We’re all very familiar with the unstoppable power of Leonard Cohen’s iconic song ‘Hallelujah’. But while we may attribute the song’s melodic procession through the heavenly gates of folk to the Canadian’s poetic vision, many would argue it was the Velvet Underground’s John Cale who unlocked the song’s true potential.
Cohen’s original composition of ‘Hallelujah’ was built on an almost indecipherable synth-driven dirge of musical complexity. Released on 1984 effort Various Positions, its unfathomably long lyrics and twisted tonal range meant that Cohen could never get the song to its best standard. Enter John Cale.
The iconic songwriter has had an indelible impact on modern rock and pop through his own work. But most notably through his collaboration with Lou Reed on some of the shinier moments of the Velvet Underground’s artistic output—perhaps none more so than on his interpretation of Cohen’s masterpiece. Cale took the song and raised it to the heavens with a new arrangement which would garner the track’s rightly deserved halo.
Cale told People in a recent discussion about the track that he first heard the song while attending one of Cohen’s gigs at the New York City venue Beacon Theatre back in 1990. “I was really an admirer of his poetry, it never let you down. There’s a timelessness to it.”
Though the song stayed in his mind, Cale didn’t decide to record it until French Magazine Les Inrockuptibles asked him to contribute to I’m Your Fan, a somewhat odd tribute to Cohen. In the days before a digital download was readily available, Cale had to do things the old fashioned way: “I called Leonard and asked him to send me the lyrics and there were a lot of them, fifteen verses,” Cale confirms. “It was a long roll of fax paper. And then I choose whichever ones were really me. Some of them were religious, and coming out of my mouth would have been a little difficult to believe. I choose the cheeky ones.”
After recording the song, Cale began to play around with some different arrangements while on his 1992 tour which was then recorded on his stripped-back live album Fragments of a Rainy Season. “There were a lot of different venues and a lot of different kinds of performances. And as it turned out the ones that were best were the ones that were done on a real piano, not an electric piano. Every time we got a real Steinway, things went up a couple notches.”
It was Cale’s arrangement which had struck such a heavy chord with the musical world. Very quickly other artists were knocking at the door to do their own version of ‘Hallelujah’. Following Jeff Buckley’s cover of the track, which had another layer of grief and otherworldliness following his untimely death, the song was covered nearly 300 times in under a decade. According to Cale, Cohen grew weary of his creation’s popularity. “He said, ‘I don’t want to hear any more new versions of ‘Hallelujah’! Let’s put an embargo on that!’”
The gravity of the song’s impact on its audience cannot be underestimated. The track has featured in countless movies (including Shrek) as well as being a mainstay on the musical mantel of perfect poetry. It’s a track that still finds a home in Cale’s performances. “You travel a lot and you play different venues and you find different things about songs and they recreate themselves, really.”
So while everyone will know that the song is originally Leonard Cohen’s creation, that Jeff Buckley has perhaps the most famous rendition, they should also know that John Cale saved it from being left in the dustbin of history.