Gary Raymond on the re-issue and re-recording of John Cale’s ‘lost classic’ from 1982.
In the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll’s great lost albums, the stories behind the disappearances are varied and often dramatic. Insanity, infighting, fear of flying… legal wrangling, of course… and sometimes just a classic case of way ahead of its time. So it’s unusual to come to an album that appears to have none of these stories, and yet still fell off the edge of the earth. Music for a New Society was released in 1982 to critical acclaim and dire sales. It sounds like a 1982 record, so it can hardly be called ‘out of time’. Cale’s experimental studio techniques – much was improvised on tape – is pulled together by very eighties keyboards and big open spaces. The songwriting is, on the whole, vintage Cale of this period, shuddering moments of beauty and moments of visceral darkness throughout, with melodic meanderings through history, peopled with fops and intellectuals and scoundrels – he was always rather more dandyish than Lou Reed in his character portraits.
That Cale has chosen to re-release the album after 30-odd years is a welcome move – the album may not be a masterpiece as some of the contemporary reviews had it in ’82, but it is an essential part of his cannon. Music for a New Society is an album that seems to come from an era of music for music’s sake that is being rediscovered now with a staggering kind of urgent lackadaisicalness by the internet generation. It seems that while U2 and Jay-Z worry about how the music industry will continue to make money, much more interesting artists are releasing music regardless, just because they can. Brian Eno had a lot to do with this in the seventies and eighties, releasing a slew of experimental, and then ambient albums that sold very few copies but seemed to nevertheless pass into folklore. (How many people really bought Thursday Afternoon in 1985?) Like Eno, Cale has been extremely prolific, even more so as a creator of songs. The recent vinyl reissues of Eno ‘lost albums’ such as The Drop and My Squelchy Life on All Saints Records have taken advantage of the artistry and care now again going into the physical format music release, and Music for a New Society has followed the same pattern. It is a sharply designed piece of kit. There are many parallels between the career of Eno and Cale, and both of them seem ready made for this kind of rebirth. Their music is what you might call ‘vinyl-friendly’, if you believe the spiel that an LP is something to be savoured, something above and beyond the music on it, that there is a perfect marriage somewhere between the plastic and the message.
In many ways, Music for a New Society is just experiencing a new chapter of its complicated life. Here the re-issue is paired with a complete re-recording – a re-imagining, if you like – of the original album. But M:Fans is not repetition, it is a different album using the same songs. A track that was on the original LP, but then was left off the CD, in which Cale talks in Welsh to his mother over the phone, ‘Mama’s Song’, makes a welcome return, here as ‘Prelude’ and it opens M:Fans as an elegy. One of the standout tracks, ‘If You Were Still Around’, Cale’s music to Sam Sheppard’s poetry, continues the tone, moving up the track listing. The change in order is, of course, not to be ignored; M:Fans is a more contemplative record than its parent album, it seems slower and darker. The only track to feature a backing band, ‘Changes Made’, a track that Cale apparently wanted to dump in 1982, makes it to M:Fans complete with band, but this reworking is heavily grungy, Cale sounds like Iggy Pop, the backing vocals make for a discomforting polish. It is a misfire, but it is an extremely intriguing one.
What Cale does with the other tracks is he draws them out – whereas Music for a New Society has those wide open spaces that seemed unfillable in the 1980s, M:Fans imbues the air with something akin to menace. ‘Taking Your Life in Your Hands’ is no longer a heart-rending song about frustration and dead ends, but is now a message from a ghost, a warning to the world. You can feel the thirty years of musical experimentation that happened between these two records. There are jolts throughout M:Fans, jolts of the Nine Inch Nails variety.
Anyone familiar with Cale’s live shows of the last decade will recognise the impetus here: he reworks old classics constantly on stage into sometimes unrecognisable mashes. His ‘Fear is a Man’s Best Friend’ pretty much keeps only the lyrics and the primal screams nowadays. It is an interesting preoccupation that may see him spend future years getting into the guts of his better albums – his real masterpieces – like Helen of Troy and Paris 1919. But somehow, M:Fans brings new life to Music for a New Society, like a toddler does when visiting grandparents. It is not the same album redone. It has become its own being, it is more punchy, more robust, more modern, and it is a record Music for a New Society can be proud of, if a little scared.