La Monte Young collaborator, sparring partner to Lou Reed and fearless solo sonic adventurer, John Cale has been at the cutting edge of music-making for 45 years. David Davies tips the hat to the uncompromising multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer as he releases a new double live album.
How often do we read articles where the fawned-over rock or pop artiste in question is described as a ‘musical pioneer’ or ‘fervent experimentalist’? TMOnline, for one, has lost count. Many of these so-called radicalists ultimately prove to be nothing of the sort, of course, so it’s refreshing to realise that no such question mark could ever hang over the head of John Cale. Hailing from the tiny village of Garnant in South Wales, he has spent nigh-on 45 years walking it precisely as he talks it.
With a particular aptitude for the piano emerging at an early age, Cale’s burgeoning talent found new definition when he studied music at Goldsmiths College in London at the turn of the 1960s. But it was during a subsequent spell in New York that his avant-garde inclinations really began to take hold as he came into the orbit of such legendary musical outsiders as John ‘4.33’ Cage and La Monte Young. The drone-based sound of the latter’s Theatre of Eternal Music – with whom he played for some time – was to prove a crucial influence on substantial parts of his later career.
But Cale was every bit as excited by the potential of ear-scouring rock‘n’roll as he was the almost academic exercises in composition undertaken by Cage, so in hindsight it makes perfect sense that his next move was to join the nascent Velvet Underground. Contributing on viola, bass, piano and organ, Cale helped to define the challenging sound of the band’s first two albums, The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat.
The creative partnership between Cale and principal songwriter Lou Reed, however, was not destined to last for long. Cale quit the band in 1968 – although he would return for a brief (and ill-fated) reunion in the early ‘90s – and embarked on a lengthy period of collaborative and production work. He oversaw the recording of at least two certifiable classics – The Stooges’ debut and Nico’s glacial-bordering-on-catatonic The Marble Index – and contributed as a session player for numerous other artists. Arguably most important in this regard was his work on Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter and, in particular, its wondrous stand-out track, ‘Northern Sky’.
It wasn’t until 1970 that he finally began recording in his own right. His two albums of that year – the surprisingly light Vintage Violence and the Terry Riley collaboration, Church of Anthrax – couldn’t really have been more different. Both had their strong points, but there’s no doubt that Cale’s songwriting moved up a gear for 1973’s elaborately-arranged Paris 1919. ‘Graham Greene’ and the title track showed that Cale had now found a distinctive lyrical voice, while his songs’ settings would rarely be as seductive again.
Sales, however, were less than spectacular, and Cale clearly felt little inclination to stay put in that particular groove. Indeed, the next few years saw him branch out even further. Having spent time as a staff producer for Warner Bros, he took up a role as producer and talent scount at Island Records. Squeeze, Patti Smith and The Modern Lovers all benefited from his expertise, while his solo career was channelled in the direction of a tough new sound. Released through the unsteady middle years of the 1970s, Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy seethed with uncertainty and aggression. The likes of ‘Leaving It Up To You’, ‘Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend’ and ‘Gun’ were even more forceful on stage, where Cale began to take on an increasingly menacing persona, crystallised by the adoption of a hockey goalie’s mask. Drugs were also beginning to play a greater role, and the whole messy period climaxed at a gig in Croydon where his decapitation of a dead chicken with a meat cleaver took his band of the time by complete surprise, and several members were so disgusted they promptly quit.
As Cale recounts in his excellent 1999 memoir, What’s Welsh For Zen?, the next few years saw him lurch between confused music-making, and drug and alcohol abuse. The period did, however, produce the blasted-bleak Music For A New Society – a key record in Cale’s career, but sadly unavailable on CD at present. Finally, having cleaned himself up and discovered the joys of the squash court in the mid ‘80s, he found a new impetus, working with Brian Eno on Words For the Dying and the full-on collaborative effort Wrong Way Up. He also reunited – uneasily – with Lou Reed on Songs For Drella, a haunting tribute to Andy Warhol that’s still underrated 17 years later.
The erratic Walking On Locusts (1996) aside, the next decade-plus saw him concentrate on collaborative recording projects and well-received solo tours. It was, however, a low-profile period, making his return to fully active solo duty in 2003 all the more exciting. Re-energised by electronica and alternative rock, the last few years have seen the release of a first-rate EP – 2003’s Five Tracks – and two consistently intriguing solo albums (HoboSapiens and BlackAcetate). Backed by a dynamic new band, he has also returned to the road with a vengeance, breathing fresh urgency into a back catalogue that sounds even more right in 2007. The release this month of the in-concert set Circus Live – which doubles as a handy retrospective for newcomers – caps a productive period that has seen Cale finally receive recognition as one of rock’s few genuinely original creative forces.
Circus Live is available now on EMI. John Cale plays London, Reading and Oxford in March. See for more details.