John Cale rocks and the results are frighteningly good. Recorded with Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera, Fear is absurdly inventive, and Cale is quick to show off the fruit of its collective oddness on the opening “Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend,” which quickly morphs from a harmless pop song into mounting, elastic paranoia. From there, all bets are off as Cale and crew careen into rock’s conventions. “Buffalo Ballet” is gilded country pop, “Barracuda” is tickled by an ocean of tiny oddities, “Emily” is sweetness remembered, “Ship Of Fools” is otherwordly pop haunted by the spirit of Christmas. Fear is a plate of succulent oddities until “Gun” arrives. Here, Cale manages to channel the dark energy of Lou Reed (or Patti Smith or The Stooges if you prefer) into eight minutes of bleak fury that move so purposefully it feels like four, and you begin to wonder whether John Cale isn’t some mischievous, mythical god among us, donning different forms to fight away the boredom of a life meted out in flinty minutes. “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford To Orgy,” the album’s single, is actually the least interesting song on here, a male/female duet that plods along to some hoary country melody and only incites me to want to put The Kinks’ Soap Opera on the turntable. All is forgiven, however, with “You Know More Than I Know;” luminous genius, that. The album closes with another menacing rock/punk experiment, “Momomma Scuba,” featuring what sounds to be an army of guitars. I have enjoyed every John Cale album to date, but Fear is the man’s best album so far. Very fitting for his first on Island, since you wouldn’t want to be caught on one without it.
John Cale was the most unconventional member in one of the world’s most unconventional rock bands, Velvet Underground. While Lou Reed was the leader and Nico (at least initially) the beacon, Cale’s droning, dissonant violin/keyboards and classical training gave their music an artistic credibility that elevated it above nearly anything else being made at the time. One had the sense that Cale was a deliberately placed wrench, an intellectual counterpoint that gave Reed’s visceral songs about strung-out antiheroes an air of madness. Yet VU never seemed like the proper outlet for Cale’s peculiar genius, a point his solo career has since confirmed.
The musical career of John Cale is a story of surprises. His first album, Vintage Violence, was a relatively normal collection of pop songs that showed Cale had both a serviceable voice and a sense of humor. It was a calculated departure from the music of VU, however, that likely bewildered listeners with its low-key charm. Bewilderment turned to chaos on the Terry Riley collaboration, Church of Anthrax, which featured groundbreaking proto-ambient jazz/rock. While challenging, Anthrax was at least more in line with the avant-garde music that fans expected from Cale, and has since been accepted as a minor classic in the musical canon.
On The Academy In Peril, Cale showcased his classical side with the help of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, while still sneaking his subversive sense of humor into the mix. Together, Anthrax and Academy confirmed the long-held suspicion that Cale was a musical iconoclast of the highest order. Subsequent albums have alternated between the genteel pop of Violence (e.g., Paris 1919), rock (Fear) and classical, the latter often in the form of film scores.
Although Cale has never enjoyed the commercial success of Lou Reed, his career has had an impact on artists as varied as Brian Eno, Penguin Café Orchestra and Camper Van Beethoven. Cale has also produced notable acts including Patti Smith, Nico, Squeeze and The Stooges. At some point in the (hopefully) not too distant future, a John Cale renaissance would be welcome and warranted.
Kronomyth 5.5: LAYERS OF AYERS. This album had been the source of speculation on my part for years as it represented such an unusual axis of talent. And no less a luminary than Dave Thompson has found in June 1, 1974 the nexus of art-rock royalty, or at least enough inspiration to write an entire book around it. On a superficial level, this is a live album featuring Kevin Ayers and his touring band at the time (The Soporifics) plus a constellation of stars who scored extremely high on the absurdity/profundity scale: Eno, John Cale, Robert Wyatt, Nico. (As if that weren’t enough, Mike Oldfield drops by for a lovely guitar solo on “Everybody’s Sometime And Some People’s All The Time Blues.”) Add to that a little bit of history (a rare and early glimpse of Eno on stage as a solo artist) and an unhealthy dose of drama (Cale had discovered Ayers sleeping with his wife the night before this performance), and you have the makings of a memorable evening. As to whether this represents a divinely orchestrated alignment of stars, well, not to me. Just the previous year, The Rainbow had hosted Eric Clapton’s return alongside members of The Who, Blind Faith, Traffic and The Faces. To your mainstream musical consumer, Ayers and his ad hoc freakshow must have seemed like amateur night by comparison. Of course, the two revues are worlds apart. The Clapton concert sought to recapture lost ground, while Ayers and his allies were writing a new rock manifesto. Eno handles the role of opening act surprisingly well; “Driving Me Backwards” comes off without a hitch and, though overdone, “Baby’s On Fire” does contain a scorching solo in the middle. Cale contributes what is handily the oddest version of “Heartbreak Hotel” you’ll ever hear, made all the richer by the personal context behind it. The first side ends, how else?, with a version of The Doors’ “The End” by Nico that delivers the goods as only Nico can. The second side of the elpee features a handful of tracks from Ayers that move adroitly from one to the other. The breezy “May I?” is a highlight; the performances suggest a cross between Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Bryan Ferry, with the caveat that Ayers is the prototype, not the copy. If June 1, 1974 isn’t as good as I expected, I expected a lot. My main knock on the album is that there isn’t more of it, and what there is of it (mostly Ayers) is what I was least interested in. A suitable appreciation of Ayers may come with time, however, so I reserve the right to gripe about too little Ayers layter.
Kronomyth 3.0: ACADEMIGOD. John Cale had released an album of pop (Vintage Violence) and proto-ambient jazz (Church of Anthrax), so what for an encore but an album of minimalist classical music? In a sense, The Academy In Peril completes the triumvirate of tastes that constitute the complete John Cale experience: genteel, experimental and classical. The classically trained Cale had yet to showcase his formal training on record. In VU, he was the iconoclast alternating between drone and a saw cutting through bone. On Violence, he was an aspiring pop star. On Anthrax, he was a noisemonger. Here, we finally meet the trained classicist, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra no less, starring as both serious composer and silly saboteur, minimalist and sentimentalist. The opening track, “The Philosopher,” sets the tone with the first of many unexpected surprises: minimalist with a side of foot-stompin’ Cajun slide that could best be described as Americana avant garde. “Brahms” is one of several solo piano pieces, here featuring an interesting mix of resonance and dissonance. “Legs Larry at Television Centre” is a brilliant satire of serious classical music, with Legs Larry Smith providing crude director’s commentary for an imagined filming, including several admonishments for the sound crew to mind their boom. “The Academy In Peril” is another piano piece, this time sublime in effect. “Intro/Days of Steam” starts with a wild intro that leads into a lovely childlike mix of unorthodox instruments, an approach that will sound immediately familiar to fans of Penguin Café Orchestra. (Really, you have to wonder if Cale wasn’t the example that E.G. Records patterned itself after, give the affinities to Eno, PCO, Harold Budd, etc.) The “3 Orchestral Pieces,” featuring the RPO, are the album’s classical pedigree, and reveal a keen sense of dark and light imagery. “King Harry” is whispered genius at the edge of reason; Cale would repeat the experience on Paris 1919 with “Antarctica Starts Here.” “John Milton” closes the album with eight minutes of alien beauty that likely had an effect on the later ambient music of Brian Eno. The Academy In Peril rarely tries the same trick twice, and demonstrates a surprisingly rich sonic palette, a point made more manifest when you consider how different it is from the preceding two efforts. More importantly, it reveals that Cale has ever been capable of playing the straight classical card (albeit with plenty of boobytraps), which makes the calculated musical choices that Cale has made up until now even more impressive. If one album can be said to establish once and for all the genius of John Cale, this is it.
The first work that John Cale recorded after his emergence from the Velvet Underground was a collaboration with the minimalist composer, Terry Riley. As it turned out, Church of Anthrax would wait a year to see its formal release, but nearly all agree that it was worth waiting for. The first side of music is one of the most stunning examples of experimental, instrumental jazz/rock on record. “Church of Anthrax” is a shifting mosaic of semi-structured jazz/rock that builds up to an explosive Om. It is at once thought-provoking and lurid, beginning with Cale’s insistent bass guitar riff and adding organ, sax and drums to the magnificent drone of jazz-wise Om. A dying horn and squeaking chair end the piece, pulling the listener quickly back into reality, but not before their vision of music’s possibilities has inalterably changed. ”The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace at Versailles” has been called a proto-ambient piece, and it does seem like a logical precursor to the fixed studies of Brian Eno. Here, sonorous piano notes are clumped together to create a thick fog of sound from which Riley’s horns emerge. Steadily hammered piano notes serve as a mad metronome, while Riley’s sax becomes the focal point, and then a new storm of sounds swirls around us before the entire piece dissipates. Side two brings a jarring note of normalcy in John Cale’s stilted pop song, “The Soul of Patrick Lee.” It honestly feels like a pop advertisement after the previous two pieces; the effect is stunning, but it’s a complete departure from the previous collaboration with Terry Riley. Patrick Lee turns out to be a sweet anomaly, however, as the pair return to the wide berths of chaos on the last two tracks. Truth be told, “Ides of March” is a long bore, featuring only piano and drums for eleven minutes, and “The Protégé” is exactly what you would have expected from a Cale/Riley collaboration: a VU backing track with a wrench thrown into it. Had the Church of Anthrax been contained only to the second side of music, critics would remember it for “The Soul of Patrick Lee” and little else. It’s on the first two tracks that Church’s faithful have built their foundation, and those tracks remain a vital destination for musical pilgrims who would kneel at one of the 70s great altars of alternative rock.
