Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

John Cale—
Helen of Troy


Released 1975 on Island
The Seth Man, July 2013ce
The odder one out of the two albums John Cale recorded for Island Records in 1975 was unquestionably “Helen of Troy.” While the preceding “Slow Dazzle” album was sonically streamlined in an expert sheen with arrangements by Cale that contained either low-key, lushly arranged ballads, one perfectly dark Elvis Presley cover or basic riff-driven Rock, “Helen of Troy” was almost a near-total isolation of this last-named element thrown into high relief as a mixed cocktail of personas alongside moods, images and bouts of psychotically verbal bloodlettings set behind a majority of stripped down, raw or screaming tracks that contained a large portion of Cale’s dirtiest, dirtyass rollarolla that described the consequences of failure, fortune, and fear...all issued as scrabbled, concise or completely insane expressions.

One could rightly assume this uncompromising approach would’ve made it uncomfortably hot for any record company of that period to handle. But strangely enough, it was Island’s own interference that inadvertently caused “Helen of Troy” to occur in the form it assumed: that of a pre-punk record. Cale had just finished producing Patti Smith’s “Horses” and was in progress of touring when Island released “Helen of Troy” out from under him, without his knowledge, and in an unfinished state of pre-production. Lacking information regarding Cale’s plans or desired direction on either the material or its production, it’s impossible to imagine how he envisioned “Helen of Troy.” Even tracks from the same sessions that surfaced afterwards (“Coral Moon,” “Mary Lou,” “You And Me”) evince nothing especially out of place from what was released, while reports of a further pair of unreleased covers (“Willow Weep For Me” and “God Only Knows”) also reinforce the perimeters of the finalised material. Cale once said that Island ‘released what amounted to demo tapes’ on the final “Helen of Troy”: indicating that the problematic elements in question were probably “Engine,” “Save Us” and most of side two.

Although these tracks do lack the glossy production values of “Slow Dazzle,” their direct and unvarnished state stand more as testament to Cale’s talents as an artist and a producer as well as those of an accomplished musician, composer, accompanist, songwriter and arranger. Adding to this list of achievements was his then-recent growing strength as a live performer -- immeasurably shored up by a band that was the first he had worked with in any considerable degree both studio and live since The Velvet Underground. Until this point, solo Cale live performances post-Velvets had been resigned primarily to either radio broadcast performances or accompanying Nico and/or Nico with Lou Reed. But for his spring 1975 tour of “Slow Dazzle,” he assembled ace guitarist Chris Spedding alongside Sandy Denny’s previous rhythm section of Pat Donaldson (bass) and Timmy Donald (drums). Later that autumn, with this same lineup and for twice as many dates, Cale commenced touring “Helen of Troy” and the group’s road-tested chemistry easily intuited every mountain and canyon of Cale’s unpredictable topography. The three photographic portraits displayed prominently on the back sleeve of “Helen of Troy” would seem to indicate Cale regarded the trio as more than just a backing band and more as essential elements in achieving his sonic vision. (Brian Eno and Phil Collins provide auxiliary assistance throughout respectively on synthesizer and percussion, as they had on Cale’s previous pair of Island releases.)

The emotional gamut of “Helen of Troy” runs from laconic to supremely agitated to run-on rants to one of Cale’s most beautiful ballads as the songs switch all the time between guitar- and keyboard-based situations occasionally seasoned with swaths of aggressive organ, patches of sweetly-scored strings or choir. The songs are all either very specific or extremely vague in their lyrical imagery but what ties them all together are Cale’s distinctive yet varied vocal deliveries. It’s a collection of contrasts perpetuated by a musician who was just that: as both artist and producer; a classicist and avant-gardist; a conservatory-trained rock’n’roller. To illustrate one final contrast, consider the distinctive differences between both of Cale’s 1975 album sleeves: On the front of “Slow Dazzle” he is pictured hovering above a black background, concealed behind photographically-filtered shades, hands over ears, smoldering confidently and looking impossibly cool. While the front of “Helen of Troy” is primarily an off-white background as if stripped of all wallpaper to expose a straight-jacketed Cale cowering in an antique chair in the presence of a vengeful Helen -- a muse most definitely un-amused -- reflected in the looking glass ready to pounce...

