Who The Fuck Is John Cale (The 50th Anniversary show for The Velvet Underground and Nico)

For much of his career, John Cale lived under the shadow of Lou Reed. This stems from the lack of lyrical contributions he made on the first two Velvet Underground records. The fact that the Velvets continued to put out two more records that challenged the musical status quo of the day undercuts his contributions to the band. In reality, Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat were heavily indebted to his musical abilities. That sense of amphetamine laced tension results entirely from Cale’s playing creating a porto-Pixies loud/soft dynamic.  

This weekend John Cale reclaimed his status as a creative force within the Velvet Underground. Playing two shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of their Next Wave Festival, Cale forcibly demonstrated his gift as an arranger and bandleader. With support from the likes of Kurt Vile, The Animal Collective, MGMT and Sky Ferreira, John Cale reimagined the whole of VU and Nico and half of White Light/White Heat in the image of his own career. 

Though I have a strong loyalty to Lou Reed’s work, he often made safer choices than John Cale when searching for collaborators. As outrageous as Lou Reed and Metallica were together, John Cale’s own partnerships were far stranger. In these sets, Cale brought forth not only his classical expertise but his interest in electronic music and the pure experimental psychosis redefining these songs in a new context. Sister Ray took on a deranged acid house tone, while a string section added to the avant-classical vibe of Venus in Furs.

The strength of the two shows at BAM results from a conscious decision by Cale to tap into an overlooked aspect of the Velvets. Often the result of the punk movement’s derision of the 1960’s they are usually remembered for their minimalist rock and gutter lyrics. In truth, they were one of the great psychedelic bands of their era and consciously wrote pop music that you could dance to. Seemingly dark as their content could be, their songs were celebrations of life even if it’s the parts we are not supposed to talk about. The final truth of these performances is the fact these songs are as relevant today as they were in 1967. You can dress them how you want but what matters are the lyrics and the melodies the rest is just how far you can take it.

John Cale, an abbreviated overview of the 1970s: