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John Cale: Honi Soit

The making of John Cale's Honi Soit album

Album, A&M Records, 1980 John Cale: Guitar, Keyboards, Viola, Lead Vocals
Sturgis Nikides: Guitar, Background Vocals
Jim Goodwin: Keyboards, Synthesizer, Background Vocals
Peter Muny: Bass, Background Vocals
Robert Medici: Drums, Background Vocals
John Gatchell: Trumpet
Bomberettes (members of the Modettes):
Background Vocals on Fighter Pilot
Mike Thorne: Computer Processing

Recorded and mixed by Harvey Goldberg at CBS East 30th Street Studios and Mediasound, New York
Additional engineering by Carl Beatty (Mediasound).  Assistant engineer: Harold Tarowsky (CBS)
Originally mastered by Jack Skinner at
Sterling Sound, New York
Produced by Mike Thorne

John Cale has one of the most ferocious presences of recent pop music.  Casually demolishing the popular myth that out-there intensity is incompatible with musical technique and proficiency, he has delivered decades’ worth of  albums which manage to combine skewering lyricism with an uncompromising push towards the boundaries of pop musical sensibility.  It’s easy to sound pretentious when writing about his output.  The contradictions inherent in it are part of the attraction.

As he remarks in his book, the passion of his four-year relationship with Jane Friedman was cooling in 1980, but the two of them continued in their sometimes volcanic business partnership as Jane managed his progress into and through a deal with A&M Records and this new album in 1980.  Cale himself is no slouch in production, but for this effort, he and the record company decided they needed the objective distance that a conventional record producer could provide.  His powerful musical technique and his social acuity, two cornerstones of practical record production, are part of an extraordinary character, but it becomes almost impossible to keep an objective view on recording if you are to put out from the bottom of your intuition, no matter your accomplishments or your technical skill.

Jane called when I was in London working on an album for Kit Hain.  Although A&M Records had required him to sign up a producer as part of the deal, this was not resented by either of them; the conventional image of the fascist, controlling record company director and the production lackey was not a social obstacle.  Where A&M probably saw the production role as keeping him on track, as mitigating his legendary wildness and profligacy, John saw it as an opportunity to make a more ‘commercial’ (aka to my mind more ‘accessible’) album.  His understanding of the dynamics of music creation and production is deep and would be helpful. 

At the end of 1979, though, we were emerging into a post-punk spring which acknowledged few experts and deferred to none.  You were a peer on that single social level or you were irrelevant.  One American friend, more broadly perceptive than me at the time, was very excited that he had called.  As I later realized, he was still part of some serious revolutionary musical activity.  He was of the generation currently being dismissed as ‘boring old farts’, the label on the late-70s punks’ garbage can for people who had outlived their relevance and sunk into complacency.  The first five seconds on the phone showed me that any complacence would be found elsewhere.  The punks label was partly a reaction against the reverence displayed for the Velvet Underground in general and John Cale in particular.  Punk took no prisoners, but also eliminated a few innocent bystanders in its pursuit of purity.

I was accustomed to, and increasingly impatient with, suspicious artists wanting to check out my personal and production credentials at tedious length.  The record producer was one of the institutions to which the new popsters of the late 70s were laying siege.  Even though I was a visible part of the revolution, most of the new breed of musicians fundamentally distrusted the producer’s role because it exposed them to self-interested abuse by ‘experts’ and diluted the hard-won, newly acquired control they had over their music and future.  It was a surprise when John suggested on the phone that we meet at the Molly Wee, a now gentrified Irish bar in Manhattan at Eighth Avenue and 30th Street, and ‘relax together’.  What he understood better than most artists with whom I have worked is that the establishment of mutual trust is at least as important as demonstration of musical chops and lineage.

His arrival in London the previous year had caused ripples even on the waves raised by the punks.  His image was severely challenged (England has always judged you by your haircut; whatever his musical capability, his guitarist, for example, had undeniably waist length frizzy hair and eventually refused to succumb to a plot between Jane and Patti Palladin to project him forward ten stylistic years).  John’s response to punk toughness was to butcher a chicken on stage (as he points out in his new autobiography What’s Welsh For Zen? he grew up next to a chicken slaughterhouse).  The band didn’t find it funny, and weren’t waiting around for 18 years to read his book. They walked out.

As he says in the book, this album turned out to be one of his most accessible, and provoked some heart searching about whether he would appear to be ‘selling out’.  The songs, like his own voice, were characteristically tuneful and rich, but the warm sound masked the extremely tough nature of the lyrical content.  Typically, a powerful but extremely accessible song Need Your Loving was left off in favor of the languid but deceptively brutal Riverbank, reversing a decision that John had woken me up at 4am to pass on to me.  Leaving the phone on at night was an essential part of the production process.  It was easier to deal with John’s musings in the small hours than to haul out of bed in the morning; I declined a 60 minutes’ warning invitation to lunch with Andy Warhol one Sunday morning.  I regret not meeting him, but I felt like death at 11.30am.

The recording was very intense, giving me the very first line on my forehead, but also efficient.  As he thoughtfully mentioned in one interview, my being the straight man on the sessions enabled him to bounce off the walls in the secure knowledge that everything he might throw around would be caught.  He vigorously fulfilled the artist’s obligation to take things to the limit, to look over the edge of madness; I held the safety harness.  Despite that new line on the forehead, I remember these as most rewarding sessions. 

– MT April 1999