John Cale on The Velvet Underground & Nico: “Everything was down-tuned and distorted”

Cale takes us track-by-track through the band's debut album

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In this piece from the Uncut archives (August 2006, Take 111), ex-Velvets sonic provocateur John Cale talks exclusively about the making of one of the greatest debut albums of all time – from boxing feints and “scarred” violas to their “problem with Nico”…


SIDE 1 TRACK 1 – “Sunday Morning”


We did this at Mayfair Sound Studios in NYC, November 1966. It was the last recording for the album. The place had a beautiful wooden floor that was all ripped up and there were holes everywhere – you had to step around to set up; a real fucking hassle. We decided it needed a celeste and it was a pretty song, so it became our second single; one of the only things MGM could relate to. The song captures a mood and a specific event. Lou and I had been up all night on crank, as usual, so we decided to visit one of his old Syracuse college pals. Unfortunately, this guy’s upper-middle-class wife didn’t appreciate visits from old college pals high on amphetamines, at 3am, who wanted to play music. He had a guitar which Lou picked up and the evening inspired him to write the song.


SIDE 1 TRACK 2 – “I’m Waiting For The Man”

One of our drone songs. We used a drone style on “Venus In Furs” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. I liked it because it was rock’n’roll. I hammered the piano, smacking it with fists, and there was no back-beat for Maureen’s drums. It’s very British-sounding, mid-’60s pop like The Honeycombs’ “Have I The Right?”. Lou came up with the riff and his solos were crazy. Sterling used to do the solos live. His method was to play like unwinding a ball of string, where you end up in the right place. I dunno how they got the vocal, because we recorded everything on four-track. They must have left one track open for the voice. It was all about mixing then; there weren’t any overdubs. The song’s about a trip up to Harlem, a conversational piece based on real experience. There was a lot of that stuff around: Dave Van Ronk, Arlo Guthrie… talking street poetry. It captures Lou’s voice perfectly and it’s got a body, which Tom Wilson achieved when we re-recorded it at TTG [aka Sunset-Highland Studios in Hollywood].



SIDE 1 TRACK 3 – “Femme Fatale”
This and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” were written for Nico at Andy Warhol’s suggestion when love affairs between Lou, Nico and I were in the air. Lou liked it when Andy gave him some words and said to go away and write a song around them. It could have been about Edie Sedgwick, but it was about all the starlets. There were a lot of screen tests going on at the Factory. The girls were all mad and strung out on drugs; beautiful and wasted. He was making Chelsea Girls when we rehearsed and that was harrowing. You’d see the girls disintegrating and sliding down walls with tears in their eyes. Nobody normal would go near the Factory. It was a protective environment for kooks – quite dangerous for your sanity. Andy wasn’t like that. He was a professional and a manipulator. He never pressed a button; he didn’t ‘do’ anything. He had his eye on the ball. Anyway, Chelsea Girls informed this song and it reminds me of an interview Andy did for PBS where he was at his most mischievous, and he says, “Ohhh, I really love New York. I think it should be carpeted.” Lou wanted to keep it pure. He was right. I wanted to push the envelope and fuck the songs up. That’s why we split. He wanted me to be a sideman in my own fucking group.


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