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Music

John Cale's 10 greatest post-Velvet Underground songs

John Cale was the most accomplished musician in The Velvet Underground. With his tousled brown hair and steely good looks, Cale was every bit the pin-up that British children demanded from their pop stars in the 1960s.

He was asked to leave the band in the late 1960s, just as the band were embarking on a change in direction, plunging headfirst into the orbit of stardom. But Cale was canny and talented enough to steer a solo career by himself, detaching himself from the band’s legacy.

His solo work was also taking on a more pop tinted flavour, and the songwriting bassist soaked these parameters to create a new work that was blinding in its resolve—and he’s continuing to fashion a new voice for himself as we speak.

And so it goes for the Welsh-born musician, keenly aware of his place as surviving custodian of the Velvet’s legacy, and justifiably proud of his place in the canon of pop.

John Cale’s 10 greatest post-Velvet Underground songs:

10. ‘Dying On The Vine’

From the opening bass lick to the pulsating guitar arpeggios that cement this tune, ‘Dying On The Vine’ presents Cale as an arranger par excellence. He barely sings on the mosaic, but when he does, his voice lifts through the proceedings, embellishing the spaces that exist between the bass and drums.

The tune holds up with many of the more commercial anthems Cale recorded during his tenure with The Velvet Underground, although it is more accessible in its form, creating a more infectious form of chorus to the barrelling, guitar sections favoured by Lou Reed.

9. ‘I Keep a Close Watch’

Keen to tip his hat back to the records of the 1960s, Cale’s ballad keenly ties together two disparate genres as one impressive whole. Cemented by a jazz backing, the song is decorated by a bustling collection of strings and horns, never a note wasted in the crisp, cinematic mix.

His voice strains to match the power of the strings, but that’s not entirely the point of the exercise, as it is the production design that draws romance, rebellion and restraint in a compact running time of three minutes.

8. ‘Lay My Love’

This could very easily be mistaken for a Talking Heads piece, which is fitting because it features Remain In Light producer Brian Eno. This track is notable for a sweeping string line that acts as both a melodic hook and as an acutely accurate representation of the album’s more esoteric backdrop.

Cale sounds triumphant, soaring through the collection of instruments with buoyancy, never missing out on the more restrained notes as he gears for the galloping chorus.

7. ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’

Fuelled by a pummelling piano line, Cale recounts tales of a Christmas spent serenading in the splendours of family traditions during Christmas. The singer sounds confident, largely bolstered by the personal nature of the track, as he captures his thoughts of a time spent in his beloved Wales.

The tune is also notable for a slide guitar line that sounds pleasantly reminiscent of George Harrison’s work on ‘My Sweet Lord’. Fittingly, the tune is also punctuated by a bustling bass line that showed his penchant for melody, and the bass works as a counterpoint to the grizzly vocal delivery. Brilliant.

6. ‘Andalucia’

“I was trying to figure out why I stopped doing avant-garde music and doing Paris 1919, and what really did I expect from rock & roll?” Cale told Rolling Stone. “I just was getting lost as to what future direction my music was gonna be. So I started thinking about where I started, in Wales, and I went back to Dylan Thomas and started writing songs about Dylan Thomas. It was trying to figure out where in my background I got lost.”

Strangely, one of the album’s most powerful tunes has nothing to do with Wales, but focuses on the Andalucian landscape, as he sings of a wanderer captivated by the countryside, feeling that it takes part of his soul. The composition is one of the sparser on the album, connecting the chiming acoustic guitar of his vocals.

5. ‘There Was A Saviour’

But this tune returns Cale back to his beloved Dylan Thomas, as he adapts the poet’s words to fit his shimmering melody. Capturing the essence of the work to the sound of chamber-pop music, Cale creates a soundscape that weaves in and out of the work, the strings highlighting the importance of the voice, never drowning it down under the nest of instruments.

Whether the song is meant to be allegorical or not is irrelevant, especially since the song works on so many levels, both as a mini operetta and a power ballad. The Words for the Dying album ranks among Cale’s best output.

4. ‘Crazy Egypt’

If those pummelling guitar chords sound familiar, it’s because they are. Talking Heads frontman David Byrne is co-credited on the song, but the lyrics are almost certainly Cale’s, as he affects a faux rap that demonstrates his whereabouts in the changing musical landscape of the 1990s.

The guitars prickle off the backdrop, but the final mix is strangely punk-esque in its resolve. As the song grows more urgent, Cale’s vocals start to gain traction, and he rises for that impossibly high note.

3. ‘Broken Birds’

“From my point of view, I just wanted to write songs that extended what I knew about classical music,” Cale remembered. “But certainly Vintage Violence didn’t do that. By the time I started writing songs I was 23, or whatever, and if it wasn’t for the Beatles explosion I wouldn’t have got to them. But that middle year in New York in ’64, when the Beatles were around, that was really inspirational.”

The bassist/viola player has regularly flirted with chamber style music, but this might be his most accomplished translation, as ‘Broken Birds’ works just as well as an idiosyncratic pop song as it does a classical aria.

2. ‘Legs Larry at Television Centre’

The Academy of Peril stands as one of Cale’s most interesting works, presenting an album that’s breathtakingly diverse, no two songs sounding alike. From Ronnie Wood‘s barrelling guitar to the countermelodies that flesh out ‘Legs Larry at Television Centre’, the album holds a sound quality that sounds fresh in its delivery and vibrancy.

Cale spends most of the tune narrating the events as they occur, invoking the narration of Vivian Stanshall on Tubular Bells. The central character spends most of his time pivoting from side to side, detailing the stresses, strifes and sensibilities of a film company in mid-shoot.

1. ‘Paris 1919’

Consider the lyric, “She makes me so unsure of myself,” and then conflate it against the backdrop of the historical epic. It just makes it all so much easier to listen to, right? Indeed, the tune is one of Cale’s most astonishing examples of sound, melding orchestral flourishes with a jaunty chorus.

Written against the backdrop of 1919, Cale lets characters walk in and out of the narrative, padding out the soundscape like a prize chess player searching for that ultimate killing move.