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Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to John Cale

John Cale, first and foremost, is a classically trained musician who, after learning the rules of music theory, decided that he preferred breaking them instead of following them. Cale was raised in Garnant, Wales, where he was introduced to religious hymnal music in the local church. Through Sunday church services and under the strict guidance of his mother (a primary school teacher), he began playing the organ at a young age.

Through his school, which provided a slew of random instruments, Cale decided he would pick up the viola. The musician later described the viola as the “saddest instrument of all and, no matter how adept you get at it or no matter how fast you play it, you can’t get away from the character of it.”  After high school, Cale attended Goldsmiths College, University of London, where he furthered his education in music. Cale always had a healthy appetite for music education and he has never stopped exploring new sounds and spaces.

After University, he relocated to New York City, where he fully immersed himself in the burgeoning avant-garde scene. He partook in long-form experimental performances with John Cage; an 18-hour long piano-playing marathon of Erik Satie’s ‘Vexations’ was one notable moment. Through Cage, Cale was introduced to Le Monte Young, another avant-garde artist with whom he would enjoy a period of exciting creativity and Cale partook in Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music. Otherwise known as the ‘Dream Syndicate’, Young and Cale, among other musicians, performed drone music; this would prove to be extremely formative for Cale, who added drone-like musical sequences on early Velvet Underground songs, such as ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’, ‘Heroin’, ‘Venus in Furs’, and ‘European Son’. 

Like most aspiring musicians, Cale lived in quite drastic poverty on 56 Ludlow Street in NYC in 1965. But it was there that The Velvet Underground would start getting together; it was where they would begin practising for hours on end — the band rehearsed for a full year before they played their first gig. At the time, the group consisted of Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker and of course, John Cale. While the band would have been nothing without Lou Reed’s incredible sense of songwriting, the same can be said about Cale, who, after a while, would go head to head with Reed about the creative direction of the band. 

After their first two albums, The Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/White Heat, which were heavily informed by Cale’s sense of the avant-garde, Reed wanted control of the group and pushed the band to do more songs in the style of ‘Stephanie Says’ as opposed to the heavier sounds Cale was producing. It was enough to send the group on inevitably differing paths.

After Cale left the Velvet Underground, he wrote and released his own albums, but he also produced and worked with many different kinds of artists. The first project he worked on was a nod to the past as he took up the controls for Nico’s second solo record, The Marble Index. Cale also had a tumultuous working relationship with Patti Smith on her debut album Horses. The run of impressive records continued as he also produced The Stooges self-titled debut and the critically acclaimed The Modern Lovers. In addition to all of these records, he has mostly produced his own albums.

A professional career that spans many decades of experimental, fearless, and continuously ever-changing explorations through a multitude of different genres, nothing is off-limits to John Cale. As Brian Eno once observed, “pop music has always been a sponge-like medium sucking up everything around it. Through him, he sucked up a whole thread of European and American classical music. He is a phantom of classical ideas.”

No matter what project or kind of music he engages in, it is always approached with a classical sense.

The six definitive songs of John Cale

‘Black Angel’s Death Song’ – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1968)

If it wasn’t for John Cale’s amazing avant-garde sensibilities, which he channelled into free-form improvisations on the viola — an approach Cale used a lot — then The Velvet Underground would have certainly lost a certain edge to their sound. It just so happens that his playing on ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’ really accentuates this point and his contributed bass and organ parts. As Cale once described VU, “although it was chaos we were after, it was a very beautiful chaos.”

The song was written by both Lou Reed and John Cale — the two engines of the band. This was one of their earlier tracks they wrote together as the group was forming. The band performed the song at a venue in NYC, called Cafe Bizarre and were nearly thrown out of it because of the nature of their set.

Lou Reed said about the song: “The idea here was to string words together for the sheer fun of their sound, not any particular meaning.”

