On Second Thought
John Cale - Fear

for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Hardly a banner year for pop music, 1974 saw soft rock ruling the airwaves, John Lennon releasing the utterly inconsequential Walls And Bridges, punk still a good year-and-half off, and Elvis redefining the term "sloth" as he slouches toward the inevitable. Even Stevie Wonder released the weakest of his masterful soul-funk albums, Fulfillingness First Finale. The sixties seemed farther away than ever.

Small surprise, then, that one of that decade's most mercurial talents, one John Cale, would reemerge from the dross to reintroduce himself as an artist fluent in the possibilities of the sixties tempered by a post-Watergate paranoia, albeit one of a more personal sort.

We should have seen it coming. In fact, few, if any, artists have played a significant role in as many seminal events as John Cale during the last 40 years. His early portentous legacy with composers such as John Cage and LaMonte Young, his role as the driving avant garde force behind the Velvet Underground, and his seminal production work for the Stooges, Modern Lovers and Patti Smith, would alone be enough to warrant a place in the annals of modern music. While his own records have never achieved the acclaim of his productions or the work of his VU, ahem, bandmate Lou Reed, upon close inspection, Cale's solo work is as varied, ambitious and meaningful as any in popular music.

Cale's enigmatic approach is evident from the outset; following his departure from the Velvet Underground and production of the first Stooges album, his wonderful first solo album, Vintage Violence (1970), surprises all who care with a sly collection of rootsy, Band-like tunes and occasionally Spectorian production. While Cale dismisses Violence's pop songs (the first he'd written) as youthful exercises in his fascinating autobiography, What's Welsh for Zen (1999), many hallmarks in what would subsequently emerge are already present in its grooves: his rough, Welsh-inflected baritone evoking peculiar, poetically florid language, over bouncy Beach Boys-ish piano with a melodic streak a mile wide.

After a pair of mostly instrumental albums (one with avant garde composer Terry Riley) and what many consider his finest solo album (the pastoral, Shakespearean orchpop of Paris 1919) Cale signs with Island Records to record perhaps the most fruitful music of his career. It is at this point that Cale's genius truly comes into its own: shedding the ivory tower threads that Warner Brothers had picked out for him on The Academy in Peril and Paris 1919, Cale is widely seen to have returned to the VU rock and roll of yore; in truth, Cale's personal life is reeling out of control—with drugs, drink, and marital disharmony contributing significantly—and the music of the period reflects the accompanying psychosis, violence and paranoia.

After participating in a one-off concert with Brian Eno, Nico and Kevin Ayers (memorialized as June 1st, 1974), in which he peforms a bone-chilling, proto-metal version of the King's "Heartbreak Hotel," Cale begins to reinject the live mania of his VU days back into his recordings. He assembles a studio band with Roxy Musicians Phil Manzanera and Eno to realize the sound he is very obviously unable to contain within the confines of his head.

His first release on Island, 1974's Fear, is the first and most successful fruit of this labor, a masterpiece of its time. With its stark black and white close-up snap of his face on the cover, Fear finds Cale injecting tension into every note, every utterance. Beginning with one of his most perfect creations, "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend," Cale doesn't shy away from his legacy with VU, the first line of the song filled with anticipation and portent, stating, "Standing, waiting for a man to come ... ." But Fear takes Reed's drugged-up carnival tomes a step further: rather than telling us something, even as dark and wonderful as Sir Lou's best work does, "Fear..." makes us feel something which is uneasy, uncertain and distinctly on the edge.

It's there in the music. In one sense a bouncy pop song, Cale creates an atmosphere on "Fear..." that directly undercuts any sense of innocence inherent in the melody; one such moment combines the words of "We're already dead, but not yet in the ground," with a cheery echo of "not yet in the grou-ound!" by a chorus of girls. And before the song leaves us, it explodes in a final fury, with Cale wildly shouting, "SAY! FEAR'S A MAN'S BEST FRIEND!!" over a fuzz-bass driven coda that achieves total dementia in its sheer ferocity. Fear indeed, the song is a statement of purpose and a microcosm of the album that follows.

