WHEN Lou Reed sacked John Cale from the Velvet Underground, his excuse was that the Welshman’s ideas were too ‘out there’, including recording with the amplifiers under water.
Yet while Reed would go on to make the wilfully unlistenable Metal Machine Music, one of the weirdest albums ever, Cale was responsible for some of the most delicate and beautiful songs of the seventies. Some ripsnorting rockers, too. So what’s his story?
John Davies Cale was born on March 9, 1942 in the pit village of Garnant, north of Swansea. His father Will was a miner and his mother Margaret a primary school teacher. John’s musical talent became apparent early in life and he took up the viola, which he studied at Goldsmiths College in London. He rapidly became interested in the avant-garde scene, conducting the first UK performance of John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, and moved at the age of 22 to New York where he was mentored by Aaron Copland. In late 1964 he met Lou Reed and they eventually formed the Velvets, whose career is described here.
After the cowardly Reed sent guitarist Sterling Morrison to tell John he was out of the band in September 1968, Cale did not waste any time licking his wounds. He produced the Stooges’ eponymous debut album in 1969 and that same year Nico’s The Marble Index, later followed by Desertshore and The End.
In early 1970 he released his first solo album, Vintage Violence. Cale would later disparage it, saying it was unoriginal, simplistic and ‘just someone teaching himself to do something’. I think he was harsh on himself, although I would not go so far as the Rolling Stone critic Ed Ward, who compared it somewhat hyperbolically to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. My favourite tracks include Gideon’s Bible, Big White Cloud, Charlemagne, Amsterdam, Ghost Story and the plaintive Please.
Next came the album Church of Anthrax, with the experimental musician Terry Riley, which is a product of Cale’s classical training and a tough listen apart from a lovely song The Soul of Patrick Lee, sung by a little-known chap named Adam Miller.
This was followed by another modern classical effort, The Academy in Peril, notable for its elaborate Warhol-designed cover and a slide guitar intro from Ronnie Wood on the first track, The Philosopher. I owned this album for many years but must admit it seldom found its way on to the turntable.
Not so Cale’s next, the marvellous Paris 1919. Produced in 1973 by the mighty Chris Thomas, personnel include guitarist Lowell George and drummer Richie Hayward from Little Feat, Crusaders bass player Wilton Felder and the UCLA Symphony Orchestra.
Almost every track is a classic. Child’s Christmas in Wales opens with George’s slide, and is followed by Hanky Panky Nohow, one of Cale’s most wistful and beautiful songs.
Endless Plain of Fortune keeps up the stratospheric standard and the lovely, mournful Andalucia raises it yet higher.
Side two of the original LP clocks in at only 15 minutes but a very fine quarter of an hour it is, comprising the title track, Graham Greene, Half Past France and Antarctica Starts Here.
I would urge anyone unfamiliar with Cale’s music to lend Paris 1919 a sympathetic ear. It is his masterpiece, his most delicate and accessible album, and still sounds fresh today.
The next year Cale moved back to London working as a producer and talent scout for Island Records while recording a trilogy of albums for the label. He appeared alongside Kevin Ayers, Brian Eno and Nico on the live album June 1, 1974, to which he contributed a manic version of the Elvis song Heartbreak Hotel.
I have written before about the remarkable contribution to this record of guitarist Ollie Halsall on Ayers’s May I? and Shouting in a Bucket Blues. Also of the tension on stage because Cale had caught his wife in bed with Ayers the previous evening.
In October 1974 came the LP Fear which, while it features some sweet tunes, marks the edgier approach now being taken by Cale. Fear is a Man’s Best Friend, the first track, starts out fairly conventionally but grows increasingly paranoid and ends with him screaming incomprehensibly against a chaotic background provided by Roxy Music’s Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera.
By March 1975 Cale had another album ready, Slow Dazzle, which I think is a big improvement on Fear. Track one, Mr Wilson, is a tribute to Beach Boy Brian. Taking It All Away is quite poppy, features some excellent piano, and could have fitted in on earlier LPs, then we move into three very strong songs in Dirty-Ass Rock n Roll, Darling I Need You and Rollaroll.
While Eno and Manzanera are still involved, the brilliant guitarist Chris Spedding steals the show with some magical soloing.
Heartbreak Hotel is given a studio outing but the highlights of side two for me are the lonely I’m Not The Loving Kind and the vituperative Guts, which revisits the Ayers affair.
Parental guidance required over the lyrics. It concludes with The Jeweller, a spoken track reminiscent of the Velvets’ The Gift.
In November 1975 Island released Helen of Troy without the consent of Cale, who was touring at the time to promote Slow Dazzle. He was furious because he felt the record was not finished, telling an interviewer: ‘It could have been a great album. I came back from finishing Horses (the pioneering Patti Smith LP he produced) and had three days to finish Helen of Troy before I went on an Italian tour. I was spending eighteen hours a day in the studio. When I got back, I found the record company had gone ahead and released what amounted to demo tapes.’
It’s still a good album, in my view. My Maria, the opening song, has great riffs supplied by Spedding while the title track is a weird delight and Cable Hogue is a real beauty, only to be surpassed by one of Cale’s finest songs, I Keep A Close Watch.
Jonathan Richman’s Pablo Picasso gets an airing, as does Jimmy Reed’s Baby What You Want Me to Do? (more great work from Spedding), but the main talking point is the song Leaving It Up To You.
This refers to the Charles Manson murders and, like Fear is a Man’s Best Friend, ends in manic gibbering. Weeks after the LP’s release Island took fright, replacing the song with the innocuous Coral Moon, but it was reinstated on reissues.
Cale never forgave Island for what had happened and parted company with the label. A shame, because it had got the best out of a difficult customer. Much of his subsequent decades was lost in a haze of drugs, particularly cocaine, which turned Cale into a most unpleasant character memorably described in the memoir Nico: Songs They Never Play on the Radio by James Young. He did, however, have a successful if fraught reunion with Lou Reed on the 1990 album Songs for Drella, a tribute to Andy Warhol.
By 2009 Cale had cleaned up his act and announced in a BBC interview that the strongest drug he now took was coffee. The following year he completed his journey into the Establishment when he was made an OBE, presumably not for services to the alternative pharmaceutical industry. And in 2017 he and drummer Moe Tucker performed the Velvet Underground songs Sunday Morning and I’m Waiting For the Man at a ceremony titled the Grammy Salute to Music Legends, where for some reason he appeared bare-legged in what seems to be a dressing gown.
He had both outlived and professionally outlasted Lou Reed (d 2013), sweet revenge for his sacking from the Velvets almost half a century before.