Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Cale: Sabotage/Live

Illustration for article titled John Cale: Sabotage/Live

John Cale

The context: After the soft-focus orchestration and coy lyrics of his most popular solo album, 1973's Paris 1919, John Cale began prodding at any new fans he may have welcomed. The three studio albums that followed—Fear, Slow Dazzle, Helen Of Troy—tempted them with stunning reinventions of pop and antagonized them with grisly rockers and avant-garde pieces whose subjects ranged from murder to an eye turning into a vagina. On 1979's Sabotage/Live, Cale and a raffish backing band brought the chaos to a screeching climax at CBGB, with a new set of songs that cataloged a few centuries of global strife.


The greatness: Cale and band weren't the first to try and bring the apocalypse to CBGB, but they made one of the most perverse and methodical attempts. Even the proto-punk Cale helped invent and nurture—after leaving The Velvet Underground, Cale produced The Stooge's self-titled debut and Patti Smith's Horses—sounds only faintly familiar, stripped to a rusty skeleton that's both defiant and a little exhausted. Cale barks and chants through these songs and dumps on more guitar solos and thuggish anger than any rock listener really needed by 1979. That explodes the grim drama in his litany of violence and paranoia, whether between lovers ("Baby You Know") or in the fall of the British Empire ("Captain Hook"). The title track does sabotage the very idea of a rock song, as the band's guitars and bass jab at each other without a hint of melody, the drummer holds down no real rhythm, and Cale shouts orders to "read and destroy everything that you read in the press" and "look at all the people running for the lives in the street." Cale's name-checking—Belgian Congo, Nagasaki, Angola, Moscow—threatens to turn the show into a torrent of nihilism and sick jokes. ("Take it with a pinch of salt," he mutters before "Captain Hook.")

Defining song: Solution to the above? Combine disco beats with nuclear war. Sadism's never been so catchy as on "Dr. Mudd": "What they gonna do, what they gonna do, when China drops a bomb on you?" Then again, Cale's a man of sudden turns, even when he's already goading listeners, and he closes the album with "Chorale," still one of his most loving and stately songs (yes, even compared to his cover of "Hallelujah"): "When your life is all broken and empty / like the streets of New York in the dark / and you need just one friend to hold onto / I'll be there in the corner just for you." Is that despite or because of the mushroom cloud on the cover?