John Cale, co-founder of The Velvet Underground, Welshman, songwriter, singer, producer and multi instrumentalist, playing viola, cello, guitar, bass and piano. Cale has also been extremely prolific making more than 30 albums and in later years he has been working on soundtracks and ballet. I saw him live twice, both times in Sydney, once solo in the eighties at a wonderful venue called The Tivoli since knocked down and redeveloped and more recently at The Enmore Theatre with a band. I’ve always liked the different approaches he has live – solo playing acoustic guitar and piano or with a band playing keys, guitar and viola. He’s always a little edgy whether it is the softer or the harder version (and liable for a scream or two) with a Punk ethic, lyrical paranoia, angst and noise. Although his mid seventies solo records have varying degrees of pain and beauty with a surprisingly pastoral side that reveals crafted songs sung with sensitive words and magical melodies – perhaps influenced by recollections of the Welsh valleys where he grew up. I was always fascinated as to how he kept that lilting Welsh accent. Apparently his mother only spoke to him in Welsh as a young boy and he didn’t learn English till he was 7 years old, so in reality when you hear him speak/sing English you are hearing him express a foreign tongue and his second language.
Cale signed to Island records in 1973/74 after he had recorded his best known solo record from the seventies, Paris 1919 for Reprise Records. Why they let him go is a mystery that may have simply been a mutual parting, but Cale might have felt more at home on this arty label that released records by Nick Drake, John Martyn, Roxy Music, Fairport Convention, Cat Stevens, Richard Thompson and a whole lot more. These were all European based acts and Reprise was more of an American label. Paris 1919 probably sounded eccentric to the promo department in New York, especially after The Velvet Underground’s more experimental sound, whereas it would have made complete sense to Chris Blackwell and his team at Island in London.
The album opens with Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend, a typical blast of paranoid thoughts banged out on a piano and muted electric guitar with rich voice and strong melody, guitar, bass and drums in the choruses and finally ending in discordant bass and cymbal smashes and desperate repeats of the song’s title.
After this comes one of the most beautiful songs you will ever here. Buffalo Ballet is a soft yearning ode to Abilene, an old Western town in Texas. I wish I had more to say about it but just listen.
Barracuda is next with its jumpy South American reggae rhythm mixed together with toy circus keyboards and rhythm guitar. Manazanera’s mad buzzing lead guitar surely encouraged by Eno. Lyrics that perplex -“The Ocean will have us all”. It’s a surreal conga party.
Emily sounds like a song from a film set in Hawaii in 1951, complete with synth waves that somehow are just tongue in cheek enough not to be cheesy. I imagine Mario Lanza might have done a great version. Different moods inhabit the album and like scenes in a film, sometimes there’s action and sometimes there’s quiet.
Ship Of Fools is an allegorical tale re told by lots of bands, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Robert Plant, Erasure, World Party and Van Der Graaf Generator all have songs called Ship Of Fools. Cale is back to the old West in his version and finds himself in Tombstone and travels from Tennessee to Arizona to Memphis to pick up Dracula, and back to Swansea in Wales and home to Garnant.
This from Wikipedia:
“The ship of fools is an allegory that has long been a fixture in Western literature and art. The allegory depicts a vessel populated by human inhabitants who are deranged, frivolous, or oblivious passengers aboard a ship without a pilot, and seemingly ignorant of their own direction”.
Gun has that Enoesque vocal album relaxed rhythm and you feel his presence with the calm constant snare and the madman on guitar that is surely Phil Manzanera with Eno’s treatments. The song seems to be about a desperate gang member on the run after doing a job – and there’s blood! It conjures up old film scripts.
The Man Who Couldn’t Afford To Orgy, is as frivolous as the aimless ship but with Eno in the room its lighthearted absurdity makes complete sense, featuring Judy Nylon and if you know nothing about her, go here to see her influence:
You Know More Than I Know seems like a resignation to something? Wisdom? Experience? Knowledge? This mid tempo tune takes us none the wiser to the last track.
Momma Scuba features a whole host of slide guitarists – Richard Thompson, Phil Manzanera and Bryn Haworth – the latter a Christian singer who made some albums for Island in the seventies that I have in the archive. The album ends here in some Bowie meets The Stones via Mott the Hoople Rock and Roll.
Fear is as eccentric an album as any experimental Welshman with a melodic streak might make, but more from a psychological point of view, writing lyrics that seem to fall out of his head in confusing piles of profundity. It’s this that makes the record so intriguing, because some of the songs could be sung by more mainstream artists and Cale steers the songs away from that with his words and his delivery. Then add Eno into the mix as executive producer and odd things are bound to happen. The album is like a Banksy reclaimed art painting, something strange has been added, changing the complexion completely. It’s always been one of my favourite John Cale albums for this reason. It’s contradictory, a calm madness, bent easy listening, and lots of cups of tea while we analyse our paranoia.