John Davies Cale (born March 9, 1942), better known as John Cale, is a Welsh musician, composer, singer-songwriter and record producer best known as a founding member of the rock & roll band The Velvet Underground.
Though most well-noted for his work in rock music, Cale has worked in a variety of styles and genres, including drone, noise and classical. Since departing from The Velvet Underground, he has released approximately 30 albums. Of his solo work, Cale is perhaps best known for his album Paris 1919, plus his mid-1970s Island Records trilogy of albums: Fear, Slow Dazzle, and Helen of Troy.
Over the course of his career, John Cale has produced and/or collaborated with notable artists John Cage, Nico, Lou Reed, Nick Drake, Brian Eno, Kevin Ayers, Patti Smith, The Stooges, Squeeze and Siouxsie & the Banshees.
Arriving in New York City, he met a number of influential composers. With John Cage and several others, Cale participated in an 18-hour piano-playing marathon that was the first full-length performance of Erik Satie's "Vexations". After the performance, Cale appeared on the television panel show I've Got a Secret. Cale's secret was that he had performed in an 18-hour concert, and he was accompanied by a man whose secret was that he was the only audience member who had stayed for the duration. Cale also played in La Monte Young's ensemble the Theater of Eternal Music (also known as the Dream Syndicate, not be confused with the 1980s band of the same name). The heavily drone-laden music he played there proved to be a big influence in his work with his next group, the Velvet Underground.
Three albums of his early experimental work were released in 2001. One of his collaborators on these recordings was Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison.
The very first commercially available recording of The Velvet Underground, an instrumental track called "Loop" given away with Aspen magazine, was a feedback experiment written and conducted by Cale. He then appears on the Velvet Underground's first two albums, The Velvet Underground and Nico (recorded in 1966, released in 1967) and White Light/White Heat (recorded in 1967, released in 1968). On these albums he plays viola, bass guitar and piano, and sings occasional backing vocals. White Light/White Heat features Cale on organ (on "Sister Ray") as well as two vocal turns: "Lady Godiva's Operation", an experimental song where he shares lead vocal duties with Reed, and "The Gift", a long spoken word piece written by Reed. Though Cale co-wrote the music to several songs, his most distinctive contributions is the electrically amplified viola.
Cale also played on Nico's 1967 debut album, Chelsea Girl, which features songs co-written by Velvet Underground members Cale, Reed and Morrison, who also feature as musicians. Cale makes his debut as lyricist on "Winter Song" and "Little Sister".
Apart from appearing on these three albums, he also played organ on the track "Ocean" during the demoing sessions for the band's fourth album Loaded, nearly two years after he left the band. He was enticed back into the studio by the band's manager Steve Sesnick "in a half-hearted attempt to reunite old comrades", as Cale put it. Although he does not appear on the finished album, the demo recording of "Ocean" was included in the 1997 Loaded: Fully Loaded Edition re-issue. Finally, five previously unreleased tracks recorded in late 1967 and early 1968 were included on the outtakes compilations VU (1985) and Another View (1986).
Cale is said to have influenced the group's early sound much more than any other members (and often disagreed forcefully with Reed about the direction the group should take). When Cale left, he seemed to take the more experimentalist tendencies with him, as is noticeable in comparing the noise-rock experimental White Light/White Heat (which Cale co-created) to the more pop-oriented The Velvet Underground, recorded after his departure. However, it is noteworthy that his first four solo albums are noticeably quiet and accessible. Cale's tendency towards confrontational and "noisy" music would take four years to reemerge.
In 1970, in addition to his career as a producer, Cale began to make solo records. His first, the pastoral Vintage Violence, is generally classified as folk-pop. Shortly thereafter, his collaboration with another classical musician, Terry Riley, on the mainly instrumental Church of Anthrax, was released, although it was actually recorded almost a year prior. His classical explorations continued with 1972's The Academy in Peril. He would not compose in the classical mode again until he began composing for soundtracks in the 1980s.
