Inviolability: John Cale’s Fear Revisited

Mat Colegate celebrates the 40th birthday of a lopsided, odd and brilliant album

If upon hearing the Velvet Underground’s first two albums it wasn’t Lou Reed’s hip verbiage and wraparound cool that floated your boat, but rather the acidic viola drones and avant interjections of John Cale then you probably had extremely good reason to look forward to your first taste of his solo material.

While it was obvious that Lou was no shrinking violet when it came to the old ultra-violence, there was something about the simultaneously sinuous and shrieking tone of Cale’s viola that carved a space for the Velvets that was as much velvet jacketed dandy thug as street tough poet. Though the friction between these contradictory impulses – between the aesthete and the brute – could never be entirely smoothed out on the albums Cale made following his leaving the band, up until the release of Fear in 1974, his muse had taken him toward far more pastoral waters than you might have expected from the fellow sat behind the organ wearing boxing gloves during the recording of ‘Sister Ray’. Or the gentleman that had recorded the colossal ‘Sun Blindness Music’ in a New York loft in 1964.

Even his 1970 collaboration with Terry Riley, The Church Of Anthrax, on the face of it at least a slightly daunting proposition, had Cale (mostly single-handedly), steering the music more toward a kind gleeful funk than minimalism or drone in its truest sense. And his solo albums up until Fear, Vintage Violence, The Academy in Peril and Paris 1919, had leant towards elegant arrangements and concise production. It was refined music, with practically no hints of the jarring lurches in volume and clanging discords of some of his earlier work.

However, in 1974, marooned in London after three years on the West Coast of the USA, a stack of drink, drug and marital problems heaped in every corner of his Shepherds Bush flat, something began to resurface in Cale, something that would have a visceral impact on nearly every track on his next few records. John Cale, a man who had once organised a fluxus inspired concert which involved "Screaming at a pot plant until it dies," learned to scream again. And, holed up in a recording studio with a Ferry-free and very-free Roxy Music as his backing band, he set some of those screams to music.

Fear‘s opening title track pretty much sets the tone for what’s to follow. A ripple of solemn piano, Cale’s unmistakably weathered baritone and – surprisingly – a clear reference to the work of his former VU sparring partner: "Standing waiting for the man to come…" Already the tension has escalated from his previous solo records. "You know it makes sense/ Don’t even think about it/ Life and death/ Are things you do when your bored…" he croons, before the band burst in with all the subtlety of a opera singer falling through a pantry door and the song hits it’s ghastly chorus: "Say, fear is a man’s best friend!" It’s a hideous end-of-the-pier sing-along, almost swinging in its morbidity; a ghastly grin plastered on a corpse white face. It finally sputters to an undignified halt in a flurry of motorbike backfire bass while Cale smashes his forearms up and down on the keys and screams the title like a drunk with slashed tendons. It has very little to do with ‘A Child’s Christmas In Wales’.

‘Fear’ sets the tone for the tougher (one hesitates to call them ‘more upbeat’) songs on the album. A mixture of grimacing, penny dreadful atmospherics, genuine mania and peculiarly graceless, tank-track grooves that, given the nimbleness of the musicians involved, it’s hard to imagine as anything other than deliberate and entirely happening at Cale’s bidding. Although the album is often held up as a influence on punk, then just a couple of years away, and although Cale himself had worked on albums by the movement’s biggest progenitors, having produced the débuts of the Stooges, Patti Smith and The Modern Lovers, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell from the music on Fear alone. There’s none of the zip and buzz of Jonathan Richman’s band of VU obsessives, nor the minimalist wall of fuzz plied by Iggy and co. There is perhaps some of Patti Smith’s classicist ramalama, but where Horses is an exuberant three-chord dervish, Fear is leaden and cranky, exuding menace but often moving far too slowly to do anything about it. When this album rocks out it’s often more ‘Rabbit Rabbit’ than ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’ and all the more unsettlingly stark for it.

This mogodon-esque quality also affects ‘Barracuda”s lopsided reggae lilt. (which would almost have me likening it to Faust, if I wasn’t for my suspicion that Cale is practically alone among his contemporaries in not having been particularly bothered by Krautrock. Ironic, considering how much Krautrock was clearly bothered by him.) Again it has a glassy-eyed jauntiness, but its fears are very much on display, as its jaunty chorus proves. "The Ocean Will Have Us All!" Cale cheers throughout. Hooray, eh?

However, if you weren’t so far convinced that the album was being tethered together by someone without that much tether left to spare then ‘Gun’ is the track that’s going to convince you. The chug and lurch so in evidence on ‘Fear’ is still there, but it’s less lobotomised and far more focussed. Whereas ‘Fear’ had the grinning countenance of a drunk clown with his hand down his trousers, in ‘Gun’ all the fun is finished. Life and Death aren’t just things you do when your bored but exceptionally serious and exceptionally messy matters, as Cale recites a list of lurid gangland atrocities that have as much to do with William Burroughs as they do with Dashiell Hammett: "Watch out for big Mamma, she’ll set you on fire/ or cut off your head with a chicken wire…" Cale spits the lyrics with a snarl that’s as attracted to its subject matter as it is disgusted: "When you’ve begun to think like a gun/ The rest of the year is already gone." There are no jokes here, but it’s easily the funniest and most unnerving song on the album. And then, just as you think it can’t get any more grizzly, Phil Manzanera backslaps his guitar face first into Brian Eno’s box of tricks and the results get splattered all over the walls.

