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Music / John Cale

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"If I'm interested in what I'm doing, other people will be interested in it."

John Davies Cale (born 9 March 1942) is a Welsh singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist probably best known as a founding member of The Velvet Underground. He's accomplished a lot more than that in his career, though, which has included numerous production credits and an extensive solo discography as well as several collaborations with other artists, including former Velvets bandmate Lou Reed. Amongst the styles he has recorded in include modern classical, Baroque Pop, Folk Rock, proto-punk, Progressive Rock, and drone. His best-known solo works are probably Paris 1919 and his cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", which is generally considered to have been a model for most of the other covers that followed, including Jeff Buckley's famous version.

Cale was born in 1942 in Garnant, Carmarthenshire, Wales. After a traumatic childhood (suffice it to say that literally being unable to talk to his father until he was sevennote  was the least of his problems), he studied music at Goldsmiths College, University of London, after being recognized as a potential viola virtuoso, and then moved to America, where he studied under Aaron Copland. He also collaborated with John Cage on the first ever full-length performance of Erik Satie's Vexations, and later worked with La Monte Young's Dream Syndicate.

Cale co-founded the Velvet Underground in 1964 with Reed, Sterling Morrison, and Angus MacLise (who would leave the band after it received its first paying gig, to be replaced by Maureen Tucker). Although his writing credits with the group were minimal, Cale quickly established himself as a major element of the band's sound, playing viola, bass guitar, piano, and organ, and contributing deadpan vocals that proved integral parts of several of the band's songs, especially "The Gift". Personality conflicts with Reed resulted in his departure from the group after the recording of the band's second album, White Light/White Heat, although a handful of recordings with Cale afterwards have since been released (including "Stephanie Says", "Hey Mr. Rain", "Temptation Inside Your Heart", and "Ocean").

After his departure from the group, Cale quickly established himself as a formidable solo artist and producer in his own right. He produced former Velvet Underground bandmate Nico's seminal albums The Marble Index, Desertshore, and The End... and also contributed arrangements to the former two (Nico arranged the latter entirely on her own, according to Cale). He also produced The Stooges' and The Modern Lovers' influential self-titled albums The Stooges and The Modern Lovers and Patti Smith's equally influential Horses, and appears on Nick Drake's cult classic Bryter Layter and Brian Eno's seminal Another Green World.

At the same time, Cale launched his solo career. His first released album, Vintage Violence, is generally regarded as folk-pop; around the same time he also worked on a collaboration with Terry Riley, the mainly instrumental Church of Anthrax, that is often categorised as Progressive Rock or avant-garde. A number of other solo albums included Paris 1919, regarded as one of the great Baroque Pop albums, and a trilogy of albums for Island Records that is probably best represented by his disturbing cover of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel", perhaps comparable to The Residents' cover of The Rolling Stones (Band)' "Satisfaction" in terms of how radically it reworks the original.

A highlight of his 1980s output is generally considered to be Music for a New Society, which is a thoroughly bleak album along the lines of Reed's Berlin, Joy Division's Closer and the trilogy of Nico's albums Cale produced. In 1990 his collaboration with Brian Eno was released, Wrong Way Up. It proved to be one of the most commercially successful albums of either artist as a performer. The same year, he also released his collaboration with Lou Reed, Songs for Drella, a tribute to Andy Warhol, a major mentor of the Velvet Underground. 1991 saw the release of his famous cover of "Hallelujah", which notably served as the basis for nearly every cover version done afterwards (including Jeff Buckley and arguably Rufus Wainwright's even more famous versions).

From 1992 to 1994, the complete Reed-Cale-Tucker-Morrison lineup of the Velvet Underground reunited for the first and only time (excepting a one-off performance of "Heroin" in 1990). Further reunions were prevented by Morrison's untimely death in 1995, although the surviving members did play at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1996. Reed's death in 2013 means that it is highly unlikely there will be any further Velvet Underground performances.

Cale's career continues to this day; he received a substantial boost when his cover of "Hallelujah" was featured in Shrek (although it is Wainwright's version that appears on the film soundtrack). He continues to produce some pretty awesome music.


  • 1970: Vintage Violence
  • 1971: Church of Anthrax (with Terry Riley)
  • 1972: The Academy in Peril
  • 1973: Paris 1919
  • 1974: Fear
  • 1975: Slow Dazzle
  • 1975: Helen of Troy
  • 1979: Sabotage/Live (although it's a Live Album, it includes all new material)
  • 1981: Honi Soit
  • 1982: Music for a New Society
  • 1984: Caribbean Sunset
  • 1985: Artificial Intelligence
  • 1989: Words for the Dying
  • 1990: Songs for Drella (with Lou Reed)
  • 1990: Wrong Way Up (with Brian Eno)
  • 1994: Last Day on Earth (with Bob Neuwirth)
  • 1996: Walking on Locusts
  • 2003: HoboSapiens
  • 2005: blackAcetate
  • 2012: Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood
  • 2016: M:FANS
  • 2023: Mercy

Tropes present in his works include:

