Above Photo: © Lisa Law
”He’d get paranoid craziness. I thought he was really special because of that, that craziness to me was incredibly interesting. He was really the kind that would be afraid to go into the street -from paranoia or whatever makes you that way. ” –Betsey Johnson, Up-Tight
Born in Garnant, Wales, in 1942, John Davies Cale played piano and viola from an early age. As a promising student at Goldsmiths University, he often chafed at the limitations of the classical hierarchy , and was drawn to the work of such avant garde composers as John Cage and La Monte Young. When Cale moved to New York in 1963, he fell in with each of these influences in turn, playing piano with Cage and viola in La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music (a.k.a. The Dream Syndicate).
His work shows a fascination with opposites: lyricism and noise, subtlety and bluntness, hypnotic repetition and sudden change. Even as a student of classical music, he was an extremist: During a recital at the Guildhall School of Music, London, where he was studying theory and composition, he demolished a piano. Cale studied in Britain with composer Humphrey Searle, came to America in 1963 to work with Iannis Xenakis and Aaron Copland under the auspices of a Leonard Bernstein Fellowship, then settled in New York with such radical composers as John Cage and La Monte Young. That year Cale was one of a group of pianists to perform Erik Satie’s nearly 19-hour-long “Vexations.” Through his association with the Lower Manhattan art community, Cale met Reed, who encouraged Cale’s passion toward experimenting within rock & roll, helping them to create the Velvet Underground, for whom Cale played keyboards, bass and electric viola.The rock and roll milieu gave Cale a chance to unleash his fierce improvisational skills, ones that classical music had no use for.
“The Velvets shows were pretty riotous. When we went to the West Coast, we’d end up playing in big clubs with a lot of the acid head bands, and we found we could fit in there by improvising a little harder than what the acid head bands were doing.” –VU Psych
“When John left, it was really sad. I felt really bad. And of course, this was gonna really influence the music, ’cause, John’s a lunatic. I think we became a little more normal, which was fine, it was good music, good songs, it was never the same though. It was good stuff, a lot of good songs, but, just, the lunacy factor was… gone.”-Moe Tucker
After two Velvets albums (The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat), Cale left in 1968, worked in A&R, production and arranging (Nico’s & The Stooges) and as a consultant for Columbia, remixing albums by Barbra Streisand and Paul Revere and the Raiders in quadraphonic sound for a year before returning as a solo artist with some subdued but elegant solo albums. His 1973 classic Paris 1919 established his penchant for writing allusive, emotionally compelling songs linked to historical and political concerns —a concern that reached its culmination in his harrowing 1982 album Music For A New Society. “Emotional concerns are very political, in the end,” he points out.
Having moved to the West Coast in the early ’70s Cale worked as an A&R man for Warner Bros. His solo albums of the decade mixed minimalism (Church of Anthrax, with fellow La Monte Young pupil Terry Riley), full orchestra (The Academy in Peril), elegant pop (Paris 1919, with Little Feat’s Lowell George), hard rock (Fear), Phil Spector/Brian Wilson gloss (Slow Dazzle), and apocalyptic post-punk (Sabotage). Lyrically, he displayed equal daring; delivered in a strong baritone, his work ranged from musings about terrorism, espionage, and states of psychological extremity to love songs.
The mid-’70s found Cale back in the UK, fronting a rock band that featuring guitarist Chris Spedding, performing concerts as a solo artist for the first time. The performances were often acts of disturbing theatre, audiences assaulted with a stage presentation that drew as much from Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty as from Phil Spector. His three albums from this period— Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy—capture the dark and manic energy that colored his live shows, anticipating the punk explosion that lurked around the corner.
By the 1980’s Cale was an established producer and arranger, his previous work ranged from the debut efforts of The Stooges, Patti Smith, Modern Lovers, and Squeeze to four albums by former Velvets singer Nico; he also had worked with Jennifer Warnes, Julie Covington, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Nick Drake, and Mike Heron, scored soundtracks for Andy Warhol‘s Heat and Roger Corman’s Caged Heat.
While commercial success eludes him, he was lauded as one of punk’s godfathers, a status he contended against with characteristic irony: His primary interest he stated remained classical music. As the ’80s waned he continued producing (Happy Mondays), scoring (the soundtrack for Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild with Laurie Anderson and David Byrne), and releasing solo work as various as the pop of “Wrong Way Up” to “The Falklands Suite,” an orchestration of Dylan Thomas poetry that highlighted Words for the Dying.
By 1993 Cale had come full circle, having 4 years earlier collaborated with Lou Reed on Songs for Drella, a tribute to Velvet Underground mentor Andy Warhol, he teamed with the Velvets members on a reunion tour.
After the artistic failure of that reunion Cale continued to innovate, releasing in 1996, with guests David Byrne and Maureen Tucker, the country tinged Walking on Locusts, featuring a moving tribute to Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison, and, in 1998, scoring a ballet production in honour of Nico.
- Vintage Violence (1970)
- The Academy in Peril (1972)
- Paris 1919 (1973)
- Fear (1974)
- Slow Dazzle (1975)
- Helen of Troy (1975)
- Honi Soit (1981)
- Music for a New Society (1982)
- Caribbean Sunset (1984)
- Artificial Intelligence (1985)
- Words for the Dying (1989)
- Walking on Locusts (1996)
- HoboSapiens (2003)
- blackAcetate (2005)
- Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood (2012)
- M:FANS (2016)
- Sabotage/Live (1979)
- John Cale Comes Alive (1984)
- Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1991)
- Fragments of a Rainy Season (1992)
- Circus Live (2007)
- John Cale & Band Live (Rockpalast 1983 & 1984) (2010)
Collaborative Studio Albums
- Church of Anthrax (with Terry Riley) (1971)
- Songs for Drella (with Lou Reed) (1990)
- Wrong Way Up (with Brian Eno) (1990)
- Last Day on Earth (with Bob Neuwirth) (1994)
Soundtracks and Scores
- Love me (2000)
- American Psycho (2000)
- The Virgin (1999)
- Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)
- Night Wind (1999)
- Somewhere in the City (1998)
- Rhinoceros Hunting in Budapest (1997)
- Basquiat (1996)
- I Shot Andy Warhol (1996)
- Antarctica (1995)
- Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die/N’oublie pas que tu vas mourir (1995)
- Ah Pook Is Here (Short) (1994)
- Life Underwater (1994)
- The Birth of Love (1993)
- Primary Motive(1992)
- Healing Hurts (1991)
- Paris Awakens(1991)
- Songs for Drella (Video) 1990
- Dick: A Film by Jo Menell (Documentary short) 1989
- The Houseguest (Short) (1989)
- Something Wild (1986)
- American Playhouse (TV Series) (1 episode)- Who Am I This Time? (1982)
- Caged Heat (1974)
- Heat (1972)
- Women in Revolt (1971)
- Straight and Narrow (Short) (1970)
Check out Loud Alien Noize article about Cale’s autobiography ”What’s Welsh for Zen?” co-written with Victor Bockris.