Born on December 5, 1942 (some sources say 1940), in Garnant (some sources say Crynant), Wales; married briefly to a woman named Cyndrella, c. 1970. Education: Attended Goldsmith College, London; attended Guildhall School of Music, London; studied with composer Humphrey Searle; studied with Iannis Xenakis and Aaron Copland at Tanglewood Music Center, c. 1963. Addresses: Record company--EMI Records Limited, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5SW, United Kingdom, phone: 020 7795 7000; 37 West 17th St., Ste. 5 W., New York, NY 10011. Website--John Cale Official Website:

In 1968, having become increasingly dissatisfied with his marginal role in the Velvet Underground, John Cale left the enormously influential avant-garde rock group to embark on a prolific solo career. Cale's talents as a classically trained arranger and his interest in experimentalism had lent the Velvet Underground much of their mystique and musical sophistication. In addition to utilizing these elements, Cale's solo career proved that he was also a great songwriter and a mesmerizing performer---capable of both a dream-like frailty and a phobic fury that earned him the reputation as a progenitor of the late 1970s punk rock movement.

Born in Wales in 1942, Cale trained as a concert violinist at an early age. Although he had heard rock and roll, he became primarily involved in electronic music and performance art after entering London's Goldsmith College. He received a scholarship in 1963 to study at the prestigious Tanglewood music center in Massachusetts with famed American composer Aaron Copland and Franco-Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. At Tanglewood, Cale was not allowed to play his own pieces because they were considered too violent---one involved smashing a table with an axe. After Tanglewood, he gravitated to New York City, where he worked with leading avant-gardist La Monte Young and his performing group Theatre of Eternal Music. Cale then fell sway to the underground arts scene; in 1966, with singer/songwriter Lou Reed, he formed the Velvet Underground, which soon became associated with pop artist Andy Warhol.

Although his viola, bass, and musical approach was a significant influence on the band, Cale did not contribute to the writing of the group's material, and was occasionally intimidated by Reed's compositional authority. "I did very little with the Velvets," he explained in the book Beyond the Velvet Underground. "It was very educational in its own way, but my contribution was, I felt, quite minimal."

Cale's first solo release, 1969's Vintage Violence, was a collection of pop songs sharing straightforward arrangements and a markedly detached surrealism. A promising debut, it featured a masked Cale on the cover. But in Interview, Cale said of the album, "You don't see the personality. I didn't realize it until I put the thing out, but the cover was really more about the album than I had thought."

Cale then recorded three albums that explored his classical background. Church of Anthrax was a collaboration with avant-garde composer Terry Riley. John Rockwell of the New York Times remarked of the effort, "The results didn't always work, but they were never less than interesting." In 1972 Cale set out to record his first purely classical album. However, after deciding that the three symphonic pieces he had composed did not work well on their own, he added other music to the project. The final product was titled The Academy in Peril, which Rockwell called "an absolutely fascinating amalgam of quasi-movie music orchestral pieces, fragments of rock, dream-like sustained chordal textures with disembodied voice-overs and bizarre ... arrangements."

Paris 1919, released in 1973, is regarded by many as Cale's best work. Cale made the most of both his classical and pop sensibilities to create a natural blend of sheer pop elegance, as his dark baritone delivered an eerie, post-World War I geo-political dream diary. Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone called Paris 1919 "a pop masterpiece ... closer to being a finished work of art than any previous attempt to effect a rock-classical synthesis," as well as "the most ambitious album ever released under the name 'pop.'" The New York Times observed, "What really binds the album together is a pervasive sense of dream-like distance, a sort of sadly schizophrenic nostalgia for something that has more to do with one's own memories than a particular place in time."

Despite the critical raves, Paris 1919 sold poorly. During this time Cale worked as a staff producer at Warner Bros. He then signed a six-record deal with Island and moved back to England, where he began another phase of his career. In 1974 he told Creem magazine, "There were glimmers of light on Paris 1919---I was beginning to come through the cracks. But these songs I'm doing now, make me feel like I'm a songwriter for the first time."

Soon after, Cale began to work with enigmatic art-rock high priest Brian Eno; the relationship remained an important one throughout both artists' careers. Cale made a rare live appearance on the album June 1, 1974, recorded in Paris with Kevin Ayers, Eno, and Cale's Velvet Underground colleague Nico. Cale's contribution included a blood-curdling rendition of the Elvis Presley classic "Heartbreak Hotel." Aided by Eno and Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, Cale released Fear in 1975, stripping down the dreamy string effects that had become his trademark. Fear found Cale's paranoid delusions driving him to lyrical fury, and Eno's eccentricities inspiring him to create the abrasive sound demonstrated on the songs "Gun" and "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend."

