Through his contribution to the first two Velvet Underground albums, John Cale was one of the people who shifted the tectonic plates of popular music in the 20th century. Maybe it was unreasonable to expect more. But I always believed, based on his work with La Monte Young’s Dream Syndicate, the three albums of archive material from 1965-69 released by Table of the Elements a few years ago, his arrangements on Nico’s The Marble Index, his collaboration with Terry Riley on The Church of Anthrax, his instrumental music for the Warhol films Eat and Kiss, and various other pieces of evidence, that he had the potential to go a long way beyond the rock and roll template into which he settled with Vintage Violence, Paris 1919 and their various successors, whatever his occasional flirtations with punkish sedition (such as the line “We could all feel safe/Like Sharon Tate” which so upset the Island Records hierarchy in 1976).
The weird thing about Cale was that so much of his post-Velvets music sounded like the Velvets had never existed, which was why it was so pleasing to hear the way he treated “(I Keep a) Close Watch” at the Roundhouse last night, during his spot in a week-long series called In the Round which has also been featuring Marianne Faithfull, Edwyn Collins, Mulatu Astatke, Scritti Politti and others.
Even if, like many of his songs from the mid-’70s, it sounds as though he never quite got round to completing it, “Close Watch” remains Cale’s most poignantly affecting ballad. It’s perfectly fine when sung straight and solo, as he did with the version included in the excellent Fragments of a Rainy Season, recorded during a 1992 tour and released by Hannibal that same year. But last night he and his three-piece band subjected it to a complete overhaul, stretching its sturdy sinews and ligaments almost to snapping point with an arrangement based on waves and surges of growling, shrieking electronic sound. It was a mighty noise, and it gave the song a devastating impact.
Wearing a conductor’s black tail coat, black T-shirt and jeggings and brown lace-up ankle boots, with his hair dyed silvery blonde in a sort of Small-Faces-circa-Itchycoo Park style, Cale was in relatively genial mood, although he didn’t say much. There was a “Hello, London — good to see you” and an unsatisfactory introduction to his keyboards-player (doubling bass guitar), guitarist and drummer, both of whom doubled on electronic bits and pieces: “This is Nick, this is Dusty, and this is (indecipherable).” Given the attitude with which the three musicians approached arrangements that required not just precision but commitment, and in the absence of any other way for the audience to identify them, he might have done better.
The repertoire in his 100-minute set included “Coral Moon”, “Changes Made”, “Hemingway” and a densely propulsive final pass at Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso”, a reminder of what a creative rearranger of other people’s classics he can be. But, with the exception of “Close Watch”, it was still mostly generic rock and roll. At 73, and seemingly in good nick, there’s time for him to stretch his capacious intellect and wide range of technical skills in other directions once more. I do wish he would.