It is Billy Hough’s passionate belief that our musical world would be a different place if this brilliant Welshman hadn’t collided with Lou Reed, Nico, Jonathan Richman, Patti Smith, Iggy and the Stooges, and so many others.
So you could make the argument that without John Cale, what we have come to know and to call ‘punk’ would, at best, sound very different and, at worst, have never happened at all. Cale’s decade of work between 1965 and 1975 alone may single-handedly constitute the ‘Gospel of Punk.’ However, instead of a standard roll-call of his achievements, let me try to prove my claim through subtraction. Place your most important records, punk and otherwise, on a shelf in your head, and work backwards: every time I tell you to pull a “Cale record” off the shelf, you must also remove all of the records that follow its direct line of influence.
Ready? Here we go.
First remove Horses by Patti Smith. Then, according to the rules, remove Radio Ethiopia, Easter, and Wave—since it was Cale’s ‘aha’ moment in the studio (I’ll explain in a minute) that defined the sound Patti Smith would continue to mine. Now—I’m sorry—off comes PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, and early REM, basically any album that exists because of Patti’s 1975 debut. Actually, Nick and PJ have to come off anyway, since you now have to pull Nico’s solo albums, and thus we basically lose all of Goth, and all of the eccentric “dark” folk music that followed Nico’s inimitable style. Good.
Now pull all of Iggy and the Stooges, and all the punk bands that modeled themselves on the Stooges’ style and sound. The ‘punk cupboard’ starts to look a little bare, right? In terms of early punk bands, the only records we get to keep are the ones that evolved from the sound of Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner”—simple, straightforward, a ‘huggable’ Lou Reed delivery, and the ‘I’m just a dude’ vibe (non-pretentious, “I just finished my shift at the shoe store and ran over to the Rat for this set”) that runs through all of Boston’s coolest bands, right through the Pixies (Breeders) to the present.
You DO have to pull all those records off too, because Cale also produced the Modern Lovers’ first (and arguably best) record. And also snatch off those Eno solo records—because without the developments and influences of Cale’s Paris 1919 in 1972 (and this all but confessed by Eno)—Eno’s ‘sound’ would be completely different. So, of course, you have to pull Talking Heads, U2, and everything by Bowie after Low. See what I mean?
Now, sadly, pull ALL of Bowie before Low because without Cale, there is no Velvet Underground. Now pull the rest of REM, the rest of Goth, and Nirvana. Okay. So what’s left on your shelf? Your Mom’s recording of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”? Believe it or not, those have to go too. That’s life without Cale. Think I’m overstating my case? I’m just getting started. Let’s rock.
PART 1: SISTER RAY EXPLAINS IT ALL FOR YOU; OR, THERE SHE GOES AGAIN
This may come as a shock, but I am a music nerd. And music nerds love to debate punk’s origins. A favorite fight is “which song is the earliest example of the definitive ‘punk’ sound?” The usual suspects are: the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” The Who’s “My Generation,” ? And the Mysterians’ “96 Tears,” and the Troggs’ “Wild Thing.” Each of these songs (plus a handful of Lenny Kaye’s unheralded garage band “Nuggets”) could have fit snugly on the Ramones’ first record, or have been covered by the Sex Pistols on Nevermind the Bollocks. There is a recognizable ‘Ur-punk’ song of which all of the above bear the hallmarks: quickly played in standard time, four-chord verse and three-chord chorus, distorted/clean guitar dynamic, and lyrics full of teenage angst. But if you take a less rigid view of what constitutes ‘punk rock,’ it’s clear that none of those songs predict the driving monotony and terrifying intensity of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” or the still-shocking (after 100 listens) sound of Patti Smith’s “Gloria.” And when you take into account the breadth of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” the B-52’s “Planet Claire,” the Violent Femmes “Add it Up,” or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” for that matter, we must cast a much wider net. That net, with no rival, is and forever shall be: the Velvet Underground.
