Friday, March 9, 2012 at 9:04 a.m.
Even at the ripe old age of 70, John Cale remains one of the most enigmatic musicians in popular music. He is a man whose musical endeavors once stretched from rock to punk to the realms of classical and experimental progression.
Born in Wales on March 9, 1942, Cale was a founding member of the extraordinarily influential Velvet Underground and went on to make a series of groundbreaking solo albums, including a crucial trio of mid '70s records for the then-fledgling Island Records label. Taken in tandem, his efforts - the first Velvets album, their sophomore set White Light White Heat, his groundbreaking folk pop masterpiece Vintage Violence, the elegiac Paris 1919 and the aforementioned Island sets, Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy - earned him a reputation as a daring visionary and an artist always worth watching.
It's little wonder then that Cale also went on to become one of the most sought after producers of the past four decades, counting among his clients his former bandmate Nico, ongoing collaborator Lou Reed, folk icon Nick Drake, the seminal punk outfit the Stooges, rock goddess Patti Smith, and fellow mastermind Brian Eno. To continue with this terribly long list, there's also Kevin Ayers, the Modern Lovers, Manic Street Preachers, Marc Almond, Squeeze, Alejandro Escovedo, Happy Mondays, and Siouxie and the Banshees. Whew.
With the exception of a brief hiatus in the mid to late '80s, Cale's career has continued unabated, taking him through a variety of genres and several different record labels. In 1991, he contributed to a Leonard Cohen tribute album entitled I'm Your Fan, offering the first of many subsequent covers of Cohen's classic "Hallelujah."
Songs for Drella
, an album that gave homage to an early mentor, Andy Warhol, and a later 1993 reunion with the Velvets found him reconvening with Lou Reed
, ending a contentious relationship that lasted more than two decades.
In recent years, Cale's enjoyed a new resurgence of activity - his cover of "Hallelujah" found its way into the soundtrack of the acclaimed motion picture Shrek, he returned to recording by dabbling in electronica and alternative rock, made several notable concert appearances, produced a definitive two disc live retrospective entitled Circus Live, and capped his accomplishments by receiving the prestigious Officer of the Order of the British Empire honors from Queen Elizabeth in 2010.
Cale's latest offering, released late last year and entitled EP: Extra Playful
, marks Cale's return to form, a disc that recalls the ominous approach that characterized him at his peak and his prime. The seven songs encapsulate several styles he's dabbled in over the years - alternative, electronic and experimental music among them. It affirms the fact that few other artists have been as astute and accomplished.
Interestingly enough, Cale's first instrument was actually viola, which he continued to play throughout his stint with the Velvets and beyond. It served him well. He composed two original classical pieces while still in college, then performed with avant-garde composer John Cage, and, after arriving in New York in the early '60s, found a mentor in American composer Aaron Copeland.
Unlike others that came to it later on, Cale actually started in classical music and earned a serious pedigree that would likely have made him a success even if he hadn't crossed over to contemporary music. However, here's an example of some other rockers who gained a pop pedigree and later opted to delve into "serious" sounds.
After dabbling in orchestral accompaniment with the Beatles ("Eleanor Rigby," "Yesterday," "Goodnight" etc.), Macca later released five complete classical albums beginning in the early '90s - Liverpool Oratorio, Standing Stone, Working Classical, Ecce Cor Meum, and Ocean's Kingdom. All have been met with substantial critical acclaim.
Joel's Fantasies & Delusions, Op. 1-10 - Music for Solo Piano was released in 2001 during what Joel described as a self-imposed hiatus from pop. The album, which hit number one on the classical charts, consisted of a collection of classical piano pieces which Joel often uses as interludes in live performances. Some of the music was also used as part of the score for the hit show Movin' Out.
The Moodies' transition from their early R&B format to their more progressive approach took place with the album Days of Future Past in 1967, an album recorded in conjunction with the London Festival Orchestra. Although it marked a major milestone in their early trajectory, it was dismissed in some quarters as strictly an orchestral recording. "We said, 'okay then, what we should do then, just to quell these people on the next album, is to play every instrument ourselves,'" bassist John Lodge recently recalled. "Even if we can't play it, we'll get a book and learn how to play it."
Gabriel's most recent album, New Blood, effectively reprises several songs from his catalog with orchestral arrangements. "The orchestra provides different dimensions to the music that weren't there initially," Gabriel was quoted as saying on its release. "Rock artists work slowly in studios, building up layer by layer, and one of the great, powerful advantages of an orchestra is all these musicians playing at one moment with all sorts of colors and personalities."
A hard rocking, hard crunching band like Deep Purple working in tandem with a symphony orchestra? In fact, their album Concerto for Group and Orchestra, composed by Purple Keyboardist Jon Lord and vocalist Ian Gillan marked one of the earliest attempts to fuse rock and classical intentions. First performed by Deep Purple and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on September 24,1969, a love recording was released in the U.S. and in Great Britain only a few months after. Sadly, the original score was lost in 1970, but the band performed the piece again nearly 30 years later as a recreated work.
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