Perfect Sound Forever

John Cale - No Ordinary Drone

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By Jason Bram (January 2003)

Back in 1950, the BBC asked an 8 year-old Welsh child to perform on the piano, for later airing, a classical piece that he composed. Young John Cale, poor in currency but rich in character, smarts and imagination, was obviously no ordinary child. And this was evidently an early harbinger of great things to come. Years later, he would hook up with an avant-garde musical outfit (Dream Syndicate), start a seminal rock and roll band (need I say whom?), and produce classic debut albums by some of the greats. Yet John Cale's greatest contribution to music was his solo career that has spanned three decades and is still going strong. His 18-plus solo albums and a handful of collaborations cover an amazingly wide variety of musical styles and genres that would make even David Bowie's head spin.

Before we run through this impressive solo career, though, let me address a few of the characteristics that I think make John Cale's music so special.


This word really goes a long way toward capturing the essence of John Cale's music. In contrast with Lou Reed and David Bowie, who act out personas (and do so quite well), Cale has no pretensions. He pours his heart and feelings into his songs, imbuing them with an intensity and emotional charge and intensity rarely found in contemporary music. When I hear an album described as "deeply personal," I tend to cringe; such albums typically focus on the lyrics, often at the expense of the music. And the lyrics often border on self-indulgence anyway. Yet John Cale pours his heart into the music. The lyrics certainly carry a message, but the music carries the feeling. Even Cale's darkest songs, I find, are quite enjoyable to listen to. In fact, my very favorite is "My Maria" from Helen of Troy.

This is not to take away anything from his lyrics. Cale is excellent at drawing literary images; that is, using language to convey a particular image or mood. Cale can also sing about literary and historical topics with emotion. How many rock and rollers have sung about the Treaty of Versailles, an Ibsen character (or Anita Bryant?), or the bombing of Hiroshima? On the issue of written word, I would strongly advise those interested in John Cale to pick up his riveting and deeply personal autobiography, What's Welsh for Zen. There is also a biography slated for release next year.

Simplicity and "the Drone"

While John Cale is an excellent songwriter, I believe his true strength is in arrangement. John Cale's songs are typically quite simple, but he adds subtle and unusual arrangements and twists to them. In fact, one of the things that I respect most about Cale is that, despite his extraordinary musical talent, he appreciates the allure and beauty of simplicity. For example, "Paris 1919," one of the most compelling songs I've ever heard, is simply John Cale singing over a series of violins playing staccato. Perhaps this respect for creative simplicity is something he picked up from Lou Reed, or maybe vice versa. This, of course, made him a natural fit with the punk movement of the mid- to late-1970's. And this is why he can put on a live show, accompanied by just a piano, and sometimes a guitar, and still have the crowd dancing on the floor. Thus one of his best albums (certainly his finest live album) is Fragments of a Rainy Season, where he does just that. Being no virtuoso pianist, I can still tell you that it's not hard to play most John Cale songs on the piano reasonably well.

There is one specific aspect of this simplicity that sets John Cale apart from other musical artists: the use of a single note, played throughout a song (or through much of it), which I call "the drone." This is apparently something he developed during his days with the Dream Syndicate, and it is what gives many of John Cale's songs that extra edge. You can hear it in many Velvet Underground tunes, most notably the viola on "Heroin," "Venus in Furs" and "Hey Mr. Rain" and the bass on "White Light / White Heat." You can also hear it on many of his solo recordings, such as "Gun" and "Ship of Fools" from Fear, "Bamboo Floor" and "Mary Lou" from The Island Years, "Dancing Undercover" from Walking on Locusts and most notably on the title cut on Paris 1919. I dare say that the pounding single-note piano on The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" is Cale's handiwork. One way in which he achieves this effect is by using subtle variations on chords so that this "drone" note is always present. Like Moe Tucker's drums with the Velvet Underground, Cale's drone can transform a song but remain subtle enough so that the listener is not consciously aware of it, at least at first.

Another effective technique of Cale's is to take two relatively simple, but completely different riffs and overlay one on the other so they are both playing simultaneously. Of course, this is not done arbitrarily but rather so the two complement one another. "Mary Lou" is the most obvious, but there are others: "Church of Anthrax", "Hungry for Love", "Pablo Picasso" (studio), and "Villa Albani" (live), to name a few. He seems able to do this effortlessly, probably because of his keen understanding of musical structure.

His Solo Career

In the context of these features, I hope to convey why I believe John Cale is one of the most important musical artist of recent decades. His debut release, Vintage Violence borders on country-pop and is a far cry from his prior work with the Velvets, though it does include a few gems. Perhaps a bit too subtle for stunned and disappointed Velvet Underground fans (like myself) hoping for something with more of an edge. His second release, Church of Anthrax, was actually recorded before Vintage Violence; it is a collaboration with avant-garde composer Terry Riley. Though jazzy and mostly instrumental, this album really does rock with pumping piano, extensive use of the drone and some fairly catchy riffs (on the piano, of course). Both refreshing and somewhat of a relief to Velvets fans yearning for something more than Loaded.

On Academy in Peril, which alternates between pop and classical settings (mostly the latter), Cale is quite innovative. About half the songs on the album are essentially classical. On the other half, he essentially blends classical instruments (also marimbas) with pop arrangements and rhythms in a way that I've never heard. The songs are kind of strange so he does not sound at all schlocky (i.e. Barry Manilow).

Paris 1919 then marks a welcome shift, at least in terms of direction. In my opinion, it marks the beginning of a string of great albums from Cale. Paris is a classic pop album and widely recognized as such, particularly the title track. Though I believe his true forte is in more rhythmic structures (as on Anthrax), this album holds up just fine with very little of that. The one rocker, "Macbeth," possibly an out-take from Vintage Violence, reassured fans that he could still belt it out.

In all, Paris 1919 is much more structured album, in that sense similar to Vintage Violence but a lot better and more consistent. Unlike Vintage Violence though, it's innovative in the same way as Academy in Peril, using classical-type instruments and arrangements. But there are really no hummable tunes on Academy, while almost EVERYTHING on Paris 1919 is hummable.

Fear is rightfully another critically acclaimed album, with the music now veering more towards the old Velvets sound, with the first emergence of Cale's frenzied vocals. More use of the drone is evident on "Ship of Fools" and "Gun." Interestingly, Cale steps back toward his pop sensibilities on Slow Dazzle, by far his most accessible album to date ("commercial" doesn't give due credit) and more restrained than Fear. While he does break out a bit on a few cuts, it's songs like "Mr. Wilson" and "Darling I Need You" that demonstrate that he can crank out a great pop song without showing his crazed side.

John Cale's gothic masterpiece, Helen of Troy, followed soon after. Supposedly, he didn't want this LP released. I beg to differ though- this album marked a true return to the dark yet alluring ambiance of the early Velvet Underground. With Chris Spedding on guitar, Eno on synth, and Phil Collins on drums, Cale conducts an extraordinary set of performances, including two covers and nine (actually ten) brilliant originals. The opener, "My Maria," is deceptively catchy: power pop meets a Gothic church service; like nothing else you will ever hear. There are quite a few rockers and great riffs. "I Keep a Close Watch", on the other hand, is a slow, romantic ballad with strings and all. Could have been a #1 single with the right marketing... move over, Manilow.

Two years later, he released the Animal Justice EP, which included three more classics. His live performances during this era were even more incredible than the studio recordings. I had the privilege of attending a late-1978 set at CBGB's, which was simply amazing. "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" captures this show but this low-fi recording simply does not do it justice (but, lord, what a great band). I caught a short but blazing set, around the same time, with Cale, Spedding, and Robert Gordon at Max's Kansas City. I recall deciding at that point that John Cale was, indeed, a madman (and pretty scary too). He had to walk through up the aisle through the crowd to get to the stage, and everyone cleared well out of his way because he looked possessed. On stage, he would wedge his bass (or guitar?) between his chest and the ceiling while he was playing and writhing on the ground. He sang with such intensity, occasionally breaking into the occasional blood curdling scream. He definitely seemed possessed. Maybe it was an act, but if so, I am still sure it was at least partly authentic -- it came naturally.

Indeed, some of his other stage antics from this time are legendary. In London, he once cut the head off a chicken on stage and threw the parts out into a shocked audience of punks (two members of his band left him then). The fact is that this is so uncharacteristic of Cale though.