And pounce she would. All over the place. Like the opening track, “My Maria.” Expressionistic lyrics melt like crayons in a clear glass jar under the Spanish sun (red, yellow and burnt umber only, natch) that invoke an ultimate eve of bravado in tatters, of dreams down the drain -- all of this and more is registered ultimately innocuous by Cale’s languorous vocal tone. Pretty unlikely imagery for a love song, but there it is: accompanied by nasty, strangled guitar soloing from Chris Spedding while the elusive lyrics intimate a larger picture through sketches of Spain and its attendant blood/death/glory/mother archetypes as all the while, the uncredited Liza Strike contingent sing the female choir, and it soars like the wind: “Ahhhh...ahhhh...Marie...ahh…”

The title track, “Helen of Troy,” opens with a stripped down rhythm, soon joined by Alan Courtney’s camp recitations and then subsequently punctuated by blasts of horn fanfare. Spedding’s fuzz guitar coils in the background while all else is decadent sleaze as the middle break is where the session Eno perfume is at its most overt, with electronic treatments and lurching, echoed VCS3 synthesizer manipulations that resound like cosmic ninepins knocked into perpetual splits over scattered electric piano clusters. Cale intones the title over and over until soon: it’s just the solid beat and constant horn blasts that continue over the vertiginous electronic swirls, the camp vocals and soon... it all vanishes.

Lighter moments ensue with “China Sea.” With a lively piano opening comes this characteristic Cale motif of locating a psychological mood through a geographic locale and letting the intermittent lyrical dash tell the story. The middle string section coordinates with the piano and synthesizer as they double up in melodic counterpoint until it’s apparent that Cale was still under the thrall of Mr. Wilson, for his influence is here in full effect: Especially in the coda, where Robert Kirby’s arranged strings hang and swell in the background light and airy.

From here on in, the album descends into a series of either raw or one-take monsters with few exceptions. “Engine” begins as a solo piano piece with Cale singing “loser” as “lou-ser” in his best Lou Reed-ian deadpan until it breaks off into a shifting tone that gradually abandons all politesse:

“I got something locked up inside me...
Wanna find out what it is…
Wanna find out what that something that’s...
DRIVING ME OUT OF MY M-I-A-A-A-I-I-I-N-N-N-D!!!!”

As organ lines run steady against rest of the frantic arrangement with slashing guitar accenting in broken shards, Cale’s low intoning, “BURN...BURN...BURN...” continues over spiky piano clusters. Soon, it’s devolved to such a point it sounds like he’s barking out the chord changes to the band over the chaos as the clusters accordion into a full-on Stoogien spazz-piano attack. It’s even worse when the drums cut out and the degree that things have disintegrated into is revealed as a violent amassing of scratchy guitar, organ and desperate screaming in a fog of dissonance that jars quickly to a dead halt.

Taut bass guitar lines lumber above deft organ frills over as a stripped-down and unrelenting drum beat start “Save Us.” The shortest track of the album at two minutes twenty two seconds, its foundation are the uniting of those dexterous organ runs, the slight tenure of Cale’s viola lines in the rhythm, the shaking of a percussion tree and the reiteration of “Save us from the falling rain.” Which cause it all to sound like the highly unlikely occurrence of The Cramps covering something off “Trespass.” I know: THAT weird and atmospheric, with the drumming from one idiom while the organ is in a completely different mental zone.

“Cable Hogue” is a slow lament. Slow. Hung over on Monday morning slow, like a wet towel hanging over a split rail fence in the same morning sun slow. Then again, Cale informs the entire feel with his sung line: “Living’s much harder when it’s slow.” Even though it might be summer, the living ain’t easy. As acoustic then electric piano buoy up the arid feel of bittersweet loss and even bitterer longing, Cale’s vocals are haltingly forced out with a lump in his throat the size of a fist. Unhurriedly, the electric piano gently staples the loose canvas that is this song down with gentle gravity as Spedding's ultra-sparse guitar detailing follows the tempo as ghostly as the piano coda that flutters like the snow of broken dreams.

The entire mood and temperature of the album soothes and cools down with “I Keep A Close Watch.” The only break in the middle of a raw procession of primitive art expressionism that will continue for the remainder of the album, the lush string and horn and choir arrangements open up the pores of your heart as effortlessly as Cale opens up the pores of his own. It takes a special talent to write and then sing a line like “’Cause I can’t live without you… /Anyway at all” as dignified as here, but Cale did, does, and continues to throughout this gorgeous epic. Slow, western slide guitar at the end eases by as thin, streaky clouds at sunset as if in reference to the provenance of the title -- the opening lyric to Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line” and you know: that horn section wouldn’t be out of place on The Teardrop Explodes’ “Wilder,” either. This song is almost John Cale’s own “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” How? It’s streamlined, it’s bittersweet and the pure resignation of the piece that resides in you long after the song is over...Plus, it’s been covered by enough young musicians to qualify it as so. (Though interestingly: not by Frank Sinatra, as was its author’s wishful intent.)