Kronomyth 4.0: GARDE BLANCHE. In the house of Cale, Paris 1919 is the tea room that looks out into the garden of pop oddities first revealed on Vintage Violence. I had called that album “the very definition of disarming” (with no recollection today of what I meant by that), unless I was trying (and ultimately failing) to say that the very alarming cover of Vintage Violence gave no indication of the charming music within. You can, however, judge Paris 1919 by its cover. It is a perfectly genteel album of warped, stilted pop songs that, for thirty-one minutes, defy ready comprehension or resistance. Again, the closest parallel for me would be Eno’s gentrified relation, as Cale shares the same interest in absurdities (“Elephants that sing to keep the cows that agriculture won’t allow”) that nearly intersect reason in the wide berths of the listener’s imagination. Cale also has a limited vocal range, nasally I suppose but also earnest, which must have lent confidence to Eno’s stepping out behind the microphone. Reconciling the sweet and sentimental Cale of Paris 1919 with the angry, intense Velvet Underground is harder work; you’d have to look to “Sunday Morning” or “Femme Fatale” and sweeten them considerably to effect the comparison. This and Vintage Violence may be the charming anomalies in a difficult catalog, but they’re by no means shallow. The closing “Antarctica Starts Here,” hoarsely whispered beyond the edges of reason, makes plain that even the preceding pop songs like “Andalucia” and “Paris 1919” have been tainted with a little madness from the start.
The very definition of disarming, what with that scary title and cover photo. The vintage here is 1969, the vines very possibly rooted in Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, and the taste of Cale introduced in the fermentation process unmistakable. Though it pre-dates the solo music of Brian Eno (the album’s most obvious antecedent), Vintage Violence does sound like Nashville Skyline filtered through Eno’s Warm Jets. You have the rustic playing that slips all sorts of melody into charming arrangements (compare “Bring It On Up” to “Country Pie”), pedal steel guitar and harmonica and organ for commentary, and lyrics that defy easy comprehension or are otherwise artfully artless (“Ghost Story,” “Please”). The effect that Vintage Violence had on the rock music scene? Well, I couldn’t tell you. I was only five years old, and I suppose some of this must have filtered into artier quarters, from Roxy Music to Hawkwind to Yoko Ono. And anyone who had artistic aspirations, an ear for good melodies and a limited voice likely took some inspiration from Vintage Violence. But I suspect that many future songwriters learned these lessons secondhand from artists like Eno. If Cale owes anyone a debt, it’s probably Brian Wilson (whose lush production hand is evoked on “Gideon’s Bible”). As much as Vintage Violence has an offhand charm, the songs exist as self-sustaining vignettes. Each has its own peculiar personality; a piano hammered aggressively on “Hello, There,” an island lilt to “Cleo.” The 2001 CD reissue includes a nearly identical version of “Fairweather Friend” and the droning viola piece “Wall,” which some critics have mused brings the disc full circle through Cale’s musical world. Vintage Violence is an important work, for reasons very different than I first imagined. It establishes John Cale as a new and vital source of musical ideas, separate and distinct from what he achieved with Velvet Underground (the same couldn’t be said for Lou Reed initially). If you enjoy Brian Eno at his most unguarded (“I’ll Come Running,” “On Some Faraway Beach”), you’ll find the source for some of it here.
A very bumpy ride, or so I always thought, sticking my head out the window to howl a curse to John Cale in the rush of wind. But it’s 3:30 in the morning (again), and I’m amenable to anything, even noisy, precocious and sometimes preposterous power pop that might have otherwise fallen from the long-chapped lips of any number of late ‘70s also-rans (Wreckless Eric, The Payola$). The band’s first proper album comes with a caveat: you’ll need to do some digging to find the little melodic treasures that spilled so easily from Argybargy and its ilk. Obstacles include egregious instances of noisemongering, a few tracks of plain filler, and tantalizing bits of melody that serve as the album’s unreachable itch. It’s clear even here that melody is not their enemy, so why would they go out of their way to sound like young, snotty punks? Legend (and since I never look anything up, it’s always legend) goes that Cale had the band write new material for the album, which would explain soft spots like “The Call” or the instrumental “Wild Sewerage Tickles Brazil.” And even The Police fell victim to the noisy rebellion of new wave at first (while wisely avoiding the inevitable “Fallout”). The album isn’t juvenilia, but songs like “Sex Master,” “Bang Bang” and “Hesitation (Rool Britannia)” may jostle the sensibilities of latter-day Squeeze fans. More likely to please this contingent are “Out of Control,” “Model” and “First Thing Wrong,” bits of which evince the prince charmings beneath an otherwise froggy exterior. U.K. Squeeze (or simply Squeeze in the U.K., since there wasn’t a legal challenge to the name over there) is closer to punk rock than pub rock, a point which will scare off pop purists. However, if you’re a fan of the band (and I am), you’ll squeeze something sweet from this unripe fruit. Oh yeah, and “Take Me I’m Yours” is on here too, which I’ve never liked (fyi, it is not an accurate gauge of this album).