[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.]
John Cale’s career has spanned decades. His own music has ranged from surreal drones to lush, baroque pop to exercises in proto-punk paranoia, and his collaborators have included La Monte Young and Terry Riley. Yet Cale’s work as a producer is equally notable: he has worked on everything from bona fide classic albums to much more esoteric work. What follows is a look at five works that give a sense of the breadth of Cale’s experience as a producer.
Nico — Desertshore
Like Nico’s 1968 The Marble Index (for which Cale provided the arrangements), 1970’s Desertshore is a work built around stark contrasts, Nico’s voice often placed in front of a stark musical backdrop. Unlike The Marble Index, however, Desertshore is a warmer work, with occasionally beautiful passages periodically emerging out of the arrangements. Though there are also several moments of dissonance that recall its predecessor. It’s a long way from The Velvet Underground & Nico, but it’s no less compelling.
Jesus Lizard — “Needles For Teeth”
That John Cale produced a song from The Jesus Lizard might trigger an episode of cognitive dissonance in some readers. Then again, Cale did work with The Stooges — so it wasn’t a match entirely without precedent. And this version of “Needles For Teeth,” from a self-titled EP released in early 1997, is a particularly strange blend of producer and artists: savagely played guitars abut fragmented video-game soundtracks, and there’s an almost dub quality to the rhythm at times. (The version that appeared on their album Blue is a very different creature, denser where this take on the song is expansive.)
Patti Smith — Horses
Reading Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, Will Hermes’s account of New York’s myriad musical scenes in the 1970s, one will encounter descriptions of Patti Smith and John Cale sharing bills in the middle of that decade. For those of us not yet alive to see those shows (or too young to attend), that image — much like being present for the recording sessions of Smith’s 1975 album Horses – suggests an overlap of musical iconoclasts. And while the two, as songwriters, have significantly different aesthetics, they share the ability to balance tension with a tendency towards the sublime.
Happy Mondays — Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out)
Happy Mondays’ 1987 debut is dense, occasionally awkward, and diabolically catchy in places. “24 Hour Party People” probably shouldn’t work, and yet its shifts in style and production seem to channel a nearly endless party, one that must be prolonged at all costs. It’s as damaged-sounding as anything Cale was involved with, while never losing sight of an air of chaotic amiability.
The Modern Lovers — The Modern Lovers
The self-titled album from The Modern Lovers — released after the band’s breakup — collected demo recordings produced by John Cale and Kim Fowley. Here, the recordings are relatively stark, allowing Jonathan Richman’s lyrics and distinctive vocal delivery the space they required. And the relationship went both ways, with Cale playing a mean cover of “Pablo Picasso” on his 1975 album Helen of Troy.