The other rocker on the album, the closing ‘Momamma Scuba’, admittedly isn’t quite as successful. The band is different for one thing – although the clunk and lurch is still very much in evidence – featuring three slide guitar players and Cale going for a not particularly convincing (and, it must be said, extremely drunk sounding) Gothic lounge crooner persona. It’s a puzzling track to end with, more a drunken shuffle than the head-first-through-the-window finish that might have been more appropriate, although the log drums are a nice touch and it features Bryn Haworth on guitar, and if you think I’m going to say anything nasty about the guitarist from 60s Acid-Mod pioneers Les Fleur De Lys, then you frankly have another thing coming.

Elsewhere the album is far more restrained, although not any less prickly. The ballads on Fear are, if anything, even sweeter than those in evidence on earlier albums. Less baroque perhaps, but far more unexpectedly pleasing and well paced. Particular evidence of this comes in the form of the second track, ‘Buffalo Ballet’. Nothing but a piano, backing vocals and restrained strings, as Cale sketches a picture of a Western frontier town sleeping in tranquillity, until you begin to suspect that the ending for this town and its inhabitants was anything but happy. It’s a good trick, a more dramatic update of the old Velvet’s number of letting the sweet sounds obscure the dark lyrics. ‘Emily’ has a similar lushness, but is far more likely to swoon over its own decadent romanticism (one suspects the titular object of affection may well be dead, y’see). It shows a return to Cale as the floppy collared romantic, impervious to embarrassment and unnerving in his poise. A call back to the dandyish persona displayed on the artwork of Paris 1919 – a tellingly different image to the one presented by Fear‘s starkly over-exposed mug shot of a front cover.

But if one of Fear’s tent poles is ‘Gun’ then the other is ‘Ship Of Fools’, and it’s a tribute to the album’s scope that both tracks are so diametrically opposed to each other. Gorgeous from beginning to end, but also showing the clarity of imagery and love for unexpected word play that would see Cale recording a series of settings for Dylan Thomas poems, ‘Ship Of Fools’ is that rarest of things, a completely non-patronising uplifting ballad. Although obviously it’s still plenty unsettling.

Cale knows just how much clatter and bang to put into his lyrics; how to keep the listener just on edge enough to keep them attentive while still allowing them to surrender to the tunes irresistible eddy and flow. Against a keyboard background that twinkles so beautifully you could study it with a telescope, Cale sings a seafaring story rich in layers of imagery. One that appears to be taking place in a hundred different times and a hundred different places all at once. Picking up Dracula, going to Swansea, a hangman’s noose and a missing sister. It’s at once playfully obscure ("Swansea?!") and beautifully evocative, and when coupled with an effortlessly uplifting chorus – one that would be sentimental if it hadn’t been so hard fought for – then you have a practically perfect piece of music. It’s the only track on the album that isn’t lopsided in its presentation, and it sounds like nothing else on earth.

It is, however, precisely this lopsidedness that characterises a good percentage of the music on Fear and a good deal of what came after as well. Just have a listen to the woozy Beach Boys pastiche of ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Afford To Orgy’, with its odd pronunciations ("Or-gy") and school-boy erection forming female voice over to confirm that Cale didn’t think about rock & roll in the same way as any of his contemporaries. One suspects that part of the reason that he has remained such a fascinatingly compelling figure over the course of fifty-odd years is precisely this odd quality, and the suspicion that he does not necessarily get rock & roll. From his awkward attempts to ingratiate himself with the punk community (involving hockey masks, blood bags and the lady parts of shop window dummies. Google it if you have the stomach) to his terrifying version of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, in which he substitutes the sprightliness of the original for bleak, grinding dread, it is his viciously idiosyncratic vision of what rock can achieve and what it is for that still startles. And it is startling because Cale is honestly convinced of his own righteousness. What Fear more than any of his other albums proves is that Cale isn’t some avant-garde artist attempting to sniffily detourne an ‘inferior’ musical form, but a man alive to the impact of rock & roll yet completely unable to sound like anybody else. (To demonstrate, try playing something by Gene Vincent or Little Richard on a viola and see what you end up with.) What gives Fear such an air of inviolability isn’t just the cranking and sputtering of its grooves, or the lyrics that paint invisible cities in horror and regret, but the sense that the ringmaster, the man screaming at a pot plant until it dies, is earnestly demonstrating his vision of what rock & roll should be. Or, even more perversely, what he thought it was all along.

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