Who is he? When was the photograph of him taken? Is he an artful dodger? A wise Holmesian intellectual? A dandy with a message? A message without meaning? Perhaps he’s simply a Bryan Ferry clone. The front cover of John Cale’s 1973 opus, Paris 1919, brings forth a barrage of meaningful questions before you’ve even heard a note of music. In fact, the sleeve picture gives no indication of the music within. Is that a smirk I detect on Cale’s face? As if to say, ‘You can’t pin me down’. Self-satisfied but humble. Genius among us. Or is he the Artful Dodger? The music on this album certainly defies normal generic categorisation.
Cale’s former band mate, Lou Reed, released a similarly brave and stunning statement of intent for rock writing the same year, a complex study of people being generally awful to one another, entitled Berlin. Paris 1919 (coincidentally also imbued with a stark European connection like Reed’s album) contains a much brighter feel than Berlin (not an overly-difficult achievement), but in fact, it takes up a quasi-religious feel in part. The arrangements are stunning throughout, taking in rock ‘n’ roll as well as classical ideas. Cale had studied music at Goldsmith’s College in London, this period of his life informing the strange, wonderful pop music Cale would later create.
Take the title track of Paris 1919. This is perhaps the most significant collision of classical music with contemporary pop music in the entire annals of rock. The strings striking a vivid pizzicato drive throughout the song, as catchy as it is foreboding. The soldiers of ‘The Endless Plain Of Fortune’ are also pushed along by a driving orchestral arrangement, a perfect marriage of strings and brass. Or are they soldiers? Is the title track about a ghost or a reminiscence?
I, like many a rock fan at the time and ever since I imagine, came to Cale’s solo work via the dark garage rock of the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat and his production work on The Stooges’ proto-punk début. So, this seemingly literary explosion of references and imagery is comparatively intimidating. But then the Welshest Welsh voice in recorded history (at least since The Velvet’s ‘The Gift’), rudely intrudes on the track ‘Graham Greene’, and you realise that Cale may not be completely selling us a life of intellectualism, but is in fact smirking slightly at it and us for believing in such a fragile concept in the first place. Do we really need a literate background to enjoy Cale’s music? Of course not. ‘You’re having tea with Graham Greene’, sings Cale, ‘In a coloured costume of your choice’. He may actually be talking about us and him, sitting there with the MC5 and The Stooges floating in and out of our heads while this intellectual waxes lyrical about Catholicism and politics. But, of course, Greene understands us, we just might not always understand him, but we’re probably thinking too hard. Morally he’s there for us, just as Cale is. Never patronising, Paris 1919 is a soothing, helping hand.
Let us not forget we are talking about great Welsh albums, and this album begins with a truly great Welsh song. ‘Child’s Christmas In Wales’ evokes Dylan Thomas as a springboard for Cale’s own childhood reminiscence and also lays down one theme of the album and of the Welsh: travel. The album is clearly passionate about Wales but also passionate about travelling away from the bloody place to experience other lands and to return with fulfilled knowledge and a fuller appreciation of one’s surroundings. ‘Take down the flags of ownership, the walls are falling down’, maybe a call to Communism or to free yourself from the everyday grind and to better yourself spiritually and intellectually.
The music is certainly mostly positive and welcoming throughout; uplifting even. So uplifting that it’s easy to forget that much of the religious imagery melded to the innocence of childhood may be a reference to Cale suffering abuse as a child at the hands of a priest. There is certainly a sense of fear in some of the lyrics and music herein.
Musically, though, this might well be Cale’s most accessible achievement. With ‘Macbeth’ being a perfect glam rock stomper and ‘Graham Greene’ almost reaching a reggae skank. A long way from the avant-rock of La Monte Young or even the Velvets first album. But, let us not forget that Lou Reed had recently become the dark knight of glam rock due to a friendship forged with an alien rock messiah called Ziggy Stardust, who had been, in turn, heavily influenced by the Reed/Cale line up of the Velvets. The music on this album diversifies so effortlessly between classical, rock, avant garde and pop that it could be argued that its influence has been felt as equally as any Velvets record, in that it frees the artist to express himself in any way they see fit or can accomplish. But, also, it takes that journey completely seriously and has been copied over the years by much more monetarily successful and completely humourless pop stars. Cale’s album is brimming with humour and intellectualism being aware of one another, with neither being the exclusive drive of the artist.
Paris 1919 could be the greatest Welsh rock album ever made because it lives and breathes Wales. Like the Welsh people, it is passionate about all culture, grandiose, sometimes frustrating but always sincere, intellectual and proud but self-aware and full of humour, brave and determined to travel and explore, a pilgrim of our green and pleasant lands. It should be taught in schools. It should be everywhere. What is that look on the man’s face on the album cover? It’s a welcoming face, inviting us to take the journey of lifetimes.