John Davies Cale, OBE, is a Welsh musician, composer, singer-songwriter and record producer who was a founding member of the American experimental rock band the Velvet Underground.
Over his five-decade career, Cale has worked in various styles across rock, drone, classical, avant-garde, and electronic music. He studied music at Goldsmiths College, University of London, before relocating to New York City’s downtown music scene in the mid-1960s, where he performed as part of the Theatre of Eternal Music and formed the Velvet Underground. Since leaving the band in 1968, he has released approximately 30 albums. Of his solo work, Cale is perhaps best known for his album Paris 1919, and his cover version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, plus his mid-1970s Island Records trilogy of albums: Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy.
Cale has produced or collaborated with Lou Reed, Nico, La Monte Young, John Cage, Terry Riley, Hector Zazou, Cranes, Nick Drake, Mike Heron, Kevin Ayers, Brian Eno, Patti Smith, the Stooges, Lio, the Modern Lovers, Art Bergmann, Manic Street Preachers and frontman James Dean Bradfield, Super Furry Animals, Marc Almond, Element of Crime, Squeeze, Happy Mondays, LCD Soundsystem, the Replacements, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Animal Collective. He produced the first albums of the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, Patti Smith, Squeeze, and Happy Mondays.
Cale was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Velvet Underground in 1996, and appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2010.
Early life and career
John Cale was born on 9 March 1942 in Garnant in the heavily industrial Amman Valley of Wales to Will Cale and Margaret Davies. His mother was a primary school teacher and his father was a coal miner. Although Will spoke only English, Margaret brought John up to speak only Welsh. Being unable to speak the same language as his father naturally hindered their relationship. John finally began learning English at primary school, at around the age of seven.
Cale was molested by two different men during his childhood. One of the men was an Anglican priest who molested him in a church.
Having discovered a talent for viola, Cale studied music at Goldsmiths College, University of London. While he was there he organised an early Fluxus concert, A Little Festival of New Music, on 6 July 1964. He also contributed to the short film Police Car and had two scores published in Fluxus Preview Review (July 1963) for the nascent avant-garde collective. He conducted the first performance in the UK of Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with the composer and pianist Michael Garrett as soloist. He also enjoyed rock music from an early age and in 1963 he travelled to the United States to continue his musical training, thanks to the help and influence of Aaron Copland.
In New York City Cale met a number of influential composers. On 9 September 1963 he participated, along with John Cage and several others, in an 18-hour piano-playing marathon that was the first full-length performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations”. After the performance Cale appeared on the television panel show I’ve Got a Secret. Cale’s secret was that he had performed in an 18-hour concert, and he was accompanied by a man whose secret was that he was the only member of the audience who had stayed for the duration.
Cale also played in La Monte Young and Tony Conrad’s ensemble the Theatre of Eternal Music, also known as the Dream Syndicate (not to be confused with the 1980s band of the same name). The heavily drone-laden music he played there proved to be a big influence in his work with his next group, the Velvet Underground. One of his collaborators on these recordings was the Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison. Three albums of his early experimental work from this period were released in 2001.
The Velvet Underground (1964–1968)
In early 1965, he co-founded the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed, recruiting his flatmate Angus MacLise and Reed’s college friend Sterling Morrison to complete the initial line-up. Cale left the band in September 1968, owing in part to creative disagreements with Reed.
Just before the group’s first paying gig for $75 USD at a high school gig in Summit, New Jersey, MacLise abruptly quit the group due to viewing accepting money for art as selling out and was replaced by Maureen Tucker as the group’s drummer. Initially hired to play that one show, she soon became a permanent member and her tribal pounding style became an integral part of the group’s music, despite the initial objections of Cale. The very first commercially available recording of the Velvet Underground, an instrumental track called “Loop” given away with Aspen Magazine, was a feedback experiment written and conducted by Cale. His creative relationship with Reed was integral to the sound of the Velvet Underground’s first two albums, The Velvet Underground & Nico (recorded in 1966, released in 1967) and White Light/White Heat (recorded in 1967, released in 1968). On these albums he plays viola, bass guitar and piano, and sings occasional backing vocals. White Light/White Heatfeatures Cale on organ (on “Sister Ray”) as well as two vocal turns: “Lady Godiva’s Operation”, an experimental song where he shares lead vocal duties with Reed, and “The Gift”, a long spoken word piece written by Reed. Though Cale co-wrote the music to several songs, his most distinctive contribution is the electrically amplified viola and he also played the celesta on “Sunday Morning”.
