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In October 1982 John Cale released his eighth solo album, Music for a New Society. Although it has long been regarded a classic, the record’s remorselessly bleak atmosphere made it a commercial disaster. Last week, the album was reissued in a new, expanded edition that includes alternative versions as well as two “lost” songs. Not content to leave it at that, Cale has also added a separate album, M:FANS, with new versions of most of the songs, reimagining the album as he would approach it today. For a forward-thinking, iconoclastic artist such as Cale it is a bold move and one that is sure to invite controversy.
Cale himself has always had an uneasy relationship with Music for a New Society. Although it contains two of his most-loved songs in “Close Watch” and “Chinese Envoy”, the album torpedoed a career resurgence that had begun five years earlier with the release of the Animal Justice EP in late ’77 at the height of the punk rock explosion. As a founding member of The Velvet Underground, legendary musical outsiders, Cale had narrowly avoided being labelled by the punks as one of the rock establishment’s “boring old farts”. Additionally, he had served as producer on three landmark albums by punk icons: Iggy Pop’s recording debut with The Stooges (1969), Jonathan Richman’s The Modern Lovers (1972) and Patti Smith’s Horses (1975). He couldn’t have had more punk credibility if he’d been the fifth Ramone.
The career comeback continued with the Sabotage/Live album in 1979, and that was followed by his only US-charting album to date, Honi Soit (1981). When Music for a New Society came out it all stopped dead. Cale’s solo albums had often mingled brutality with beauty but the stark coldness and horror of Music for a New Society was too much for most listeners. Hearing it now, beautifully remastered, it still has the power to confront and confound but back then it sounded for all the world like an act of career suicide.
Nearly all of the songs on the album were improvised in the studio, which has always been Cale’s preferred working method. His record label had wanted him to record the album entirely alone, with just a solo piano and vocal, but the artist merely took that as a starting point, overdubbing all manner of instruments and noises afterwards.
“Taking Your Life in Your Hands” opens the album with soothing keyboard chords, but the song’s languid, beguiling music soon curdles with its Gothic account of a murderous mother who has destroyed her family. Next comes “Thoughtless Kind”, a callous rumination on hollow friendship and casual betrayal, and then “Sanctus”, another tale of poisonous family dynamics in which a woman commits suicide partly as a result of withheld maternal love and religious delusions. By this point, the musical backing has been completely deconstructed, with dissonant keyboard pads, jarring laughter and random hits of percussion disrupting any equanimity. A loudly ticking clock only adds to the auditory alienation. Disorienting and hallucinatory, the foreboding atmosphere heightens the malevolence in the paranoid lyrics. The protagonist of “Sanctus” sees visions of hostile angels in “a marriage made in the grave”. The song concludes with the lines:
All so that it would be a stronger world,
A strong, though loving, world – to die in.
When I interviewed Cale recently, I asked him about his production approach. “[It] was something that I found really daunting at the time because it was a solo album and I had to play everything,” he said. “The way I thought it would work was to do it in the way I [produced] The Marble Index with Nico, to take the kernel of a song and dress it up. Put all the ‘floral’ arrangements around it, and then pull out the centre and have the song just float in this arrangement.” It’s no accident the album sounds deconstructed: it literally was. In his autobiography, What’s Welsh for Zen, Cale admitted that some tracks “ended up so emaciated they weren’t songs anymore. What I was most interested in was the terror of the moment ... It was a bleak record all right, but it wasn’t made to make people jump out of windows.”
Cale has always been proud of how the recording of Music for a New Society itself turned out, despite its commercial failure. What he is not proud of is his lifestyle at the time of its creation, and how that coloured the writing of the songs themselves. For most of his adult life he had dabbled in drugs, a propensity that began in Wales. As a child he was often prescribed opiates to relieve a chronic, persistent bronchial condition. When he was in The Velvet Underground, surrounded by the demimonde of Andy Warhol’s Factory, he developed an appetite for methamphetamines, eventually adding cocaine to his list of habits. In the beginning, these intoxicants served as a stimulant, allowing the workaholic artist to function even while imbibing large quantities of alcohol like a stereotypical Welshman. Eventually, though, the concerts and recording sessions became fraught, erratic affairs. It wasn’t until the birth of his daughter Eden that he gained some insight into what he was doing, both to himself and the people around him, and abandoned drugs completely. But that was a few years after Music for a New Society, which he made in a manic state. He acknowledges now that the album’s bleakness was a direct result. “I felt hemmed in. That’s where the claustrophobia comes from. I mean, I was looking for options and not seeing many.”
