[Ed. note: In honor of John Cale's mini-residency at BAM this week -- including an all-star tribute to Nico on Wednesday and performances of his 1973 solo album, Paris, 1919 on Friday and Saturday -- Flavorwire New York has embarked upon a week-long celebration of all things Velvet Underground.]
Seeing as it’s John Cale whose performances in Brooklyn have inspired our week of Velvet Underground-centric coverage, this seems an especially apt time to look back at the man’s career. With that in mind, we’re kicking off this series by reevaluating Cale’s solo work, and exploring why it never quite resonated with the public the way Lou Reed’s did (despite being arguably superior, or at least more interesting).
On one level, the answer to the question of why Cale’s career never attained the visibility of Reed’s is pretty easy to answer: “Walk on the Wild Side,” the chart hit that Cale never had. For a brief period in the mid ’70s, Reed was a genuine pop star — a fact that seems kinda unbelievable in an era where the closest thing to edginess in chart pop is the dollar sign in Ke$ha’s name, but a fact nonetheless. The song made him a name that the public recognized (and still recognizes), as opposed to a name known only to music aficionados and the Welsh.
But on a less superficial note, there’s an argument to be made that although Reed’s post-VU career has been the more successful, Cale’s has been the more interesting. (This isn’t just contrarianism, by the way — your correspondent is a fan of both halves of the Velvet Underground’s creative axis, it’s just that one tends to get a whole lot more attention than the other.) It’s encompassed everything from weird neo-classical compositions (The Academy in Peril) to producing the Happy Mondays, and it’s never, ever been dull.
Perhaps the key difference is that you get the sense that Cale was always more interested in the possibilities of sound, whereas Reed was more interested in songs. (Clearly there’s some overlap — Reed has always been quick to explore new technology, from the binaural recording of Street Hassle to his experiments with quadraphonic sound, and Cale has written some great pieces of music in his time.) The Velvet Underground was a signature example of how the friction of two divergent aesthetics in the one band can generate pretty thrilling results — the band never approached the experimentalism of tracks like “Sister Ray” or “The Black Angel’s Death Song” or “European Son” once Cale departed, and in Reed’s solo career, it was only the deliberately obtuse Metal Machine Music that explored similar territory.
Once the friction became too much, and Cale left the band, he embarked on a solo career that’s been characterized by diversity and also by a curious, unconventional trajectory that’s been the yang to Reed’s yin. The 1970s were his most prolific period, but also the period during which his most memorable output consisted of his production credits — starting with the Stooges’ 1969 debut album, and encompassing other highlights like Nico’s The Marble Index, Patti Smith’s Horses and The Modern Lovers’ debut album.
He certainly made some fine albums of his own during that decade — the aforementioned Paris, 1919, the controlled anger of Fear, the uncontrolled anger of Slow Dazzle. But really, the 1970s were also the decade during which he came close to actually losing his mind, which perhaps goes some way towards explaining why his best solo records came after that decade was over (just as Reed’s songwriting muse was starting to desert him): there’s the majestic, paranoid album-length ode to misanthropy that was Music for a New Society, released in 1982. And a full two decades later, there was the wonderful HoboSapiens, a record that found Cale embracing the possibilities of post-millennial production techniques and using them to craft a record that still sounds startlingly modern a decade later.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for Cale’s career is its sustained quality. He’s remained innovative and relevant right up until, well, right now. Look at the first couple of years of this decade — while Reed was releasing the universally reviled Lulu, Cale was recording Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, a record that we’ve already argued elsewhere merited a whole lot more love than it got. While Reed was collaborating with Metallica, Cale was working with LCD Soundsystem (and recording this killer cover of “All My Friends”.)
Ultimately, of course, this isn’t an either/or scenario — you can enjoy the work of both artists, and indeed, that’s pretty much exactly what we continue to do. But it’s a shame that Cale’s solo career never quite achieved the level of public recognition that Reed’s did, and if you’re unfamiliar with his solo work, we suggest you dive right into his back catalog and get listening — there’s lots and lots to hear.