Finally, in 1979, he released a live album of new material, Sabotage. Some critics complain about the sound quality- they probably would have panned the Velvet Underground back in '67. This album truly does capture the energy and intensity of a Cale on stage. The standout lead track, "Ready for War," makes a clear statement, and has Cale breaking into a brief frenzy near the end; again, vintage Cale. [The more restrained studio version, released as a single, is missing much of the intensity but worth seeking out.]

His next venture, Honi Soit marks a return to slick production- it's even slicker than Dazzle. "Dead or Alive" is supposedly about someone who had stalked Cale and his wife (though I was under the impression that happened years later). Anyway, that doesn't stop it from being an infectiously catchy and sprightly rocker. Next came another dramatic shift in Music for a New Society, another classical / avant-garde effort somewhat in the vein of Academy in Peril but a bit more structured. Shifting gears again, Cale returned to the pop-rock genre with Carribean Sunset, a solid set of songs with an unremarkable band and sparse production that nevertheless holds up remarkably well. With catchy riffs (and a good beat), tunes like "Model Beirut Recital" and "Magazine" are among Cale's most addictive songs and remain concert favorites. Inexplicably, this album is out of print!

Artificial Intelligence continues along the same vein, but a bit more mellow and with a bit more filler. "Dying on the Vine" seems to be deeply personal and is a standout. Next came Words for the Dying- you can guess how cheerful this is. At this point, Cale had reunited with Lou Reed for tribute to recently-deceased Andy Warhol for a series of performances and album, Songs for Drella. When that relationship ended (again), Cale got together with Eno for Wrong Way Up and a return to more upbeat pop rock. Then, in 1992, John Cale released a remarkable live album (Fragments of a Rainy Season, impeccably produced, with no backup band; just Cale accompanied by a piano, and sometimes guitar. Songs like "Paris 1919," "Dying on the Vine" and "Darling I Need You" come through crisp and energetic, and there is not a weak number on the album; a testament to his versatility.

His next collaboration (with Dylan sideman Bob Neuwirth) was Last Day on Earth, a quirky concept album. Though not as dark as the title would suggest, it is quite eerie and clearly conveys a mood of detachment, apathy and loss. Walking on Locusts again marks a welcome return to (relatively) mainstream pop. The outstanding "Dancing Undercover" is undoubtedly one of Cale's finest and most listenable songs; it's got beautiful slide guitar, the "drone," some background viola, and an extremely catchy hook. Whereas the Velvet Underground's music would hit you over the head with a 2x4, John Cale has perfected the art of subtlety. Locusts at first listening sounds almost too accessible, too mellow, almost without any edge. But it improves with every listening.

Looking Forward

I'll concede that John Cale made his best music in the 1970's. But he has certainly not lost his touch-his recent albums are not all great, but they are always interesting. They beckon you to come back and listen more, and even his less consistent efforts, such as Last Day on Earth grow on one over time. Back in the 1970's and early 1980's, whenever David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, the Ramones, or one of my other favorite performers released a new album, I remember how excited I was to hear it. Today, I just can't get that excited about a new Lou Reed or Iggy Pop album or even really for Bowie. Yet I still do get excited about a new John Cale album. I suppose it's that Cale has never "sold out" and is continuing to create fresh material, while these others have fallen into a rut, or at least lost much of their earlier enthusiasm and energy. Enthusiasm is contagious and this is what keeps his music electrifying.

I just hope that, in the coming years, Cale spends a bit more of his time doing what he does best: crafting clever rhythmic-based (as opposed to "ambient") albums in whatever genre strikes his fancy. Maybe something a bit more edgy than Locusts. I'd also love to see him collaborate with someone like David Bowie, or even Radiohead but please, not Lou Reed though! And, from what I've read, Cale's teenage daughter is quite gifted. She sang on Walking on Locusts and if she has her father's keen interest and enthusiasm regarding music... well let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. While commercial success has largely eluded John Cale thus far, you can be sure that, 50 years on, he will be considered one of the most important and influential musical artists of our time.

Also see a 2005 interview with Cale, an overview of his and Lou Reed's 70s output and an overview of Cale's wild late 70s years

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