April , 1980
By Frank Schoen
Under a Thin Veneer of Violence
John Cale is an expatriated Welshman who now resides in New York. A gifted musician, this multi-instrumentalist studied at England's Guildhall School.
During the 60s, Cale became acquainted with a man by the name of Andy Warhol. Warhol convinced Cale to join a band that he was forming, and he did, becoming one of its principal members. This group became known as the Velvet Underground. This critically acclaimed band also featured the likes of Lou Reed, and the Swedish model, Nico.
After the Underground disbanded, Cale began making his mark as a producer for various labels. For Elektra, Cale produced the Stooges' first album, and Nico's Marble Index. He then landed a contract with Columbia, where he recorded Vintage Violence and Church of Anthrax. Production work for Warner Brothers followed in the early '70s that included Nico's Desershore, the original Modern Lovers tapes. Jennifer Warnes debut album, as well as his own, The Academy of Peril, and the neo-classic, Paris 1919.
A move back to London for a long term contract with Island Records was followed by a succession of solo albums by Cale. Fear, Slow Dazzle, and Helen of Troy, appeared in bins throughout Europe. The records were not released in America, although cuts from all of the albums showed up on Island's only U.S. release of Cale's work, Guts.
A move back to New York followed his production work on Patty Smith's debut record, Horses, for Arista. Cale has also been involved with such artists as Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music fame, Brian Eno, Chris Spedding, Lou Reed, Mick Ronson, Ian Hunter, and the Talking Heads' David Byrne.
Recently, Cale has been touring the country promoting his latest vinyl effort. Sabotage Live, and also a record company he just formed, Spy Records.
His past is a fascinating story in itself, but he prefers to leave it where it is now, behind him.
"I don't pay too much attention to it," exclaimed Cale in his thick Welch voice when asked about his association with the Velvet Underground. "It has nothing to do with what I'm doing now."
"Well then," I quickly replied, "how does it feel to be a record company executive?" Cale mumbled something unintelligible in a heavily accented tongue to the effect that he wishes his label were more successful.
Thus my first meeting with statuesque John Cale.
At this point in the interview, I'm beginning to wonder if this slightly eccentric and reclusive cult hero of avant-garde modern music is going to answer any of my questions with anything less than a terse, gruff, and slightly evasive answers.
I try a question about his involvement with Patti Smith on her sublime Horses album which he produced. My nervous uneasiness starts to subside as Cale takes time to articulate a response.
"It was very interesting working with someone who was a poet and who was trying to work very hard to be a musician. And it was difficult because probably I was more like a musician, and hardly a poet. She's worked very hard at being a musician," he answered.
He was human after all.
Onstage singing, there is little trouble understanding what Cale is all about. His haunting, gruff voice bears an uncanny resemblance to the Door's Jim Morrison at times. Cale doesn't voice displeasure with the comparison or let it bother him. "I don't know," pondered Cale. "I think Morrison is one of a kind. I think it is, you know, if you've only listened to my album (Sabotage Live) once, then probably it does. I've heard that from a number of people. It doesn't annoy me or anything. Though things like that can be distracting, I forget about it and get on with it."
With Cale's avant-garde approach to music, the inevitable subject of new wave usually pops up.
"It hasn't affected me," said Cale assuringly. "I think the only involvement I've had is as a producer for several bands with a company that I did work for. That would be when they first started out in England with a company called Illegal Records (UK Squeeze, Sham 69, Menace). A lot of people say once they have heard Sabotage, 'Why do you give yourself out as new wave, because it has nothing to do with new wave?”
"The idea of doing a live album was to capture live what we hadn't been able to do on a studio album. You know, I'd go in and start writing songs in the studio, and then get them to the point where we could record them adequately. We'd go on tour for six weeks, and at the end of the tour, we'd sound like sons-of-a-bitches with this stuff.”
"We'd say, 'What the hell, you know, we sounded much better live.' So we figured it was best to do a live one and see what happens. It didn't work. It went the exact opposite. The same thing happened again. We were still sounding better going out on the road than what we were getting on the album. On this tour, the response in a' number of new places we've never played before has been encouraging."
Now that Cale is involved with the business end of the music industry, his outlook has changed, especially when the monetary aspect of it as the question.
"I think major labels prefer to believe this industry goes in cycles," reflected Cale. "If you make a killing, you keep the money and start banking.”
"If you make a lot of money, then you take the money and invest it by buying catalogs from other labels like Neil Bogart who was with Casablanca. It was originally Buddha, and they started off by buying up V-Jay and Jimmy Reed catalogs. They got right in on the ground floor with disco and stuff like that.”
"That's a pattern that happens with large record companies. That's one cycle in this business, As far as style and anything else goes, you never know what's going to happen. And they thought it was just a fad this new wave stuff. It's not.”
"What you've got here is a new generation of people coming in. They want their own music- and you're going to start getting funny about allowing them something, then they are going to start resenting you."
Cale plans to perform on both coasts before embarking on a tour later this year. It will coincide with the release of Sabotage Live, and Cale is very optimistic on how it will be received.
"I wouldn't be surprised if this album does not really register in Europe, you know," said Cale as he sat in his Army fatigue regalia. "They might resent the fact that first of all, someone who's really got a British passport is going to America and making a record.”
"Never underestimate your audience. Bright kids aren't they. 'Yeah, we know who he was, and who he is, and we know we don't want him or his music here.' I always manufacture this American military-industrial music out there to try to do something with it. They say, 'Okay, keep it over there. You know this is Europe over here and we don't want any of that.”
Regardless of European reaction, Cale's performance at the Boomer Theatre in Norman, Okla. was inspired. His character is made up of depth, intensity, intelligence, style, talent, and a lot of creative and innovative genius. All was evident throughout the show.
Though his musical career has been the subject of much discussion and some controversy, it is reassuring to know that someone of his caliber is still active in the battle grounds of the music industry today.