Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime

Credit is given where credit is due regarding the overlooked gems of my lifetime.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

John Cale, Fear

For too long I've been delaying writing a profound entry on the backseat gem that is John Cale's 1974 album, Fear. I've had the album, in its cover featuring a harsh, black-and-white, scary yet serene closeup of Cale's large-featured face sitting in front of my stereo for the last month. I've cranked up the album a few times since then. One day I even sat at the piano - an instrument I can't really play - and easily plucked out the chords and basic licks in each song. It was a good way to get further into the slightly overlooked sibling of the "classically trained" Cale's influential and universally acknowledged masterpiece and rock snob rite of passage, the sly, elegant Paris 1919. Few album covers better represent the music that's contained within that the cover for Fear.

After the backstory of his founding of the Velvet Underground, which followed time spent receiving "classical training" and later "studying" under avant garde composer LaMonte Young (perhaps the most referenced artist in rock criticism that rock critics have never actually heard [thanks, RTH!]), the leadoff track of Fear, "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend" follows Paris 1919 in intermediate studies in the artist. I won't bore you with further cut-and-pasted details, although some of them, such as Little Feat backing up Cale on his acknowledged masterpiece, are fascinating for folks like myself, folks who can't get enough of this stuff, right down to the participation of rock's forgotten street poet, Garland Jeffreys, on Cale's solo debut, Vintage Violence. I will waste no further words, and get back to the trick that Fear's title track (click and wait out final 25 seconds of the previous song on a WFMU broadcast to listen) pulls off: it far outdoes John Lennon's "Mother" in kicking off an album with rock 'n roll's long-sought primal scream intensity. When the genre of rock 'n roll was created, surely one of its objectives was to allow yon' teens an outlet for letting the world know just how crazy and mixed up their inner lives were. Combine this with existential philosphy, Freudian analysis, and a Neanderthal's sense of reggae rhythms on the chorus, and you've pretty much got the recipe for Cale's very own Scream.

Throughout the album, Cale receives major contributions from Roxy Music-pedigreed guitarist Phil Manzanera and knob- and perspective-twiddler Brian Eno. The sound is dry, stark, and menacing. Even the mellow songs, of which there are a handful, have that sense of menace. When he sings, in the stately "Buffalo Ballet", the refrain of "Sleeping in the midday sun...", a less-than-peaceful sleep is promised. The third track in, "Barracuda", is pushed along by a grotesque walking bassline and is punctuated by an oddly placed, descending synth run that comes and goes at just the right time. It's another song that confidently - and almost gleefully - bodes bad tidings. (This is getting at what's made this album so right for me over the years.) Manzanera, under the meddling fingers of Eno, is allowed to run free for much of the album, and that's always a good thing. Side 2 kicks off with a long, repetitive, swaggering number called "Gun". Over the rollicking barroom piano-led rhythm track, Manzanera's guitar wails through all levels of filtered devices. Cale sounds like he means business. Too often, in albums that would follow Fear, Cale "meaning business" would mean Cale exhorting a lot of overwrought horseshit. Check out the dead-on-arrival Slow Dazzle album if you dare. On Fear, however, you get out of the way and let the man through. Maybe it's that sound, a sound that has much more with Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure than any other Cale album or Cale production.

So, I procrastinated in writing what I had hoped would be a profound and informative piece on John Cale's Fear. I suspect, as I feared I that would, I have missed the mark. However, as I come to terms with the knowledge that the ocean will have us all, as I play this album, as I learn that there's a time to deflate the balloon I work too hard to maintain, I take solace in and celebrate the dark visions that are put across on this album at just the right pitch for my sensibilities.


  • At 10:20 AM, Blogger Scraps said…

    I found your blog through The Existence Machine, and I'm enjoying your writing very much. And yeah, it's a great idea for a blog.

    I always thought Fear was the canonical Cale album -- maybe just because I took those Christgau books too seriously -- and I love it, still come back to it. For some reason, it took me years to try any other Cale albums; these days, I like Slow Dazzle just about as much.

    But of Richard Thompson guest appearance you said nothing!

  • At 11:22 PM, Blogger frankenslade said…

    Thanks for writing, Scraps. A friend called me on the lack of the Thompson appearance too. As I explained to him, I was trying to keep my thoughts brief and feared overstaying my welcome. As you may have noticed, I don't always follow my own advice:)

  • At 4:17 PM, Blogger Inverarity said…

    Nice writeup for unquestionably one of Cale's three strongest albums. "Overwrought horseshit" is a little strong, though fair for Slow Dazzle and much of Helen of Troy. You can't possibly dislike Sabotage/Live, though... er, can you?

  • At 2:40 PM, Blogger EdtheTed said…

    I liked your comments, and agree with almost all of them. However, I think Slow Dazzle is a great album as well and you are a bit overwrought for dissing it like that. I love it that my 13 year old son is enjoying listening to Hobosapiens! (a very good album as well).


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