Arts: The sonic saboteur

John Cale is one of music's great pioneers. Punk prototype, avant- garde composer, seminal producer - the founder member of the Velvet Underground has done it all. And he's not finished yet
Click to follow
One of the great forgotten moments in rock'n'roll history is John Cale's 1975 version of "Heartbreak Hotel". This terrifying re-invention of the Axton/Durden/Presley classic, made almost two decades after Elvis's era-defining original, focuses on the decadent, self-destructive nature of rock, glances back at the music's brief innocence, and anticipates the useless excitement of cover versions, recycling and insignificant posturing that was yet to come. Rock is dying, you feel, and John Cale is one of its most skilled embalmers.

Some figures become so big, so influential, and so legendary that they cannot possibly live up to their reputation. In pop and rock music, David Bowie is one example, Phil Spector another. While ordinary musicians and producers can just get on with their lives, the legends are constantly competing with increasingly fictional versions of their earlier selves. Cale is something in between.

I first came up against the demi-legend of Cale when producing a band who wanted "the sound of the first Velvet Underground and Nico album" - the one with the banana cover and Andy Warhol production credit. The first Velvets album was born of the volatile partnership of the musicianly, avant-garde Cale and the paranoid songsmith Lou Reed, but the sound seems to have been produced by default: a schizophrenic hotch-potch of styles, from the focused intensity of "Venus in Furs", through the scrappy, psychedelic boogie of "Run, Run, Run", to the screeching angst of "Heroin".

That album was a commercial flop, but its badly recorded, drone-laden incoherence has influenced and inspired dozens of terrible bands (and a few good ones). Nico's artless vocals grace a handful of tracks. Listening to songs such as "All Tomorrow's Parties", after reading something of Nico's wretched life and death in James Young's Nico: songs they never play on the radio, is a heart-breaking experience that transcends the limitations of the recording. You know it wasn't worth it.

Ever since Cale's rapid departure from the Velvet Underground after Lou Reed issued a "me or him" ultimatum, his musical life has been one of great competence, with the prolific output of a professional who can make something of almost any situation. This has led him through a series of musical adventures, longer and more varied than most of rock's itinerant producer/performers, with the possible exception of Todd Rundgren. Yet where Rundgren produced Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell, Cale produced Patti Smith's Horses, keeping critics busy scribbling for years.

Cale had an effective and affecting musical partnership with Nico, whose Cale-produced albums created - as fellow Cale-influenced producer Brian Eno points out in a BBC Wales documentary to be shown tomorrow night - an almost entirely separate genre: "a weird little oasis that they invented."

Whether you think that punk was the musical equivalent of Bauhaus, or just another way of playing rock'n'roll badly (or both), you can't deny Cale's direct and indirect influence, inspiring punk and gloomy post- punk indie bands by the Ford Transit-load. And conceptually speaking, Cale was often there first. "Heartbreak Hotel" (which includes Chris Spedding, the ex-Nucleus guitarist who produced the Sex Pistols' first demos) makes the Sid Vicious version of "My Way" sound feeble.

During the late Seventies, Cale made several on-stage bids for punk immortality with outbreaks of Herman Nitsch-like excess, such as in Croydon chopping up a chicken with a cleaver. Despite all this, you feel that Gavin Turk, known for his waxwork of Vicious imitating Warhol's Elvis, is not going to follow up with a sculpture of Cale.

Maybe Cale's monument will be the autobiographical What's the Welsh for Zen, illustrated and designed by Dave McKean and co-written by Cale and Victor Bockris - to be published by Bloomsbury on 14 January. Adrift in the Brecon Beacons, Bockris follows the Cale trail, looking in awe at houses and chapels and old neighbours as if their grey Welshness will reveal some great truth about the Sixties New York underground. A local farmer is only vaguely aware of his former playmate's career: "I heard he was involved with a fellow called Andy Warhol who used to do all sorts of weird things and made a lot of money out of it."

John Cale makes a couple of walk-on appearances in the aforementioned James Young book about Nico. First we meet him as an overweight, coke- snorting record producer who (unlike everyone else in the book) has something resembling a career. Cale arrives, makes Nico's last album, Camera Obscura, and splits. After a couple of years, and a few more chapters, Cale re- appears like the prodigal guest in a junkie soap opera, as a fit, abstemious and squash-playing solo performer, lecturing Nico's band about the evils of smoking and drinking on their Japanese tour.

