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Review: John Cale, “Conflict and Catalysis: Productions and Arrangements 1966-2006”

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Catalysis (ca-tal-y-sis): The action of a catalyst, especially an increase in the rate of a chemical reaction.

With his induction into Ace Records’ Producers series, John Cale joins an esteemed group including Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Sly Stone, Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach.  If Cale isn’t always thought of in the same breath as those giants, it’s simply because his career has been so diverse, encompassing writing, performing and arranging for artists ranging from The Stooges to Siouxsie and the Banshees.  Well, there’s simply no better place to appreciate the man’s art than on Conflict and Catalysis (Big Beat CDWIKD 299), the illuminating new anthology devoted to John Cale, producer and arranger.  Taking in the 20 songs on display here, it’s clear that Cale’s catalysis as a producer has led to some of the most distinct work in these artists’ career, making the conflicts along the way well worth the while.

These tracks could be the work of multiple producers, so impossible is it to pin Cale to one stylistic approach.  The musically rebellious Welshman trained at Goldsmith College at the University of London, nurturing his talent on the viola.  He was in the vanguard of the avant-garde Fluxus movement and was an associate of John Cage but perhaps ironically, also a devotee of Aaron Copland.  Cale’s participation in the 18-hour performance of Erik Satie’s “Variations” even landed him a spot on Garry Moore’s popular game show I’ve Got a Secret.  All of this experimentation and fearlessness towards dissonance and musical repetition made him the perfect foil for Lou Reed when they founded The Velvet Underground.  Cale and Reed frequently clashed, but when they found themselves in synch, the results were astonishing.  Reed’s dark, earthy lyrical poetry formed a distinct union with the multi-instrumentalist Cale’s electrically-amplified viola, piano and bass guitar, creating a sound that was only rock music in the sense that it challenged convention.

What will you find on Ace’s career-spanning compilation?  Hit the jump to explore!

The Velvet Underground is represented on Conflict and Catalysis not by one of Cale’s compositions but by Reed’s “Venus in Furs,” named for and inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel (which also lends its title and theme to a current Broadway play).  Cale’s droning electric viola drew stark attention to Reed’s tale of a man’s fascination with a cruel woman (“Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather…”), a far cry from the pop fare of the day.  Though Cale departed the band after just two albums (and indeed, many would say the band’s most outré sounds left with him), he returned to the Velvets’ ethos on later productions like The Modern Lovers’ “Pablo Picasso,” with spare, insistent piano underpinning Jonathan Richman’s impassive voice.

Though the Velvet Underground was never a commercial success, it’s famously said that every kid who bought their original LP started a band.  And Cale was always drawn to those raw musicians who amped up the traditional sound of 1960s garage rock.  He guided the early Stooges, and their sonic assault “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is heard here  in Cale’s original, rejected mix, in which his piano and sleigh bells give the track a somewhat more….musical quality!  A quintessential garage rock staple was Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” given a remarkable reading by Patti Smith in her “In Excelsis Dio/Gloria.”  Smith, like Reed, brought a literary sensibility to rock, and a true poet’s ear for language: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” Smith snarls.  She had major conflicts with Cale over the production, calling him “a maniac artist,” but together they created a masterwork.  The frequently-given tag of “punk” doesn’t even begin to cover the sound of Smith’s Horses, a supremely sexual, dark, spiritual journey.

Nico, a collaborator of The Velvet Underground and associate of the band’s nominal producer and sponsor Andy Warhol, is another iconic female voice heard here.   “Afraid,” from 1970’s Desertshore, was co-produced by Cale and Joe Boyd (Fairport Convention, Nick Drake).  Though lacking the husky-voiced chanteuse’s signature harmonium, the hushed piano ballad and its spare production and instrumentation by Cale are nonetheless haunting.  The set reveals that Cale always had a predilection for strong, talented and unique women; Europop goddess Lio’s “Dallas,” from 1986, finds her wispy vocal offset by Cale’s sweeping string arrangements.  Then there’s Cristina.

The odd and eccentric “Disco Clone” was the single that started the career of the singer later associated with August Darnell.  It was Darnell who produced Cristina’s controversial version of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Is That All There Is” but Cale who offered this bizarre “mutant disco” track.  Blending deadpan spoken word (“The dancing they were doing made my eyeballs whirl…”) with squeaky vocals and a dancefloor-ready beat, its freewheeling, off-kilter attitude might be fairly described as Frank Zappa-esque.  But Zappa actually has a connection to Chunky, Novi and Ernie, a group co-produced at Reprise by Cale and Ted Templeman (The Doobie Brothers, Harpers Bizarre) and represented here with “Italian Sea.”  Zappa appeared, uncredited, on their second album, and was an inspiration to the band.  Cale shared classical influences with Zappa (though Frank’s famously leaned towards Varese) and supplied the stately arrangements for Chunky, Novi and Ernie’s California rock.

In addition to the familiar names like Smith, The Stooges and Nico, a number of under-the-radar artists populate this anthology.  Proving the old adage that you have to know the rules before you break them, Harry Caswell a.k.a. Harry Toledo recalled driving Cale crazy with a song that changed from a minor to a major chord after each verse; Cale “lectured me on how you don’t do that unless it’s the point of the music, which of course it was!”  Harry Toledo and the Rockets’ “Who is That Saving Me,” from 1977, is another spare, aggressive track enhanced by Cale’s audacity.

Despite the Velvet Underground’s influence on the band, Marie et Les Garcons’ “Re-Bop” is almost catchy, and is a cleaner sounding record than many of Cale’s other productions here, befitting the French New Wave band’s roots.  Cale approaches pop territory with The Necessaries’ “Runaway Child (Minors Beware).”  Although the 1979 track is hard-hitting, there’s a classic rock-and-roll underpinning not uncommon to the New York punk scene.  The excellent liner notes dryly admit that the song is “more power pop than any U.K. definition of punk.”  Cale wasn’t entirely averse to letting pop creep into his work; in recalling his 1970 solo effort Vintage Violence, he admitted, “I tried to imitate my favorite songwriters of the times, the Bee Gees or whatever.  I was out to discover the world of pop songwriting and I thought tunes were the answer.”

John Cale’s 1973 solo effort Paris 1919 has plenty of “tunes,” a stunningly beautiful, lushly orchestrated work.  So while this anthology doesn’t concentrate on Cale the composer, he was often called upon as a producer and arranger to put his noise-rock past behind him and lend more traditional textures to an artist’s work, too.  Goya Dress’ 1996 “Scorch” is a stirring ballad with prominent piano and a baroque orchestration in this style.  Could the most bizarre track on Conflict and Catalysis be the 2000 “Omnes Gentes Plaudite (The Drinking Song)” from the Mediaeval Baebes, on which said baebes’ zithers, dulcimers and classical instrumentation were uneasily joined by electronic textures as they chanted?  Let’s just say Mr. Cale did his best, though the group’s Katharine Blake expressed discontent at his mandate from the record label to “try and make it sound all modern.”

Somewhat more danceable is “Kuff Dam” from the Happy Mondays, and Cale described his collaboration with the band as his most successful collaboration if “really fleeting.”  The band, forerunners of the “Madchester” movement of British indie-dance-rock, juxtaposed an abrasive rock sound with a pronounced beat and a confrontational, controversial lyric that might even make Lou Reed blush.  Okay, well, maybe not, but anyway: “You see that Jesus is a c—t/and never helped you with a thing that you do, or you done/It won’t be long, it won’t be long to get rid of your furry tongue” is just one example!

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a most atypical Squeeze track from the pen of Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook.  Another marriage made in hell, the producer clashed with the two Squeeze men.  Perhaps it should have been an omen that Squeeze took its name from the Velvet Underground’s disowned fifth album ((virtually a solo album from non-founding member Doug Yule)?  Despite the best efforts of the songwriters and producer, “Sex Master” sounds as if it’s trying too hard to sound punk against Difford and Tilbrook’s pure pop instincts.

More conflict: The Austin, Texas-formed noise rock band The Jesus Lizard found Cale so “inflexible” that only one track from their collaboration survived, albeit in remixed form courtesy of Jim O’Rourke.  That lone track, the clattering instrumental “Needles for Teeth,” has been included here as a testament to what might have been.  Siouxsie Sioux, Siouxsie and the Banshees, tells a very different story, though.  Sioux opined that Cale “was not set on putting his mark on the band” when he took the controls for their final album.   The punk survivors had updated their sound for The Rapture, and the searing “Tearing Apart” (“I think we all should die/I think we’re dead inside/I know the purest rain/Won’t wash the bloody stain”) is still a sonic stunner.

Conflict and Catalysis, having displayed plenty of both, ends on a quiet note with “Spinning Away,” a collaboration between Cale and another noted producer, Brian Eno.  The 1990 track melds Cale’s trademark string arrangements with Eno’s patented electronic pop sensibility, and the song is classy, sophisticated and surprisingly accessible.  But age hasn’t dimmed Cale’s ferocity.  Just a few tracks earlier, you’ll find the straight-ahead rock of “Take Your Place” rescued from its position as a hidden track on Alejandro Escovedo’s 2006 The Boxing Mirror: “I’m going down down down/There’s nothing here/And baby you can’t hold me up!/I’m going down down down/Even deeper still/’Cause this world has gotten so fucked up!”

Compilation producers Neil Dell and Mick Patrick supply the lengthy essay and track-by-track notes in the incredibly detailed and copiously illustrated booklet.  Make no mistake, Conflict and Catalysis isn’t music for everybody, but if you like your rock both visceral and cerebral, it just might be for you.  It’s recommended as an unstinting look at an artist whose vocabulary doesn’t include the word “compromise.”  And we’re all the luckier for the aggressive individualism of John Cale, OBE.

Written by Joe Marchese

March 22, 2012 at 10:05

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