The first time John Cale crossed my radar when I bought the album White Light/White Heat by The Velvet underground as a teenager from Spillers in Cardiff. I’d got interested in the band through reading about them in the NME. At that point, I loved C86 bands and the Velvets were the archetypal influential band for other people making music that I loved to name check.
The fact that Cale was Welsh only added to the cool mystique the Velvets already had for me. Listening to the album, I can really remember hearing the track The Gift and thinking that it was such a bizarre oddity of a song – this paranoid, doomed short story incanted by some macabre, heavy, immovable stone of a voice. You could recognise the Swansea lilt straight away, still strident and forceful even placed in the foreign context of the ultimate fashionable arty New York band.
His whole story intrigued me. Brought up a Welsh speaker, he moved from a strict church upbringing in Swansea to London and then on to New York, and ended up in The Velvet Underground. At the same time, he was dabbling in the avant-garde orchestral world. Over the years, he has become Wales’ most prolific and creative solo artist. As a producer, he worked on classic records by the likes of Nico, The Stooges and Happy Mondays, and helped shape punk and baggy.
All the while, he’s written classical pieces such as the Falklands Suite and worked with contemporaries like Brian Eno. The length and breadth of his career as an artist is just stunning. It’s also got to be said – with a fair bit of Welsh self-loathing – that it’s slightly incongruous that someone from Wales could batter down the doors in the way that he did and promote himself fully into so many different worlds so successfully.
I’ve worked with John Cale twice over the years, once on Beautiful Mistake, a documentary about returning to Wales to try to reconnect with a new generation of Welsh musicians, and again on a Nico tribute at the Royal Festival Hall. Working on the film, I remember feeling incredibly intimidated before meeting him. When he turned up, all he was interested in was doing the work, mining the seam that had been laid before him. He wasn’t interested in dissecting it or talking the problems through. For him, the project was solely about getting the job done. I realised that that was the kernel of truth in him as an artist, the core to him, as it were.
Although he’d moved away from his upbringing and from his country of birth, he still carried with him everything about himself that he’d ever known. He is utterly sure of what it is he wants to – has to – do. His voice isn’t there to explore new universes or styles – it just tumbles out like a big slab of granite, fully formed. It’s equivalent to Lee Marvin’s acting, an unstoppable force. He doesn’t have to do much to convince you because the weight of his talent and his fantastic controlled rage is there for you to see all the time. I found that really reassuring.
In the Manics we’ve always been wary of getting too close to people, of connecting too much with any perceived scenes or places you’re supposed to hang out at. We’ve always tried to hang on to our own fierce sense of independence. Working with Cale made me realise you can walk that path in life and damn the consequences.
I find it intriguing that he writes songs like Gun or Fear, or the cover of Heartbreak Hotel, which have an undercurrent of terrifying anger, and then he can counter them with some of the most beautiful music anyone has ever written, things like The Endless Plain of Fortune, I’ll Keep a Close Watch and Amsterdam. Sometimes he manages to still the rage within him and navigate himself to calmer waters.
Having grown up in Wales, it’s incredibly reassuring to hear someone with such a direct Welsh voice in music that doesn’t resort to pastiche. It’s almost like it’s something carved out of the landscape, an artefact that’s been found and passed down. It seems utterly steeped in the tradition of male voice choirs, of the very mournful music that Wales seems so intrinsically linked to. You can’t really explain it; that’s just how it sounds. I often think that Welsh romanticism is characterized by something quite complex, often it’s like we’re just snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. His voice has that quality for me.
I think John Cale is one of the only artists who’s managed to reconcile the avant-garde with rock’n’roll and made it work. That’s something he’s done far more successfully than someone like Eno, who tends to get far more respect. Cale feels like an honourable soul, an utterly believable serious man.