Cale also played on Nico’s 1967 debut album, Chelsea Girl, which features songs co-written by Velvet Underground members Cale, Reed and Morrison, who also feature as musicians. Cale makes his debut as lyricist on “Winter Song” and “Little Sister”.
Apart from appearing on these three albums, he also played organ on the track “Ocean” during the practice sessions to produce demos for the band’s fourth album Loaded, nearly two years after he left the band. He was enticed back into the studio by the band’s manager, Steve Sesnick, “in a half-hearted attempt to reunite old comrades”, as Cale put it. Although he does not appear on the finished album, the demo recording of “Ocean” was included in the 1997 Loaded: Fully Loaded Edition re-issue. Finally, five previously unreleased tracks recorded in late 1967 and early 1968 were included on the albums VU (1985) and Another View (1986).
With tensions between Reed and Cale growing, Reed gave an ultimatum to Morrison and Tucker, declaring that unless Cale was fired, he would quit the band. Morrison and Tucker reluctantly went along with the scheme. In September 1968, Cale played his final gig with the Velvets at the Boston Tea Party and according to Tucker, “When John left, it was really sad. I felt really bad. And of course, this was gonna really influence the music, ’cause, John’s a lunatic (laughs). I think we became a little more normal, which was fine, it was good music, good songs, it was never the same though. It was good stuff, a lot of good songs, but, just, the lunacy factor was… gone.” After his dismissal from the band, Cale was replaced by Doug Yule, a singer, bassist and organist.
Michael Carlucci, who was friends with Robert Quine, has given this explanation about Cale’s dismissal, “Lou told Quine that the reason why he had to get rid of Cale in the band was Cale’s ideas were just too out there. Cale had some wacky ideas. He wanted to record the next album with the amplifiers underwater, and [Lou] just couldn’t have it. He was trying to make the band more accessible.”
Arguably, the artistic frictions between Cale and Reed are what shaped the group’s early sound much more than any other members. The pair often had heated disagreements about the direction of the group, and this tension was central to their later collaborations. When Cale left, he seemed to take the more experimentalist tendencies with him, as is noticeable in comparing the noise rock of White Light/White Heat (which Cale co-created) to the folk rock of The Velvet Underground, recorded after his departure.
After leaving the Velvet Underground, Cale worked as a record producer and arranger on a number of albums, including Nico’s The Marble Index, Desertshore and (later on Island) The End…. On these he accompanied Nico’s voice and harmonium using a wide array of instruments to unusual effect. He also produced the Stooges’ self-titled debut. While meeting with producer Joe Boyd, he came across Nick Drake’s music and insisted on collaborating with him. He appeared on Nick Drake’s second album, Bryter Layter, playing viola and harpsichord on “Fly” and piano, organ, and celesta on “Northern Sky”.
In 1970, in addition to his career as a producer, Cale began to make solo records. His first, the pastoral Vintage Violence, is generally classified as folk-pop. Shortly thereafter, his collaboration with another classical musician, Terry Riley, on the mainly instrumental Church of Anthrax, was released, although it was actually recorded almost a year prior. His classical explorations continued with 1972’s The Academy in Peril. He would not compose in the classical mode again until he began composing for soundtracks in the 1980s.
In 1972 he signed with Reprise Records as performer and in-house producer. The Academy in Peril was his first project for Reprise. His third solo record Paris 1919 (1973) steered back towards the singer-songwriter mode; made up of songs with arcane and complex lyrics, it has been cited by critics as one of his best. While at Reprise he produced albums by Jennifer Warnes (her third, Jennifer), Chunky, Novi & Ernie, and the Modern Lovers, their first, which Reprise chose not to release: it subsequently appeared on Beserkley Records, the first of a number of important Cale-produced proto-punk records. In 1974 he joined Island, working on records with Squeeze, Patti Smith, and Sham 69, among others. During this period, he was also a talent scout with Island’s A&R department.
Moving back to London, Cale made a series of solo albums which moved in a new direction. His records now featured a dark and threatening aura, often carrying a sense of barely suppressed aggression. A trilogy of albums – Fear, Slow Dazzle, and Helen of Troy – were recorded with other Island artists including Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno of Roxy Music, and Chris Spedding, who featured in his live band. This era of Cale’s music is perhaps best represented by his somewhat disturbing cover of Elvis Presley’s iconic “Heartbreak Hotel”, featured both on Slow Dazzle and the live album June 1, 1974, recorded with Kevin Ayers, Nico and Eno, and by his frothing performance on “Leaving It Up To You”, a savage indictment of the mass media first released on Helen of Troy (1975), but quickly deleted from later editions of the record due perhaps to the song’s pointed Sharon Tate reference. Both “Leaving It Up To You” and “Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend” (from Fear) begin as relatively conventional songs that gradually grow more paranoid in tone before breaking down into what critic Dave Thompson calls “a morass of discordance and screaming”.
In 1977 he released the Animal Justice EP, notable particularly for the epic “Hedda Gabler”, based very loosely on the Ibsen play. His often loud, abrasive and confrontational live performances fitted well with the punk rock scene developing on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Cale took to wearing a hockey goaltender’s mask onstage: see the cover of the Gutscompilation (1977). This look predated Friday the 13th‘s villain, Jason Voorhees, by several years. During one gig in Croydon he chopped the head off a dead chicken with a meat cleaver, and his band walked offstage in protest. Cale’s drummer – a vegetarian – was so bothered he quit the group. Cale mocks his decision on “Chicken Shit” from the Animal Justice EP. Cale has admitted that some of his paranoia and erratic behaviour at this time was associated with heavy cocaine use.
In December 1979, Cale’s embrace of the punk rock ethic culminated in the release of Sabotage/Live. This record, recorded live at CBGB that June, features aggressive vocal and instrumental performances. The album consists entirely of new songs, many of which grapple confrontationally with global politics and paranoia. The band included Deerfrance on vocals and percussion. An earlier live set, consisting mostly of new material, was recorded at CBGB the previous year. It was released in 1991 as Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The band on that recording includes Ivan Kral of the Patti Smith Group on bass and Judy Nylon on vocals.
Cale performing in Toronto, 1980
In 1980 Cale signed with A&M Records and moved in a more commercial direction with the album Honi Soit. He worked with producer Mike Thorne towards this end. Andy Warhol provided the cover art, in black and white, but against Warhol’s wishes Cale colourised it. The new direction did not succeed commercially, however, and his relationship with A&M ended.
He signed with Ze Records, a company he had influenced the creation of and which had absorbed Spy Records, the label he had co-founded with Jane Friedman. The next year Cale released the sparse Music for a New Society. Seeming to blend the refined music of his early solo work with the threatening music that came later, it is by any standard a bleak, harrowing record. It’s been called “understated, and perhaps a masterpiece.”
He followed up with the album Caribbean Sunset, also on Ze Records. This work, with much more accessible production than Music for a New Society, was still extremely militant in some ways. It has never seen release on CD. A live album, John Cale Comes Alive, followed it and included two new studio songs, “Ooh La La” and “Never Give Up On You”. Different mixes of the two studio tracks appeared on both sides of the Atlantic. His daughter Eden Cale was born in July 1985.
In a last effort at commercial success, Cale recorded Artificial Intelligence, his only album for Beggars Banquet records. This album, written in collaboration with Larry “Ratso” Sloman and with compositional contributions from James Young, was characterised by synthesisers and drum machines and is entirely written in the pop idiom. It was not significantly more successful than its predecessors, despite the relative success of the single “Satellite Walk”. However, “Dying on the Vine” is generally regarded as one of Cale’s best songs.
In part because of his young daughter, Cale took a long break from recording and performing. He made a comeback in 1989 with vocal and orchestral settings of poems by Dylan Thomas. Notable among these is “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, which he performed on stage in the concert held in Cardiff in 1999 to celebrate the opening of the Welsh Assembly. The music was recorded in 1992 with a Welsh boys’ choir and a Russian orchestra, on an Eno-produced album: Words for the Dying. This album also included a pair of electric piano “Songs Without Words” and a Cale/Eno collaboration, “The Soul of Carmen Miranda”.
In 1990 he again collaborated with Eno, on an album entitled Wrong Way Up, the accessible and uptempo album at odds with Cale’s description of the fraught relationship between the pair.
Then in 1991 Cale contributed one song, “Hallelujah”, to the tribute album to Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Fan. Cale’s mid-tempo acoustic version was performed on piano, and his arrangement formed the basis of most subsequent covers of the song, which has since become a standard.
In 1992 Cale performed vocals on two songs, “Hunger” and “First Evening”, on French producer Hector Zazou’s album Sahara Blue. All lyrics on the album were based on the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. In 1994, Cale performed a spoken-word duet with Suzanne Vega on the song “The Long Voyage” on Zazou’s album Chansons des mers froides. The lyrics were based on the poem “Les Silhouettes” by Oscar Wilde, and Cale co-wrote the music with Zazou. It was later released as a single (retitled “The Long Voyages” as it featured several remixes by Zazou, Mad Professor, and more).
Songs for Drella saw him reunited with Reed, in a tribute to one-time Velvet Underground manager and mentor Andy Warhol. In his autobiography, Cale revealed that he resented letting Lou take charge of the project. The longstanding friction between the two contributed to the passion and lurching frustration evident in the sound of the album, as did the ambivalent relationship Reed had to Warhol. The collaboration eventually led to the brief reunion of the Velvet Underground in 1993.
In 1996 Cale released Walking on Locusts which turned out to be his only solo album of the decade. The record featured appearances by David Byrne and original Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker.
Nico, an instrumental ballet score and tribute to the singer, was performed by Scapino Rotterdam along with a selection from The Marble Index in 1998, with the score released as Dance Music. That same year, Cale was also the organiser of the “With a Little Help from My Friends” festival that took place at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. The concert was shown on Dutch national television and featured a song specially composed for the event and still unreleased, “Murdering Mouth”, sung in duet with Siouxsie Sioux.
Cale has also written a number of film soundtracks, often using more classically influenced instrumentation. His autobiography, What’s Welsh for Zen?, was published in 1999 by Bloomsbury, a collaboration with Victor Bockris, author of a controversial biography of Lou Reed.
2000s to present
Signing to EMI in 2003 with the EP Five Tracks and the album HoboSapiens, Cale again returned as a regular recording artist, this time with music influenced by modern electronica and alternative rock. The well received album was co-produced with Nick Franglen of Lemon Jelly. That record was followed with 2005’s album BlackAcetate.
In 2005 Cale produced Austin singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo’s eighth album, The Boxing Mirror, which was released in May 2006. In June 2006, Cale released a radio and digital single, “Jumbo in tha Modernworld”, that was unconnected to any album. A video was created for the song as well.
In March 2007 a 23-song live retrospective, Circus Live, was released in Europe. This two-disc album, composed of recordings from both the 2004 and 2006 tours, featured new arrangements and reworkings of songs from his entire career. Of particular interest is the Amsterdam Suite, a set of songs from a performance at the Amsterdam Paradiso in 2004. A studio-created drone has been edited into these songs. The set also included a DVD, featuring electric rehearsal material and a short acoustic set, as well as the video for “Jumbo in tha Modernworld”, a 2006 single.
In May 2007 Cale contributed a cover of the LCD Soundsystem song “All My Friends” to the vinyl and digital single releases of the LCD Soundsystem original. Cale has continued to work with other artists, contributing viola to Replica Sun Machine, the Danger Mouse-produced second album by London psychedelic trio the Shortwave Set and producing the second album of American indie band Ambulance Ltd.
On 11 October 2008 Cale hosted an event to pay tribute to Nico called “Life Along the Borderline” in celebration of what, five days later, would have been her 70th birthday. This event featured many artists including James Dean Bradfield, Mark Lanegan, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, the Fiery Furnaces, Guillemots, Nick Franglen of Lemon Jelly, Peter Murphy, Liz Green, and Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance. The event was reprised at the Teatro Communale in Ferrara, Italy on 10 May 2009, with Mercury Rev, Mark Lanegan, Lisa Gerrard, Peter Murphy, Soap&Skin and Mark Linkous.
Cale represented Wales at the 2009 Venice Biennale, collaborating with artists, filmmakers, and poets, and focusing the artwork on his relationship with the Welsh language.