In 1972, he signed with Reprise Records as performer and in-house producer. His The Academy in Peril was his first project for Reprise. His fourth solo record Paris 1919 (1973) steered back towards the singer-songwriter mode. Paris 1919, made up of songs with arcane and complex lyrics, has been cited by critics as one of his best. Artists he produced while at Reprise included Jennifer Warnes' third album, Jennifer, as well as albums by Chunky, Ernie & Novi and The Modern Lovers which Reprise chose not to release (it was subsequently released by Beserkley Records).
Cale's work as a producer continued. In 1974, he joined Island Records, and worked in that capacity with Squeeze, Patti Smith, and Sham 69, among others. He produced a number of important protopunk records, including debuts by Smith and The Modern Lovers. During this period, he also worked as a talent scout with Island's A&R department.
Moving back to the United Kingdom, Cale made a series of solo albums which moved in a new direction. His records now featured a dark and threatening aura, often carrying a sense of barely-suppressed aggression. A trilogy of albums - Fear, Slow Dazzle, and Helen of Troy were recorded with other Island artists including Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno of Roxy Music, and Chris Spedding, who featured in his live band. This era of Cale's music is perhaps best represented by his somewhat disturbing cover of Elvis Presley's iconic "Heartbreak Hotel", featured both on Slow Dazzle and the live album June 1, 1974, recorded with Kevin Ayers, Nico and Eno, and by his frothing performance on "Leaving It Up To You", a savage indictment of the mass media first released on Helen of Troy (1975), but quickly deleted from later editions of the record due perhaps to the song's pointed Sharon Tate reference. It's also worth noting that both "Leaving" and "Fear Is A Man's Best Friend" (from Fear) begin as relatively conventional songs that both gradually grow more paranoid in tone before breaking down into what critic Dave Thompson calls "a morass of discordance and screaming.
In 1977, he released the Animal Justice EP, notable particularly for the epic "Hedda Gabler", based very loosely on the Ibsen play. His often loud, abrasive and confrontational live performances fitted well with the nascent punk rock developing on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Cale took to wearing a hockey goaltender's mask onstage; see the cover of the Guts compilation (1977). This look predated Friday the 13th's villain, Jason Voorhees, by several years. During one gig he chopped the head off a dead chicken with a meat cleaver, and his band walked offstage in protest. Cale's drummer — a vegetarian — was so bothered he quit the group. Cale mocks his decision on "Chicken Shit" from the Animal Justice EP. Cale has admitted that some of his paranoia and erratic behaviour at this time was associated with heavy cocaine use.
In December 1979 Cale's embrace of the punk rock ethic culminated in the release of Sabotage/Live. This record, recorded live at CBGB that June, features aggressive vocal and instrumental performances. The album consists entirely of new songs, many of which grapple confrontationally with global politics and paranoia. The band used includes Deerfrance on vocals and percussion. An earlier live set, consisting mostly of new material, was recorded at CBGB the previous year. It was released in 1991 as Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The band on that recording includes Ivan Kral of the Patti Smith Group on bass and Judy Nylon on vocals.
He signed with Ze Records, a company he had influenced the creation of and which had absorbed Spy Records, the label he had cofounded with Jane Friedman. The next year, Cale released the sparse Music For A New Society. Seeming to blend the refined music of his early solo work with the threatening music that came later, it is by any standard a bleak, harrowing record. It's been called "understated, and perhaps a masterpiece.
He followed up with the album Caribbean Sunset, also on Ze. This work, with much more accessible production than Music for a New Society, was still extremely militant in some ways. It has never seen release on CD. A live album, John Cale Comes Alive, followed it and included two new studio songs, "Ooh La La" and "Never Give Up On You". His daughter Eden was born in July 1985.
In a last effort at commercial success, Cale recorded Artificial Intelligence for Beggars Banquet records. This album, written in collaboration with Larry "Ratso" Sloman, was characterized by synthesizers and drum machines and is entirely written in the pop idiom. It was not significantly more successful than its predecessors, despite the relative success of the single "Satellite Walk." It has been voted Cale's worst album by the Sabotage2 mailing list.
