Mojo AUGUST 2016 - by Martin Aston


Musician for a new society.

Drones. Dissonance. Avant-rock. Systems music. Singer-songwriting. Classical fusion. Orchestral romanticism. Gristly rock. Proto-punk. Existential ballads. Quasi-AOR. Symphonies. Soundtracks. Electronica. Multiple live reinventions and collaborations. "Finding new ways to do things," is John Cale's explanation of what keeps him going. "It's a quest that keeps you hungry."

If David Bowie was the great chameleon of modern times, what of popular music's greatest living Welshman? Cale has amassed one of music's most far-reaching bodies of work; he's rock's greatest academic ("If you believe in Gestalt enough, it'll work," he once said) but equally one of its great melodic dreamers and dramatists. He's blessed, too, with a rich, resonant voice. Famously, his contribution to The Velvet Underground and production of debut albums by The Stooges, Modern Lovers and Patti Smith provided foundation stones for rock scholars, but his solo albums also contain priceless lessons, and he's kept abreast of the digital age without looking, or sounding, opportunist or desperate. And he must be the only seventy-four-year-old who looks cool with pink highlights.

Only his mid-'80s-to-mid-'90s period isn't infused with fearlessness, but again like Bowie, Cale retreated from the edge after battling cocaine addiction and becoming a father. Even then, he recorded a choral symphony, Words For The Dying, using a template of Dylan Thomas poems, including, appositely, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. As Cale sang on 2011 EP Extra Playful, "Say hello to the future / And goodbye to the past / Hurry up through the present."

One problem with Cale's forward motion is his disregard for back catalogue, with some crucial documents long out of print. At least Music For A New Society - unavailable for twenty years until this year - is back, and bundled with a visceral electronic update. But if this quest can cost you, it's worth investing in this exceptional musical polymath.

10 JOHN CALE / THE THEATRE OF ETERNAL MUSIC Inside The Dream Syndicate Volume 1: Day Of Niagara

You say: "Precursors to work with The Velvets and after." - Derek Coleman, via e-mail

Cale's classical training fast-tracked him to New York's Tanglewood Institute, but he quickly turned against it - to wit, his Scream At A Potted Plant Until It Dies performance - and decamped to La Monte Young's Fluxus-tainted school of drone. From 1965, this first of three belated semi-bootlegs (Young refused to release them) is the best place to sample the discordant beauty of Cale's viola and Tony Conrad's violin, and of sustaining single notes, sometimes for a whole evening, though Day Of Niagara only lasts thirty minutes. The roots of The Velvets' Venus In Furs are here.

9 JOHN CALE & TERRY RILEY Church Of Anthrax

You Say: "This was his rewardingly strange rock and classical stop-off." - Michael O'Neill, via e-mail

After Lou Reed pushed him out of The Velvets, Columbia's classical division paired Cale with fellow Eternal Music disciple Terry 'In C' Riley. Cale enriched and amplified Riley's minimalist urgency: given the title track's throbbing futurism and The Protégé's near-Velvets groove, it's understandable why Riley felt sidelined, but Cale claims he was trying to unlock Riley's "hidden funk", and he largely succeeds. The softcore ballad The Soul Of Patrick Lee jars in this company, but points to the songwriting masterclass of Cale's solo debut Vintage Violence - which Columbia released first, allowing Church Of Anthrax to slip out unnoticed, where it remains.

8 JOHN CALE Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood

You Say: "Proof of his continuing health." - Gary Lloyd, via e-mail

2003's HoboSapiens initiated a new wave of Cale the digital adventurist, absorbing hip hop - the new avant-garde - and parallel advances, from Dr Dre to Dirty Projectors. 2005's blackAcetate upped the ante but his most recent set of originals has the best songs and technique, building from the grooves, loops and glitches, yet underlining Cale's unwavering relationship with melody. The sound mirrors Cale's description of the fictitious Nookie Wood as a "dark swamp" in which an unlikely cast of characters - The Flying Dutchman, Hemingway, Rupert Murdoch, Scotland Yard - swirl, though Mary is his most brooding ballad in years.

7 JOHN CALE Sabotage (Live)

You Say: "An album too feral to be recorded in a studio." - Paul Fenn, via e-mail

After producing Patti Smith, Cale sped off on a messy, druggy journey into New York City's punk netherworld, including this manic live splurge at CBGB. The eight originals and a ragged cover of Rufus Thomas's Walking The Dog are unavailable in studio form. Apparent is his need for confrontation, to wit Mercenaries (Ready For War), more lumbering rock than punk, but then Cale wasn't interested in two chords. Captain Hook lasts an enthralling and meandering eleven minutes, while Françoise Hardy sound-alike backing vocalist Deerfrance sings Only Time Will Tell. The latest reissue includes the same era's Animal Justice EP and B-side Rosegarden Funeral Of Sores.

6 JOHN CALE Circus Live

You Say: "This is an excellent way to sample Cale's full range." - George Cheng, via e-mail

Parallel to his explorations into the world of electronica, Cale hitched himself to a sinewy and hungry young trio - his best band since the mid '70s - to run through eighteen of his esteemed back pages (plus four from a 2004 tour with a different band). From Velvet Underground classics Venus In Furs and Femme Fatale through to his noughties reinvention, Circus Live draws together the most serviceable Cale one-stop shop available. He's an artist infamous for reinventing songs on-stage but these versions remain faithful, and a thirteen-minute Gun and a twelve-minute splicing of Jonathan Richman's Pablo Picasso are thrilling examples of Cale's love of dynamic traditional rock.

5 LOU REED / JOHN CALE Songs For Drella

You Say: "Songs For Drella is AMAZING... Style It Takes is such a sophisticated slice." - Jackie Fate, Mojo Facebook

Reed and Cale (with Nico) reunited on a Paris stage in 1972 but it took the death of benefactor Andy 'Drella' Warhol to reunite the old foils/foes in the studio. Like Riley with Church Of Anthrax, Cale felt marginalised by Reed's control freakery, but their musical bond remained instinctive and inspired. Handling everything themselves created a different atmosphere to their Velvets era - it's more impressionistic and ruminative, but one that could still be cut with a knife. Still, Warhol's presence reinvigorated Reed's long-buried sense of camp, and it is an altogether more satisfying reunion than The Velvet Underground shows that followed.

4 LOU REED / JOHN CALE Slow Dazzle

You Say: "The cover of Heartbreak Hotel clinches it for me." - William Cork, via e-mail

The reason Cale exited The Velvet Underground was his insistence they should keep experimenting, and so it is ironic that large swathes of his solo career are rooted in songs. Take, for example, Cale's second great album for Island, opening with Mr. Wilson, his tribute to The Beach Boys' Brian, and then unwinding through gritty rock'n'roll - Chris Spedding on sterling guitar assist - and the superior ballad I'm Not The Loving Kind. But Cale was contrary at heart, and "the bugger in the short sleeves fucked my wife" (from Guts) is one of the great opening lines. Eerie spoken-word The Jeweller equally queered the pitch, and Cale's wracked cover of Heartbreak Hotel is astonishing.

3 JOHN CALE Paris 1919

You Say: "Beautiful, sumptuous production and chockfull of classic songs." - Chris Knight, via e-mail

After ten years in the United States, Cale was feeling extremely nostalgic about home. But rather than zero in on Wales, Paris 1919 looked to Europe, and early twentieth century life at that (the title referred to the Treaty Of Versailles), creating a dazzling lyrical jigsaw ("Ten murdered oranges", anyone?) bedded in a lushly haunting and peerless soft-rock baroque. Smitten with Procol Harum's orchestrations, Cale employed their producer, Chris Thomas; Little Feat guitarist Lowell George and drummer Richie Hayward, neatly underplaying, slotted in seamlessly alongside the UCLA Symphony Orchestra. The original only lasts for thirty-one minutes, but the reissue adds precious demos and alternative takes.

2 JOHN CALE Music For A New Society

You Say: "Stark, minimal, agonised... magnificent." - Phil Castiglione, via e-mail

By 1980, Cale was washed out, coked up, and clueless as to how he could sell records, or where he should head next. His record label suggested he replicate his recent solo shows (in part to conserve costs), but ever the risk-taker, Cale imposed a ten-day limit, and only to improvise. The result is enough of a masterpiece to suggest he had been plotting the album for months, but the emotions are nerve-shreddingly real and raw on these stark, exquisitely unhinged and anguished piano ballads. File alongside Big Star's Third and Skip Spence's Oar. M:Fans, the reissue's bonus album of updates, is compelling too, but nothing like the original.


You Say: "Punk far ahead of its time... plus gorgeous ballads." - Aaron McConkey, Mojo Facebook

After the songcraft and orchestrations of his initial post-Velvets flush, Cale decided to attend to what he considered unfinished business with The Velvets' clashing aesthetic. Fear launched Cale the unpredictable rocker, adopting a "cold black style" as heard it; it edges out Music For A New Society because it's the best place to comprehend his mastery of shifting moods and fulminations, beginning with Fear Is A Man's Best Friend's psychodrama - great screaming - and the elegant Wild West of Buffalo Ballet. The presence of fellow maverick Eno, shunned by Bryan Ferry as Cale was by Reed, added creative fuel, such as the tweaked guitar violence of Gun.


Cale on DVD is represented by Fragments Of A Rainy Season, a set of typically intense solo piano/guitar performances from 1992, and Live At Rockpalast (one solo show, 1983, one band show, 1984). Both are available as audio CDs. Cale's 1999 autobiography What's Welsh For Zen, as told to (Lou Reed biographer) Victor Bockris, is admirably open about his combative relationship to creativity.