Venus In Furs (from the album The Velvet Underground & Nico).
Written by Lou Reed but forever defined by Cale’s barbed, dissonant viola flights, Venus In Furs is a rapturous, sadomasochist’s catechism unfurled against a tolling, pagan clang. A compelling highlight of the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut, it offered a different, degenerate Summer Of Love – fittingly enough from a band named after a sleazoid S&M paperback.
Save Us (from the album Helen Of Troy)
Though partially cobbled together by engineer John Wood while Cale was in New York producing Patti Smith’s Horses (and never completed to his satisfaction), 1975’s Helen Of Troy nonetheless remains a robust mainstay of the Cale canon. The twitching Save Us is just one numinous yet apocalyptic highlight – an end-of-the tether prayer for a godless world.
Helen Of Troy (from the album Helen Of Troy)
Not a song about the diverting daughter of Zeus per se, but rather a wracked disquisition on corruption and sadism. On the cover of the eponymous album Cale is depicted in a straightjacket – a fraught image which chimes with this urgent, edge-of-a-precipice song whose often uncompromising lyrics nod to the Velvets‘ Venus In Furs (“shiny, shiny Joan Of Arc”).
Woman (from the album blackAcetate:)
A scorching, anthemic nugget from Cale’s most recent studio album, Woman’s unabashed electric guitar phalanxes shroud cathartic sounding lyrics about “a woman in my past, the woman in my present”. The guitar rage later cedes to a more irascible, claustrophobic soliloquy about the obviously disconcerting titular person/gender.
Buffalo Ballet (from the album Fear)
If Cale’s 1974 solo album, Fear – his first for Island – was the record of a man dealing with personal demons, then Buffalo Ballet, with its lovely, languorous “Sleeping in the midday sun” chorus refrain, appears to evince a rare moment of reconciliation. In fact, its alluring veneer masks a tale of communal hope contaminated by greed and government.
Femme Fatale/Rosegarden Funeral Of Sores (from the album The Velvet Underground & Nico/ B-side to the single Mercenaries [Ready For War])
Femme fatale is another of Lou Reed’s coolly detached VU gems to which Cale’s viola leant a poignant, baroque undertow, dovetailing perfectly with the icy European hauteur of Nico’s vocal. Here, Cale segues from it into a version of the gothic Rosegarden Funeral Of Sores – a dark, biblical allegory, originally released in 1980 on his own Spy label (and covered by Bauhaus in their early ’80s pomp).
Hush (from the album blackAcetate:)
Another product of his fruitful 2005 hook up with producer Herb Graham Jnr and palpably influenced by the production styles of the Neptunes and Dr Dre, Hush finds Cale in avant-hip-hop mode. “Put your lips on mine” he sings, as if seducing the unlikely yet undeniably complimentary musical milieu itself.
Outta The Bag (from the album blackAcetate:)
Unsurprisingly released as a single, Outta The Bag summons the spirit of early Beck and even Prince in its righteous strut. Propelled by a deliciously flatulent bass line and delivered in a stentorian falsetto, it is surely the funkiest composition yet from a man who cut his teeth on Aaron Copeland sonatas and John Cage experiment.
Set Me Free (from the album Walking On Locusts [additional track on US HoboSapiens])
Cale at his most bucolic; on the original version banjos pluck while Cale’s trademark viola weaves delightful arabesques. Here the band strips the song down to its lovely, folky fundaments, exposing observational lyrics that run from the gnomic (“There’s a carnival lady in a ten gallon hat/She pulls a rabbit out of the hat.”) to the grimly quotidian (The streets are full of junkies/ there’s a lot of them about).
Cable Hogue (from the album Helen Of Troy)
Only tangentially related to Sam Peckinpah’s western The Ballad Of Cable Hogue, this is nevertheless a ballad – and an aching, languid one it is too. What appears to be a dolorous entreaty to the eponymous outlaw hero is perhaps a metaphor for suppressed quixotic spirit. One of the few Helen Of Troy songs developed live before album sessions began, it remains a favourite among Cale aficionados.
Look Horizon (from the album HoboSapiens)
What on paper seemed an unlikely pairing, John Cale and Lemon Jelly’s beats’n’sampling maestro Nick Franglen, combined to produce the startling post-modern soundscapes of Cale’s debut EMI longplayer in 2003. With lyrics that range across geopolitical terrain, examining “the broken amulets of history/Strewn in our path”, Look Horizon compresses sounds ancient and modern into atmospheric passages that jump from seductive to disturbing in a trice.
Magritte (from the album HoboSapiens)
A peroration on Cale’s favourite painter – multiple umbrella and bowler hat depicting Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte – this is another of HoboSapiens‘ cerebral but accessible standouts. It moves stealthily but inexorably from urban picture gallery reverie to ominous if unspecified intimations of dread.
