INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Melody Maker JULY 27, 1974 - by Mick Gold
JOHN CALE: CAGED HEAT
John Cale is sitting in a preview theatre, cowering in the shadow of the London Hilton to see a screening of this movie he's scored called Caged Heat.
It's set in a women's prison in California. Lingering shots of beautiful, bare prisoners tormenting each other, wrestling in the showers, knocking the dentures down the throat of any unfortunate convict who gets in their way.
The prison is run by a frigid cripple who cruises around in her motoristed wheelchair, ably assisted by a perverted prison doctor whose hobby is drugging unfortunate inmates and taking Polaroid snaps as he strips their clothes off. The doc is also a power drill freak, and his ambition is to plunge the drill into the brain of some helpless prisoner, in the interests of corrective surgery.
But this is a really progressive pulp movie 'cos some of the gals get it together and blast their way out of the prison, raise reinforcements, then blast their way back into prison and rescue one of their number from the clutches of the mad doctor, who's already got her strapped to the operating table and is just sharpening his power drill...
And over all this John Cale is still playing his viola. "This is a B picture," he says to me proudly as another cop explodes in slow motion all over the screen.
Cale was born in Garnant, South Wales, in 1942. He learned to play the viola at school: "It was an allocation orchestra, they had clarinets and flutes and stuff. Everyone else got the clarinets and flutes, all I got was the viola."
Also trained as church organist to accompany psalms and services "in Kings College Chapel style", Cale studied music at Goldsmiths College, London.
He staged a concert piece which involved "screaming at a potted plant till it died."
In 1963 Cale was awarded a Leonard Bernstein Fellowship to Berkshire School of Music, Tanglewood, Massachusetts. He composed and staged a "fairly usual modern piece" for piano player and prepared piano and table.
"I was working away inside the piano, and I'd hidden this axe behind it. Without any warning I picked up the axe, turned around and faced the audience, and went WHAAM! and demolished the table. The front row of the audience collapsed completely."
After a year in New York he met Lou Reed and they tried putting together a variety of groups. "We tried to play clubs in Harlem but they wouldn't let us in. We played Larry Love's Nest, we played on the sidewalks. We made more money on the sidewalks than anywhere else."
Barbara Rubin introduced the embryonic Velvets to Andy Warhol in 1965. Andy introduced them to Nico, Paul Morrissey, Gerard Malanga etcetera and the following year Warhol staged the Exploding Plastic Inevitable mixed-media show with The Velvet Underground.
In 1968 Cale arranged Nico's The Marble Index album, looked for production gigs, found Iggy & The Stooges and produced their first album for Elektra.
Cale also worked as staff producer for CBS mixing quadraphonic versions of albums. He produced, arranged and played most of the instruments on Nico's Desertshore album.
Cale became A&R executive for Warner Bros in sunny Burbank, and recorded The Academy In Peril (primarily instrumental) album, including Days Of Stream, which became the theme music for the Warhol/Morrissey movie Heat, and in return Warhol designed the Academy cover.
Last year Cale recorded Paris 1919 produced by Chris Thomas, with backing by Little Feat and UCLA orchestra. Ecstatic reviews, low sales.
Cale signed for Island this year. His contract specifies six albums in three years. Cale is currently recording and mixing his first album in London.
A collaboration with Terry Riley on Church Of Anthrax ended when Riley left Cale to finish the album on his own. An uneven record, remarkable for one excellent Cale song (The Soul Of Patrick Lee) and the title track, a brilliantly dense piece of production.
Cale's viola and bass and Riley's organ and saxophone create an impenetrable, organic vortex of sound. One of the all-time great headphones tracks, featuring the avant-garde at its funkiest.
Cale's first attempt to discover if he was a singer/songwriter was Vintage Violence on which he was aided by excellent backing from Grinders Switch. A few failures resulted from an attempt to do every style in the book (including bubblegum and C&W), but these are easily outweighed by Gideon's Bible, Big White Cloud, Charlemagne and Ghost Story, which displayed the same oblique self-assurance and musical elegance as Paris 1919.
Cloud begins with a swift string crescendo, which drags the listener straight into a grandiose wall of sound - a device that Spector could happily have used.
Ghost Story contains the albums most menacing lyrics, pleasantly swamped by a guitar-and-organ backing which accelerates into an uptempo improvisation and is then abruptly murdered by a simple snip of the type.
Lennon used the same device to end I Want You on Abbey Road, but it makes far more sense on Ghost Story.
John Cale is in deeper peril than the academic on The Academy In Peril album. The idea was to do a real symphony: Cale improvised some pieces on synthesizer in the studio, then transcribed and arranged them for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. With the benefit of hindsight, Cale thinks the original studio material was more interesting than the orchestra version.
There is sublime orchestral surrealism on Paris 1919. Under the guiding hand of Chris Thomas (who produced the early Floyd and Procol Harum) Cale found a synthesis for his classical musical education, his rather literally style of irony, and his ambition to be a pop singer/songwriter.
Yet another ghost provides the little song for Paris, but here the backing combines cello riffs, some ludicrous bird twittering sound effects, and a chorus of bubblegum style exorcism: "You're a ghost la la / I'm the church and I've come / To claim you with my iron drum."
A reggae tribute to Graham Greene fits the author's Catholic, guilt-ridden style of English surrealism inside a musical joke: Cale's clipped voice singing reggae sounds about convincing as the C. of E. preaching salvation - "Welcome back to Chipping Sodbury / You can have another chance."
And to end the album, Cale contributes his most frightening song, delivered in a paranoid whisper. Antarctica Starts Here ("Its just a cocaine song. I was going to call it Cocale.") conjures up a vision of lobotomised bleakness blotting out the smudged mascara of Hollywood's human wreckage.
Contradictions coalesce naturally around the man. From King's College Chapel psalm settings to screaming at plants till they died.
From an academic background in London to the twilight netherworld of The Velvet Underground. From musical celebrations of madness and perversion to an executive job with Warner Brothers.
Production and collaboration with both Iggy Pop (founding father of punk rock dementia) and Terry Riley, transparent, zany face floating happily across the cerebral systems of A Rainbow in Curved Air.
Does this represent a fascination with extremes? Does Cale see Iggy and Riley as opposite poles of a rock spectrum?
No, he doesn't. The quality Cale associated with Iggy is innocence. And he also felt Riley's music contained a hidden layer of funk which Cale wanted to emphasise on Church Of Anthrax. He was disappointed that Riley lost interest in the collaboration after recording it, and left Cale to finish producing and mixing the album on his own.
How did Cale relate to his staff jobs at SBS and Warner Bros - was he passing like a ghost through the industrial recording complex? No, it was work that he wanted.
Ever since he split from The Velvets, Cale seems to have been torn between a career as a producer/arranger A&R man and pursuing his own vision as a recording artist. But still he is very good at ghost stories.
The Soul Of Patrick Lee (the one song on Anthrax) sings of a spirit falling from the sky "down from Bangor with her eagles." 'King Harry' (the one song on Academy) is a tale of a monarch who is "but a whisper of his former self" told by a weird giggling/whispering voice.
'Ghost Story' (the best track on Violence according to Cale) ends with the words "It'll haunt you for the rest of your life."
Cale admits that his songs scramble together images and ideas in clever collages ("As the crowd begin complaining that the beaujolais is raining / Down on darkened meeting on the Champs Elysées") but claims that Lou Reed's directness ("I'm waiting for the man / Twenty-six dollars in my hand") is something he admires more.
"It's O.K. to cut up disparate things - but you've got to have an identity first."
Later he remarks. "I was masked on Vintage Violence, I didn't realise at the time but the cover tells you that. You're not really seeing the personality.
