Happy Mondays, Nick Drake, The Stooges and the strange tale of John Cale

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John Cale

John Cale

Ahead of the legendary musician’s forthcoming show in Liverpool, Getintothis’ Jamie Bowman explores John Cale’s influence on the career of some other high profile artists.

The story of how a young man from Wales’ Amman Valley travelled to New York and became one of the most influential figures in modern music is surely one of rock n roll’s more unusual tales and lucky for us John Cale is still writing chapters to this day.

A relatively short stint in the Velvet Underground would have been enough to seal Cale’s legendary status: to Lou Reed’s startling mix of street poetry and musical primitivism Cale added a true flavour of the avant garde, influenced by the likes of Lamonte Young and Earle Brown and the possibilities of noise and monotony.

The Velvets’ sound grew markedly less extreme in 1968 following Cale’s departure for a fascinating and diverse career as producer, arranger, composer and collaborator – as Velvets drummer Moe Tucker remarked, “I think we became a little more normal, which was fine, it was good music, good songs, it was never the same though. It was good stuff, a lot of good songs, but, just, the lunacy factor was… gone.

For Cale, you suspect this lunacy factor has always been important.

His own music has taken in everything from baroque punk to proto punk and by the mid-1970s there were serious concerns for his mental health following years of drug addiction. His live performances became, to quote NME, a combination of ‘bizarre visions and unorthodox behaviour’.

Cale would leave venues trashed, covered in blood and at one point took to assaulting female mannequins on stage. Most notoriously of all he beheaded a chicken on stage with a meat cleaver at London’s Greyhound Club.

And yet despite this, Cale maintains a unique position in popular music – the one-time crazed artist who now has an MBE and a best-selling autobiography to his name but whose peripatetic solo career has seen him crop up – like Tom Hank’s Forest Gump or Woody Allen’s Zelig – at every vital moment in rock n roll history.

Crucial to this has been Cale’s insatiable appetite for collaboration.

I really love producing other artists,” said Cale. “I love helping someone achieve his goals. I always try to approach it from the point of view, ‘What would a Zen master do in these circumstances?’ And that is not to give the artist a direct answer to all his questions, but to suggest a solution by other means.

“You’ve got to stick to what you believe in. It might be lucrative for me to work with a particular personality, but if I don’t feel sympathetic to what he’s doing, I’m just letting myself down. And you lose all your credibility if you do that.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Cale’s forthcoming gig in Liverpool will see him collaborate with various artists as he revisits the Velvet Underground’s classic debut album.

John Cale – the grit in the oyster that shaped the sound we worship today

Here’s five of Cale’s most influential, unusual and influential examples of collaboration…

The Stooges

It seems scarcely believable that one man could be involved with two of alternative / punk rock’s great trailblazers but that’s what Cale pulled off when he produced the 1969 debut by The Stooges. Cale was an inspired choice who seemed intent on capturing Iggy and co’s primal power. That he failed and his final mix was rejected by both the band and label seems somehow beside the point.  His all-faders-open production remains one of the most exciting captured on record.

Nico

Cale‘s most committed and beloved artistic project was Nico, one of modern music’s true enigmas with a voice so deep and expressionless it could chill the heart. Nico, a modern and Andy Warhol-muse, joined the Velvets as a featured singer in 1966, but had left by 1968 on which she produced a succession of icy solo work that still sounds like nothing else in the popular music canon. Cale arranged and produced the best of these albums: 1968’s The Marble Index, 1970’s Desertshore, 1974’s The End and 1985’s Camera Obscura and the results remain astonishing if not particularly enjoyable.

Jonathan Richman

A Velvet Underground and Stooges obsessive, Richman travelled to New York where he slept on Lou Reed’s couch and got a job at Max’s Kansas City. When it was time for his own band, the Modern Lovers to record, Cale, who was working as a staff producer at Warners, seemed a natural fit but there were problems ahead as the increasingly erratic Richman was soon wanting to reject the Modern Lovers’ garage rock sound.

In a revealing interview with band member Ernie Brooks in Vice in 2014, the bassist mused on what brought the two together: “We really wanted him to produce the first Modern Lovers record; we were fans of his through the Velvet Underground and through the fact that he’d produced the first Stooges record. The first time I met him was when I went to his apartment years before, somewhere on the lower East Side, and he had photos of someone having a nose job on the wall—a fairly disturbing set of pictures.

Nick Drake

Cale’s brief association with one of English folk’s most beloved figures is certainly one of the most unusual and odd of his many unusual and odd collaborations. When questioned about his work with Drake, Cale is pretty dismissive, describing it as little more than a session job for his friend and Drake’s manager Joe Boyd. When forced he once described Drake’s music as “dreamy” and indeed, Cale’s instrumentation features on two of the singer-songwriter’s finest songs, Northern Sky and Fly.

For a couple of days in the spring of 1970, Cale actually moved into Drake’s flat in Belsize Park where he proceeded to produce the beautiful viola and harpsichord parts which adorn both songs. To Northern Sky, he gave this most wonderful of tunes a middle eight so dramatic and uplifting it makes the song truly soar.

The relationship worked both ways and Cale’s finest solo album, Paris 1919, contained similar lush orchestration to that of Drake’s Bryter Later. Cale told journalist Nick Kent that Drake was a genius but “had no personality left.” Four years later he was dead.

Happy Mondays

The story of how John Cale came to record Happy Mondays’ debut album in 1986 is yet another strange footnote of this most strange of careers. Legend has it that the idea was completely down to Factory boss Tony Wilson who was a huge fan of Patti Smith’s Horses and saw something of Smith’s poetic way with words in Sean Ryder’s lyrical surrealism. Unsurprisingly, Wilson also had one eye on the publicity Cale’s name would bring to an album titled Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out).

In December 1986, Cale began two weeks of recording with Happy Mondays at Fire Hose Studios in London. What followed was typically unhinged with fist fights, a rumoured stabbing and various drugs of which there were many. For once none of them were Cale’s who was trying desperately to come off heroin much to the amusement and frustration of the Mondays who believed and hoped they would be working with a legendary hellraiser.

In fact, what both parties seem to remember most about the sessions is Cale’s obsession with tangerines which he would eat at 20 minute intervals to ward off the pangs of withdrawal. “When John first asked me what the Mondays were like,” Wilson told the NME, “I said, “The best way I can describe them, so you know what your letting yourself in for John, is scum. They are fucking scum.

In the cold light of day,” wrote Bez, in his autobiography, “we found him a bit on the strange side, never talkin much an constantly stuffing his face with oranges.

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