Dirty Ass Rock’nRoll (from the album Slow Dazzle)
Cale biographer Tim Mitchell describes 1975’s Slow Dazzle as the album on which Cale “starts screaming” A visceral, caustic sideswipe at rock’s messily indulgent lifestyle – one with which he was fully conversant in the mid-’70s – Dirty Ass… is Cale achieving a peak of acidic, gimlet-eyed derision. “I got my plasma patches and my hypodermic in hermetically sealed kid gloves,” he reveals, in a voice of utter (self) contempt.
Walkin‘ The Dog (from the album Sabotage/Live)
Recorded live in 1979 at punk’s Lower East Side holy of holies, CBGB, Sabotage/Live was a noisy, sardonic addition to the Cale oeuvre. Belligerent and intimidating (at the time, Cale’s stage garb ran to scary hockey masks and workman’s hard hats) it offers a mordant twist on Rufus Thomas’s blues chestnut delivered through gritted teeth against inexorable spikes of electric guitar.
Gun (from the album Fear)
The eight-minute centrepiece of Cale’s first Island album granted licence for co-producers Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno to update their erstwhile Roxy Music trick of feeding guitars through synthesisers. While the electronics glinted above an insistent, unrelenting groove, Cale busied himself with a parable of underworld desperadoes. “When you’ve begun to think like a gun”, he counsels, “the days of the year have suddenly gone”.
Hanky Panky Nohow (from the album Paris 1919)
Paris 1919 was Cale’s lush, 1973 orchestral opus, marking the zenith of his self-proclaimed “Procol Harum period”. Typical of the way the album’s accessible symphonic ying meets surreal lyrical jang, Hanky Panky’s torpid groove and voluptuous vocal melody couch a litany of phantasmagorical allusions to sashaying gentlemen, prohibited bovines and singing elephants.
Pablo Picasso / Mary Lou (from the album Helen of Troy/from the album Guts)
Cale produced Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers’ debut album in 1973 but courtesy of Warner Brothers indifference it wouldn’t appear until 1976 (and only then on a small independent, Beserkley). While the album languished on the shelf, Cale plucked Richman’s laconic hymn to the aphrodisiac of fame and made it his own, adding a layer or two of dark portent. Here he segues into a vigorous outtake from the thorny Helen Of Troy sessions.
Before he introduced such Eastern-derived modalities into rock music with the Velvet Underground, the young John Cale had explored the mesmeric and unsettling properties of the drone alongside Tony Conrad in LaMonte Young’s avant-garde ensemble the Dream Syndicate. Here Cale and Charlie Campana update the approach with evanescent layers of sampled electronic atmosphere.
Zen (from the album HoboSapiens)
HoboSapiens‘ agreeably shuffling opener perhaps nods to Robert M Pirsig’s Zen & The Art Of…books – philosophical examinations of concepts like ’quality‘ and ’morality‘. Rich in imagery, it concludes with the last in a number of vivid – and, yes, Zen-like – couplets: “Whatever thrives inside the dark/Decays on the outside”.
Style It Takes (from the album Songs for Drella)
Songs For Drella, Cale and Loud Reed’s song cycle tribute to their recently departed former patron, Andy Warhol, was as poignant and heartfelt as it was spare and haunting. Briefly healing the schism between its protagonists, songs like Style It Takes collaged lyrics from archetypal Warhol pronouncements (“Let’s do a movie here next week/We don’t have sound but you’re so great/You don’t have to speak), in this case wittily casting the Velvet Underground as a group with a ”style that grates".
Heartbreak Hotel (from the album Slow Dazzle)
An often brutal staple of Cale’s live set (and the accompaniment to his notorious 1977 chicken decapitating incident), rarely has a cover version been so fully reinvented and re-inhabited. Cale removes the cool, rock’n’roll scaffolding and siphons off the showbiz shimmer from Elvis Presley’s original, exposing a raw howl of desolation, dripping with existential anguish and palpable despair.
Mercenaries (Ready for War) (from the album Sabotage/Live)
Cale’s scabrous reading of the Universal Soldier theme was the tone-setter of his belligerent, late-‘70s live set. Released as a seven-minute single in 1979, it was inspired by the plain-wrapper ’soldier of fortune’ magazines to which the increasingly political Cale had become a fretful subscriber. With miscellaneous professional condotiere currently waging insurgent war from Baghdad to the Hindu Kush, it’s a song whose geopolitical relevance grows apace.
More ominous hums and darkling atmospheres (are we in a scene from Eraserhead; on the midnight shift in a Welsh slaughterhouse, or waiting for the shakedown in Abu Graib?) sinuously interleaved in the studio by Cale and Charlie Campana.