"There were glimmers of light on Paris - I was beginning to come through the cracks. But these songs - the ones I'm doing now - really make me feel I'm a songwriter for the first time. They're coming together and they're more abrasive than Paris.
"That album's all right but I dont want to make Procol Harum records for the rest of my life."
In the studio located a few yards from London's Kings Road. John Cale, Eno and Phil Manzanera are huddled around the mixing desk with the engineer, adding, overdubbing, arguing about each note.
Cale's voice booms out the monitor speakers, and images of underwater paranoia float around the control booth: "Barracuda, barracuda, won't you lay down your life for me? ...the ocean will have us all..." "Gotta get the organ in, gotta get the organ in," mutters Cale and he runs downstairs and starts pumping out some very lush '50s style organ chords.
"The ocean will have us all... the ocean will have us all..."
Cale runs back into the booth: "How does that sound?" "Put some reverb in," suggests are engineer and the organ reverberates obediently. "Careful" mutters Cale, "Echo is the opium of the poor musician."
More footsteps sound on the control booth stairs. An enormous man with blonde hair and very nervous manner enters. He is an actor from The Virginian and acts like a shy cowboy.
"I just came in to say that I'll be coming over later," he says.
"Great," says Cale. The Virginian exits.
The tapes roll again. "We need some brass in there to answer it... pah PAAH... pah PAAH," says Cale. "Can we get a French horn in?" "Do it on the organ," says Eno fervently, "Use the brass stop." "No, man," says Cale. "Real instruments are always better than the electronic version." "Two nil," says Phil Manzanera.
"You know what I hear there?" says Manzanera, "A very distorted guitar to answer those chords... pah PAAH... pah... PAAH." "That won't work," says the engineer gloomily, "You won't get any edge that way."
"We've got the chimes - let's try it on the chimes," says Cale. "The chimes of bondage flashing," mutters Eno dreamily. Cale and the engineer vanish to mike up the chimes. "Chimes won't work," says Eno when they've gone. "Too many weird harmonics in the chimes."
John Cale is leaping up and down in front of the mike rehearsing his vocals. As he sings the song again and again more madness enters his voice.
A girl wanders into the control booth looking lost and unstable. "I feel funny," she says as she sits on a chair and almost falls off it. Eno returns carrying a tray full of coffee cups: he gives one to the girl who's feeling funny. "Careful," says Eno. "It's very hot."
The girl gulps down the red-hot liquid. "That's better," she said. "Very domesticated of you, Eno," says an American girl in the booth. "Someone's got to remain normal here," replies Eno. "Someone's got to keep bloody normal."
The evening is rapidly mutating into a John Cale song. Cale is still leaping up and down screaming at the mike; everyone else is slumped in the control booth. The engineers rolls some more tape and a very beautiful, ethereal track with organ and twelve-string guitar starts playing.
A peaceful, happy expression flits across everyone's face as they listen to the music.
"This is the first evening we've ground to a halt," says Eno sadly. "It's been all go up to now." "Too much traffic passing through," says Phil Manzanera. "Too much traffic," echoes the engineer.
Two more people enter the control booth and sit down. "What's happening?" they ask in unison.
Downstairs, Cale is banging at the piano and singing to himself. The Virginian re-enters with a friend, a small man in a dark coat.
"Shit. I'm sorry to disturb you," says the Virginian, "but I might not be able to get back later. It's my birthday today and I've brought my friend."
"Have you heard what I'm working on?" asks Cale. "This is what my album really needs." And he starts banging the piano again and singing Deutschland Uber Alles very loudly.
The Virginian and his friend stare at Cale; they both look slightly puzzled. Above them, Eno is gazing down on the scene through the glass windows of the control booth.
His eyes glint in the studio twilight and he looks like a creature peering out of aquarium. Behind him the monitor speakers are still singing, "The ocean will have us all... the ocean will have us all..."