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John Cale – Proto-punk Producer

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Besides being a founding member of the ur-punk band Velvet Underground, John Cale also produced three seminal proto-punk albums, the debuts of Iggy Pop’s Stooges, the Modern Lovers, and the Patti Smith Group.

Cale met Elektra owner Jac Holzman in the late-’60s, who asked him to produce the first Stooges album. “Jac took me to Detroit to see the MC5 recording live. The opening band was the Stooges. . . I fell in love with Iggy’s character and personality as a performer. The challenge was to get that magic and impish behavior onto a record.”

Cale succeeded. The Stooges’ debut rocks with the psychedelic blues-rock fervor of a severely distempered Cream. The volatility of the Stooges’ live act is implied rather than manifested, but such itchy odes to malaise as “1969″ (“Another year for me and you/Another year with nothin’ to do”), “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” and “No Fun” helped set the tone and vocabulary (with the Velvets and the MC5) for punk rock over the next 30 years. Iggy’s vocals and Ron Asheton’s guitar were (and are) forces of nature.

In the early-’70s, Cale climbed into the beast by accepting an A&R position with Warner Brothers Records. For his next major project, he moved to the opposite end of the misfit spectrum to produce Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ first album.

“They dropped off a tape of a song called ‘Hospital’ that sounded very lame at first hearing. What was magical about it was that they took this weakness, this lameness, and by the end of the song, it had become a strength. . . There was an honesty there that you couldn’t turn your back on. . . We did a demo, and the demo turned out to be the best record. For some reason, best-known to psychiatrists, when they were formally signed to the company, and formally introduced to management and a producer, the whole enterprise imploded. The closer they got to success, the more disorganized they became.”

Cale’s demo with the Lovers, released in 1975 as The Modern Lovers, is a classic of simplicity, power and beauty which straddles the line between the cloying lameness that Richman eventually succumbed to and the jagged righteousness of rock ‘n’ roll. “Roadrunner” (about driving, the radio, nighttime, and jumping out of one’s skin at the glory of it all) and “Pablo Picasso” (“He could walk down the street/Girls could not resist his stare/Pablo Picasso was not called an asshole”) are two of the best rock songs ever written. The just-released version includes six bonus tracks and the original cover art (which unfortunately doesn’t show up on Amazon).

Cale completed a triptych of exemplary productions with Patti Smith’s debut, Horses, also in 1975. “That was a case of recording a poet who was a mother hen over some inexperienced musicians, who had all the heart in the world. Once we were in the studio we discovered, ‘My God, all of these instruments are warped!’ We stopped, ordered in a whole slew of new instruments, and had them record that way.

“Just that act alone was enough to uproot some of the sensibilities there, and that created a whole new set of instabilities within the band and toward me. I was a little brusque with them. I’m sure I could have handled it a lot better. Everyone has their favorite instrument that they love and have gotten used to. You walk in there with muddy boots and somebody feels insulted: ‘What, you don’t like this gorgeous Fender with a bullet hole in it?’”

Muddy boots or not, the Patti Smith debut updated (in a ’70s alterna-rock context) a distaff version of the poet/naive musician archetype that stretches back in American music through Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.

About Eric Olsen

  • http://robbedbyafountainpen.blogspot.com BJ

    Eric, you’re on a roll today with the music crit – way to go. I can’t believe I didn’t know Cale produced these three. Learn something every day.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks BJ, I appreciate it. It’s been lonely.