John Cale – Conflict & Catalysis: Productions & Arrangements 1966-2006 (Big Beat)

Given John Cale’s impressive track record, it’s surprising that a compilation like this hasn’t been released sooner. In addition to being a member of one of the most influential bands of the 1960s (The Velvet Underground), John Cale produced three of the most important debut albums ever to grace a turntable…The Stooges (1969) Patti Smith’s Horses (1975) and The Modern Lovers (1976).

As this compilation makes clear, there is a lot more to John Cale’s CV than those three records, though nothing that would approach them in quality.

The 20-track disc begins with Venus In Furs, a track from The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album. As the extensive liner notes point out, Andy Warhol was credited as producer on the album jacket, but the argument is made that it was the classically-trained Cale who oversaw most of the musical decisions during the sessions.

From there it’s the one-two punch of I Wanna Be Your Dog from The Stooges and Gloria from Horses. The version of I Wanna Be Your Dog included here is Cale’s original mix which highlights his own incessant piano and percussion at the expense of the band’s rock & roll power, making them sound more arty than punky. Gloria, as always, sounds exquisite. It is simply one of the most beautifully intense moments in rock & roll history. Smith and Cale had their differences in the studio, but no one can argue with what they ended up creating.

Conflict is a big part of the John Cale story. It was his inability to work with Lou Reed that forced him out of The Velvets, and that conflict was evident during many of Cale’s post-Velvets production jobs. His work on the first Modern Lovers’ album was halted mid-way in 1973 when Jonathan Richman bailed out of the sessions. When the album was finally released three years later it was hailed as a masterpiece and still stands up to repeated listens today. Richman never made anything else as enduring.

Cale’s drug and alcohol problems only caused more problems with his clients. Squeeze accused Cale of trying to turn them into something they weren’t during the making of their debut album. Ironically, a cleaned-up Cale clashed with the drug-fuelled Happy Mondays for the opposite reason.

The remainder of this collection is filled with pop oddities (Disco Clone by Cristina), obscurities (Italian Sea by Chucky, Novi & Ernie) and delights (Tearing Apart by Siouxie & The Banshees). Cale is at his best when he can sink his teeth into a beautiful string arrangement as he does on his 1990 collaboration with Brian Eno, Spinning Away.

And Cale’s recent work with Alejandro Escovedo, from 2006’s The Boxing Mirror, indicates that he can still conjure up some studio magic when in the right frame of mind.

This compilation comes with an extensive bio on the Welsh musician and suggests that John Cale, now at age 70, is working on a new album of his own. If it’s anything like 2005’s Black Acetate, his most recent solo work, it’ll be something to look forward to.

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to Afraid by Nico from her 1970 album Desertshore, produced by John Cale: 

For more stories and insights into John Cale’s production “techniques”, check out this excellent article.