With his classical training, his devotion to the '60s avant-garde, and his artsy slumming in the Velvet Underground behind him, John Cale could put on imposing airs for an early '70s fringe rocker. He soon made a mark as a producer, working with Nico, the Stooges, Patti Smith, and the Modern Lovers. He collaborated with minimalist Terry Riley. He recorded his own hip neoclassical music as The Academy in Peril, and knocked off two albums of enigmatic songs, Vintage Violence and the often beautiful Paris 1919. He played everything from bass to harpsichord to viola, and had a rare knack for building songs that seemed equally balanced around piano and guitar. In 1974 he returned to England and hooked up with Brian Eno, performing a terroristic rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel" on the Island Records showcase June 1, 1974. He stuck with Eno and Island for three albums, which are his main claim to being a godfather of punk rock: the paranoid "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend," the extended guitar antics of "Gun," the nasty revelry of "Dirtyass Rock 'n' Roll," the fury of "Guts," and the unbridled hysteria of "Leaving It Up to You" -- the latter shocking enough to get Island first to suppress the song, then to feature it on the Guts compilation. Those songs were all last seen on The Island Years, a comprehensive 2-CD set, but the period also fills up half of the first half of Rhino's 2-CD Seducing Down the Door.
Cale's '80s work wanders around a bit. The second CD of Seducing covers Cale's work up to 1990, but the out-of-print albums mostly offer slivers of past ideas, such as the exotic chant of "Chinese Envoy" and the live butchering of "Waiting for the Man." Artificial Intelligence is perhaps the best of the '80s albums, another set of oblique songs with arresting rhythm figures, like "Dying on the Vine" and "Satellite Walk."
And in the '90s Cale wanders even more, working on soundtracks and dance music and tributes and collaborations, including a brief Velvet Underground reunion, and all sorts of odds and ends. The duo albums with Brian Eno (Wrong Way Up) and Lou Reed (Songs for Drella) are perhaps more reflective of Cale's partners, but rank among his better work. Cale's '90s work wanders even further. In Fragments of a Rainy Season, Cale reprises his songbook, performing solo, most impressively on piano. Eat/Kiss is quasi-film music that Cale wrote for a revival of two early '60s Warhol films, and is characteristically eclectic, including one of Cale's spoken pieces in the tradition of "The Gift."
But the most interesting Cale recordings are the least recent: a set of mid-'60s experiments in mostly beatless minimalist avant-garde noise. For instance, Day of Niagara, with La Monte Young, is built around an amplified viola drone that anticipated part of the Velvet Underground's sound, if none of the music; in retrospect, it seems like an even less funky preview of Lou Reed's famous Metal Machine Music. But the Inside the Dream Syndicate discs have far greater variety, and Stainless Gamelan is rather enjoyable, starting with a 10:30 piece of percussive cembalet, then devotes 26:27 to a surrealist soundscape allegedly concerned with Mozart and Joseph Conrad, then spends 8:30 on a cha-cha with a soprano saxophone improvisation which sounds like something you might imagine Evan Parker and Han Bennink were doing when they were teenagers. In the end, Cale's attraction to the avant-garde was the same as his attraction to punk -- he's made a career of subversion, and all that classical training has served him well.
From Forced Exposure:
Sun Blindness Music: Repressed. "John Cale's great credit, both inside and outside the Velvet Underground, was to have found the inoculation dosage that would addict the music industry to Sound without alienating one world from the other. But outside the 'official' VU there was also an uncut version of the virus, incubated behind the slum walls of the 1960s Lower East Side, and maintained live in the liquid nitrogen of these insolently recorded reel-to-reel audiotapes, now available in the Table of the Elements CD series, New York in the 1960s. The recordings in this three-disc series come from another underground, a deep vein of labor and experimentation that parallels Cale's time with the Velvets. It is jubilantly private music, made alone and with like-minded spirits -- Tony Conrad, Sterling Morrison, original Velvets percussionist Angus MacLise -- far from the hot light of the Velvets' public notoriety and the rough politics of Cale's relationship with Reed. And it is important music, an illuminating, heretofore unknown chapter in Cale's creative advance. What is truly extraordinary about the sixteen performances spread across these three volumes -- Sun Blindness Music, Dream Interpretation and Stainless Gamelan -- is their explosive foresight. The florid distortion of Cale's guitar pieces and the tandem bull-elephant hum of his viola and Conrad's violin prefigure the aggressive majesty and expressive dissonance of punk rock, No Wave and the Transfigured Guitar movement led by Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham and Sonic Youth. In his pulsing keyboard essays, Cale marries the grace and science of minimalism to the mainstream throb of rock & roll, a full decade ahead of Brian Eno and the Berlin-era David Bowie. When Cale tests the barriers of possibility in his tools -- the guts of an abandoned piano, the jammed keys on an organ, the pause control of a Wollensak tape recorder -- he generates a synthetic music that connects Edgard Varése, Henry Cowell and Karlheinz Stockhausen with contemporary electronica and turntablism. These recordings have been virtually unheard since they were made more than three decades ago. But their prescience is undeniable. So is their power and purity. Working in the shadows of both pop and art, building on discoveries and inventions from his life before and with the Velvets, Cale committed to tape a highly personal and exhilirating vision of the future of music. It now sounds like fact." --David Fricke, from the liner notes.
Dream Interpretation: Inside the Dream Syndicate Vol. II: 2nd Volume in this trio of releases. Featuring: "Dream Interpretation" (1969, Cale: viola; Tony Conrad: violin); "Ex-Cathedra" (1968, Cale: Vox Continental organ); "[untitled] for piano" (early/mid 1960s); "Carousel" (1967/8, Cale: electronics sounds); "A Midnight Rain of Green Wrens at the World's Tallest Building" (1968, Cale: viola; Conrad: violin), "Hot Scoria" (1964/5, Cale: guitar; Angus MacLise: cimbalom).
Stainless Gamelan: Inside the Dream Syndicate Vol. III: Third volume. Featuring: "Stainless Steel Gamelan" (1965, Cale & Sterling Morrison: Cembalet/fretless guitar); "At About This Time Mozart Was Dead And Joseph Conrad Was Sailing the Seven Seas Learning English" (1967, Cale: Wollensak; Cale & Morrison: viola, guitar); "Terry's Cha-Cha" (1967, Cale: Wollensak; Angus MacLise: hand drums, tambourine; Terry Jennings: soprano saxophone); "After The Locust" (1968, Cale: electric piano; Tony Conrad: Thunder machine), "Big Apple Express" (1965, Cale: viola, tape; New York Fire Dept.: vocal).