Listening to John Cale….

Distance lends enchantment, it’s said and I have to say that nowhere is that truer than with The Velvet Underground, the band which  gave the world its first taste of the music of John Cale.  Any discussion of 1960’s music with anyone born after 1990 always seems to get round to the Velvets sooner rather than later.  In the backwash of punk, it seems that the Velvets became – along with Bowie, Iggy and maybe the MC5 – one of the names that everyone had on their checklist.

Not that I would question the influence of the Velvets on punk and its aftermath; clearly their doomy thrash and glacial love songs influenced every rock  band that strutted its stuff in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  Play any album by – for example – Echo & the Bunnymen, Magazine, The Cure, Talking Heads or Japan from that era and the connections are crystal clear.  What it’s hard to convey to anyone who wasn’t there at the time, however, is that in the late 60’s, whilst we’d all heard the Velvets, they were regarded as a bit of an anomaly.   The perceived rain and grime of Warhol’s New York and the songs about heroin and black angels, the suppression of musical ‘chops’ in favour of mood and image – all of this didn’t sit that well alongside the Californian sunshine of all the Bay Area bands, Jimi’s purple haze or Pink Floyd’s English pastoralism.  Yes, we were aware of what the Velvets were doing, but they seemed to be a band born out of the New York art scene rather than out of the prevalent ‘youth culture’ of the time.  Talking to the early 20-somethings of today, however, it’s hard to convey to them that the Velvets just weren’t that big a deal in 1969.  We could all drift away in a lysergic haze to ‘Atom Heart Mother’ or ‘Rainy Day, Dream Away’ or ‘Dark Star’, but the full-on grunge of ‘Sister Ray’ failed to make the same kind of connection.   Then again, it probably wasn’t intended to.  In a nutshell, like many of my mates, I owned a couple of Velvets albums, but I rarely played them.

I was aware of John Cale’s presence in the band largely because of his viola playing.  Not exactly anyone’s  choice of classic rock’n’roll ‘axe’, but it’s always been an instrument I’ve liked.  I also knew he was Welsh.  And that was about it.  Once the original Velvets split up, I knew that Cale had made a couple of left-field albums for Columbia; one with trance/ambient pioneer, Terry Riley.  Then, out of nowhere, came ‘Paris 1919’. 

‘Paris 1919’ is one of those early 70’s albums – like ‘Surf’s Up’, Stackridge’s ‘Friendliness’ or the first Culpeper’s Orchard album – that were almost a soundtrack for my life at that time.  I can’t remember how I first heard it or who introduced me to it, but I remember clearly being delighted and amazed by the craft of Cale’s songwriting and the care with which the songs had been arranged.  It seemed almost an album divorced from any one genre, whilst partaking of most; there were bits of everything in there.  With hindsight, it seems an even more remarkable achievement, given that Cale used two players – Lowell George and Richie Hayward – from the archetypal blues/funk band Little Feat and jazz-funk bassist Wilton Felder from The Crusaders as his companions for this voyage of discovery.  It perhaps says a lot that the only track on the album where Lowell sounds like Lowell (so to speak) is ‘Macbeth’, which along with the cod-reggae ‘Graham Greene’, is one of the album’s more disappointing tracks.  The rest (not that there’s a lot of it; the album clocks in at about 31 minutes) is pretty much pure gold – and amazingly pastoral in tone, given Cale’s origins in the Velvets. 

Perhaps crucially ‘Paris 1919’  was recorded in Los Angeles, away from all that New York stuff.  Having said that, the lyrical content of the songs is relentlessly European – Wales, Dunkerque, Andalucia, Paris, Dundee, Norway – there are frequent references to these and other European locations and the title track, of course, addresses the year and the place in which the torch finally and unequivocally passed on to the newish kids on the block – the Americans who saved the Allied bacon on the Western front in 1918, just as they were do again in 1941.  Close to Paris, of course, is Versailles where that most fateful and short-sighted of peace treaties was imposed on the Germans and their allies and where the seeds of the next global conflict were sown.  1919 was a watershed year for Europe – a true fin-de-siecle.  Afterwards, all that Victorian/Edwardian pomp and circumstance began to recede into the distance until with the partition of India in 1948, or perhaps at Suez in 1956, it disappered completely.

Cale’s lyrics don’t really refer directly to all this history, but they somehow evoke the autumnal mood of that era. The songs have an elegaic feel to them which made ‘Paris 1919’  stand out from pretty much anything else that was around at the time, indicative of the fact that John Cale wasn’t bothered by contemporary trends and was just going his own way.  I can think of a few others that stood apart from ‘the pack’ in that way – Brian Wilson and his buddy Van Dyke Parks would be obvious nominations, as would Townes van Zandt.  You can supply further nominations I’m sure.

Now,  ‘Paris 1919’ has  become the latest ‘classic’ to get the expanded format treatment, with a second disc added.  This features one genuine outtake – ‘Burned Out Affair’, which sits nicely alongside the existing tracks.  Why it failed to appear on the (short) original release is beyond me.  In addition, Disc Two features quite a few alternate takes, some demos with just Cale on acoustic guitar and versions of the title track without strings and with just strings.  As I remarked when writing about the recently expanded ‘Exile on Main Street’, these expanded formats don’t always do the original album any favours and you sometimes end up wishing that the ‘extras’ had been left to moulder in the can.  Happily, this is not the case with the expanded ‘Paris 1919’ , where most of the extras offer a welcome insight into how these thumbnail sketches reached fruition on the original release. 

Listening to this expanded ‘Paris 1919’ has inspired me to dig out the next Cale album – ‘Fear’  from 1975 – probably his best.  More of that another time, maybe.

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