The Spedding Tapes - John Cale

I first got to know John Cale in London in 1975 when I was enlisted as studio help, playing guitar, on his Slow Dazzle album. There followed a promo tour of Europe, another album, Helen Of Troy, and another tour. It was a fun time.
Then, in 1976, John made the move back to New York, his former stomping ground as founding member of the Velvet Underground, and produced what remains the definitive Ptti Smith album, the classic Horses. And when I too made the move to Gotham a little later, we found our paths continually crossing.
Fortunately, we liked each other.
John's early musica credentials make him pretty unique for an artist who has found himself, probably much to his bemusement, operating largely in the wild and wooly world of contemporary rock. A world for which, at first, he must have felt singularly ill-prepared.
At age sventeen, the talented young viola player from the Welsh National Youth Orchestra entered the Goldsmith Music College, University of London, and from there won a scholarship to Tanglewood in Massachusetts. Avant-garde composer John Cage then put the ardent young Cale in touch with LaMonte Young in New York. Once immersed in that huge melting pot, Cale's musical horizons son broadened to the point where he met up with such as Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, a heady brew which was eventually bottled, 1964 vintage, as the epoch-making Velvet Underground.
Which takes us up to 1969, when we started to get the first linkings of the emergence of an important new musical voice. During his time with Warner Bros. he gave us Paris, 1919, which was followed by what John terms his "classical" project with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; John wrote, conducted and performed his piece for piano and orchestra. The album June 1st, 1972 marked a new association with Island Records and his move back to London. The next Island release, Fear, is John's Gothic masterpiece. Nowhere is better revealed the dark and disturbing essence that is pure Cale - thanks in no small part to the unnerving, dangerously stark production from the unusual but supremely effective paring of Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno. However gifted and resourceful a record producer may be, however, it's a whole different ball game when it comes to the schizophrenic sleight of hand he must perform to turn that function around and apply it successfully to himself. Which is exactly what Cale did next, on Slow Dazzle.
Which, I think, is where we came in ...
John has just completed a major work - yet to be recorded - "The Falkland Suite," started in 1982 at the time of the Falkland war between England and Argentina.
"It's written around four Dylan Thomas poems," says John, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night as an Angentinian samba; Lie Still Sleep becalmed was another one. There's Wedding Anniversary and then ...shit!...I can't remember the name of the fourth one! Anyway, they all have orchestral interludes in them, and it's scored for chamber orchestra, cathedral choir, voice and piano."
Our Blindfold test took place in John's Greenwich Village apartment which he shares with his wife, Rise, and their eleven-month-old daughter, Eden. I was greeted by a surprisingly trim and healthy-looking John Cale, testimony to his regular regime of daily workouts at the local gym and a reminder of John's standing invitaion to be his occasional squash partner. An invitation I have thus far lacked the courage - or energy - to accept.

1. Art Tatum, "Willow Weep for Me"
JC Hmmm, is this Erroll Garner?
CS Nope
JC Well. This thing is in two places at once. I don't know who it is.
Enter little Eden Cale, who at eleven months has just started to try to communicate with the outside world, but has yet to achieve the power of coherent speech. I have listened to this part of the tape several times and cannot make anything of her infant burblings. But I have the feeling that if I were to play this snippet back to an older Eden Cale she well insist that she was trying to prompt daddy with the identity of ...
CS It's Art Tatum
JC Jesus! Very light-fingered - beautiful!

2. Gordon Terry, "Orange Bloosom Special" and "Black Mountain Rag"
JC Very smooth. lot of resin, big clouds of resin coming up! You know what it is, why he's got that great sound? He's got a good quality instrument. It's not just any old violin.

3. Bob Dylan with The Heartbreakers, "Band of the Hand"
CS Know who?
JC Is this the new one?
CS Yeah.
JC A new records?
CS Yeah.
JC What's he singing, "Hill Time Man"?
CS Er, I don't know. Could be. It's whatever you wanna make it, I guess. It's a movie soundtrack. The title track. Called "Band of the Hand."
JC Oh, wait a minute, the movie he's shooting right now in London?
CS Don't know. I think this movie must be out already.
JC A movie He's in?
CS He is who?
JC Oh, Dylan.
CS And ...?
JC And Petty?
CS Yeah, that's it.
JC Ah! It sounds like Dylan, but recorded properly for a change.
CS Right! When I first heard it I thought it just might be someone like, say, Dire Straits, 'cause I remember when I first heard their "Sultans of Swing" I thought it was Dylan. It sounded how I'd always thought Dylan would sound if he'd decided to make a well-produced record for a change instead of his usual throwaway demo-type stuff. And I'm not the only one who's made that comment. Maybe that's what eventually influenced him take advantage of the possibilities of the studio.
JC Did you read that recent Dylan interview? Where he says you should never give a hundred persent. He says that after Judy Garland the one thing we've learned is you never give a hundred percent. "I always keep ten percent back," Dylan says.
CS Well, I'd say ninety percent of Bob Dylan amounts to a damn sight more than a hundred percent of most.
JC How many songs has this guy has this guy written? Five thousnad? Ten thousand? I don't know how he gets through a concert, how he can remember all of them.
CS He does, though, doesn't he? He does remember them. He'll mess around with all the other elements of the song - improvising new melody lines using his original lyric ....
JC Sometimes out of existence!
CS ... almost as if he's using the lyric as basic matrix to build on - like a jazz musician uses a chord progression. It's what makes Dylan totally unique for me. He's like a Jewish Charlie Parker, isn't he?
JC Hey! (laughs) I can see Dylan in ten years time with one of those Ronald Reagan prompters with the lyrics going round - he's finally run out of memory! (more laughter)

4. Andy Fraser, "Gotta Steal Away"
JC Ooooh! That's very sweet, Hammond bass.
CS Er, I think it's a bass guitar, actually.
JC Is it?
CS Think so. But turned down really low. Almost subonic, in fact. There are a few licks later on that sound more bass guitar than foot pedal or keyboards - chech it out ....
JC Oooh. Great vocal. And it sounds like it's one of those minimal drum kits. One about this size, (Gestures with his hands. John is, briefly, a weekend angler belittling the other guy's catch) with tiny cymbals.
CS But do you recognize that style? That bass, for instance?
JC Oh! Wait a minute! Not that guy from Free?
CS Andy Fraser.
JC Really?
CS Yeah!
JC Who's the vocal?
CS Andy Fraser.
JC Really? Wow! Sweet vocal! The whole track is ... is excellent.
CS He cut this soon after leaving the Sharks. Over at Muscle Shoals.
JC Amazing.

5. Miles Davis, "Cocierto de Aranjuez"
by Rodrigo, from the Sketches of Spain album arranged and conducted by Gil Evans
JC Miles Davis. "Concierto de Aranjuez" by Rodrigo. From the Sketches of Spain album arranged and conducted by Gil Evans.
CS Oh, really?
JC Really.

Oh, well. I guess you can't win 'em all.
Thanks, John, for an enjoyable session. Oh, and I'm still thinking about the squash ... just thinking!

Chris Spedding - the journalist