The Cale Demos

Velvet Couch.
Piano-la (Pianola?).

When we did that bootleg, it was like the good old bad old days. We were partying very hard. It was exciting working with him, as there were a lot of possibilities and everything, but we were our own worst enemies at that point…Did I ever want to produce Bowie? After spending time with him, I realised the answer was no. The way we were then would have made it too dangerous.

John Cale, Uncut interview, 2008.

John Cale first heard David Bowie in 1971, during Cale’s tenure as the “weirdo music” A&R man for Warner Records, but the two didn’t meet until years later.* Cale, in the interview linked above, said he had been startled and delighted when coming upon Hunky Dory, which he saw as the heir to Lionel Bart and Anthony Newley with bizarre SF overtones and a pinch of Neil Young. No one in America really got the record, particularly Warner’s (which, thankfully, wasn’t Bowie’s label), but Cale had heard a kindred spirit.

Finally, on April Fool’s Day 1979, Bowie and Cale performed together, playing Cale’s recent “Sabotage” during a Philip Glass and Steve Reich show entitled “The First Concert of the Eighties.” Bowie, wearing a black kimono, attempted to play viola for the first time in his life. Sadly, no footage has survived.

If one had the power to fork and twist history, it would be tempting to do all sorts of damage, but one very minor alteration would be, in the ’70s, to align Bowie with John Cale instead of Lou Reed. Cale and Bowie were far better suited and could have been fantastic collaborators, on a par with Bowie and Eno’s partnership. Time has done adequate justice to Cale, as there’s a general consensus now that his work in the ’70s—the cracked Whitman’s Sampler Vintage Violence, the majestic pop of Paris 1919, the “dirty ass rock and roll” trilogy Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy and the punk salvos with which Cale closed out the decade, the Animal Justice EP and his live CBGB document Sabotage—is at least the equal, if not the superior, of Reed’s work in the decade.

In October 1979, when Bowie was hanging around New York, Cale and Bowie finally tried to collaborate. It would be nice to say that the surviving demos from this session were glimpses of what could have been major works, but they’re just murky-sounding early drafts, weak shadows of songs; they exist only as lost potential.

The somber “Piano-la” or “Pianola” (a bootlegger apparently titled the songs) is a barely-audible Bowie singing place-filler notes while Cale sounds out ideas on piano. “Velvet Couch” is more realized, with Bowie, tracing together a melody, surfacing with lines like “we won’t do things like that anymore,” “we’ll be as we are,” “they never sleep and they never play guitar,” “a red velvet couch and no guitar.” The songs, at least in these early forms, have little connection to what Bowie was writing on Lodger and Scary Monsters: they’re more similar to Cale’s then-recent slow pieces like “Chorale.” Hearing these demos is as frustrating as it is tantalizing—it’s a glimpse of a path not taken, a ghost avenue.

Recorded 15 October 1979, Ciarbis Studio, NYC. Unreleased (first issued on the bootleg 7″ Two Gentlemen in New York in the 1980s). To hear, click on the link above and then on Player #4—they’re tracks 11 and 12.

* There’s a charming (and hopefully true) anecdote about Bowie visiting the US for the first time in 1971 and going to see the Velvet Underground play, excited that he would see Cale and Lou Reed at last. But of course, this was the “fake” VU with Doug Yule as lead singer. Bowie, however, mistakenly thought he had met Cale that evening.

Top: Cale and Nico at CBGB, 19 February 1979.

PS: For those unfamiliar with Cale, here’s a Youtube sampler I just threw together.

25 Responses to The Cale Demos

  1. Jeremy Earl says:

    The story I heard was that bowie had thought he’d met Lou, but either story is great!

    These tracks are like ghosts of songs, heard through a thick fog. Fascinating though and I wonder if there is anything more? I agree about Cale, his 70’s output is varied and great, a true maverick. I saw him live a few years back and it was so weird to be in the same room as a guy who played in the Velvet underground – my all time favourite band. I couldn’t believe it.

    But what a wasted opportunity that Bowie and Cale never did anything substantial. Maybe Cale was what bowie needed in the mid eighties when he was uninspired, pity they didn’t get together then….

  2. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Thanks for this. I’d no idea when these were recorded. And you’re right about John Cale vs Lou Reed in the seventies. (Did he have some connection to Jonathan Richman?)
    Just to show off a little – not long after that photo was taken I got on a train from London to Manchester. I thought I had the seats to myself but two people came along and invaded my space: Nico and John Cooper-Clarke. She looked much better in photos!