Nominally a story about two cops and the sickness and violence they find on the job, "Gun" works itself into an aural frenzy, with words again providing a sense of dread beyond their literal meaning: while a line about doctors who say "anaesthetic's a waste of his time," may be a bit camp, "When you've begun to, think like a gun, the days of the year have suddenly gone" is decidedly not. Propelling the song's plodding beat into the statosphere, Eno synthetically treats a Manzanera guitar solo, warping the entire song into a veritable feedback wail.

Even the album's softer moments are quietly devastating. "Buffalo Ballet," a sensitive ballad that harkens back to his pre-Island music, ultimately sits uncomfortably with the listener, despite its sentimental story of an American Frontier town. With its plaintive piano and orchestra accompaniment, Cales pushes the lyrics unavoidably to the fore. Arriving immediately after the explosion of "Fear's" coda, neo-hippie sentiments such as "We'll all join in, and we'll all hold hands, yes we'll all join in, and help run this land" are simply disturbing (more unnerving still is "Emily," a song about a dead woman if there ever was one; though Cale never says so explicitly, a helium-girl chorus of "Maybeeeeee, we'll lauuuugh, agaaaaaaain" would indicate as much).

Cale would follow Fear's bravado and gestalt with Slow Dazzle, only slightly less dazzling, and Helen of Troy before leaving Island for other unqualified, if erratic, successes. Having spent a career exploring various ways to knock his audience on the backs of their heels, Fear is where Cale's many talents find that perfect juncture where his sensibilities meet the moment. In that moment, the restless spirit is both disturbing and powerful.

Capsule Reviews of Other John Cale Solo Releases
Paris 1919 (1973)
Though Cale jokingly refers to this as his "Procul Harum" album, Paris 1919 is one of his best. On songs such as "A Child's Christmas in Wales," "Hanky Panky Nohow" and the title track, Cale fashions a series of sweeping orchestral tone poems with Little Feat of all people providing the rockier accompaniment. Austere and almost entirely devoid of the emotional intensity one would associate with his later records, only the raging "Macbeth" offers a glimpse of what's to come.

Slow Dazzle (1975)
Hot on the heels of Fear, the second of Cale's Island trilogy is nearly Fear's equal, at least in terms of sheer ferocity and bile. With a more polished sound than its predecessor, Cale sounds more confident than ever, as he pays homage to Brian Wilson, proclaims his love of "Dirtyass Rock n' Roll" and lectures us on the values of parrot shit. Bless this man.

Sabotage Live (1979)
While some believe that by the time he recorded this live album at CBGB's that Cale's "military" phase had become more kitsch camp than concentration camp, Sabotage remains a fascinating document. Historical context be damned, this is extremely aggressive music, in which we find our frontman wearing hardhats and shades onstage. The band—featuring future downtowner Dougie Bowne on skins—is remarkably lush considering the live setting and venue, as it performs all-new material, including the Talking Heads-y "Dr. Mudd" and the epic "Captain Hook" in a darkly charged atmosphere. Sadly, "Fucking the Neighbor's Wife," a staple from this period, remains unreleased.

Fragments of a Rainy Season (1992)
Salvaging a failed attempt to tour alone with computers and synthesizers, Cale opted instead to entertain in a more acoustic venue. Accompanying himself on piano and guitar, Fragments finds Cale reinterpreting some of his best loved songs in both familiar and unfamiliar settings. Songs such as "Thoughtless Kind" and "Dying on the Vine" are particularly turned on their heads, devoid of their respective albums' amelodic production designs. And lest one thinks that he is going all Billy Joel on us, Cale concludes several of the songs with a shrieking and banging hair-raising enough to frighten awake even the most self-absorbed couples toasting their 401(k) plans at the back table.

By: Matthew Weiner
Published on: 2003-09-01
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