76 years ago on March 9 was born, in Wales, one John Davies Cale – an artist embodying schizomusica if there ever was one. Just take a listen to his menacing version of “Heartbreak Hotel” on the album Slow Dazzle. Light years away from the familiar Elvis Presley hit, Cale’s recording lurks around dark alleys on a very un-Elvis bass line before exploding into a tirade of musical and emotional madness. A founding member of the Velvet Underground, John Cale was responsible for the group’s avant-garde edge and maniacal noise-fests, more so than co-founder Lou Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison, or drummer Moe Tucker. White Light/White Heat’s art-rock, spoken-word pieces “Lady Godiva’s Operation” and “The Gift,” though written by Reed, owe their sound to Cale, his distinctive Welsh baritone and electric viola. As does the iconic “Sister Ray,” driven to the brink by Cale’s distortion-laden organ. On the other end of the schizomusical spectrum, he played the delicate celesta which opens “Sunday Morning,” the first song on the Velvets’ first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico.
John Cale studied classical music early on, met and performed with John Cage and other notable composers, but also had an affinity for 1960s rock. He formed the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed in 1965, and by late 1968 he had left the band – mainly due to creative differences with Reed. It seems that very tension was the essence of the group’s sound and style, as the post-Cale Velvet Underground ended up much more subdued and, consequently, more accessible.
Meanwhile, Mr. Cale turned to producing (Nico, the Stooges, Patti Smith, the Modern Lovers, Squeeze, among others) and released a slew of solo albums. The first, Vintage Violence, from 1970, is – despite the title – fairly tame by John Cale standards and features light, catchy cuts like “Gideon’s Bible,” “Adelaide,” “Cleo,” and the Band-like “Bring It on Up.” 1973’s Paris 1919 is usually regarded as one of his best solo works, with literary references galore (“Child’s Christmas in Wales,” ”Macbeth,” “Graham Greene”) and a chamber-pop masterpiece in the title track. Slow Dazzle, released in 1975 as the second in a trio on Island Records (the other two being Fear and Helen of Troy), contains a tribute to Brian Wilson (“Mr. Wilson”) complete with apt falsettos, as well as the lovely, Roxy Music-like “Taking It All Away” and the aforementioned “Heartbreak Hotel.” And then there are a dozen other albums, from 1972’s The Academy in Peril to 2016’s M:FANS. Plus a half-dozen live albums. The man does not stop.
And his playing is everywhere. Listen to the sleigh bells on the Stooges’ classic “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” The ominous piano beat in the background of the Modern Lovers’ “Pablo Picasso.” The viola and various keyboards on many of the songs on Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter album. Virtually all the instruments on The End… by Nico. And wherever there’s an electric viola, it’s probably that of John Cale – from Brian Eno to Geoff Muldaur to the Replacements. He also appeared at BAM (aka Brooklyn Academy of Music) last November, performing Velvets songs, solo songs, and a few brand new songs. You can even pick up his latest live album, Fragments of a Rainy Season, here.
Happy 76th, Mr. Cale!
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