John Cale was awarded a prestigious classical music scholarship in Boston. He would go on to form one of the most influential bands of all time.
At the end of 1963, using the money from the scholarship, Cale relocated to New York to continue his studies. He joined LaMonte Young’s minimalist ensemble The Dream Syndicate. Cale threw himself into the world of the avant garde, exploring microtonal music, and participated in an all-day marathon performance of works by Erik Satie.
Even if you’re improvising, the fact that beforehand you know certain things will work helps you to make those improvisations successful most of the time.
After meeting Lou Reed in New York, they formed The Velvet Underground. Playing bass, viola and keyboards, Cale was responsible for much of their distinctive droning rock sound, most notable on the classics Venus in Furs and All Tomorrow’s Parties.
He also narrated the murder mystery tale “The Gift” on their second album White Light/White Heat, but left the group shortly after, following arguments about their musical direction. He began a solo career, and produced albums for The Stooges and former Velvets singer Nico.
His first solo album, 1970’s Vintage Violence, was a somewhat traditional singer-songwriter affair, but the following year’s abstract and ambient Church of Anthrax was more pleasing to seasoned Cale watchers. A number of further diverse releases followed, including the orchestral Academy in Peril and the more mainstream Paris 1919 - widely held to be among his best works.
In 1974 he signed to Island and released a trilogy of rock albums. At one of his increasingly crazed live shows, members of his band quit after Cale killed a chicken on stage. If that wasn’t enough, he was still producing and performing with artists, including Patti Smith (he produced her seminal 1975 album Horses), Squeeze, Nico, Sham 69 and Brian Eno.
The start of the ‘80s saw a clutch of new solo releases, including the political Honi Soit and the poppy Caribbean Sunset. However, the prolificness wasn’t to last. Realizing he couldn’t sustain his previous rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, he took some time out from the music industry.
Cale returned in 1989 with Words for The Dying, released on Eno’s Opel label, which featured the poems of Dylan Thomas read over orchestral music. More popular were the following year’s two collaborations: with Eno on the accessible Wrong Way Up and Songs for Drella, a tribute to Andy Warhol that saw Cale and Lou Reed recording together once more. The album led to a Velvet Underground reunion in 1993, but it was short-lived.
Cale’s influence on modern music is undeniable. Yet, despite long-term critical acclaim and production duties for artists as diverse as Happy Mondays, The Jesus Lizard, Mediaeval Baebes, Siouxsie & The Banshees and Jennifer Warnes, mainstream attention has often eluded him.
And to this day he’s still making music. In 2000 he returned to Wales for the film Beautiful Mistake, which saw him collaborating with artists including the Manics’ James Dean Bradfield, Catatonia, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Super Furry Animals, Big Leaves and Tystion.
In May 2003 John Cale released the five-track EP on EMI, which was followed later in the year by the Hobo Sapiens album.
Cale returned in October 2005 with BlackAcetate, which found him newly-invigorated by the freedom allowed by digital recording and the production techniques of Pharrell Williams and Dr Dre.
“Until I got through HoboSapiens,” he said, “I realized I was trying to do all these things with analogue means and the digital revolution just took care of it. If you couldn’t get to grips with it, the only real answer is you didn’t work hard enough.” It’s been a long, strange journey for John Cale, but he shows no sign of stopping now.
The Extra Playful
EP arrived in 2011, followed in 2012 by a well-deserved career overview, Conflict & Catalysis: Productions & Arrangements 1966-2006
, and a new studio album, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood