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John Cale

Along with LOU REED, multi-instrumentalist (though initially bass, viola, keyboards and vocals), JOHN CALE was an integral ingredient to the experimental sound of The VELVET UNDERGROUND. For two sets, `The Velvet Underground And Nico’ (1967) and `White Light/White Heat’ (1968), CALE was the driving force on tracks such as `Venus In Furs’, `Heroin’, `I’m Waiting For The Man’, `The Gift’ (reading the twisted tale of Waldo Jeffers) and white-noise blow-out `Sister Ray’. Absent from the group’s downbeat eponymous third LP, CALE found his true identity in a solo career that has now spanned five decades. Equally at ease with the odd soundtrack commission, one might have to travel way back to the 70s to find his most productive period; for a starting point, one could try anything from `Vintage Violence’ and `Fear’ to `Helen Of Troy’ and `Sabotage/Live’.
Born 9th March 1942, Garnant, Carmarthen in Wales, the young CALE studied classical piano and later viola at London’s Guildhall School Of Music; as an 8-year-old schoolboy prodigy, he’d already composed music for the BBC. In 1963, John moved to New York on a scholarship, and under the tutelage of minimalist masters John Cage and LaMonte Young, he experimented with avant-garde music. A few years later, he met LOU REED, and after a false start as The Primitives (for a one-off 45, `The Ostrich’) the formed The VELVET UNDERGROUND, alongside guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Moe Tucker. CALE’s wailing viola and white-noise experimentation meshed with REED’s pop sensibilities and dark lyrics to create their own distinctive sound. After allegedly being fired by the band in 1968, CALE turned his hand to production, working in 1969 alongside former sidekick NICO (on `The Marble Index’) and The STOOGES (on their eponymous debut).
Signing a solo deal with Columbia Records (aka C.B.S.), his first album VINTAGE VIOLENCE (1970) {*8} saw him exhibiting a more traditional and accessible side to his enigmatic persona, with gentle contemporary songs his forte. With a remarkable likeness to KEVIN AYERS, the singer turns in ten of his own compositions and a closing cover of Garland Jeffreys’ `Fairweather Friend’ (his backing band Penguin was actually the latter’s outfit, Grinder’s Switch). At times lush and 60s-ish sentimental, the sophistication of songs such as highlights, `Hello, There’, `Big White Cloud’, `Amsterdam’ (not the JACQUES BREL number) and `Ghost Story’.
On a completely detached variant than his debut, CALE’s collaboration, CHURCH OF ANTHRAX (1971) {*6} with minimalist classical composer TERRY RILEY, took him back to his days spent under the wing of the aforementioned Cage and Young; RILEY’s most accomplished work had been in 1967 with `A Rainbow In Curved Air’. Characterised by three lengthy hallucinogenic free-jazz tracks led by the title track (`The Hall Of Mirrors At The Palace Of Versailles’ was their defining 8 minutes), one is then puzzled to why singer Adam Miller is afforded CALE’s only exclusive – but out of place – contribution, `The Soul Of Patrick Lee’.
Now a fixture on Reprise Records, CALE continued the trend towards his baroque’n’roll roots by way of THE ACADEMY IN PERIL (1972) {*5}, a neo-classical record that featured the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on `3 Orchestral Pieces: Faust – The Balance – Capt. Morgan’s Lament’. This is offset by John’s only lyrical effort, the almost whispered `King Harry’, but apart from a bright opening via `The Philosopher’, nearly every cut on show was decidedly avant-garde and un-JC.
Returning once more to the singer-songwriter format of his first album (with LITTLE FEAT alumni Lowell George and Richie Hayward among his backing band), John cut the classic PARIS 1919 (1973) {*8}, a record which infused his melancholic period pieces with a disturbing unease. John finds his real vocation here; “proper” songs come thick and fast in the shape of literary name-checks `Macbeth’, `Graham Greene’ and even `Child’s Christmas In Wales’. Sounding more CLIFFORD T. WARD or NICK DRAKE, CALE produces a handful of pop-rock diamonds here; `Andalucia’, `Hanky Panky Nohow’ and the unforgettable title track.
This was the template for much of CALE’s subsequent 70s output; 1974’s FEAR {*8} also introducing a more aggressive element; examples `Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend’ and the 8-minute `Gun’. Augmented by his new Island Records stable-mates ROXY MUSIC (BRIAN ENO, PHIL MANZANERA and ANDY MACKAY), John’s vision gains further momentum on classics, `Ship Of Fools’, the LEONARD COHEN-ish `You Know More Than I Know’, `Buffalo Ballet’ and the funky `Barracuda’.
Featuring a dramatic re-make of the ELVIS hit `Heartbreak Hotel’ – gothic and guaranteed to send a shiver up anyone’s spine (and NICK CAVE was still in school shorts) – John take a further in the nostalgia pool via `Mr. Wilson’ (paying homage to The BEACH BOYS icon), `Darling I Need You’ and `Dirty Ass Rock’n’Roll’. The Roxy connection maintained its drive, albeit with the addition of axeman CHRIS SPEDDING; the short `Ski Patrol’ was just a “The Gift”-like reading.
HELEN OF TROY (1975) {*7} turned out to be his final one for Island, a record that once again had his usual suspects (PHIL COLLINS, but no MANZANERA). Along with several above par CALE compositions (`China Sea’ and `(I Keep A) Close Watch’ particularly favourable), he tried his again at the odd cover through JONATHAN RICHMAN’s `Pablo Picasso’ (a song he’d produced for The MODERN LOVERS) and Jimmy Reed’s `Baby, What You Want Me To Do’.
In 1976, he cemented his reputation by producing the legendary PATTI SMITH album, `Horses’, although in similar aplomb to his old proto-punk mucker and rival LOU REED, he left 1977 well alone – but a one-off single `Animal Justice’ for Miles Copeland’s Illegal imprint. CALE’s solo career went into a bit of a slump in the latter half of the 70s, and after an infamous incident in which he allegedly beheaded a dead chicken onstage; the tale was told on `Chickenshit’ one of nine fresh cuts on the splendid CBGB’s concert, primed and ready as SABOTAGE/LIVE (1979) {*6}. From the paranoiac howls of opener `Mercenaries (Ready For War)’ – feedback and volume turned to max – or the 11-minute dirge, `Captain Hook’, CALE railed in his re-vamped indie-punk credo. Even the cover of RUFUS THOMAS’ `Walkin’ The Dog’ excelled in all the right places. Back to studio duties after signing a one-album deal with A&M (where he’d worked with SQUEEZE), the Mike Thorne-produced HONI SOIT (1981) {*5} was of the psychodrama variety once again – detached and uncompromising its highlights stemmed from `Riverbank’, `Magic & Lies’ and/or the cowboy song `The Streets Of Laredo’.
Having taken up with Island Records again (through subsidiary Ze), John regained his footing with 1982’s MUSIC FOR A NEW SOCIETY {*7}, an intelligent, minimalistic affair heralding spectral rants of deranged domesticities such as `Sanities’, `Taking Your Life In Your Hands’ and `Damn Life’; `I Keep A Close Watch’ was revised as its lead-off 45. 1984’s CARIBBEAN SUNSET {*3} and COMES ALIVE {*3} completed a torturous time for CALE, the former’s straight-laced pop and slick commercial approach or the latter’s lifeless live show, driving his fans to distraction.
A subsequent move to British label, Beggars Banquet, and the release of CALE-by-numbers synth-friendly ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (1985) {*5} was yet another low-point in his conflicting career. But for the likes of `Dying On The Vine’, `The Sleeper’ and `Satellite Walk’ (three of nine perky pieces penned with lyricist Larry Sloman), the David Young-produced set would’ve sunk further into the murky musical mire that was the 80s.
With his attempts at art-pop fully buried, WORDS FOR THE DYING (1989) {*5}, was a return to the classical CALE of old. Re-introducing ENO to the mixing desk (and some simplistic symphonic from the USSR), the men from the musical ministry redefined works by Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, while CALE himself and the cathedral choir of Llandaff canonized (or attempted to) the Falkland Islands conflict of ’82; the power of Thomas’ `Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed’ and `Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ proved JC could put his two-penn’orth in just about any genre.
A new decade was kicked off with two collaborations, the first `Songs For Drella’ (a tribute to mentor, Andy Warhol), saw CALE hook up once more with his old sparring partner LOU REED, the second `Wrong Way Up’ combined him with ENO yet again.
Having scored the music for obscure flicks `Heat’ and `Caged Heat’ in the first half of the 70s, CALE found the time to compose other classically-styled soundtracks to movies such as PARIS S’EVEILLE (1991) {*5}, and `Primary Motive’ (1992 unissued in music-form), while his “unplugged” live solo retrospective FRAGMENTS OF A RAINY SEASON (1992) {*7} captured moments of grandeur. CALE and REED duly re-united The VELVET UNDERGROUND along with Morrison and Tucker, an event that resulted in the minor chart comeback album, `Live MCMXCIII’ (1993).