Three years ago, Cale was approached to perform the entire album in concert in the town of Aarhus, the second-largest city in Denmark. Never one to stand still creatively, it surprised many when he agreed to revisit this tortured part of his musical past. Cale saw it as an opportunity to explore the songs further, and perhaps to confront some demons. “I just didn’t want to leave it where it was, with all the attention at the time, as being the only way to look at those [songs],” he told me. “I didn’t want it to be a waste… I think it has a lot of strength in it, in different ways, and I wanted to really get all of ’em. I wanted to just grab them and use them again so that people just don’t see that the only [quality] this album has is one of despair.”
The Aarhus performance led directly to M:FANS – an acronym of the original album’s title – and it is a vastly different album to its progenitor. Not that it is a walk in the park. It’s a sombre listening experience, almost funereal, but there are moments of joy and even humour to be found, albeit dry and mordant, like Cale himself. There’s little chance of Pollyanna finding comfort in this universe. Cale scoffs at that idea, too: “Ha! Optimism has never been my strong suit… It does rear its head once in a while though.”
In making M:FANS, Cale sampled liberally from the original master tapes of Music for a New Society but the samples are often heavily manipulated. The addition of synths and, occasionally, programmed drums also takes the music into a radically different space. M:FANS marks a return to the electronica he explored on his HoboSapiens album from 2003, which itself was a departure for the artist, and one of his better albums. Cale explained: “You know, you add different elements and it brings out different things in the song.” The lyrics are practically unaltered, apart from one notable exception in “Changes Made”, so any new song meanings are due entirely to the performances and arrangements. The details of the story in “Taking Your Life in Your Hands” have not changed one whit, but Cale believes the emphasis has: “It really changed the focus of the lyrics so that it’s now really about somebody’s life and not a moment in somebody’s life.” I’m not completely sure I agree on this point – the lyrics are still very disturbing to me – but I can accept that the song exhibits a profound sadness that wasn’t evident before.
The “Prelude” on M:FANS has also restored the recording of a phone call with his mother, from “Mama’s Song”, which was cut when Music for a New Society was originally released on CD in the 1990s. Cale’s mother is once again heard singing “Ar Lan y Môr” (“On the Seashore”) to him in Welsh. This leads into “If You Were Still Around”, the first of two quite different renditions on the new album. Given its proximity to the recording of his mother, it’s hard not to interpret this first version as her son’s regret at her death, something Cale doesn’t dispute in our conversation. These particular lyrics had been written by Sam Shepard and are no less poignant on any of the iterations Cale has recorded. The second version of the song on M:FANS has been released as a single and the accompanying video pays tribute to deceased associates from The Factory era, including Lou Reed. Funnily enough, this last version of the song suggests a quite different reading to me, becoming about a loved one who is only absent rather than dead.
But the greatest revelation on M:FANS is the previously unheard song, “Back to the End”, which closes the album on a hopeful note. Discovered by Cale when he was “rummaging around” the old master tapes, it’s a plaintive, beautiful song that pierces the gloom like a sunbeam. Cale wisely keeps the recording simple and unadorned, only adding viola and some new vocals. Somehow this tenacious flower of a song survived the volcanic forces that surrounded its creation, finally coming into bloom when it was most welcome.
Music for a New Society was seen as an epic monstrosity when it was released, but time has been much kinder. Long-deleted from sale, it was ranked as one of the 10 great “lost” albums. Finally making it available again, John Cale has also set his listeners a new challenge: are they ready to accept an entirely new interpretation of his classic album? For someone as gifted as Cale, this is extraordinary and almost unprecedented in the world of art. Would we allow Picasso to walk into a museum and paint over one of his masterpieces? Who really owns it?
M:FANS gives us new insight into Music for a New Society but it also stands alone as a great John Cale album. Here is a bold artist not insisting on his past work being preserved in amber and held inviolate. Yin and yang, id and ego, Cale’s two companion recordings remind us that art never stands still.
THEATRE North by Northwest
Arts Centre, Melbourne, until February 13
QPAC Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, until February 14
THEATRE The Secret River
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, February 1-20
VIDEO ART Ryan Trecartin 6 Movies
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until May 8
MUSIC All You Need is Love
Hamer Hall, Melbourne, January 30
VISUAL ART William Bustard: Painting With Light
Museum of Brisbane, until January 31
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 30, 2016 as "Cale revolution".
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