John Cale (born March 9, 1942) is a Welsh multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who emerged on the London/New York avant-garde scene during the early 1960s, playing alongside Michael Garrett, John Cage, Tony Conrad, and La Monte Young. He entered rock as the bassist/violist in The Velvet Underground, with whom he recorded two albums: The Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/White Heat.
As a solo artist, Cale debuted with the 1970 Columbia release Vintage Violence. The following year, he collaborated with composer Terry Riley on Church of Anthrax. After the 1972/73 Reprise albums The Academy In Peril and Paris 1919, he teamed with Roxy Music alumni on the 1974/75 Island titles Fear, Slow Dazzle, and Helen of Troy.
After an uproarious 1977 on-stage incident, Cale produced sides for Snatch, Cristina, Marie et les Garçons, Sham 69, and the 1978 eponymous debut album by Squeeze. The subsequent decade bore further recordings in the art-pop vein, including the 1982 ZE Records release Music for a New Society.
He was born John Davies Cale on March 9, 1942, in Garnant, Carmarthenshire, Wales, to Welsh-speaking schoolteacher Margaret (née Davies) and English-speaking coal miner Will Cale. As a child, John spoke Welsh but learned English in primary school. His first instruments were piano and organ, which he played at Ammanford church. The BBC recorded one of his earliest compositions, a black-key number inspired by Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian.
After taking up viola, Cale studied music at Goldsmiths College, University of London. While there, he contributed to the short film Police Car and had two scores published in the July 1963 Fluxus Preview Review, a publication of the international avant-garde intermedia community. He organized the July 6, 1964, Fluxus event A Little Festival of New Music and conducted the first UK performance of the John Cage composition Concert for Piano and Orchestra with pianist Michael Garrett as the featured soloist.
Cale visited New York City, where he trained under composer Aaron Copland and immersed in the city’s “New Music” community. On September 9, 1963, Cale participated with Cage in an 18-hour performance of Vexations by French composer Erik Satie. This marked the first marathon performance of the 840-rep piece, rumored to be authored in 1893–94 and first published in 1949. Soon after, Cale appeared on the CBS panel program I’ve Got a Secret, where his “secret” was having participated in an 18-hour uninterrupted performance. His accompaniment on the show, actor Karl Schenzer, claimed to be the only audience member to have watched the entire 18 hours.
While in New York, Cale played in the Theatre of Eternal Music, led by composer La Monte Young. One piece, “Early Tuesday Morning Blues,” features Cale’s free-form viola across nearly 10 minutes of drone-laden sound. Fellow participants included violinist Tony Conrad and guitarist Sterling Morrison.
In late 1964, Morrison’s college friend, Pickwick Records staff writer Lou Reed, was asked to form an ad hoc band, The Primitives, to record his novelty song “The Ostrich.” Cale and Conrad partook in the session, where Reed tuned each of his guitar strings to the same note, creating a drone-like effect dubbed the “ostrich guitar.” Reed befriended Cale, who noticed odd similarities to their musical endeavors.
In 1965, the pair recruited Morrison for a new band, The Warlocks. Intent on fusing garage rock with avant-garde, they renamed themselves The Velvet Underground, taken from the 1963 S&M paperback by journalist Michael Leigh. Cale would play viola, bass, piano, and assorted sundries in the band.
During a trip back to the UK, Cale imbibed himself in London’s R&B/beat boom, absorbing local rock acts (The Kinks, The Who, Small Faces) that were little-heard overseas at the time. He pitched a VU demo to several high-profile figures, including Marianne Faithfull. The tape spread through the London music underground, alerting up-and-comers David Bowie and Mick Farren to the NY band.
In 1966, pop artist Andy Warhol took the Velvet’s under his wing and paired them with German chanteuse Nico. They performed at his multi-media events dubbed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Their earliest release, the Cale-conceived “Loop,” is a seven-minute loop of guitar feedback. It appeared on a split flexi-disc in the December 1966 issue of Aspen magazine.
Signed to jazz label Verve, they debuted with the February 1967 release The Velvet Underground & Nico. Cale co-wrote the celesta-sparkling opener “Sunday Morning” and the viola-strewn penultimate track, “The Black Angel’s Death Song.” Side two is bookended by two lengthy tracks: the slow, disintegrating “Heroin” and the fractious, crashing “European Son.” Those last three, plus the much-quoted “Venus in Furs,” demonstrate Cale’s avant-garde influence on the band.
Later in 1967, Cale contributed “Winter Song” and co-wrote two additional numbers (“Little Sister” and “It Was a Pleasure Then”) on Chelsea Girl, the debut solo album by Nico. He performs viola, organ, and guitar on all three tracks.
That September, The Velvet Underground recorded its second album, White Light/White Heat, released in January 1968. Cale sings lead and does “medical sound effects” on “Lady Godiva’s Operation.” He also contributes spoken word to “The Gift” and Vox Continental organ to the 17-minute “Sister Ray,” both group-composed numbers.
Amid growing conflict between Cale’s avant leanings and Reed’s pop aspirations, Cale left the band in September 1968.
- Vintage Violence (1970)
- Church of Anthrax (1971 • John Cale & Terry Riley)
- The Academy in Peril (1972)
- Paris 1919 (1973)
- Fear (1974)
- Slow Dazzle (1975)
- Helen of Troy (1975)
- Animal Justice (1977)
- Honi soit… (1981)
- Music for a New Society (1982)
- Caribbean Sunset (1984)
- Artificial Intelligence (1985)
- Words for the Dying (1989)
- Songs for Drella (1990 • Lou Reed & John Cale)
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