Cale's next four albums, Slow Dazzle, Helen of Troy, Animal Justice, and Sabotage/Live, continued to explore a morbid recklessness and an assortment of threatening, claustrophobic nightmares commanded by the singer's tense, brooding vocals. Richard Mortifoglio of the Village Voice called Sabotage/Live "Cale's best songwriting to date." These records played an influential role in the punk rock movement that flowered in the late 1970s, and Cale's outrageous performances during this period were highly acclaimed and often controversial. Cale's output through the early 1980s sought to widen his audience; although the music remained dark, it became less dangerous and more diffuse. His work received favorable reviews, but he did not see the commercial success he had hoped to achieve.

In 1986 Cale teamed with Eno again, on Words for the Dying, a work comprised of two lengthy orchestral pieces and one shorter section. In 1989, "Falklands Suite," along with "Songs Without Words," comprised an ambitious, elegiac orchestral work that was recorded by the Orchestra of Symphonic and Popular Music of Gosteleradio in Moscow.

In 1990 Wrong Way Up was the first project in which Cale and Eno collaborated fully to produce a completely joint album. It was also Eno's first pop vocal performance in years. Rolling Stone contributor David Fricke called the release "a gem, if an oddly anachronistic one. [Cale and Eno's] trademarks---launching synth patterns, carefully plucked guitar strings, self-consciously simple lyrics, chant-like choruses and echoey production---have been so plundered by their proteges over the years that they have lost some of their initial mystique."

The remainder of the 1990s was a busy time for Cale. He collaborated with Bob Neuwirth on the stage production and recording for The Last Day on Earth in 1994, and released the solo efforts Antartida in 1994 and Walking on Locusts in 1996. Also in 1996, Cale joined the re-formed Velvet Underground for several concerts in Europe. Before the group could bring their historical act to the United States, however, renewed tensions between Cale and Reed surfaced, and the pair vowed never to work with one another again. In 1998 Cale paid homage to his former Velvet Underground collaborator Nico by composing a song cycle to accompany a dance performance in her honor.

As the new century dawned, Cale witnessed his earliest recordings of the 1960s resurface on three different recordings, Inside the Dream Syndicate, Vol. 1: Day of Niagra (1965), Inside the Dream Syndicate, Vol. 2: Dream Interpretation, and Inside the Dream Syndicate, Vol. 3: Stainless Gamelan. This series of albums was recorded with fellow avant-garde musicians La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, Angus Maclise, and Marian Zazeela. The Dream Syndicate recordings represented a compelling aural offering of music from one of the headiest eras of avant-garde musical history.

In 2003 Cale released HoboSapiens, a collection of original songs that he released on the EMI label. The album earned critical praise from Uncut magazine, which named the recording its number three album of the year. Much of the album was composed in the studio, with songs taking shape around tape loops, samples, and electronic sounds. "I like that it was so fast and I could change my mind about things very quickly and move on," Cale told Rolling Stone.

The work Cale produced for other artists is as significant as his own solo recordings. His first landmark work outside the Velvet Underground was his production of the Stooges' With the Stooges, a collection of three-chord Detroit-style punk that was many years ahead of its time. Cale also produced Patti Smith's highly acclaimed debut album, Horses, and Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers' first two records, in 1976. In 1977 he worked with Squeeze on their debut. Although Cale's style as a producer has varied from album to album, he has consistently demonstrated a willingness to present artists as honestly as he can, and has made it his mission to produce powerful statements that are as much about the raw personality of the artist as they are about the artist's music.

by Glenn Rechler and Bruce Walker

John Cale's Career

Recording and performing artist, producer; participated in Boston Symphony summer festival and performed with La Mont Young's Theatre of Eternal Music, mid-1960s; co-founder and member of the Velvet Underground, 1966-68; released first solo album, Vintage Violence, on Columbia Records, 1969; staff producer and A&R representative for Warner Bros. and Elektra Records, consultant for Columbia Records, early 1970s; contributed soundtracks to films Heat, 1972, and Caged Heat, 1974; signed with Island Records; signed with Opal Records, 1989. Producer of the Stooges' The Stooges, Elektra, 1969; Jennifer Warnes's Jennifer, 1972; Patti Smith's Horses, 1975; Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers' The Modern Lovers, 1976; Squeeze's U.K. Squeeze, 1977; and the Happy Mondays' Squirrel and G-Man ...., 1987; released HoboSapiens, 2003.

John Cale's Awards

Leonard Bernstein Fellowship, 1963.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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