If John Cale can be considered a Sancho Panza to Lou Reed
’s sometimes Quixotic pop avatar, it’s only through imprecise interpretation of the obvious. True, few will contest Cale’s role as second fiddle, viola as it were, to Reed’s presence both in regards to the Velvet Underground
and in pop music culture at large. The power struggle amongst the seminal proto punks ended with Reed at the band’s helm; Cale took his walking papers. “Walk on the Wild Side” became an A.M. radio standard; “Guts” is. . . not quite as radio-friendly. And even amongst the scores of obscurity-adoring rock and roll record collectors, the Cult of Reed is at least two-fold the size of Cale’s.
For those keeping score at home:
But in spite of his seemingly minor career blip on the radar of popular consciousness, the worth of Cale’s body of work is both obviously rich and plainly enjoyable. His contributions to the first two Velvet Underground albums were made apparent enough after his departure and the band’s subsequent change in style. His influence on a generation of musicians is well d0cumented by virtue of production credits on more than a couple punk rock landmarks, including works by the Stooges
, the Modern Lovers
, Patti Smith
et al. And his solo endeavors, although they might not strike one as wholly groundbreaking, are chocked with plenty of gems.
Take a look at Fear
, for instance. Following a series of underwhelming middle-of-the-road but off-kilter pop albums, a couple of avant-garde and neo-classical indulgences as well as a stray collaboration here and there, Cale enlisted the whole of Roxy Music
(sans Bryan Ferry
) to back up him up for his next solo release. The product, typical of most of Cale’s early oeuvre, is a collection of atypical pop rock, built upon an eccentric lyricism that expose a hint of depravity carried over from his White Light/White Heat
The biggest change and ultimately, the strongest factor towards Fear
’s success in the wake of all the middling, is indeed the presence of the Roxy Musicians. Surprisingly, however, Brian Eno
’s efforts are not a truly noticeable. His contributions here are seemingly slim; his instrument is simply credited as “Eno,” implying his greatest contribution was his simple presence. Guitarist Phil Manzanera
, on the other hand, is the most apparent musical force. Manzanera makes himself felt in a similar fashion to his flourishes on Eno’s solo albums, adding guitar work understated enough to allow Cale’s peculiar songcraft to remain the album’s most prominent feature.
Thus, all the quirks of Cale’s early song writing chops are on exceptional display here, as declared by album opener “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend.” Cale’s dreamy piano melody suckers the listener in, growing more emphatic and piling alongside the rhythm section in the throbbing chorus. By the end, the track devolves into a muddled, anarchic mess focused on a tortured Cale yelping, “Sane fear is a man’s best friend!” The song’s final dissonant harangue is solo Cale’s first musical reminder of those hoary ol’ days of late 60’s amphetamine rock that Cale cultivated beside Reed, Tucker and Morrison. They probably already felt like an era away.
The 8-minute “Gun” also returns to those old visions of death, urban social freaks and guitar feedback squalls, even more so than “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend.” Opening Side B, “Gun” acts as the album’s centerpiece, the one moment where Cale allows Manzanera to open up the album with some truly searing guitar work. It’s a plodding song, mid-tempo, but urged on by the fierce screeds of Manzanera’s destructive weapon. Cale’s sinister delivery also pushes the song on; he runs through a series of brief character portraits and events, almost non-sequiturs, that bring to mind the drug-fevered depictions of “Sister Ray.”
But as if to remind as that “Sister Ray” was an incident of almost a decade ago, Cale also dabbles in delicate balladry, like the exceptionally beautiful “Buffalo Ballet” and “You Know More Than I Know.” “Momamma Scuba” finds him wandering off new dark landscapes, this one populated by a three-pronged guitar attack featuring Richard Thompson
. It sounds vaguely like what would become Tom Verlaine’s territory a mere year later as the Television axe-man. The wonderfully scandalous “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford To Orgy” even finds Cale channeling Brian Wilson
harmonies, not to mention his inner dirty old man, a la Serge Gainsbourg
. The song’s innocuous delivery of slightly naughty suggestions, coupled with Judy Nylon’s sensual repartee, make it a perfect companion piece to Gainsbourg’s pop-orgasm “Je T'Aime... Moi Non Plus.” And the way he says “orgy” is the best. He’s all like, “Or-gei.”
Welsh dudes. Ha.
Undeniably, Cale has his failings. His is not truly exquisite pop; I have no doubt you’ve heard better hooks, better melodies and better arrangements. In fact, sometimes his song writing skills seem rarely involved nor overly concerned with those things. As a lyricist, though often more exceptional than most, he also leaves a bit to be desired and is fairly predictable at times. Moon-June stuff, you know?
And still, something draws me back to this album, something that the albums chronologically previous to Fear
fail to display consistently. While many of his early pop endeavors strike as either overly dulcet or as plain bores and the more avant-garde terrain is for fetishists only, Fear
features Cale’s pop chops sharpened to a razor point and finds them augmented by a renewed interest in dirty-ass rock and roll. On Fear
, he seems as capable of reflecting on his past creative success while developing a style that would sound energetic and daringly nihilistic, even amongst the oncoming wave of ‘77 punks.
Much like Lou Reed, Cale’s solo catalogue is hit and miss, with a seemingly high percentage of the latter. Maybe that just makes the hits all the more delicious.