John Cale Album Reviews

While his former Velvet Underground bandmate Lou Reed has enjoyed a far higher public profile, John Cale has always been like an invisible hand guiding the alternative music scene. He started his career in the early 1960s in the contemporary classical scene – he studied the viola, and worked alongside contemporary composers like John Cage, Aaron Copland, and LaMonte Young. In the mid-1960s, he joined forces with Reed, and bought his classical training, like the use of drone notes, to the Velvet Underground. He produced crucial albums by The Modern Lovers, The Stooges, Patti Smith, and Nico, and appeared on albums by Nick Drake, Eno and Super Furry Animals.

Even further under the radar is Cale’s lengthy and artistically successful solo career, which is often more accessible than his reputation as avant-garde would suggest, even if his haughty Welsh vocals preclude him from mass success. During the course of his solo  career, he’s covered territory from the avant-garde of The Academy In Peril, the baroque pop of Paris 1919, and the punk influenced Sabotage.

I’m only familiar with some of his post 1970’s albums, but even in his later career, he’s remained a restless explorer. And while he generally hasn’t touched the mainstream much, he was part of the process that saw Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ transformed into a modern standard; it was his edited version on a Cohen tribute album that saved the song from obscurity and inspired Jeff Buckley’s version.

Because he’s spread his attention over many different interests, Cale’s discography can seem disjointed and inconsistent at times. But Paris 1919 and Fear are well worth getting to know, and there’s plenty else of interest as well. If you enjoy other auteurs like Bowie and Eno from the same era, Cale’s worth exploring as well.

I haven’t covered all of Cale’s albums, so here’s a complete discography of his studio work, and a couple of his most significant live albums. I’ve underlined albums that I’m not planning to cover, but let me know if I’ve missed anything important:

John Cale Studio Albums

Vintage Violence (1970)
The Academy in Peril (1972)
Paris 1919 (1973)
Fear (1974)
Slow Dazzle (1975)
Helen of Troy (1975)
Sabotage/Live (1979) – live album of all new material
Honi Soit (1981)
Music for a New Society (1982)
Caribbean Sunset (1984)
Artificial Intelligence (1985)
Words for the Dying (1989)
Fragments of a Rainy Season (1992) – live album with Cale recording his back-catalogue solo
Walking on Locusts (1996)
HoboSapiens (2003)
blackAcetate (2005)
Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood (2012)
M:FANS (2016) – a reworked version of 1982’s Music For A New Society

Ten Favourite John Cale Songs

Paris 1919
Fear (Is A Man’s Best Friend)
(I Keep A) Close Watch
Chinese Envoy
Child’s Christmas in Wales
Ship of Fools