  • Angrish: "Leaving It Up To You" is a smooth (if slightly menacing) mid-tempo rock song up until the end of the second verse, and then it all starts to get... weird.
    And it's sordid how life goes on when I could take you apart
    And if you give me half a chance, I'd do it NOW!
    ...I'd do it NOW! RIGHT NOW, YA FASCIST!
    I know we can all feel safe - like Sharon Tate!
    Or we could give it all, we cou-gi-give-gi-giveitAAAAAAAALL!
  • Careful with That Axe: He's quite fond of this, especially before he sobered up.
  • Continuity Nod: "Fear Is A Man's Best Friend" opens with a line nodding back to The Velvet Underground & Nico
    Standing, waiting for a man to show...
  • Cool Old Guy: As with the other surviving VU members, he's turned into one, especially with his collaborations with younger artists.
  • Cover Version: His version of "Hallelujah" pretty much inspired every subsequent version. His take on "Heartbreak Hotel"... didn't, though Cale has jokingly said that Elvis probably died from hearing it. He even did a cover of "All My Friends" by LCD Soundsystem.
  • Dark Reprise: "I Keep a Close Watch", from Helen of Troy, gets one of these on Music for a New Society, which in itself gets one with the release of M:FANS (see Grief Song below).
  • Drone of Dread: Cale tends to produce this whenever he plays his viola.
  • Epic Rocking: Some of his songs can get quite long. In particular, three of the songs on The Church of Anthrax range from just under eight to over eleven minutes.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: On "Gun," Brian Eno plays Phil Manzanera. That is, Phil Manzanera takes a guitar solo, which is fed into Eno's keyboard, so Eno is sampling him in real time. On the same album, Eno is simply credited as playing "Eno" rather than any specific instrument.
  • Grief Song: "If You Were Still Around" could be this. It was originally on Music for a New Society but was remade and a music video for it was released on the anniversary of Lou Reed's death. Photos of Reed, along with Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, Nico, and fellow VU member Sterling Morrison appear in the video, so it's more likely just a heartwarming tribute to these people.
    • M:FANS features new versions of most of the songs from Music for a New Society. Cale wrote that when he began the sessions, he found himself loathing all the characters he'd written about on the original album, but Lou Reed's death altered his perspective:
      "Making any form of art is always personal to my mind. During the making of M:FANS, I found myself loathing each and every character written about in those original recording sessions of Music For... Unearthing those tapes reopened those wounds. It was time to decimate the despair from 1981 and breathe new energy, re-write the story. Then, the unthinkable happened. What had informed so much over lost and twisted relationships in 1981 had now come full circle. Losing Lou [too painful to understand] forced me to upend the entire recording process and begin again...a different perspective - a new sense of urgency to tell a story from a completely opposite point of view - what was once sorrow, was now a form of rage. A fertile ground for exorcism of things gone wrong and the realization they are unchangeable. From sadness came the strength of fire!"
  • Lead Bassist: He was this in The Velvet Underground, mainly responsible for the band's abrasive sound on the first two albums.
  • Literal Metaphor: The chorus of "Guts" isn't about someone being a coward; the character has literally been "blown all over the living room floor" with a shotgun.
    Guts, guts, got no guts! And stitches don't help at all!
  • Literary Allusion Title: Paris 1919 is full of these, with "Child's Christmas in Wales" (named after a Dylan Thomas work), "Graham Greene", "Macbeth", and the outtake "Burned Out Affair", which seems to be a mixture of two of Greene's works (The End of the Affair and A Burnt-Out Case). The album title itself is a Historical Allusion Title, being a reference to the conference that produced the Treaty of Versailles (which, due to its imposition of unilateral war reparations on Germany, is generally considered to have led to the rise of the Third Reich). Cale called it "an example of the nicest ways of saying something ugly". Several of Cale's other songs and album titles also allude to historical events, mythology, or literature ("Ides of March", "Helen of Troy", "Gideon's Bible", "Charlemagne", "John Milton", list goes on).
  • Lyrical Dissonance: All over the place.
  • Perishing Alt-Rock Voice: Along with every other member of the Velvet Underground, but arguably the trope applies to Cale more than all of them.
  • Pop-Star Composer: His list of film credits is actually longer than his list of solo albums that aren't associated with films. By far the most famous score he composed has to be American Psycho, though.
  • Precision F-Strike: "Guts" opens with one.
    The bugger in the short sleeves fucked my wife!
  • Proto Punk: The albums Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy, recorded and released in 1974-75 but featuring some of the most abrasive and punkish music Cale has ever made, e.g. "Fear Is A Man's Best Friend", "Leaving It Up To You" and his cover versions of "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Pablo Picasso".
  • Record Producer: Cale's other career since leaving the Velvet Underground, especially other Proto Punk, Punk Rock, and New Wave acts working with fellow VU member Nico, The Stooges, Patti Smith, Squeeze and The Modern Lovers, among others.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: To a certain extent with Lou Reed VU turned away from the assault of White Light/White Heat to a more accessible direction under Reed's lead, and when Punk Rock broke Reed was recording singer-songwritery albums and dismissing the movement while Cale had been recording proto-punk music for years, e.g. on 1974's Fear. Then again Cale also recorded the Baroque Pop Paris 1919 and Reed recorded the infamously abrasive Metal Machine Music so it's not like this trope completely defined their post-VU careers.
  • Rock-Star Song: "The Biggest, Loudest, Hairiest Group Of All" is a look back at being in a band that fails to be commercially successful.
    We cut a record once, it sold a lot in France...
  • Spoken Word in Music: "A Dream", "The Jeweller".
  • Surprisingly Gentle Song: The version of "Thoughtless Kind" on Fragments of a Rainy Season, which turns the original bleak and rather frazzled song into a bittersweet reflection on growing old and leaving friends behind.
  • Unplugged Version: The 1992 live album Fragments of a Rainy Season is a whole album of Cale performing his songs solo on just piano or acoustic guitar. Still manages to be pretty aggressive on songs such as "Guts" and "Leaving It Up To You", but it also features perhaps his definitive version of "Hallelujah".
  • Updated Re-release:
    • The 2006 reissue of Paris 1919 adds 12 bonus tracks, more than doubling the length of the album. The outtake "Burned Out Affair" is added, as is at least one additional version of every song on the original album ("Macbeth" and the title track get two).
    • Music For A New Society was re-released in 2016 with an extra disc of re-recordings called M:FANS
  • Word Salad Lyrics: A LOT of his songs have this.