‘Fear’: How John Cale Got His Grit Back
The album got John Cale’s stint on Island off to a deliciously deranged start.
When John Cale labored alongside Lou Reed in the Velvet Underground, he wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet. Cale matched his bandmate step for convention-shattering step, employing his avant-garde training to kick up a righteous ruckus on viola (among other axes) and co-writing some seriously confrontational tunes.
But when Cale went solo at the start of the 70s, he seemed to shake off a lot of the grit and grime of his VU days. His first three solo albums, Vintage Violence, The Academy in Peril, and Paris 1919, while not lacking in adventurousness, were full of neoclassical gestures, tuneful chamber-pop arrangements, and haunting balladry.
Listen to John Cale’s Fear now.
When Cale switched over to Island Records, something shifted inside him. Maybe it was the acceleration of his notorious appetite for controlled substances, or his dive into the deep water as producer for Nico’s dark night of the soul The End, or maybe he simply decided it was time to get his freak on again.
Whatever the impetus, Cale pulled out his old black magic playbook and went to town, churning out three albums busting with gloriously bad vibes for Island in the space of a single year. The ball began rolling with 1974’s appropriately entitled Fear.
John Cale’s Fear
The front-loaded album leads off with the almost-title track, “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend,” one of the most commanding songs in John Cale’s catalog. Over ominously insistent piano pounding, Cale comes off like a TV horror host, delighting in dragging you through the gruesome muck, introducing himself by way of the couplet, “I’m a sleeping dog but you can’t tell/When I’m on the prowl you’d better run like hell” and calmly declaring, “We’re already dead but not yet in the ground.” By the coda, the song’s relatively stately pace devolves into musical mayhem, with a berserk Cale screaming the title phrase again and again.
There’s nothing else as overtly unhinged on Fear, or the album would be given away free with a copy of the DSM. In fact, Cale peppers the record with a few of the beautifully ghostly ballads he seems to be able to spin out at will. “Buffalo Ballet” serenely captures the development of the American West, with an almost ecclesiastical chorus contrasting the ugliness that gradually seeps into the story. It’s been covered multiple times over the years, by Paul Kelly & The Messengers, The Walkabouts, and others.
A bittersweet remembrance of an old flame, “Emily” is as close as Cale gets to a straight-up love ballad even though he’s clearly camping it up a tad, going so far as to fill the background with ocean sound effects. The sprightly sparkle of “Ship of Fools” is directly at odds with the lyric’s nightmarishly surreal travelogue, which shifts midway through from America to Cale’s native Wales.
But never mind the ballads, here’s John Cale in creepy mode. The exaggeratedly bouncy groove of “Barracuda” makes the macabre refrain “the ocean will have us all” and the bizarre bumblebee viola solo seem all the more unsettling. “Gun” is the album’s hardest rocker, a first-person account of a sociopathic criminal’s death-dealing exploits enlivened even further when Brian Eno feeds the already manic guitar solo through his synth for some brain-melting results.
“The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy” is Cale at his most sardonic, blending 50s R&B pastiche with a tale of suppressed lechery as he spars with a spoken female vocal encouraging him to let it all hang out. Cale unspools bone-deep cynicism on “You Know More Than I Know,” ranking himself one of the world’s “angry whores” and envisioning his death “among the weeds that creep into the hearts of all the weak.”
Cale ends Fear with a whiplash-inducing left turn, completely upending any impressions you might have developed over the previous 36 minutes. The epically twisted “Momamma Scuba” is a lurid, tongue-in-cheek come-on to a female scuba diver, with Richard Thompson’s razor-wire guitar solo gleefully slicing a hole in Cale’s air hose.
There were more sojourns through sadism, subversion, and sheer perversion to come in Cale’s brief but fruitful Island stint. But Fear got the triptych off to a deliciously deranged start.