The question of why some musicians are recognized for their genius and others are not is hardly an interesting question anymore (to me, at least).>"/>
The question of why some musicians are recognized for their genius and others are not is hardly an interesting question anymore (to me, at least). But lately I've been wondering why some musicians are referenced heavily by music critics and others are not. Case-in-point: John Cale.
We all know that the Velvet Underground is the greatest band that has ever walked the planet and that Lou Reed is a rare American original. How do we know this? Because the Velvets and Lou Reed are referenced every time a band or artist does one of the following...
1) Experiments with hypnotic repetition
2) Sounds like they are hardcore New Yorkers
3) Makes abrasive noise
4) Sings pretty songs flatly or out-of-tune
5) Writes dark psychedelic songs about hard drug usage
6) Has a confrontational relationship with the audience
7) Refuses to compromise, artistically
8) Incorporates the viola
9) Has an arty flare
10) Sounds European but not fey
11) Comes off as "street-wise"
12) Takes risks
To name but a few...
But what about John Cale, the member of the Velvet Underground who actually had a more exciting and illustrious post-Velvets career than Lou Reed. Well...his records Paris 1919, Slow Dazzle, and Fear are all rites of passage for extreme music snoots. They contain melodies that are haunting and pretty, like musical equivalents to Dylan Thomas or Emily Dickinson, but are also as pastoral as American folk music. They also pre-dated punk and new wave, yet contained flourishes of Brian Wilson, the Beatles, and classical traditions while still sounding wholly original.
I had never thought much about the scope of Cale's influence until a few weeks ago when I was listening to Paris 1919 and noticed a striking similarity between it and the baroque Americana of our own Fleet Foxes. Fleet Foxes are not a carbon-copy of Cale, mind you. I even highly doubt Cale was an influence at all. But Robin Pecknold's lilting vocals have a lot in common with Cale's thin Welsh waver. The way Fleet Foxes write folk that is also lush and pretty and indebted to Brian Wilson has much in common with Cale, especially his Paris 1919 and songs like "Ship of Fools".
But the more I heard Cale in Fleet Foxes, the more I heard it in My Morning Jacket. And I've since heard it in bands like Belle & Sebastian, U2, Radiohead, Rufus Wainwright, nearly every shoegazer (more so than "Sister Ray" and "What Goes On", even), Jeff Buckley (obviously), REM, and almost all of late-period Nick Cave.
In our current state of indie rock, I'd argue Cale's early solo work had just as much, if not broader influence, than artists like Nick Drake or The Smiths...and definitely more so than his rival Lou Reed. Yet no one seems to mention it.
His lack-of-recognition has been argued elsewhere, obviously, but until his name is dropped with the frequency of Brian Wilson's in Pitchfork reviews, it bears repeating...