John Cale is an understated artist. As part of the transforming and influential band The Velvet Underground, Cale became one of the most pertinent forces for alt-pop greatness, pushed the musical boundaries and even turned Leonard Cohen’s sprawling ‘Hallelujah’ into a hit. Yet most people don’t know one of the Kings of New York cool is actually from Garnant, Wales.
Here we’re looking back at Cale’s favourite songs as he picks eight tracks he simply couldn’t live without as well as opening up about his career and his life in music so far. All as part of his 2004 appearance on the esteem BBC radio show Desert Island Discs.
John Cale influence on music, however quietly astute, is undeniable. The musician can be cited as a touchpoint for most of rock and roll since the seventies and it’s a reputation which saw him come face-to-face with another British institution, BBC’s esteemed radio show Desert Island Discs.
It’s been on the air since the 1940s and sees the host welcome a castaway to an imaginary and yet inescapable desert island. The castaway picks a book and a luxury item to take with them and then shares the eight songs they would pack in their kit bag for the island to either help cure boredom or keep them from going insane. It has welcomed actors, musicians and world leaders to the island and in 2004 it was the turn of John Cale.
The son of a coal miner and teacher, Cale soon became infatuated with music and would follow his nose to New York. Sue Lawley, the show’s host at the time, succinctly introduces the figurehead of rock, “born and brought up in the conservative and protective atmosphere of a South Wales mining valley, he spent his life on a journey of escape and experiment. In the sixties, he formed a band with Lou Reed called Velvet Underground, which despite its brief existence has had a huge influence on the development of popular music.”
Lawley then expands on Cale’s extraordinary talent. Highlighting the musician’s desire to follow the music wherever it took him, from his non-verbal experiences in Wales to London’s education system on to Boston and settling in New York where he found fame alongside Warhol’s Factory.
It may have been there that he first caught wind of the first artist. Cale remembers the inner-workings of The Factory (Warhol’s famed arthouse) and how Dylan, having to sit for one of the artist’s ludicrous “screentests” was, according to Cale “the only one who got up and walked off.”
Cale continues, “everybody was looking sideways at Bob because they were astonished at all this power that was coming out of his lyrics. We knew that Nico had just come down to be a member of the band and she used to hang out with Bob in Woodstock. So when this song came along everybody looked at each other and said ‘Wait a minute, this is about somebody we know.'” He picks Dylan’s ‘She Belongs To Me’.
After being asked to define Velvet Underground’s sound, which Cale smirkingly calls “painful, an amplified viola will clear a room faster than a stink bomb.” The musician then picks his next track, Velvet Underground’s ‘Some Kinda Love’ which Cale says “Sterling always said that this was one of Lou’s better lyrical efforts,” he continues “it’s very effective.”
Cale’s next pick comes after he reflects on the influence his mother had on him, pushing him towards the piano and being her “project,” despite how strict she was. Cale also talks about growing up in his mining town and the effect of living in a Welsh-speaking household had on him. Cale’s small bedroom provided a respite from the oppressive atmosphere. “Hence, the next record…” says Lawley as Cale selects Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys’ ‘In My Room’.
Record number four sees Cale pick The Beatles’ ‘She Said, She Said’, about which he says, “I remember we were putting the band together in New York, this was one of the darker songs, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead’, and it surprised me because I thought it was more of a Lennonesque than a McCartney frame of mind.”
Also in Cale’s selection were places for John Tavener, Peter Gabriel, and Elbow (who were big stars at the time of recording) as he picks their songs ‘Song for Athene’, ‘Here Comes The Flood’ and ‘Switching Off’ respectively.
The final name on John Cale’s list of his eight favourite songs is the mercurial talent of Leonard Cohen. Having once transformed his famous 15-minute long poem ‘Hallelujah’ into a pop song his pick was interesting to say the least. About the track, ‘Alexandra Leaving’ Cale says, “when I heard it, I thought it was about that maybe Leonard had a daughter that he’d lost. It was very sad. But then I read an interview with him where he described how he got to the subject matter.”
“Such a curious route but also the route of a poet,” Cale continued, “The song really being about Anthony and Cleopatra. How when the musicians are in the street Anthony must leave the city and not weep about it, just go to the window stand there realise what the city has done for him and say ‘goodbye’.” It’s a complex thought that typifies Cale contribution to music.
Never one to confound his message beyond the intended art, Cale has often been overlooked when recalling the potent figureheads of the sixties rock scene. But that’s perhaps just the way he like sit. In the shadow, on his own, is where he can do his best work.
John Cale’s eight favourite songs of all time:
- Bob Dylan – ‘She Belongs To Me’
- The Velvet Underground – ‘Some Kinda Love’
- The Beach Boys – ‘In My Room’
- The Beatles – ‘She Said, She Said’
- Elbow – ‘Switching Off’
- Leonard Cohen – ‘Alexandra Leaving’
- John Tavener – ‘Song for Athene’
- Peter Gabriel – ‘Here Comes The Flood’
Find the full episode from BBC Radio 4 below and find the playlist of Cale’s favourite songs below that. Fore more information on Desert Island Discs visit BBC Sounds.