John Cale has brought an avant-garde ear to rock & roll ever since he founded the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed in 1966. His work shows a fascination with opposites: lyricism and noise, subtlety and bluntness, hypnotic repetition and sudden change. Even as a student of classical music, he was an extremist: During a recital at the Guildhall School of Music, London, where he was studying theory and composition, he demolished a piano. Cale studied in Britain with composer Humphrey Searle, came to America in 1963 to work with Iannis Xenakis and Aaron Copland under the auspices of a Leonard Bernstein Fellowship, then settled in New York with such radical composers as John Cage and La Monte Young. That year Cale was one of a group of pianists to perform Erik Satie’s nearly 19-hour-long “Vexations.” Through his association with the Lower Manhattan art community, Cale met Reed, who directed him toward electric instruments and rock & roll and helped conceive the Velvet Underground, for whom Cale played keyboards, bass, and electric viola.
After two Velvets albums (The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat), Cale left in 1968 for a solo career. In the early ’70s he worked as an A&R man for Warner Bros. and Elektra, and as a consultant for Columbia, remixing albums by Barbra Streisand and Paul Revere and the Raiders in quadrophonic sound. On his solo albums of the decade, he used elegant pop (Paris 1919, with Little Feat’s Lowell George), hard rock (Fear), Phil Spector/Brian Wilson gloss (Slow Dazzle), minimalism (Church of Anthrax, with fellow La Monte Young pupil Terry Riley), full orchestra (The Academy in Peril), and punk (Sabotage). Lyrically, he displayed equal daring; delivered in a strong baritone, his work ranged from musings about terrorism, espionage, and states of psychological extremity to love songs. His ’70s tours, generally featuring guitarist Chris Spedding, were often acts of disturbing theater (recorded at New York’s CBGB, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues captured the punk ambience of the period); at one point Cale chopped up a chicken onstage, causing his band members to walk out.
By the next decade Cale had established himself as a producer/collaborator on some 80 albums, ranging from the debut efforts of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Patti Smith, Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers, and Squeeze to four albums by former Velvets singer Nico; he also had worked with Brian Eno, Kevin Ayers, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Nick Drake, and Mike Heron and scored soundtracks for Andy Warhol’s Heat and Roger Corman’s Caged Heat. While commercial success continued to elude him, he was lauded as one of punk’s godfathers, a status he contended against with characteristic irony: His primary interest remained classical music. As the ’80s waned he continued producing (Happy Mondays), scoring (the soundtrack for Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild with Laurie Anderson and David Byrne), and releasing solo work as various as the almost-pop of Wrong Way Up to “The Falklands Suite,” an orchestration of Dylan Thomas poetry that highlighted Words for the Dying.
By 1993 Cale had come full circle: Having, two years earlier, collaborated with Lou Reed on Songs for Drella, a tribute to Velvet Underground mentor Andy Warhol, he teamed with the Velvets on a reunion tour.
On his own, he continued to innovate, releasing in 1996, with help from David Byrne and Velvets drummer Maureen Tucker, Walking on Locusts, featuring a moving tribute to Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison, and, in 1998, Nico, an elegy for Velvets chanteuse Nico.
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