The Velvet Underground contain multitudes on their first two records (1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico, and 1968’s White Light White Heat), which has as much to do with Cale’s musicianship and avant-garde arrangements as they did with Lou Reed’s shocking lyrics and deadpan delivery. You can not only find precursors for all of the songs I just named, but also for Noise Rock, Drone Rock, Goth, New Wave, Metal, Emo—all of ‘punk’ and all of punk’s aberrant children are there. And so are leather jackets, a ‘fuck society’ attitude, complete social disenfranchisement, on- and off-stage violence, S & M trappings, drug use, legal problems—all the trimmings for the giant Thanksgiving Dinner we would call ‘punk rock.’
On those first two VU records, Lou Reed’s influence is primarily in the subject matter he chose, the language he used to write about it, and the attitude with which he delivered it. But John Cale’s contributions are harder to pin down, for Cale knew how to fuck with form, with history. John Cale comes smack out of the mid-20th century avant garde, and there’s no way to appreciate him without a passing history of how 400 years of Michelangelo landed in splotches on Jackson Pollock’s canvas in just a few decades.
PART 2: MY BOYFRIEND’S BACH; OR, THIS DOESN’T LOOK LIKE A FUCKING FLOWER IT LOOKS LIKE SOMEBODY SHIT ON A CANVAS
For a long time, painting’s primary aim was to capture life as realistically as possible. Portraits looked like their models, landscapes like their inspirations, and still lifes aimed to be so realistic that fruit painted on a table looked good enough to eat. Think about it: before photography, painting was our only visual record: of history, of myth, of religious figures, and (mostly) of the wealthy who could afford to pay an artist (usually debauch, always broke), to paint Aunt Hemorrhoida. Likewise, the novel, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (finished in the late 1790’s) through Tolstoy’s epics, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, were lifelike tales of recognizable characters living recognizable lives. Realism wasn’t the dominant style, it was the only style.
Similarly, the history of “Classical” music may seem like a gazillion years of symphonies until Elvis happened; however, it’s a much shorter period of time than you might think. The “tonal” system—the discovery of the modern relationship of C major to F major (or, the 1 and 4) ((or, the “Lou Reed”))—arrived due to the invention of keyboards (the harpsichord and pipe organ) around 1600. That’s the year Shakespeare was writing Hamlet, so we’re not talking that long ago. The composers you’ve heard of, Bach and Vivaldi, were born in the late 1600’s; 1750-1820 is Beethoven and Mozart; from there we have 90 years of Chopin and Wagner until Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” brought the avant-garde to the Paris ballet and caused riots in the streets.
Though real historians chart the beginnings of “Modernism” back to Baudelaire and Debussy, for our purposes we’ll return to that festering stew of Existential, post-Darwin shit-storm of the early 20th century, when composers were trying to break the back of melody, structure, and sound. The aim was to create music that didn’t sound like anything called ‘music’ before. This is evident in everything from free-jazz to Eno’s ‘ambiant’ music. But American composer John Cage (who’s lover and collaborator was Merce Cunningham who was trying to fuck up dance as hard as Cage fucked music) tweaked instruments (the ‘prepared piano’) to sound unrecognizable. He used the “I Ching” to force randomness into order, and famously composed 4’33” (where a pianist sits down and is completely silent for 4 minutes and 33 seconds). Cage was the patriarch of the kind of experimentation that Cale loved and studied, performed and imitated.
PART 3: SHE MAKES ME SO UNSURE OF MYSELF; OR, BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
There’s a self-defeating trend in the (now) long history of rock & roll. The best bands, more often than not, feature two ‘type-A’ personalities, or ‘tops’ (in outmoded gay lingo). The duo start off as best friends but over time, wind up clashing over everything: the direction of the band, who’s songwriting gets the upper hand, album art, even when to tour. The best examples of this are Mick and Keith of the Rolling Stones, Paul and John of the Beatles, Roger Waters and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, and Morrissey and Johnny Marr of the Smiths. These duos created some of the best music of the rock era. Until they didn’t. Each of these men were more than qualified to be a “band leader” on their own, and they knew it. Eventually the level of distrust and friction leads to an inevitable break-up (sans the Stones, but those two have been like a toxic couple fighting over custody for years, only to get drunk and fall back into bed periodically). Each of these men (and women too—looking at you Sleater-Kinney) went on to have solo careers, none of which can touch the best music they had created with their lover/nemesis, which surely infuriates all of the above. The Velvet Underground was no exception.
