Listen to this track by one of the founders of drone rock and former member of the Velvet Underground John Cale. It’s “Paris 1919”, the title track from his acclaimed 1973 album of the same name, Paris 1919, featuring a plethora of literary references as well as a lush pop sound that wouldn’t be out of place in the catalogues of Paul McCartney or the Moody Blues.
It may well be the only record to include both Dylan Thomas, who is referenced in the lyrics, and Little Feat, whom Cale used as a backing group on the record.
The scope of John Cale’s musical interest, influence, and hands on involvement is one of the widest in rock history. As a musician, he’s graced the albums of artists ranging from Nick Drake to the Patti Smith Group. As a producer, he’s guided the sessions of acts from the Stooges to the Modern Lovers, to Alejandro Escovedo. As such, unexpected stylistic left-turns from Cale are to be oddly expected left-turns. And this song, and the album off of which it comes is one such turn, albeit one of his most accessible.
It’s hard to imagine that the guy who played on ‘Heroin’ and ‘Sister Ray’ could come up with this, a little operetta or a showtune bursting with aural sunshine, even if there is a bit of a threatening cloud in the low horns, and the insistent strings. There’s plenty packed in here, with a middle section that sounds like it’s the second cousin of Greig’s Peer Gint mixed with the best of orchestral pop textures of the period. Even his voice sounds boyish, wrapping phrasing around “la la la’s” and images of “lots of jam and maids of honor”, lyrics which may have graced McCartney’s Ram album, had McCartney written them. And to make things even more curious; he enlisted the help of Lowell George and Little Feat to serve as his backing group on the album, along with the UCLA Philharmonic Orchestra to him help realize the fullness of the arrangement you’re hearing on this track.
When you contrast this with his work with the Velvets, and later work which engages in harsh minimalism, it’s pretty striking. It’s almost as if he was trying to cut a song to serve as the mirror image of the shadowy musical forms and avante garde experimentalism for which he was, and would continue to be known.
Going one further, you almost get the impression that he’s undertaking the artistic equivalent of an escaping convict running through a brook to throw the hounds of the underground music press off their mark. Instead of minimalism, we get sweeping vistas of orchestral sound. Instead of the darkness of drug addiction, we get ‘la la la’. Instead of drag queens and junkies, we get literary references. And instead of avant garde angles, we’re getting straight ahead accessibility.
Cale never replicated this feel or atmosphere in any subsequent release. Despite its epic grandeur, this is a pop song, pure and simple, which may be why artistically left-turning Cale hasn’t seen fit to follow it up.
For more information about John Cale, be sure and visit John Cale’s official site.