All gears now shift down into the lowdown “Pablo Picasso.” How lowdown? Well, it’s 1975 and scratching a centipede’s belly and the eleventh word in the lyrics is ‘asshole.’ Why? Because this is the story of Pablo Picasso and he never got called an asshole. Not in New York. Probably not in Fréjus, either. Ah, who cares: Spedding’s slide guitar is fish-tailing all over the place and the willfully stripped-down and trashy drumming for me renders the original 1972 Modern Lovers’ version obsolete. Absolutely obsolete, and by the same guy who not only produced it but and hammered piano all over it. “Bye, bye!” Cale waves sarcastically, as he and the band are already burning rubber down the street in their automobile.

With a slide guitar intro and unrequited hi-hat warm up, “Leaving It Up To You” barges in obstreperously. Spedding’s bare chords impale the growing hysteria of the run-on vocals like shish kebab, the first being the most infamous: “I’d do it NOW! I’d do it NOW! RIGHT NOW, YOU FASCISTS!!! / I know we could all feel safe / like Sharon Tate / And we could give it all... / We could / give it / give it / unarghuhuh...!!!” Several dozen meltdowns later, John the Violent spits out “Damn right, mama!” as hi-hats clamp down tightly, punctuating and puncturing like it did throughout Sylvia’s “Pillow Talk.” Now Cale’s hearing a distant hissing. He’s freaking out. And it continues on, strident as hell through a series of raw-nerved breakdowns: “they’re blistering up my spell…!!!” At one point he’s raging so wildly he winds up mixing up the words ‘breaking’ with ‘blistering’ and ‘smell’ with ‘spell.’ Whoa -- Shrieking guitar and organ then sets up a downward spiral so that Cale’s now hoarse and desperate repeat barking of “I GOTTA GET IT OFF!!!” soon transforms into a wordless shriek-fest as the flat-footed drums kick in, stay that way and hammer the whole mess home. (“Leaving It Up To You” was replaced on the second pressing of the album with “Coral Moon.” It’s like the “Sylvia Said” of “Helen of Troy”: a languid rarity floating in a cool pool reflecting high noon sunlight. But still, hardly a substitute or match for such white-knuckled mental cleansing.)

As if refracted through a haze of Dr. J. Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, “Baby, What You Want Me To Do?” is one slow draggin’ tail trudge of a Jimmy Reed cover. It’s S-L-O-W...tortuous, bollocks-scraping, low-rider speed S-L-O-W. The guitar solo is so slow, it makes you wonder if it even qualifies as a solo, per se. I suppose technically it is, even though its fragmentary and spaced-out notes run so S-L-O-W, it’s hard to describe it as such, hanging on as if by slipshod momentum alone. While electric piano dart like clavinet notes and organ oozes up from the surface, Cale’s droolin’ drawl vocals drive the number down, down, down... (Which reminds me: Cale should’ve covered Freddie King’s “Goin’ Down” for this album. THAT could’ve been brilliant, I can hear exactly what it would sound like: this. Only S-L-O-W-E-R and more grinding.)

Spidery guitar lines quickly weave a faux-flamenco web in the distance and vanishes for the entry of the album’s coup d’état, “Sudden Death.” It’s an element as perennial a feature on John Cale albums as his viola playing: the ‘ghost song.’ “Sudden Death” is performed at treacle/slug speed as a trudge epic with oppressive organ, drums and a phased bridge with strings until seasick viola needles in static-y treatments until falling away with further ghost piano as an inspired finale to an equally inspired album.

Even though “Helen of Troy” was judged flawed by the artist who created it, gimme Cale’s outtakes over most artists’ embalmed over-productions, any day. For decades, I always assumed Cale was kicked off Island for making the album this way, because it was too wild, and maybe for that line about Sharon Tate. But as Keith Richards once pointed out about Chuck Berry’s modest unawareness of his own art: ‘Michelangelo probably thought he was third-rate, too.’