Thereafter, in part because of his young daughter, Cale took a long break from recording and performing.
He made a comeback in 1989 with vocal and orchestral settings of poems by Dylan Thomas. Notable among these is "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night", which he performed on stage in the concert held in Cardiff in 1999 to celebrate the opening of the Welsh Assembly. The music was recorded in 1992 with a Welsh boys' choir and a Russian orchestra, on an Eno produced album: Words for the Dying. Words for the Dying also included a pair of electric piano "Songs Without Words" and a Cale/Eno collaboration, "The Soul of Carmen Miranda."
In 1992, Cale performed vocals on the song "First Evening" on French producer Hector Zazou's album Sahara Blue. All lyrics on the album were based on the poetry of author Arthur Rimbaud. In 1994, Cale performed a spoken word duet with Suzanne Vega on the song "The Long Voyage" on Zazou's album Chansons des mers froides. The lyrics were based on the poem "Les Silhouettes" by author Oscar Wilde and Cale co-wrote the music with Zazou. It was later released as a single (retitled "The Long Voyages" as it featured several remixes by Zazou, Mad Professor, and more).
Songs for Drella, saw him reunited with Reed, in a tribute to one-time Velvet Underground manager and mentor Andy Warhol. Though the reconciliation was fruitful, old differences resurfaced, causing tension. In his autobiography, Cale revealed that he resented letting Lou take charge of the project. The collaboration eventually led to the brief reunion of the Velvet Underground in 1993.
Nico, an instrumental ballet score and tribute to the singer was performed by Scapino Rotterdam plus an added selection from The Marble Index in 1998, with the score released as Dance Music. That same year, Cale was also the organizer of the "With A Little Help From My Friends" festival that took place at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. The concert was shown on deutsch national television and featured a song especially composed for the event and still unreleased, "Murdering Mouth" sang in duet with Siouxsie Sioux. Cale has also written a number of film soundtracks, often using more classically influenced instrumentation. His version of Hallelujah was used in the credits in a mini-documentary about John Frusciante's life, called Stuff. Cale's autobiography, What's Welsh for Zen?, was published in 1999.
John Cale was paid tribute by John Cameron Mitchell in the 1998 off-Broadway and 2001 film versions of the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. As the title character, Mitchell employed a vocal affect and cadence that imitate Cale's, particularly his spoken word performance on "The Gift" from the 1968 Velvet Underground album White Light/White Heat.
With 2003's E.P. Five Tracks and the album HoboSapiens, Cale again returned as a regular recording artist, this time with music influenced by modern electronica and alternative rock. The well received album was co-produced with Nick Franglen of Lemon Jelly. That record was again followed with 2005's album BlackAcetate.
In 2005, Cale produced Austin singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo's eighth album, The Boxing Mirror, which was released in May 2006. In June 2006, Cale released a radio and digital single, "Jumbo in tha Modernworld," that was unconnected to any album. A video was created for the song as well.
In March 2007 a 23-song live retrospective, Circus Live, was released in Europe. This two-disc album, composed of recordings from both the 2004 and 2006 tours, featured new arrangements and reworkings of songs from his entire career. Of particular interest is the Amsterdam Suite, a set of songs from a performance at the Amsterdam Paradiso in 2004 (archived by the venue on their internet performance repository). A studio-created drone has been edited into these songs. The set also included a DVD, featuring electric rehearsal material and a short acoustic set, as well as a "Jumbo in Tha Modernworld" for 2006 single.
In May 2007, Cale contributed a cover of LCD Soundsystem song "All My Friends" to the vinyl and digital single releases of the LCD Soundsystem original. Cale has continued to work with other artists, contributing viola to the forthcoming Danger Mouse-produced second album by London psychedelic trio The Shortwave Set and producing the second album of American indie band Ambulance Ltd.
† Although Cale had left The Velvet Underground two years before they released their 1970 album Loaded, he was briefly involved in the demo stages of that record. The 1997 2CD reissue of that album contains a demo of "Ocean" that is believed to feature Cale playing the organ.