Where To Start With... John Cale
With an estimated population of just over three million, it's fair to say that Wales is a country that punches well above its weight when it comes to musical talent. If you were to stop somebody on the street and ask them to name a famous Welsh musician, even the most casual observer would probably be able to toss off the names of Tom Jones or Shirley Bassey, maybe even a member of Manic Street Preachers or Super Furry Animals might get a mention.
You might have to stand around for a good while before somebody mentions John Cale. That's not a reflection of his talent, but it's a fact that some musicians are far more influential than their own commercial success would suggest. As one of the co-founders of The Velvet Underground, Cale typifies this: to use a well-worn quote from one of Cale's erstwhile collaborators, Brian Eno said of the band's debut album: “Only 30,000 people bought the Velvet Underground album, but everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
Cale was eventually kicked out of The Velvet Underground after their first two albums by Lou Reed, who considered some of Cale's musical ideas too avant-garde for his tastes - this, from the guy who made Metal Machine Music, which gives you some idea of why Cale's music hasn't been a regular fixture in the charts over the years.
An acquired taste his music may be, but Cale's influence on popular culture extends far beyond his brief stint in The Velvet Underground. He was previously involved in the Fluxus movement, the neo-Dadaist collective of artists and musicians that included the likes of Yoko Ono, composer La Monte Young and visual artist Nam June Paik. As a producer, Cale is responsible for the debut albums of Patti Smith, The Modern Lovers, Squeeze and The Stooges, as well as records by the likes of Siouxsie and The Banshees and Happy Mondays.
In addition he has released 16 studio albums under his own name, a handful of live albums and various collaborative records with artists including Brian Eno and minimalist composer Terry Riley, as well one as with his former bandmate Lou Reed. Cale might not be a household name in the same way that Reed was, but there isn't much he hasn't done.
This week he re-releases his long out-of-print 1992 live album Fragments of a Rainy Season, performed and recorded at various venues over the course of his international tour of that year. The album includes a mixture of his own songs and a handful of cover versions, including a brilliant cover of 'Hallelujah' by the late, great Leonard Cohen.
You can preview and purchase the album on the right-hand side of this page and you'll find a new video for his version of 'Hallelujah' below. Beneath that we've picked out five key tracks from Cale's solo career as an introduction for those unfamiliar with his work...
'Model Beirut Recital'
Featured on his 1984 album Caribbean Sunset, 'Model Beirut Recital' is one of the more straightforward and accessible things Cale has done, propelled by spiky, urgent guitars and Cale's stuttering vocals as he spits out lyrics fuelled by frustration at the world's political leaders: (“Something must be done right now / About all the people trying to run the world / And they are whistling in the dark”). The version below includes both this and the album's title track.
The title track of Cale's third solo album, released in 1973, is one of his better known solo tracks and it's surprisingly radio-friendly by Cale's standards. One of his more orchestral songs, the song's staccatto strings and double-tracked chorus vocals are reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash or even Sgt. Peppers-era Beatles.
It's definitely classifiable as pop music, but like the rest of the album it's pop on a huge, orchestral scale and this is a standout moment on one of Cale's best solo albums.
Cover versions can generally be approached in one of two ways: faithfully reproducing the original recording as closely as possible, or taking it somewhere else entirely. Cale's cover of this hit by Elvis Presley is definitely in the latter camp. Taken from his 1975 album Slow Dazzle, the angular, foreboding guitar riffs powering Cale's version really take the song into new territory. When Elvis sang “I'm so lonely I could die” it sounded like a mere turn of phrase; when Cale sings the same words, it sounds like a very real possibility. A live version of this track also features on Fragments of a Rainy Season.
'Helen of Troy'
Regarded by some as his finest solo album, Helen of Troy was released just a few months after Slow Dazzle in 1975 and of its many brilliant moments, the title track is one of our favourites. Grinding guitars, bold stabs of brass and Cale's powerful yet mournful vocals, this is one of the album's most atmospheric tracks.
Our final pick was originally written with Lou Reed many years before this version finally surfaced on Cale's 2005 album blackAcetate. For the first minute and a half, the track is basically just Cale's voice over a looping drum beat and percussion, but then the guitars and a towering wall of backing vocals and Mellotron come crashing in and it becomes a very different beast. There are many other songs on this album that deserve your attention, but this is one of its best moments