In January 2010 Cale was invited to be the first Eminent Art in Residence (EAR) at the Mona Foma festival curated by Brian Ritchie held in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. His work for the 2009 Venice Biennale ‘Dyddiau Du (dark days)’ was shown at the festival, along with a number of live performances at venues around Hobart.
The Paris 1919 album was performed, in its entirety, at the Coal Exchange Cardiff on 21 November 2009, at the Royal Festival Hall in London on 5 March 2010, and the Theatre Royal in Norwich on 14 May 2010. These performances were reprised in Paris on 5 September 2010; Brescia, Italy, on 11 September 2010; Los Angeles on 30 September 2010 at UCLA’s Royce Hall; Melbourne, Australia, on 16 October 2010; Barcelona, Spain, on 28 May 2010 and Essen, Germany, on 6 October 2011.
Cale was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2010 Birthday Honours
In February 2011 Cale signed a record deal with Domino Records subsidiary Double Six and released an EP, Extra Playful, in September 2011.
In May 2011 Cale and his band appeared at the Brighton Festival, performing songs to the theme of Émigré/Lost & Found. Cale appeared at the invitation of the human rights advocate and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who was the festival’s guest director.
In the autumn of 2012 Cale released Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, his first full-length studio album since 2005. The album features a collaboration with Danger Mouse, “I Wanna Talk 2 U”. Critical reception of the album was mixed to positive, with The Guardian newspaper describing it as “an album that combines the 70-year-old’s experience with the glee of a small child”
In 2014 he appeared as vendor in an episode “Sorrowsworn” of the television series The Bridge.
Cale released his sixteenth solo album M:FANS in January 2016. It features new versions of songs from his 1982 album Music for a New Society.
In July 2016 Cale performed the songs “Valentine’s Day”, “Sorrow” and “Space Oddity” at a late-night BBC Prom concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London, celebrating the music of David Bowie.
In 1968 John Cale married fashion designer Betsey Johnson. The couple divorced less than a year later.
In 1971 Cale met Cynthia “Cindy” Wells, better known as Miss Cindy of the GTOs and they married soon afterward. Their marriage was rocky and they divorced in 1975.
On 6 October 1981 Cale married his third wife, Risé Irushalmi, and they had one daughter together, Eden Myfanwy Cale, born 14 July 1985.They divorced in 1997.
As a child, Cale suffered from severe bronchial issues, which led to a doctor prescribing him opiates. He would come to rely on the drug in order to fall asleep. Biographer Tim Mitchell claims Cale’s early dependence on medicine was a “formative experience”. Cale later told an interviewer that, “When I got to New York, drugs were everywhere, and they quickly became part of my artistic experiment”.
He was heavily involved in New York’s drug scene of the 1960s and 1970s, with cocaine as his drug of choice. He is said to have “taken most of the available drugs in the United States. Cale has said that, “In the ’60s, for me, drugs were a cool experiment… In the ’70s, I got in over my head.” He now feels his drug addiction negatively affected his music during the 1980s, and that he decided to clean up following a series of embarrassing concerts and the birth of his daughter. According to a 2009 BBC interview, the “strongest drug” he was then taking was tea. Cale has also hosted a documentary called Heroin, Wales and Me to promote awareness of the problems of heroin addiction, easy availability and low cost of the drug in his native Wales and thousands of addicts.
- Studio albums
- Vintage Violence (1970)
- The Academy in Peril (1972)
- Paris 1919 (1973)
- Fear (1974)
- Slow Dazzle (1975)
- Helen of Troy (1975)
- Honi Soit (1981)
- Music for a New Society (1982)
- Caribbean Sunset (1984)
- Artificial Intelligence (1985)
- Words for the Dying (1989)
- Walking on Locusts (1996)
- HoboSapiens (2003)
- blackAcetate (2005)
- Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood (2012)
- M:FANS (2016)
- Live albums
- Sabotage/Live (1979)
- John Cale Comes Alive (1984)
- Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1991)
- Fragments of a Rainy Season (1992)
- Circus Live (2007)
- John Cale & Band Live (Rockpalast 1983 & 1984) (2010)
- Collaborative studio albums
- Church of Anthrax (with Terry Riley) (1971)
- Songs for Drella (with Lou Reed) (1990)
- Wrong Way Up (with Brian Eno) (1990)
- Last Day on Earth (with Bob Neuwirth) (1994)