This article first appeared in RIOT (#02) January 2006
The Velvet Underground are considered by many to be one of the most influential bands of their time. Despite a recording career that lasted just four years, they produced a remarkable catalogue of music, most of which is renowned for it’s uncompromising nature and bipolar sound.
John Cale only contributed to two of the four official Underground albums (let’s never discuss Squeeze), but as the man behind the viola freak-outs that colour most of their debut, he played a major role in shaping the group’s trademark sound. Almost forty years after it’s release (produced-in the very loosest sense of the term-by pop art icon Andy Warhol), Cale recalls the recording of their debut album with a wry sense of nostalgia.
“Andy fell into a role of waving a magic wand and getting the money together to get the album made. I think he, together with the CBS head of distribution, paid $1500. The studio was like working in a carpentry store. Floorboards were up, there were piles of carpet, we would put amps wherever we found a spot. Andy didn’t say a word. The recording engineer (Omi Haden) was trying to gee us up, and we were thinking ‘just press record’. Andy wrote down fourteen song titles, and Lou (Reed) would go off and write them. Lou needed that. He loved writing that way”.
The Velvet Underground and Nico, the album born from these sessions, was released in March 1967 and sank without a trace, although the band were popular in less mainstream circles. Although they weren’t directly monitoring the music coming out around them, Cale concedes that the band were amazed by the work of some of their contemporaries such as Ray Davies (The Kinks) and Bob Dylan. “We always loved John Lennon and his psychedelic edge”, Cale states. “At that time Bob Dylan was getting under their (The Beatles) skin. Every time there was a new Dylan track we were saying ‘holy shit, how angry is this guy’. We loved Ray Davies, with the Village Green album- ‘people take pictures of each other, just to prove that they really existed’. I loved the idea of that.”
After the uncompromising White Light/White Heat album, released to even less acclaim than their debut, Cale left The Velvet Underground. The rocky relationship between him and Reed had become unworkable. Even now, almost forty years later, the subject is still a touchy one. When asked whether he and Reed have reconciled their differences, Cale becomes defensive.
“No”, he states firmly. “We have a business relationship, we sit with lawyers. There is an air of suspended animation. We don’t have regular conversations. I’m interested in what I am doing now, not what we did in 1967”.
Which brings us to Cale’s latest album, Black Acetate, inspired by modern day R&B artists such as Pharrell Williams and (gasp) Snoop Dogg. “I purposely went for a more rhythmic approach. Working on getting ‘Fonky’. That’s F.O.N.K.Y. Snoop, Dre…they are inspiring. My new songs have tremendous variety. I hope that it paves the way for a knighthood”, he says, tongue firmly planted in cheek.