A long and illustrious series of foreign CALE cinematic forays came through 23 SOLO PIECES FOR LA NAISSANCE DE L’AMOUR (1993) {*5}, ANTARTIDA (1995) {*5} and N’OUBLIE PAS QUE TU VAS MOURIR (1996) {*6}, but back to his normal day-job, it was another year, another collaboration; 1994’s LAST DAY ON EARTH {*5} – this time with Bob Neuwirth – was largely ignored by the public as was some of his other solo works in the 90s.
One could be forgiven for missing the odd CALE outing from time to time, such was his prolific output. John’s first proper solo venture for several years, WALKING ON LOCUSTS (1996) {*6}, was notable for its horizontal smoothness and also his eulogy – on `Some Friends’ – to Sterling Morrison (who died a year back), Moe Tucker’s drums and a song scribed with DAVID BYRNE, `Crazy Egypt’.
Although premiered in 1994 and subsequently recorded live in Lille, France, his tribute to a few films by his one-time mentor and art icon, EAT/KISS: MUSIC FOR THE FILMS OF ANDY WARHOL (1997) {*6} was unjustly understated. Its atmospheric soundscapes (think ENO, LISA GERRARD or POPOL VUH), were not only inspiration and almost serene, they had an eerie and detached quality of their own; check out `Movement 2’ or `Movement 4’ and `Movement 6’ [from `Kiss’]; Moe Tucker was also in tow. Taking his Warhol-ian re-treads a step further, the collaborative homage to NICO (1998) {*6} – crediting Ed Wubbe and Ice Nine – was indeed a ballet score; her ghostly `Nibelungen’ poignantly closed the work.
On either side of the millennium, soundtrack work (and one can’t forget his `I Shot Andy Warhol’ score contributions – was spinning out of control for CALE; SOMEWHERE IN THE CITY (1999) {*5} – with Various Artists – LE VENT DE LA NUIT (2000) {*5}, LOVE ME (2000) {*5} and SAINT-CYR (2000) {*5}, all had merit in their own way – if you could find them.
Meanwhile, back at the avant-rock ranch, CALE’s first non-OST record of the new millennium, HOBOSAPIENS (2003) {*8}, was also his most adventurous for more than a decade. With ENO returning the guest favours alongside a host of hired hands (Joe Gore, Joel Mark, Marco Giovino, Jeff Eyrich and ENO included), the album was alive with spontaneous creativity and freewheeling imagination. Embracing contemporary musical trends and technology, CALE gave free rein to a muse that only seems to have become even more literate, erudite and waggish with age; example `Reading My Mind’, `Things’, `Magritte’ and `Look Horizon’.
Released almost simultaneously with his umpteenth soundtrack effort, PROCESS (2005) {*6}, BLACK ACETATE {*7}, was another cult critical favourite evidencing CALE’s refusal to grow old gracefully – and he was still forging ahead with his own avant-garde impulses. The double-disc CIRCUS LIVE (2007) {*6} took steps in every direction redefining everything that made CALE a true hero of every punk kid – no matter their age!
On the back of an EP of new tracks released in 2011, `Extra Playful’, John’s 7-year itch was over with contemporary alt-rock set, SHIFTY ADVENTURES IN NOOKIE WOOD (2012) {*7}. As one had come to expect over his many years in the business, the creative and chromatic CALE was as detached and acerbic as ever. Roping in DANGER MOUSE (along with Dustin Boyer) to add his quirky nuance to the proceedings, the ex-Velvets man tapped into a transcendental techno template, best served by the NUMAN-esque `Scotland Yard’, the BOWIE-like `Face To The Sky’ and the MORODER-ish `December Rains’. That aside, the highlights were surely opener `I Wanna Talk 2 U’ and the pastoral love song `Living With You’.
Some third of a century in the past, but now reaching out to a fresh-er generation of minimalistic boffins, CALE upcycled his forward-thinking “Music For A New Society” as M:FANS (2016) {*7}, a double-vinyl LP, or indeed a double CD including the original album with addendum bonus cuts. Still strangely hymnal and intimate, John could now be content at finally re-imagining a dark, unsettling and fragile time, and making the skeletal tracks (`Close Watch’, `Thoughtless Kind’, `Chinese Envoy’ et al) even darker.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS // rev-up MCS Dec2012-Mar2016

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