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John Cale beyond the Velvet Underground: Essential solo tracks, collaborations and productions

Written By: 
E. Little
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Essential tracks, collaborations, and productions from The Velvet Underground’s electric viola player, John Cale.

A few weeks ago, “The Velvet Underground,” director Todd Haynes’ documentary on the influential band, premiered on AppleTV+, and when it did, the quartet founded by Lou Reed and John Cale started trending in online conversations worldwide.

It goes without saying that the Velvet Underground’s first four albums, released between 1967 and 1970, are essential listens. And it’s equally true that Reed, who wrote many of the early songs with Cale, has generated way more attention than his collaborator Cale (who was unceremoniously fired from the band in 1968). The latter’s work is dense with visionary ideas and sounds. This is a man, after all, who worked with artists including La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, Angus MacLise and Marian Zazeela as he was getting to know Reed in New York City.

After Reed gave him the boot — well, made guitarist Sterling Morrison fire him at a cafe — Cale moved into the role of producer, solo artist and collaborator.

Below, a few astounding pieces that might crack open the door into your next obsession.

John Cale – I’ve Got a Secret

Those who have seen Haynes’ doc — and if you haven’t, it’s worth getting AppleTV+ for the month — know that “The Velvet Undergound” opens with this clip of Cale, then in his twenties, appearing on the game show “I’ve Got a Secret.” Haynes includes an excerpt. This is the entire segment.

The Stooges – We Will Fall (John Cale mix)

Not long after departing the Velvet Underground, Cale produced the first album by the Stooges. Starring a lithe, feral lead singer named Iggy Pop, the band’s self-titled debut is one of the great rock records, and arguably the first punk album. We Will Fall is the brilliant outlier on the album. Unlike the chugga-chugga rock songs that comprised the rest of The Stooges, it is an extended chant that could easily be eased into your next spiritual jazz mix.

John Cale – Amsterdam

Cale’s debut solo LP, Vintage Violence was a deeply personal singer-songwriter type album by an artist reflecting on his life, experiences, and the “people that know him well…” Though the album received mixed reviews upon release, it has since become a cult classic and one of Cale’s most beloved works. Interestingly, Cale himself doesn’t share that same reverence for the album. In his autobiography he states that there wasn’t “much originality on that album, it’s just someone teaching himself to do something.”

John Cale – Antarctica Starts Here

Though more known for his sonic aggression, Cale’s solo ballads and softer albums are endlessly fascinating. The best — and an essential addition to every collection — is “Paris 1919.” Released in 1973, the album was recorded in Los Angeles — where Cale currently lives (apparently in K-town!) — and features Little Feat’s Lowell George on guitar and Richie Hayward on drums. The bassist? The great Wilton Felder of the Crusaders. The orchestration? The UCLA Symphony Orchestra.

John Cale – Fear is a Man’s Best Friend

Taken from Cale’s magnificent 1975 album Fear, this song puts Cale’s skill as a songwriter on full display. It was filmed that same year at the Crystal Palace Concert Bowl in London.

Nico – Evening of Light

Former VU singer Nico’s criminally overlooked first few solo albums, issued when Cale was working as a full-time producer, find the pair reuniting for a brilliantly free-flowing work. It also generated an early music video — that featured the Stooges! — directed by art collector François de Menil. 

John Cale and Brian Eno – The River

Until recently, Cale and Brian Eno’s 1990 album “Wrong Way Up” had fallen through the cracks — or at least was rendered unavailable on streaming services. But in the past few years the miraculously deep album has been reissued, remastered for streaming services and issued on vinyl. It’s a welcome turn of events — though bargain hunters can still find it cheap on CD — for lesser-known masterpiece.

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