The Cale story begins with a studious childhood in Garnant, Wales, where he was born on 9 March, 1942. His miner father and schoolteacher mother impressed upon him the importance of study, diligence and hard work, and his musical studies on piano, organ and viola took him first to Goldsmith's, in south London, and then - after a spate of letter-writing to famous composers - to New York.

In September 1963, Cale was one of 18 pianists who worked in shifts to perform the world premiere of Eric Satie's Vexations, an unsettling piano fragment that fits on a single sheet of manuscript with the composer's instructions: "to be played 840 times." It was organised by the composer John Cage and the other pianists included Philip Corner, James Tenney and David del Tredici, but it was a picture of Cage and the young Cale, in suit, tie and shades, that made the New York Times. Soon, Cale was part of LaMonte Young's obscure, but influential, Theatre of Eternal Music, which led to Lou Reed, Warhol, and eventually, commercial success.

In recent years, the lean, clean, budget-conscious Cale has had a greater involvement with the avant-garde milieu of his Sixties self, producing live scores to accompany the Warhol "one-shot" movies, Eat and Kiss, and developing a new multimedia work called Life Underwater. He has just released a "classical" CD entitled Dance Music, which is a 12-movement score commissioned by Scapino Rotterdam for Nico, a ballet choreographed by Ed Wubbe.

The Nico score is a surprise. With a superb performance from the Dutch ensemble Ice Nine, the work has an appealing mixture of maturity and freshness in the way it combines strings and rock instruments, particularly the outstanding guitar of Corrie van Binsbergen. In the slow "Ari Sleepy Too", the samples of Nico's pleading voice saying "Please. Come over here" or "Oh. Is that it?" sound moving rather than tacky or exploitative.

The forthcoming outbreak of gentle Cale-mania includes a trio performance at the Royal Festival Hall in January. Despite the fact that he is more celebrated - and in demand - as a producer than as a performer, he has churned out more than a dozen solo albums, building up a vast catalogue of songs that he is happy to play solo (accompanied by piano or guitar) or with a small team of sympathetic musicians, such as multi-instrumentalists Lance Doss and Mark Deffenbaugh, who accompany him next month. Island records is releasing Close Watch: An Introduction to John Cale, in January, and Yellow Moon/Diesel Motor is reissuing the 1979 Sabotage Live.

In the BBC film, Cale expresses doubts about the value of his work: "I generally don't look fondly back at the things that I've done. I still don't see a body of work that's coherent, maybe I never will, but it's a good motivator, because it reminds me of all the things I haven't done."

The ballet score shows Cale's dilemma: capable of renewing himself as a composer, he is still trapped by the fading glamour of Sixties Warhol Factory nostalgia. Despite that, he has done more than most viola players - and record producers - dream of.

`John Cale', 11.30pm, BBC2 tomorrow; John Cale's trio play the RFH, London on 21 January 1999 (booking: 0171-960 4242)

Not Bad For a Viola Player: John Cale in Retrospect

The Velvet Underground

and Nico (1967, Verve)

It may sound like a bunch of badly-recorded demos, but tracks such as "Heroin" and "Venus in Furs" provided the sonic blueprint for generations of manic-depressive non-musicians.

White Light/White Heat (1968, Verve)

Lou Reed's frantic voice dominates this Nico-less second album, which features "Sister Ray" and "The Gift".

Fear (1974, Island)

Features "Fear is a Man's Best friend" and "Momamma Scuba", in which he first tried out the riff that would later drive "Heartbreak Hotel".

Slow Dazzle (1975, Island)

A confident production, showing a maturing songwriting and arranging style. Features "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Mr Wilson" (Beach Boy Brian, rather than Harold)

Fragments of a Rainy Season (1992, Hannibal)

Introspective versions of Cale's back catalogue, accompanied solely by piano or guitar.

Eat/Kiss: Music for the films of Andy Warhol (1997, Hannibal)

Variable collection of soundscapes, alternately beautiful and dumb.

Dance Music (1998, Detour)

The ballet score to Nico, performed by Ice Nine.

Close Watch: An Introduction to John Cale (January 1999)

Not exactly the "greatest hits", but a useful way to pinpoint the occasional brilliance.