Although John Cale exited The Velvet Underground after only two albums, his prolific and varied output during the 1970s proved one of the key bridges between progressive rock and new wave. As a producer, Cale was responsible for a multitude of classic records by bands ranging from The Stooges through Patti Smith to Squeeze. Throughout his career, Cale maintained his ties to the underground experimental music scene in which he got his start, while still releasing brash, forward-looking rock albums.
John Cale was born in a small industrial town in Wales, where his father worked as a coal miner. Raised to speak only Welsh at home, Cale did not learn English until he began attending school. Having learned both piano and viola as a child, Cale studied music at London's Goldsmiths College, where he discovered the emergent theories of the Fluxus movement. While still a student, Cale conducted the British premiere of John Cage's 1958 score "Concert for Piano and Orchestra," and helped curate a 1963 Fluxus concert that included performances of pieces by Cage and New York minimalist composer La Monte Young. In August, 1963, Cale traveled to America and used his Fluxus credentials to personally introduce himself to Cage and Young. Young tapped Cale to play viola in his drone-oriented ensemble The Theatre of Eternal Music (sometimes known as The Dream Syndicate), in which Cale first experimented with amplification of his stringed instrument.
Alongside his work in avant-garde experimental music, Cale had been a rock and roll fan since his teens. In 1964, Cale met singer-songwriter Lou Reed, with whom he formed a one-off trio (with conceptual artist Walter De Maria on drums) called The Primitives to record a Reed-penned single for the budget Pickwick label, an attempt to start a dance craze called "The Ostrich." Adding Reed's college friend Sterling Morrison on guitar and Cale's Theatre of Eternal Music bandmate Angus MacLise on percussion (soon replaced by Maureen Tucker), the band changed its name to The Velvet Underground. Marrying Cale's drone experiments to a loose, shaggy take on post-British Invasion rock, The Velvets became part of Andy Warhol's orbit, functioning as the house band in the pop artist's 1966 multimedia happening The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol's patronage got the band a deal with the jazz-oriented Verve label, which released their debut album The Velvet Underground and Nico in March, 1967. Though later considered a landmark album on the level of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album sold poorly despite Warhol's increasing mainstream notoriety. After the even more aggressive follow-up, White Light/White Heat (1968), a power struggle grew between Cale and Reed, who wanted to pursue a more conventional musical direction. Cale left The Velvet Underground in early 1968 for a solo career.
While preparing his solo debut, Cale wrote the orchestral arrangements for the second album by his fellow former Velvet Undergrounder Nico, The Marble Index (1968). The collaboration continued as he produced the German-born singer's critically acclaimed next two albums, Desertshore (1970) and The End... (1974). Cale's own first solo album, Vintage Violence (1970), was a fairly conventional singer-songwriter release, followed by the much more experimental Church of Anthrax (1971), a collaboration with minimalist composer Terry Riley. The even less rock-oriented The Academy In Peril (1972) returned to Cale's modern-classical roots. Cale performed a stylistic about-face with the Beach Boys-influenced Paris 1919 (1973), perhaps his most immediately accessible album.
The following year, Cale signed to Island Records and entered one of his most prolific eras, releasing the albums Fear (1974) and Slow Dazzle (1975) within six months of each other. But when the label rush-released Helen of Troy (1975) without Cale's approval, he left Island and concentrated on his production career. During the early days of the punk uprising, Cale produced two of the era's most influential albums, Patti Smith's debut Horses and The Modern Lovers, the debut of iconoclastic singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman. Cale's only releases during this period were the punky EP Animal Justice (1977) and a live record, Sabotage/Live (1979), that chronicled his increasingly confrontational stage persona.
The early 1980s found Cale gripped by a debilitating drug and alcohol problem that resulted in his most musically unsettled period. Honi Soit (1981) presented the anger and paranoia of Sabotage/Live in a more stylish post-punk musical setting. Music For A New Society (1982) was a stark, largely improvised album focused almost exclusively on Cale's vocals and piano. After those two solid efforts, the patchy Caribbean Sunset (1984) and Artificial Intelligence (1985) were viewed as disappointments. A stabilizing third marriage to photographer Risé Irushalmi and the birth of their daughter Eden in 1985 helped Cale conquer his addictions.
A mature Cale returned to music with Words For The Dying (1989), based on a suite of orchestral settings of poems by fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas. 1990 featured a pair of collaborations: Songs For Drella, a song cycle for the late Andy Warhol, was his first work with Lou Reed since leaving The Velvet Underground, while Wrong Way Up found Brian Eno returning to pop songcraft after over a decade spent exploring ambient music. Cale returned to his solo career with 1996's Walking On Locusts, which was followed in 1999 by his autobiography, What's Welsh For Zen?
In 2001, Cale scored a belated mainstream breakthrough when his version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," recorded in 1991 for the tribute album I'm Your Fan, appeared in the animated hit "Shrek" (2001). Cale's reworking of Cohen's original, using a substantially-edited set of lyrics, had been adopted by Jeff Buckley for his debut album Grace (1994), following Buckley's death, Cale's version of the song became the basis for the seemingly dozens of covers that have been recorded since. Continuing his singular career past his 60th and 70th birthdays, Cale returned to the studio for HoboSapiens (2003), followed by BlackAcetate (2005) and Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood (2013).
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Recorded a popular cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"