just as worthy.

Now, did Cale write anything as knock-you-on-the-floor brilliant as ‘Street Hassle’? Probably not. But did he ever write anything as inexcusably bad as ‘I Wanna Be Black’? No, he did not. Cale’s solo career, for its first ten years or so, minus a little hiccup here and there, was largely flawless. And this was a period when he was finding his voice, stepping out from his avant-garde and classical background and learning on the job how to write pop and rock songs. There is a quiet consistency to much of Cale’s solo career that feels a little lost to time.

When Cale slipped up – which he did, of course – it often felt like the result of a failed experiment, the fallout created by his obdurate vision not quite matching up with the reality of his output. He was known for scrapping an album’s worth of recorded material in favour of starting from scratch when in the studio, no doubt jeopardising coherence and further dashing chances of commercial success in the process.

When Reed failed, it was often through a combination of things: petulance, apathy, chasing the zeitgeist, arrogance, indifference. Admittedly, a lot of those characteristics were also present when he also produced his best work, but the cult of personality around Reed - which he himself cultivated to great effect - often tainted his artistic process. Stubbornness and undying bloodymindedness are of course the great shared traits between he and Cale and the reason for brilliant and terrible work alike. The same qualities are also behind their inability to ever truly successfully work together again after the Velvets, except for a few months when making Songs For Drella. Even that all went tits up again soon enough, with the botched Velvet Underground reunion.

Booze and drugs were also a constant presence for Reed and Cale after the VU, playing a helping hand in bringing out the best and worst in both. Ultimately though, Cale at heart is an experimental artist who also happens to love pop music. He is less consumed by how he’s perceived, where he’s going or how he fits in, which has resulted in a body of work marked more by exploration than crippling self-awareness.

Cale’s fondness for circumventing the norm started at a young age. When he was a teenager in a rural Welsh school, all his peers played rugby. Cale opted for long-distance running instead, arguably a foundational metaphor that would come to define many of his artistic pursuits.

It’s a well-known narrative in the story of the Velvets that Cale left Wales behind for NYC and linked up with La Monte Young to further study composition in the Theatre of Eternal Music before forming the band. What’s less fully considered, perhaps, is just what a staggering feat it was for someone to make the leap from a small mining town in the Welsh valleys to New York, in the 1960s. Cale was pegged as a talent so great, at such a young age, that some people, such as the composer Aaron Copland, believed he might be an actual genius.

As Gruff Rhys says in his intro to Tim Mitchell’s Cale biography Sedition And Alchemy, “The implausibility of such an important figure in contemporary music as John Cale coming from the modest industrial village of Garnant, apart from giving me great encouragement, confirms to me that often places on the peripheral are actually bang in the middle.” Rhys also suggests, most accurately, when reflecting on working with Cale: “I noticed that he seemed to have an iron vision that would not bend.”

You don’t have to look far before you stumble upon this unmalleable vision settling into his creative practice. When Cale was at the Berkshire Music Centre in 1963, impressed by the number of pianos at the academy - 88 - he proposed composing a piece for performance that involved all of them. He was less impressed with the response, being told it was impractical and a logistical nightmare getting them all in one room. Cale explained that wouldn’t be a problem because he wanted to put the pianos in 88 individual boats out on the nearby lake, so he’d also require 88 boats on top of the pianos, please. They didn’t relent, and when Cale was finally allowed to perform one of his pieces, it climaxed in him pulling an axe from the piano, before some smashing commenced. He soon left for New York, and what happened next we all know.

This isn’t a discussion of Cale’s contribution to the Velvet Underground. But even if he had only rocked up on the day they were recording ‘Venus In Furs’ and laid down his demonic viola, that would not be bad going on its own. As it stands though, he was of course beyond crucial. The blistering, never-matched sound of ‘Sister Ray’ is as joyous a piece of collaborative music as you’ll ever hear.

Nor is this a look at his stellar production work, which spans everyone from Squeeze to Happy Mondays to Siouxsie And The Banshees. But briefly imagine, if you will, that Cale hadn’t produced the debut Modern Lovers album or the debut Patti Smith album. It’s fair to say they may have sounded a fair bit different, yes? Now factor in the impact those records had on the 1970s and then think about how the course of music history might have unfolded without these albums sounding the way they do. Cale’s span in this world alone is staggeringly vast. His production work on almost all of Nico’s solo albums resulted in the only other Velvets member aside from Cale and Reed, to leave a solo legacy of note.

After being booted out of the Velvets, one might have expected Cale to reconnect fully with his interests in the noisier end of the avant garde and minimalism. In some senses this was true, as he soon partnered up with Terry Riley for the brilliant Church Of Anthrax. Together, they concocted a riotous mix of free jazz, experimental rock and demented organ jams, released a year after Cale’s first solo album.

Vintage Violence, Cale’s debut proper, was an album of considered pop-rock, the opening ‘Hello, There’ sounding oddly Beatles-like in comparison to the vehemently anti-Beatles tone of the Velvets. The real revelation was his voice though - something that had been left largely unused in VU minus notable contributions in the shape of ‘The Gift’ and ‘Lady Godiva's Operation’.

Cale’s is a rich, buttery, warm vocal and it positioned him on an altogether different path, foreshadowing a solo career that would deftly marry wild rock & roll, soulful melodic pop, and pained ballads while still containing the esoteric in terms of both texture and composition. Compared to some of the wildness that was to come, however, this is a measured and subtle debut offering. It’s the calm before the storm - i.e. before Cale buried himself neck deep in cocaine and got really into espionage and war.

There’s a common image painted of Cale and Reed, with the latter as the brash, leather-jacketed New Yorker with a giant ego only matched by the chip on his shoulder, while the former embodies native European sensibilities: pensive, moody and arty. It’s accurate to some extent - especially while both were members of the Velvet Underground. Reed was a natural frontman, while Cale played with his back to the audience. Afterwards, Cale spent several years avoiding the stage altogether before finally building up the courage to perform as a solo artist, because he was so insecure and unconfident in his voice. But once he tapped into himself, with the aid of rivers of booze and mountains of coke, he unleashed a raging beast.

Before Cale’s truly wild years came his first masterpiece, however. After the instrumental The Academy In Peril – a marriage of playful piano and string pieces as short classical compositions - came 1973’s Paris 1919. It’s a collection of orchestral pop-rock songs, composed and delivered beautifully. Cale’s voice glides as strings soar, and the tone swings back and forth between engulfing grandiosity and tender restraint. It remains perhaps his most well-known and acclaimed work and one of the few albums that has received great retrospective attention. (If you love this style of Cale’s work, then I’d also recommend the formerly “lost” 1968 album The Nightmare Of J.B. Stanislas by Nick Garrie.)

The following year was when the real turmoil in Cale’s life began to kick in (well, relatively speaking; he’d already been through heroin addiction, hepatitis and countless relationship troubles).

John Cale by Shawn Brackbill

Cale was a prolific collaborator, often working with different artists, producers and bands from project to project, and in 1974 he was a key member of the all-star group that recorded the album June 1, 1974. Credited jointly to Cale, Brian Eno, Kevin Ayers and Nico, it also features the contributions of Mike Oldfield and Robert Wyatt. Part live album, part shared compilation, it’s especially notable for the fact that the night before its recording, Ayers slept with Cale’s wife. The cover of the album was taken just before the performance, and captures Cale looking somewhat bitterly towards Ayers. Cale would later write a song about the betrayal called ‘Guts’ with the immortal opening line: “The bugger in the short sleeves fucked my wife/ Did it quick and split.” Musically, June 1, 1974 captures Cale’s twisted version of Elvis’ ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ for the first time, a live staple that would later appear on his excellent Slow Dazzle album, along with the punchy visceral growl of ‘Guts’.

Cale’s next album, Fear – featuring Eno and Phil Manzanera playing a wild two-man guitar solo on ‘Gun’ - began a period of abandon in his career, featuring live shows that got him banned from venues, fuelled by growing alcohol and drug dependency, creeping paranoia and the emergence of a character who could be jolly and jovial one minute and have moods that raged like a storm the next.

Over the following years, Cale would look seriously into building his own nuclear bomb; decapitate a dead chicken on stage before throwing the head out into the audience; occasionally be found staggering through hotel corridors or clambering onto roofs whilst naked; sometimes bite people in the studio; and sporadically insist that he was being followed by the CIA, leading to one occasion where he was found hiding under a bus after having fled the tour van.

For all his rampant drinking and escalating drug use - a six-pack of beer for breakfast was common - Cale had an unbreakable constitution. After spending the day and night in the studio, and after a few post-session refreshments, producers and bandmates would retire to bed only to be awoken regularly by Cale calling them in the middle of the night to discuss ideas for the following day’s studio time.

It was during this era that Cale unlocked the scream that would become his trademark. The gentle, restrained voice that graced his debut album would remain present throughout his long catalogue of recorded work, but performing live, Cale was capable of unleashing a lung-busting shriek that could make distant deaf dogs howl. It would be interesting to know if John Carpenter was a John Cale fan and saw him at all during this period, because Cale’s on-stage outfit of a bright white hockey mask and boiler suit was effectively Michael Myers before Michael Myers.

Cale’s lyrics became bleaker and more visceral during this time - acting as a mirror to the inner turmoil of his world as well as the wider one - as he interwove war, death, violence and sex and let them out in guttural roars. His record label balked at the idea of Sharon Tate being namechecked on the brilliant, groove-locked strut of ‘Leaving It Up To You’, removing it from 1975’s Helen Of Troy without his permission.

This 1973-75 run of Paris 1919, Fear, June 1, 1974, Slow Dazzle and Helen Of Troy (even though Cale was dissatisfied with the latter and it was released by the label unfinished) is a remarkable period of fecund brilliance. It’s made even more so by the fact he managed to produce four albums, including Patti Smith’s Horses and Nico’s The End, as well as score Jonathan Demme’s film Caged Heat as well. Perhaps one of the greatest overlooked assets of Cale as a solo artist – as displayed during this era - is his versatility. He could seamlessly glide from atonal drones to lush orchestral pop, from heart-wrenching piano ballads to chugging rock & roll, on an easy pivot.

