John Cale went on to become one of the most influential recording artists of the century. In addition to his groundbreaking work with The Velvet Underground, Cale worked as a producer and arranger for The Stooges eponymous first release. Cale also worked with diverse artists such as Nico, Nick Drake, Sham 69 and Patti Smith. It’s not an overstatement to say that without John Cale rock and roll wouldn’t be what it is today. Cale’s influence can be heard over a variety of sub genres including punk, noise rock, classical, alternative folk and avante garde music.
We open up our top 10 John Cale songs list with a song released on John Cale’s fifth solo album Slow Dazzle in 1975. “Guts” is a mid-tempo rock and roll song. “Guts” is centred around drums, an electric guitar riff and piano. The lyrics of “Guts” are quite dark and reference violence, murder and adultery. Cale’s vocals in “Guts” sound frantic and near-psychotic. “Guts” becomes less conventional as it progresses, culminating in Cale screaming into the mic. It’s not hard to see why “Guts” was so influential on the nascent punk movement of the late 1970’s.
9. I Wanna Talk To U
From 2012’s Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood. “I Wanna Talk To U” was the first single from Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood. “I Wanna Talk To U” features layered instruments and studio effects reminiscent of the work of Brian Eno and Brian Wilson. “I Wanna Talk To U” starts out with a simple acoustic guitar melody before the fast tempo drums and synth riffs come in. “I Wanna Talk To U” makes heavy use of studio effects. “I Wanna Talk To U” was co-produced by Danger Mouse. “I Wanna Talk To U” is an alternative pop song with clear influence from the Beach Boys and orchestral parts drawing on Cale’s classical background.
8. Turn The Lights On
Continuing with our top 10 John Cale songs list we turn to a song from John Cale’s 2005 release Black Acetate. “Turn The Lights On” was the first single from Black Acetate. “Turn The Lights On” is a modern alternative rock song. “Turn The Lights On” features Cale’s strong vocals over indie rock guitar riffing. “Turn The Lights On” makes use of backing vocals and complex studio effects. The modern sound and catchy hooks of “Turn The Lights On” proved that John Cale could remain a popular and influential musician after a career spanning half a century.
7. The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy
Appeared on Cale’s critically acclaimed record Fear released in 1975. “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy” has a mellow piano, vocal harmonies and an R&B feel. Cale’s vocals are very pop influenced, especially by the work of Beach Boy Brian Wilson. The lyrics to “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy” are lighthearted and describe quite simply a man who couldn’t afford to orgy. “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy” is gentler and less frantic sounding than some of the other songs from Fear such as “Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend” and “Gun.”
In the number six position on our John Cale songs list is a song that first appeared on John Cale’s acclaimed 1973 album Paris 1919. “Andalucia” makes use of Cale’s virtuoso multi instrumentalist capabilities. The vague and somewhat mysterious lyrics to “Andalucia” refer to Andalusia and its inhabitants. Andalusia is a region of Spain. “Andalucia” is written in a baroque pop style with layered instruments and orchestral parts. “Andalucia” is one of Cale’s most tender yet haunting tracks. “Andalucia”was covered in 1990 by alternative rock band Yo La Tengo.
5. Trouble with Classicists
Reunited with his old Velvet Underground bandmate Lou Reed. “Trouble with Classicists” appeared on the 1990 album Songs For Drella. The album was composed entirely by Cale and Lou Reed and centers on the life of their recently deceased mentor Andy Warhol. “Trouble with Classicists” was written and sung by John Cale with Lou Reed on guitar. “Trouble with Classicists” is piano driven with John Cale singing the lead vocals.
“Trouble with Classicists” picks up speed partway through and Reed’s guitar kicks in a the song’s momentum kicks in. “Trouble with Classicists” is the most musically technical, experimental and fast paced song on Songs For Drella. “Trouble with Classicists” is one of the most memorable tracks from Songs For Drella.
This catchy alternative rock song appeared on Black Acetate in 2005. “Perfect” is a fairly straightforward guitar riff based rock and roll tune. “Perfect” is both catchy and edgy with a definite pop and indie rock influence. “Perfect” was the second single from Black Acetate. “Perfect” made it into the top twenty on The Sunday Times list of best pop songs of 2005. The success of “Perfect” proved that John Cale was still as capable of making great rock and roll in 2005 as he was forty years earlier in The Velvet Underground.
A more uptempo, fairly straightforward rock song from 1974’s Fear. The lyrics of “Gun” discuss dark themes such as murder, gun violence, blood, criminal behaviour and anaesthetic free surgery. “Gun” is an uptempo song based around a fairly straightforward guitar riff. “Gun” has a proto-punk style to it. “Gun” takes the standard rock song format but stretches it into over seven minutes.
As “Gun” progresses it becomes less straightforward with a long instrumental section featuring shrieking experimental guitar solos reminiscent of The Velvet Underground‘s “White Light/White Heat.” After “Gun” departs for several minutes of experimental noise guitar the vocals come in for one last verse before “Gun” disintegrates into an extended proto-punk guitar solo. Interestingly Cale’s former bandmate Lou Reed also released a song called “Gun” the same year, though the title is the only similarity between the two.
2. Paris 1919
The title track to John Cale’s critically acclaimed 1973 record Paris 1919. “Paris 1919” features smoother, more pop oriented and orchestral music than Cale’s work with The Velvet Underground or his following albums. “Paris 1919” is a reference to the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War. In addition to standard rock instrumentation “Paris 1919” also includes orchestral parts and samples.
“Paris 1919” showcases Cale’s versatility as an artist able to create wild, noisy avant-garde proto-punk music but equally as capable of drawing on his roots in classical music. “Paris 1919” features top notch production from John Cale himself. It is easily one of the most loved John Cale songs of all time. “Paris 1919” was influenced by singer-songwriters such as Leonard Cohen, psychedelic groups like Procol Harum and the production styles of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson. “Paris 1919” went on to be very influential itself and it is perhaps Cale’s most well known solo song.
1. Fear is a Man’s Best Friend
We close out our top 10 John Cale songs list with a song from Cale’s fourth studio album, 1974’s Fear. “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend” starts off as a rather conventional sounding rock song. As “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend” continues it builds towards a peak of explosive noise and paranoia. The lyrics of “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend” are macabre, discussing subjects such as paranoia, drug addiction and violent fantasy. “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend” also discusses existential matters with Cale singing “life and death are things you just do when you’re bored.”
“Fear is a Man’s Best Friend” ends with a storm of feedback and Cale madly screaming the refrain over and over until the song comes to a shuddering, psychotic close. Unlike much of his work “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend” is more minimalist, using the standard drums, guitar, piano and basic instrumentation typical of rock and roll. “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend” blends Cale’s songwriting talent and vocals with his avant-garde arrangements and unique instrumental style. “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend” was very influential on the punk scene which started only a few years after “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend” was released.
Top 10 John Cale songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2019
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