John Cale is a Welsh musician, songwriter and record producer. He is best known for his work in rock music, but has worked in a variety of styles over the years. He is perhaps best known for having been an original member of the rock group The Velvet Underground.
Cale was born in Garnant in the heavily industrial Amman Valley, and Welsh is his first language. Having discovered a talent for piano, he studied music at the University of London, and travelled to the USA to continue his musical training, thanks to the help and influence of Aaron Copland.
Arriving at New York City, he met a number of influential composers. With John Cage he participated in an 18-hour piano playing marathon. More significantly, Cale played in La Monte Young's ensemble the Theater of Eternal Music (also known as the Dream Syndicate, which should not be confused with the 1980s band of the same name). The heavily drone-laden music he played there proved to be a big influence in his work with his next group, the Velvet Underground.
In 1965, he joined Lou Reed (who is a week older than Cale) in the newly-formed Velvet Underground, but left in 1968, due in part to creative disagreements with Reed.
Cale appears on the Velvet Underground's first two albums, The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat. He sings on a few songs, plays bass guitar, piano and organ (particularily on "Sister Ray") and co-wrote some of the material, but perhaps his most distinctive contributions are the electrically amplified viola drones which add greatly to the overall atmosphere of the records.
He is said to have influenced the sound of the early V.U. much more than any other members (and often disagreed with Lou Reed about the direction the group should take). After Cale left the group, he seemed to take the harsher, more experimentalist tendences with him. This is noticeable in the differences between the noise-rock experimental "White Light/White Heat", which Cale was involved in, and the relatively calm album "The Velvet Underground" released after his departure.
Three albums of his early experimental work were released in 2001. One of his collaborators on these recordings is Velvets' guitarist Sterling Morrison.
After leaving the Velvet Underground, Cale produced a number of albums, including Nico's The Marble Index, and began to make solo records. His first, Vintage Violence came in 1970, following which he collaborated with yet another classical musician, Terry Riley, on the mainly instrumental Church of Anthrax. His solo record of 1973, Paris 1919, is regarded by many as a classic. It is made up of elegantly crafted and tastefully arranged songs with arcane and complex lyrics, apparently with underlying political concerns.
Cale moved back to the United Kingdom and made a series of solo albums which moved in a new direction. The tasteful elegance was now replaced by a dark and threatening barely-suppressed aggression, perhaps most obviously evident in his somewhat disturbing cover of Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel". His live performances often fitted with the nascent punk rock developing on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. They were often loud, abrasive and confrontational. During one gig he chopped the head off a dead chicken with a meat cleaver, and his band walked offstage in protest. Cale's drummer--a vegetarian--was so bothered he quit the group.
Cale also continued to work as a record producer. In 1974, he joined Island Records, and worked in that capacity with Squeeze, Patti Smith, and Sham 69, among others. He produced a number of important protopunk records, including debuts by Patti Smith, The Stooges and The Modern Lovers.
In 1982, Cale released the sparse Music For A New Society. By any standard, it is a bleak, harrowing record. It's been called "understated, and perhaps a masterpiece."
Having married and had a child, he took a long break from performing, making a comeback in 1989 with settings of poems by Dylan Thomas, most notably, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, which he performed on stage in the concert held in Cardiff in 1999 to celebrate the opening of the Welsh Assembly.
In 1990, he collaborated with Brian Eno on a full-length Wrong Way Up album. One of the songs, "Lay My Love" was on the Northern Exposure soundtrack More Music From Northern Exposure released in 1994. Cale covered Leonard Cohen's song 'Hallelujah' on the 1991 tribute album I'm Your Fan. Hallelujah, as part of the soundtrack for the 2001 film Shrek would be nominated for a Grammy Award in 2002. Songs for Drella, a tribute to one-time Velvet Underground manager Andy Warhol, saw him reunited with Lou Reed, and Nico (1998) was a tribute to Nico. Cale has also written a number of film soundtracks, often using more classically influenced instrumentation. Cale's autobiography, What's Welsh for Zen?, was published in 1999.
With 2003's album Hobosapiens John Cale again returned as a regular recording artist, this time with music influenced by modern electronica and alternative rock. This well received album was co-produced with Nick Franglen of Lemon Jelly. That record was again followed with 2005's release BlackAcetate, which consolidated John Cale's reputation as an innovative, versatile and never resting rock music auteur.