I don’t think John Cale wanted ‘ownership’ of the Velvets. It seems that it was less John’s attitude that unnerved Lou, and more his very presence. You see, in other cases of bands with ‘two tops,’ the rivalry comes from the leader’s jealousy (honestly) at the attention the other receives, and a skill-set the lead singer doesn’t have. Examples of this situation are: Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno of Roxy Music, Frank Black and Kim Deal of the Pixies, and (sorry, I know) David Bowie and Mick Ronson of the Spiders from Mars. In each of these situations, the first name of each pair very much saw themselves as the ‘leader,’ yet the success each band was enjoying was due to the contributions of the latter. (In the case of Eno, Deal and Ronson, this was completely, indisputably true.) If you are Bryan Ferry, and you want to be Bryan Adams (basically a solo artist with a backing band) and you have a full-on musical prodigy (Eno) manipulating and producing music that has never been heard before, one hope’s you would be grateful, humbled by your luck. Why the human ego is so predictably needy is a riddle for another night, but you see this endlessly. And, as in the cases of the Waters-less Pink Floyd, a Deal-less Pixies, or Morrissey’s only occasionally not-shitty solo career, it’s a disaster. Artistically.
Financially, you may do fine—often, when losing the most creative member of your band, you make Avalon, a record that appeals to everyone’s mother, and sells like cocaine—but you’ll never make another For Your Pleasure because you cannot.
Part 4: HOW TO PRODUCE RESULTS; OR, NO FUN MY BABE, NO FUN
So movie producers and record producers have different jobs, though their Venn diagrams can overlap at Cannes after too much too soon. However, the best way to understand record production is like so: You are a budding singer/songwriter with 10 great songs you wrote on the acoustic guitar. It’s 1965 and you’re very lucky, or it’s 2019 and your parents are Scientologists—either way, you got signed by a record label* (an archaic practice from the late-Renaissance can be Googled on your own time). So the record company selects a ‘Producer’ for you, and you two meet in a studio with your acoustic guitar. The producer decides if you and the guitar are enough, or whether to use a band, or to handle each song differently. But even if they keep it simple—you and the guitar—which is louder, the music or the lyrics? Do you need another bridge? Or one less. Basically, the sound of a record is up to the producer. There are any number of ways any album could sound, and the classics are usually a mix of great songwriting or performance, and great production.
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO (1967) We have an early demo of Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison doing a few songs on acoustic guitars—(for music nerds: this was the tape they ‘shopped’ and eventually Cale gave to Marianne Faithfull, who apparently didn’t lose her copy during her years on a London wall, and eventually gave it up for the Peel Slowly and See box set). These demos give some idea of what “production” did for the songs by the time they were pressed on the 1967 ‘Banana’—(so-called because of Andy Warhol’s cover art).
One song, already fully brilliant on the demo, will serve us here: “Venus in Furs.” The album version of “Venus in Furs” (a song based on the novel of the same name by Leopold von Sacher Masoch ((ie: where “masoch”-ism comes from—also, Marianne Faithfull’s grandfather if you’re keeping score)) explores the dynamics of an S & M relationship. The very opening of the song—gong, bass drum, a seemingly infinite number of instruments slogging along to what feels like Prometheus staggering—is quickly met by Cale’s viola screeches, which emulate “whip” noises. So the sound completely reinforces the lyric. Add to this Cale’s sly “half-note,” just off-pitch viola line under Lou on the chorus—and you have the most experimental sounding rock song to fucking date. Hence—the uses and possibilities of production. (Tom Wilson, a remarkable producer who blew rock & roll wide open twice—with Dylan’s-goes-electric Bringing it All Back Home and the single “Like a Rolling Stone,” and the first two VU records—is the official producer of the ‘Banana,’ and Cale and Reed gave him full credit. However, he only oversaw the re-recording of three songs, as the bulk of the record was done before MGM assigned him to the faggy weirdos in Studio 69, and he, in turn, credits Cale, who de-facto produced the original sessions.)
