John Cale Reimagines The Velvets


Posted by in July's Magazine

The 1st of June 1993 and we’re in the Playhouse, breathlessly waiting for the greatest rock and roll band we’ve never seen to appear on stage together for the first time in 25 years.

It’s not clear yet if it’s a reunion, a reformation or a resurrection. It’s even less clear why the Velvet Underground picked Edinburgh for their first full live shows since John Cale departed in enmity after White Light/White Heat, when conflict between his and Lou Reed’s very different musical heritages ripped the band apart.

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So Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker walk on stage in Edinburgh and we’re enraptured, not quite believing they’re actually there. The set starts with We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together. It’s from 69 Live, an album written entirely by Reed and featuring Cale’s replacement Doug Yule. This sets the scene for the power struggle that plays out over the next few months, concerts spiked by ego and acrimony, a mediocre live album and then a final, bitter division that will never be healed.

Now it’s 2017, 50 years since the first Velvet Underground album was released. Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison are dead and Moe Tucker has retired to the Tea Party. Nico, the icy-cool counterpoint to the band’s relentless drive, is dead too, victim of a 1988 bicycle accident. Only John Cale, the Prince of Wales, is left to be the keeper of the crown.

The Velvet Underground & Nico was virtually ignored on its release and sold badly but half a century later that album and its players have been canonised. Brian Eno famously said that everyone who originally bought it started a band. An exaggeration, of course, but it redefined the parameters of what a rock and roll record could sound like and even now it still sounds startlingly different.

This leaves John Cale, polymath, avant- garde classicist, producer of masterpieces such as Horses, The Stooges and The Marble Index and sole survivor, with the problem of how to mark the occasion. Anyone with even the foggiest notion of Cale’s wilfully perverse career would know not to expect a straight run through of the album with Reed and Nico sound- alikes. And so it proved to be.

Instead we’re on a barren dockside site in Liverpool on the hottest day of the year, waiting for Cale and his hand-picked rabble of collaborators to perform the only European date for The Velvet Underground & Nico: Reimagined. The venue’s symbolic apparently, facing out as it does across the Atlantic towards America; however it seems an uncomfortable location for elegies to drugs, sadomasochism and death forged in the dark heart of NYC.

Cale’s spoken about the artists who’ll join him on stage, saying, “It’s not about them fitting the legend, rather the legend is part of each of them.” Stepping up to history tonight are Nadine Shah, The Kills, Fat White Family, Clinic, Wild Beasts and fellow Welshman Gruff Rhys. Amid the murmurs about more ‘famous’ guests, the line-up seems perfectly judged to me. As does the show.

Problems with the sound across the site have been well catalogued, but we’re standing five rows from the front and it sounds amazing, screeching, soaring and oozing menace, Cale’s viola cutting across like a chainsaw on an electrifying Black Angel’s Death Song, accompanied by Gruff Rhys.

Before that we’ve had Cale on his own, kicking off with Waiting for My Man, with The Kills Jamie Hince on guitar, before Alison Mosshart joins them for the brilliant cacophony of White Light/White Heat.

Cale is magisterial throughout. Some might say imperious. He doesn’t speak or introduce the songs or the guests, leading to confusion for some of the audience who aren’t sure what or who is going on. He’s mixing up the album’s order too, and dropping in songs from White Light/White Heat, including a fabulously gory and totally unexpected Lady Godiva’s Operation, with doomed Warhol superstar Edie Sedgewick staring down from the stage screens.

Before that, we have a mesmerising Venus in Furs, just Cale and his viola, a propulsively weird Run Run Run alongside Liverpool psych band Clinic and a Femme Fatale from Nadine Shah which triumphs precisely because she’s not trying to sound like Nico.

Star of the show, along with Cale, is The Fat White Family’s Lias Saoudi. First seen wandering on nonchalantly eating a banana during the opening tones of All Tomorrow’s Parties, he owns the stage every time he appears, alternating between anger and tenderness on a moving version of Heroin.

An epic 30 minute super-sleazy Sister Ray closes the show with Lias as a main player, prowling around the stage, fantastically louche and menacing, while Nadine Shah and Alison Mosshart chug red wine from the bottle behind him.

It doesn’t all work. Wild Beasts’ loose and looping takes on I’ll Be Your Mirror and There She Goes Again seem out of place. The screens are too small and show vintage footage rather than what’s on stage and the sound system isn’t powerful enough for the size of the crowd. Reviews of the show will be lukewarm at best.

But in those 30 chaotic, glorious, perfect minutes of Sister Ray everything I’ve ever loved about the Velvet Underground (and rock and roll) is captured, the urgency, the danger and the beauty. It may be 50 years old but it’s just like sister ray said and John Cale has finally claimed the crown.

Info: John Cale & guests performed Velvet Underground & Nico: Reimagined at Clarence Docks, Liverpool on 26 May. New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music will host a three night celebration of the album and John Cale’s 75th birthday in November.

Photograph: Trevor Pake

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