  3. Is John Cale the guy from the Weetabix adverts?

  4. ian says:

    Oh, nice! I’d only heard, not heard these before. They’re ghosts, for sure, but nice all the less. It’s very nice, too, to see some Cale-love. I mean, “Street Hassle” is great and all, but it’s no match for anything of “Fear.”

  5. The only John Cale I know (aside from that Nico thing) is “Hallelujah.” live (there are several; I mean this one from Fragments of a Rainy Season). His version betters Cohen’s (which he graciously acknowledged) and is finer than any other version – in my humble (but correct) opinion.

    That said, I don’t think Cale and Bowie would have worked that well together. I get the feeling that they wouldn’t have synced in the way that (say) Eno or Visconti and Bowie did. Their personalities would have militated against it.

  6. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    I’m afraid I have to respectfully (but strongly) disagree with you on the whole Cale vs. Reed matter. Cale may have been better suited for collaboration but Reed was the better songwriter. Still, i had no idea these existed. Thanks.

  7. Gnomemansland says:

    Have to agree with Pinstripe – I always found Cale to be vastly overrated as a songwriter – as a producer though he deserves some sort of award for those Nico numbers…

    • col1234 says:

      just to clarify, i was comparing ’70s Cale to ’70s Lou. Cale, as much as i love him, has never written anything as good as “Heroin” or “Rock and Roll” or “Waiting for the Man.”

      • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

        I feel I should mention that I am very biased here – songs like “Rock and Roll”, “Heavenly Arms”, “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, and “Coney Island Baby” have helped me through some very difficult times.

        As I mentioned in the previous entry, Reed’s an odd duck for a 60’s artist in that some of his best work was in the ’80s. The 70s were a very difficult time for Reed, and it shows in some of his songwriting of that decade, I’ll admit.

      • Jeremy Earl says:

        Yeah, Cale isn’t as good a songwriter when you are talking about comparing him to the Velvets, but his 70’s stuff is up there and better in some cases than Reed. The Velvets man, the Velvets….

  8. Gnomemansland says:

    In the 70s Lou comes up with: Lou Reed, Transformer, Coney island, Street Hassle, Rock N Roll Heart, Metal Machine Music, The Bells….. I’m not not so keen on Berlin and Sally but how is this a lean period?

  9. snoball says:

    The version of the story I heard was that Bowie went backstage after a VU gig in 1970 and spoke to Doug Yule, thinking he was Lou Reed.

  10. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Not sure that the Velvet Underground had even formed when he was seventeen!

  11. spanghew says:

    I don’t think it’s particularly fruitful to compare Cale and Reed – but thank you for praising Cale’s work, which is indeed brilliant and (still) underrated.

  12. Remco says:

    Cale’s great………that’s all I really have to say on this subject

  13. Anonymous says:

    The link appears to be broken, a situation tantalizingly close to actually hearing the collaboration, but snatched away. Any chance of re-up? Marvellous site, by the way.

  14. postpunkmonk says:

    Cale is beyond great to me. My wife always wondered why Bowie and Cale never linked up so I’ll have too let her know about this. I think that Cale and Bowie are too close in artistic temperament so his assessment of why they failed to gel was probably wise. As for Reed VS Cale, give me Cale any day. Reed is a songwriter who undoubtedly expanded rock’s lyrical reach but Cale did the same for the musical side of things, and I’m more of a music than lyric guy. I find Cale’s range to be almost unmatched in music. Heartbreaking ballads. Avant noise. Sturdy rock. Classical. Visceral punk. Experimental pop. He does it all, and masterfully well. I’ve enjoyed every Cale album I’ve heard. And he’s just as good today as he was in the 60s. He’s always pushing his boundaries and never phones it in. Cale also weathered the 80s better than most if not all of his contemporaries.

  15. Rufus Oculus says:

    It hardly matters but Cale has aged well like Bowie but unlike Lou. Still a handsome man at 70(?). I interviewed Nico for a fanzine when she lived in Manchester with JCC. She was a sweetie unlike Cale who told me to F off when I approached him in the Hacienda for an interview.

  16. BenJ says:

    The link at the top is out of date. Both these songs are on YouTube, though.

    I wonder, if Bowie had aligned with Cale, does that mean Eno would have made an album with Reed? That’s more fun than my alternate universe where FDR chose William O Douglas as his ’44 running mate.

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