As something of an aside, Chris Spedding was to become a key member of Cale’s band during this period, and another brilliant track that ended up cut from Helen Of Troy - but later appeared on the compilation album Guts - was ‘Mary Lou’. The infectious, twisting guitar line that snakes through it would be recycled for one of Spedding’s best-known solo tracks, ‘Video Life’.

Things soured with Cale’s label Island after Helen Of Troy, and it would be another six years before he released a studio solo album. After 1975 he toured heavily instead of recording, but as punk exploded, especially in England, Cale’s unique take on avant pop-rock was viewed as antiquated or unfashionable by some. The Clash supposedly even pulled out of some tour dates with him, the venture being “not radical enough”.

Perhaps in a rare attempt to prove his worth, feeling a step out of touch despite effectively having done punk a decade earlier, Cale became wilder on stage. He instructed his floppy-haired US band to cut their hair off, and the chicken decapitation happened soon after.

The track 'Chickenshit' (from the EP Animal Justice) sees a growling Cale tackling the incident over a pounding beat and raw production as Stooges-y guitars explode on top. This EP feels like an angry retort, not only to his now-departed drummer, but also to the hostile punk scene. Cale’s decision to include a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis’ could even be seen as a sly dig to the recycled blues-rock he saw being touted as revolutionary at the time.

A live album forged during this contract-free touring era, Sabotage/Live, followed in 1979 - a record which captures Cale’s manic, warped, and war-obsessed state of mind, reflected in tracks such as ‘Mercenaries (Ready for War)’. It wouldn’t be released until many years later, but if you’re keen for more late-1970s live Cale, then Even Cowgirls Get The Blues captures the intensity of this period, with several members of the Patti Smith Group as his backing band.

John Cale by David Reich

1981’s Honi Soit was Cale’s most commercially successful album, so of course he decided to follow it up with his most bleak, pained and troubled one, Music For A New Society, the making of which he described as a “personal exorcism”. It’s also another of his masterpieces. It bombed commercially and thrust him deeper into obscurity, and it wasn’t until Cale re-released and re-recorded it as M:FANS in 2016 that many caught up to its stark brilliance. If we’re to hop back to Reed for comparative weight for a moment, then this is Cale’s equivalent of Berlin.

Cale failing, or refusing, to capitalise on commercial success is common, as is his inability to muster it at will, such as with the limp new-wave pop of Caribbean Sunset, which followed Music For A New Society. Years later, when Cale scored American Psycho, his biggest film to date, he subsequently gained a reputation as being an unmovable presence and essentially one to avoid working with. Cale was nearly 60 at this stage, proving that this constant implacable creative approach, be it for good or self-sabotage, has ultimately been one that defined his entire artistic life.

Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, as Cale cleaned up and focused on being a father, his work took a more focused and disciplined approach. The antics and chaos that came from years of hammering it slipped away, and there were fewer band tours, more score work and just three solo studio albums over an 11-year period. But there’s plentiful gold to be plucked from this era. Artificial Intelligence is peppered with brilliance, most notably ‘Dying On The Vine’, with its rhumbha-like beat and enveloping synthesisers. The enigmatic Dean Blunt sampled it on the 2015 track ‘Blow 2’.

Cale had spent years working on what was ostensibly a thematic mashup of the Falklands War and the poetry of Dylan Thomas for the concept album Words For The Dying, which finally came out in 1989, produced by Eno. The pair pushed forward with that momentum until their individualistic and determined ways of working proved no longer tenable, and released a great collaborative album, Wrong Way Up, in 1990. This was the same year that Cale and Reed reconnected over Andy Warhol’s death to release Songs For Drella. It should have been the year that catapulted the name of John Cale back on a par with Eno and Reed, but their refusal to tour these albums hampered any such hope.

As brilliant and unique as Words For The Dying is, the context of the 1992 live album Fragments Of A Rainy Season - i.e. alongside Cale’s back catalogue - is where those songs sit most arrestingly. The solo live piano album, with its accompanying concert film, is stunning. Elegant, refined, delicate, yet at times stirringly passionate. It feels like the product of a man who has finally found some comfort and stability in life, whilst still able to wield the full powers of his artistic assault.

The last 20 years of Cale’s career have moved at a slower pace, and the consistency waned somewhat. However, HoboSapiens is a brilliant, overlooked album - despite doing very well critically at the time it still hasn't really acquired that ‘late-period masterwork’ patina. Its wonky approach to pop, typified by the bouncy and infectious lead single ‘Things’, is one of Cale’s most delectable yet accessible moments. 2005’s Black Acetate has too much in common with the type of dullard indie rock that was doing the rounds at the time to truly stand out, but there are still plenty of oddball goings-on to make it a worthwhile listen. Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood, terrible title aside, also has moments of brilliance.

Cale is going to turn 79 soon. He recently released a new song, the wonderfully woozy ‘Lazy Day’, and one suspects he will keep going and doing what he wants until he no longer can. You can only hope he makes it to his 88th birthday, and perhaps in celebration he can finally convince someone to let him get those 88 pianos on those boats and out to sea.