NICO: THE MARBLE INDEX (1968)
I’ll write about Nico next time, so I’ll resist the temptation to tell you much here—but as the Ur-Goth and inventor of much of the dark, drony and experimental music of the last 50 years, I will give you just enough: She was gorgeous, a model, in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, a brief muse to Warhol who ‘forced’ the Velvets to incorporate her onto the ‘Banana’—as he was paying for it, not that anyone minds at all. The singer of three of Lou Reed’s most beautiful songs, she was anxious to leave the band (if you think John Cale made Lou insecure…) and the band gladly held the door for her. Signed to Elektra, she went into the studio with Tom Wilson again (told you) and recorded Chelsea Girls (1967). Backed by Lou and John, and full of beautiful songs by the boys and her lover (17-year-old Jackson Browne, the only person in this article perhaps better looking than Nico), the album was produced conventionally (for Nico, mind you) to sound like the “English folk” of the era, and she hated it: “A flute…a fucking flute on it…I heard it only once and cried…I hated the fucking flute…who doesn’t?”
Another lover, Jim Morrison of the Doors, suggested she write her own songs. Nico found a portable harmonium—a lap-sitting squeezebox that sounds like bagpipes crying on a pipe organ’s shoulder (or is to keyboards what the autoharp is to guitars) and began to write the kind of beautiful and strange songs that would, credibly, invent Goth music. Cale was able to scratch his more avant itches—and had to—as Nico required (demanded) that the harmonium be featured centrally in every song. Somehow the two of them created a personal music (through a trilogy that also includes Desertshore and The End) that is no less haunting and disquieting some 50 years later. Nico’s an acquired taste certainly, but I highly recommend you build up your tolerance, and acquire it.
THE STOOGES (1969): Cale’s job here was to capture this new, ‘hard rock’ sound of this garage band, whose songs were unique to mainstream rock—(as the 1960’s gave way to the 70’s, popular music went either Led Zeppelin big or Carole King intimate). Take “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” The song is a simple riff, repeated endlessly with one change at the end of every sequence—a driving riff, that sounds inharmonic at first, that drives the same speed from beginning to end. To elucidate this, Cale adds a banging piano that also never changes, and makes the whole thing sound even more threatening than before (but with a piano mind you, not with the more obvious choice of another distorted guitar). ((Brian Eno picks up on this—hear the bell ringing on the same note through the otherwise vapid Coldplay song “Viva la Vida”)) Even Bach knew how to hold a sustained note through a chord-progression—but it was Cale who both knew this, and adapted the idea to rock & roll. He also had another anomaly: Iggy. Iggy Pop is one of the most original and energetic live performers in the world (at fucking 70!) So one can imagine him at 18. Cale needed to transfer as much of that live energy to the record as possible and the results? ((See “1969” then come back)) Here Cale practically prophesizes the technique later used on all brilliant punk and post-punk bands, from the New York Dolls to the Sex Pistols to Nirvana’s “Bleach.” Yeah, right? You’re welcome.
PATTI SMITH GROUP—HORSES (1975): So Patti Smith is possibly the only other rock star who can match Iggy for uniqueness, power and originality note-for-note. So you have to give her credit for her songwriting: “Redondo Beach,” “Birdland,” and “Free Money” are so good, even ABBA could have made them work. And you can’t forget Mapplethorpe’s cover photo—which also harkens back to Patti’s (for the time) genderfuck-style which we didn’t even have a word for then. So yes, Patti’s fucking cooler than you, cooler than me, forever and ever, Amen. BUT: It’s “Gloria” that grabs you so hard, and once you get to side two of her debut record, it’s “Land” that seals the deal. Both songs are basically covers (“Gloria” by Van Morrison’s first group, THEM) and “Land” is an epic song of Patti’s Burroughs-like story of a boy-on-boy rape, with the chorus from Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances.”
Cale talks frankly in his autobiography (What’s Welsh for ‘Zen’?) About his frustration producing. His problem? The Patti Smith Group (already ripping up CBGB on a weekly basis) were the most exciting live band around, and yet the same songs in the studio weren’t translating. How to capture the immediacy of Patti onstage in the studio? (Patti initially diminished Cale’s contribution to the record but has come to give him much more credit in later years, as well as a more enlightened re-appraisal of her own behavior as a kid in the studio for the first time.) So what did he do? He had Patti read some, ad-lib some, and scream some on a second (or third) vocal track, over her recorded lead. So you have the contrasting words, the voices that fight for your attention, the huge orgiastic swell of Patti-on-Patti-on-Patti that defines much of her best work since. Enough.
PART 5: LEAVING IT UP TO YOU; OR, WHERE TO START WITH JOHN CALE
John Cale has been a tricky wicket to try to summarize on any reasonable level. Because his contributions are many and invaluable—as a member of the mid-century avant-garde, because he was in the Velvet Underground, because he was maybe the most important rock & roll producer since Phil Spector and George Martin, and because all of those projects have in some way influenced everyone in the canon ever since—so I’ve had to pick and choose.
We’re going to close with a focus on John’s own records—of which there are 30. I own many of them—most of them purchased from Tower Records on $75 Japanese imports in the 90’s when I worked there. But I see there are a limited number of them currently in print, so I’m going to focus on three you can get—((unless I get all nuts about ‘Helen of Troy’ and send you to used record stores or Euro-eBay to get one at all costs.))
PARIS 1919 (1972): This is the big one—not only my favorite, but seemingly everyone else’s, as it is one of Cale’s only solo albums to have been (mostly) in print since it was released. A “love letter to Europe” Cale calls it, as he had been in exile in the U.S. since the days of the Velvets. It didn’t catch on then, and is still underheard—though there is much to love. The luscious ‘pop’ melodies framing sophisticated lyrics about exorcisms (the title track) and nostalgia (“Child’s Christmas in Wales”), romance (“Andalucia”) to social snark (“Graham Greene”), there’s even a Lou Reed dig (“back in Berlin they’re all well fed”) which alludes to the better fortunes his old partner had landed in ((though he needn’t have worried, as Lou’s upcoming record, Berlin, would be universally panned, sending Lou back—briefly—to the same ‘markdown bin’ that held Paris 1919)). The production was so ahead of its time, you can convince the uninitiated that the record was just released. It broke as much ground as Eno’s debut, Here Come the Warm Jets, but Cale has no use for Eno’s layered synthetics on this album, as he accomplishes his lush arrangements with a live band ((Little Feat actually)). It’s a record out of time, and there’s no reason for it to have such rabid allegiance from Cale’s fans—aside from the fact that it is a nearly perfect collection of songs that belong nowhere in the canon, save the two sides of this unique album.
FEAR (1974): OK, this is a cheat. This rock-out monster-piece features Cale at his scariest. The title track alone, with Eno’s crazed synth line and Cale’s paranoid vocal, is enough to send weaker souls scrambling to rehab. Sadly, if you somehow survive side one, side two opens with “Gun,” as aggressive a song as anyone ever bothered to commit to vinyl. Phil Manzanera from Roxy Music and his old bandmate Eno rip it up for the ages with what sounds like two guitarists trying to kill each other. They album has some lighter joys as well, and even folkie, Richard Thompson, is there as well, aiding on “Momamma Scuba.” This album and its two sequels (Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy) are not available individually but are boxed together in The Island Years. This collection is not for the faint of heart, and pictures of Cale doing these songs covered in blood, in his trademark hockey mask at CBGB, will occupy a special place in your head forever.
FRAGMENTS OF A RAINY SEASON (1992): And here, my friends, is where to start with John Cale. This live album featuring just John on piano, and later on guitar, covers his entire post-VU career. A sampling of songs from the records I have mentioned, as well as from the haunting Music for a New Society and the just completed Lou Reed collaboration, Songs for Drella. ((It felt like a cheat to use “Drella” as one of my three records of choice here, but we’ll get to Warhol soon.)) Cale’s “just piano” versions of “Guts” and “Fear” dissolve into a screaming chaos that makes you shiver, and then marvel that he had the voice to continue. His settings of Dylan Thomas’ poems are as beautiful as “Dying on the Vine” is intense. The album closes with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” as song that had been released, unnoticed and forgotten some years prior. Cale asked Cohen for his unused verses, and when Cohen conceded, Cale reformed the song—creating the dark, “death of love” version we all know by heart now. This version was lifted note-for-note (beautifully, but still) by Jeff Buckley, and became the ubiquitous “anti-wedding wedding song” that’s now stuck in your head. ((Sorry)) Somehow though, Cale’s version makes you hear the longing at the song’s center that made it so powerful before, like everything else nice, it was taken away from us.