‘The Gift’ – White Light/White Heat (1968)

The last track that The Velvet Underground wrote while Cale was still in the group, the track features Cale’s voice at the forefront as he recites a short story. Lou Reed wrote the story during his college days as a practice assignment. ‘The Gift’ reveals the literary side of The Velvet Underground as well as their experimental side. Recorded in stereo, the left side features John Cale’s soothing exotic Welsh accented voice, and the right side features a fuzz-laden guitar backed by the band, providing a perfect balance. 

The story is melancholic but very suspenseful: it centres around a couple, Waldo and Marsha, who have a long-distance relationship. Waldo begins to get increasingly paranoid about Marsha’s fidelity and cannot bear the thought of her being alone. Without enough money to travel and see her, he mails himself to her inside a big cardboard box. Marsha, who is with her friend Sheila, struggles to open the box containing Waldo, so Sheila suggests using a knife. She penetrates the box with the knife to gash it open, and in the process, stabs Waldo in his head.

Perhaps not a usual storyline to base a pop song on but John Cale and the band were never usual.

‘Child’s Christmas in Wales’ – Paris 1919 (1973)

Released in 1973, the song is found on John Cale’s third solo album, Paris 1919, which shows more of the ‘clean and less bizarre’ side to Cale. He seemed to have left the avant-garde stylings at the door on the album as he entered a room that showcased more of his orchestral compositions. The track, as well as the rest of the album, is fairly steeped in baroque pop.

‘Child’s Christmas in Wales’ was written in direct reference to a short story of the same name by fellow Welshman, poet, Dylan Thomas.

Cale channels a certain nostalgia and innocence in the song, one that Cale identified within Dylan Thomas’ work. Dylan Thomas also seemed to directly influence John Cale’s lyrics in the song, as his style of writing mimics the angular, heavy consonant sounds of Thomas’ style of writing.

‘Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend’ – Fear (1974)

Fear is the first of three albums Cale did for Island records. During the time that he recorded this album, he produced Patti Smith’s Horses too. Cale’s talent as a multi-instrument was showcased again on this record, as he used keyboards, guitars, viola, violin, and bass. Various other star cast musicians made an appearance on the record; Brain Eno, Phil Manzanera, and Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson.

‘Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend’ has got all the quintessential parts that make John Cale good at what he does. It is a well-written song with some added bizarre bass parts to remind us of Cale’s background. The song is reminiscent of a Velvet Underground song and could even find a place on Lou Reed’s Transformer, ironically. The song ends up in a chaotic, schizophrenic jumble of cacophony. Cale wrote the album as he was living in London and while writing the album, he immersed himself in west coast surf music, including The Beach Boys; “I would load the turntable with boxed sets of the Beach Boys and Mahler and sit there drifting in a West Coast nostalgia.”

‘Mr. Wilson’ – Slow Dazzle (1975)

Speaking of the Beach Boys, this next song appears on Cale’s sequel album, Slow Dazzle, the second record of the three albums for Island Records. The song is a bit of a journey, taking the listener on an up and down rollercoaster ride of positive vibes and then into reserved awe at the mystery of Brian Wilson indelible gift at writing music. The song has got some obvious musical nods to The Beach Boys as well. 

Cale sings about Wilson’s infamous personal struggles throughout his life. He said about Wilson: “What Brian came to mean was an ideal of innocence and naivety that went beyond teenage life and sprang fully developed songs. Adult and childlike at the same time. I thought about how it was difficult for me not to believe everything he said. There was something genuine in every lyric. That can be a very heavy burden for a songwriter.”

‘Lazy Day’ – (2020)

We chose this newest release by John Cale as it truly showcases his forward way of thinking, and despite his unavoidable ageing in a world full of modern pop stars, Cale forever remains fearless in a changing world and does not live in the past.

If ‘Lazy Day’ shows us anything, it’s that he absorbs the current music trends, stores them away for further use but still manages to add his own touch of class to anything he produces.

In an interview with The Quietus, he said: “As a songwriter my truth is all tied-up in and through those songs that must wait a while longer. And then it occurred to me that I do have something for the moment, a song I’d recently completed. With the world careening out of its orbit, I wanted to stop the lurch and enjoy a period where we can take our time and breathe our way back into a calmer world.”