Perhaps one of the more intriguing chapters in the great rock ‘n’ roll canon, the more you learn about The Velvet Underground the more questions you have. As you peel back the banana skin of their sad-bit-in-indie-films soundtrack hits, you dig up songs that go deeper and stories almost too unbelievable to be true. Did you know, for example, that the band’s female voice, Nico, lived out her days post-Velvet Underground in and around our very own Manchester? Or that founding member, Lou Reed once punched David Bowie in the face for telling him to sober up? Or that the band penned a musical-style homage to their mentor, pop-artist Andy Warhol after he died?
And then there’s John Cale, bassist, violist and founding member of The Velvet Underground. If you’d met John when he was seven, you wouldn’t have guessed where he’d end up. He was born in Garnant, Wales to a coal miner and a primary school teacher and he didn’t speak a word of English until he started school - only Welsh. You couldn’t get further away from the arty glitz of Warhol’s New York studio if you tried, but John somehow managed to make it there. He was talented at playing the viola and, after studying at Goldsmiths, he headed over the Atlantic and soon ended up recording a novelty song written by a bloke called Lou Reed. The rest is much-mythicised history.
Luxury eyewear aficionados, Jacques Marie Mage share our appreciation for Mr Cale and they’ve just launched a spectacular pair of sunglasses inspired by a pair from his personal collection. The White Light sunglasses are a bold, softly rectangular frame made from 10mm block cellulose acetate. In one fell swoop, they just about encapsulate the enigma of the man and the raw, stripped-back power of The Velvet Underground's second album they share their name with, White Light/White Heat.
To celebrate the launch of the frames, and John Cale himself, we thought we’d take a look at seven songs John’s worked on that are about as cool as wearing dark glasses and nonchalantly mumbling through an interview with what-ever-his-name-is from Rolling Stone magazine. So put your sunglasses on inside, turn your speakers up, read this... and then start a band.
All Tomorrow’s Parties (Alternate Instrumental Mix) - The Velvet Underground
If you’re finally heading on that road trip from New York to San Fran - or you just fancy listening to some heroin-seeped rock ‘n’ roll without the distraction of Nico’s dulcet tones - this alternate instrumental mix of All Tomorrow’s Parties from the super deluxe re-issue of The Velvet Underground's self-titled album is a good start. Without vocals, the drums, the clattering piano, and the droning guitar are all starkly front and centre and they sound glorious. Just try not to slide too deep into your chair.
White Light/White Heat - The Velvet Underground
It would be hard to miss out the title track of White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground’s second LP. As their relationship with Andy Warhol broke down due to the poor sales of their first album, the band kicked him out and set out to create a record more left-field, with many tracks taking elements from the experimental improvisations of their recent tours. John Cale described the album as "a very rabid record” that was “consciously anti-beauty” and while the opener is closer to traditional songcraft than the songs that follow it, it’s still fuzzier than anything Warhol would have let them put out and it breaks down satisfyingly into complete noise long before it’s over.
The Gift - The Velvet Underground
For fans of spoken word, the Welsh accent, and pounding proto-punk, it doesn’t get much better than this elongated second track from White Light/White Heat. Like a slightly darker Dylan Thomas, John Cale takes to the mic, reciting a meandering love story written by Lou Reed over an uber-Velvet Underground instrumental. More than eight minutes long and accompanied by low-budget and gruesome sound effects, it’s not for the easily-distracted or the faint-hearted but still well worth a listen.
I Wanna Be Your Dog - The Stooges
By the time The Velvet Underground disbanded in 1974 (the first time around, that is), John Cale had already gotten his fingers in plenty of other musical pies. With a good understanding of music theory up his sleeve, he began picking up work as an arranger and producer in the late 60s and produced many critically acclaimed albums throughout his career. Most notably, he worked on none other than The Stooges’ eponymous first album. Single, I Wanna Be Your Dog contains all that good stuff you might recognise from the Velvet Underground but turned up a notch or two and boosted some more with the imposing presence Iggy Pop’s slurring and shouting.
Barracuda - John Cale
As if founding one of rock’s most important bands and producing some of the most important albums wasn’t good enough for John, he’s had a good punt at some solo stuff too over the years, too. Adding his dead-pan Welsh-American drawl to a more refined Velvet sound with a reggae twang - yes, reggae - track Barracuda from the album Fear might have been a bit of a credibility risk for John in 1974 but it paid off and it still sounds top-notch today.
Smalltown - Lou Reed and John Cale
When their mentor, Andy Warhol died following routine surgery in 1987, long-since estranged John and Lou decided it was high time they got back together to pay tribute to him in the way they thought best - writing and recording a musical-style album about his life. The lyrically unsubtle first track, Smalltown takes the listener back to Andy’s reasons for moving to New York from Pittsburgh and, thanks to John’s bright piano and Lou occasionally drifting into a flamboyant Warhol impression, it might not have sounded too out of place performed on Broadway... if it ever made that far.
Hallelujah - John Cale
Amongst the many, many cover versions of this Leonard Cohen classic, John Cale’s still manages to stand up as one of the best. It’s simple, yet heart-wrenching. It’s powerful, without going too over the top. When it was wheeled out for the 2001 film, Shrek, it gave the Pixar animation’s central montage scene a hit of melancholy so strong it should have rendered the whole film unsuitable for children.
The Jacques Marie Mage White Light Sunglasses
So that was that. A quick, whistle-stop tour through music visionary, John Cale's back catalogue. If you're not in too much of a rush to fish the guitar out the loft and have another stab at rock 'n' roll stardom, take a look at the Jacques Marie Mage White Light sunglasses. Inspired by some of John's own glasses, the exclusive and super-limited new collection from the Californian-based luxury is available right here, on our website, and in-store at the Seen HQ.