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Music For a New Society From Simon's Rock'n'Roll Klick'o'rama

It's been a long time since I heard something as great as this. One of those hypnotic albums, maybe a little difficult to grasp at first, but one you're sure you'll come back to again and again in years to come. Something that has the power to really move you. 

John Cale seems to be constantly torn between the experimental and the melodic and this album is a good example of this. It's very deconstructed at times but harmonic at others, often within the same song. It takes real talent to be able to walk the thin line between harmony and disharmony and to create songs that work. If you go too avant-garde and experimental, you're gonna lose your audience, or your audience will lose its grip on the song and turn away. Cale can do both: avant-garde and melodious music. He seems attracted to both: the beauty of the simple chord progressions of rock as well as the evocative power of atonal composition. 

Cale's voice is very prominent on this record and he pushes it further than on anything else I've heard by him. Often the voice provides the song's main melodic line and it is sometimes left naked to hold up the record after an instrument fade out and before another one makes its entrance. It manages brilliantly. 

The lyrics to some of the songs are provided with the cd reissue. Most of the songs deal in images and impressions rather than identifiable situations. One or two songs are linear but most are adaptable, they can't be tied down to a particular situation or reality. What comes through are the feelings they express: fragility, very often, torment, solitude, sadness…

Track by track

« Taking your life in your hands » opens the album in a slow, lulling mode. It's a fragile song, both fragile and well-constructed at the same time. It sometimes sounds as if it's about to stop, or fall apart, but it stays together providing a vulnerable mood. It blends melodic moments with bizarre sound effects and fragile, isolated, high-pitched piano parts. What's it about ? I couldn't tell you but it seems to involve elements from childhood which could explain the vulnerability. 

« Thoughtless Kind » has an off-kilter metronomic beat and disharmonic sound effects, odd piano notes, and hammering sounds. The voice carries the song through and provides the main melodic line. During the chorus the melody of the voice is augmented by keyboard and synthesiser. The voice is then naked, once more, and then subjected to the sound of a man laughing mockingly, some weird whispers and finally, by bagpipes. What's it about ? Hmmm, good question. 

« Sanities » is another very fragile number. Like in the opening track, it seems to be a childhood thing. Singing about the mother, failing to meet the mother's expectations. Again, a piece that builds up a whole atmosphere and conjures up feelings of melancholy and hurt. The song is a trouble one, with weird drum rolls, disharmonic strings, a distant piano, out of sync backing vocals and a kind of church organ that that emerges from time to time. At times it's a bit like some of the Nico stuff, like the material written and produced by John Cale for Nico's legendary "The Marble Index", another great album. Maybe the song should have been called "insanities" but then that would have been a bit obvious, wouldn't it ? 

« If you were still around » is a fantastic number. The main instrument is a slow, full organ that's kept simple and not allowed a lot of variation. This produces a great overwhelming sound. It's a sad song of regret bordering on insanity. The broken voice is fantastic. The lyrics start with the recognisable before moving into the surreal, perhaps a sign of the protagonist's despair. Although the voice is, of course, very different, the organ and the intensity of emotion is reminiscent of another great artist: Robert Wyatt. The same degree of longing and pain. The progression of the lyrics is similar to something Wyatt could have written, too. 

« (I keep a) close Watch » is also a great song. With the previous song, it justifies the album price on it's own. Perhaps the most "linear", "conventional" track on the album it also has the easiest text to understand. The voice and a repetitive piano progression are the main elements of the song. Again, thematically, it's sadness, regret, isolation and vulnerability.

"Broken bird" walks the fine line between harmony and disharmony. A song of fragility, in the vein of the previous two, it's painted by musical touches. At mid-length it launches into a jumpy Beach boys style repetitive organ pattern. The voice is at the centre. It breaks and moves onto dangerous territories, past it's limits, becomes nasal and extremely expressive. 

Chinese Envoy » has a fragile, strummed guitar rhythm. It also includes melodious strings. What's it about? Who knows. 

Changes Made » has a heavy rock guitar intro and backbone. It sounds a bit like a track from Cale's "Fear" album. A heavier song but, surprise, surprise, there's still a fragility that counterpoints this hard rock aspect. In the background, a repetitive piano note or chord rumbles along. Screeching sound effects are mixed in with a cutting guitar solo.

The leitmotif of « Damn Life » is a famous classical piece, I am told it's "ode to joy" from Beethoven's 9th. Cale plays a deconstructed version of this that moves, mid-length, into repetitive piano chords and a jumpy organ melody, then back to the "trashed" version of "ode to joy". Looking at the lyrics, I can only imagine the use of "ode to joy" is ironic. The words are strong and bitter, recalling Cale's famous "punk" vindictiveness.

« Risé, Sam & Rimsky – Korsakov » has Risé Cale (John’s wife) reciting a poem over what is probably Rimsky-Korsakov. The tale of an isolated person. A man obsessed with the sound of the radio. 

« In the Library of Force » is the most experimental track on the album. The lyrics are deconstructed, there's a lot of "space age" sounds and echo effects, disharmonic notes, booming passages, sometimes between some of Scott Walker's stuff on "Tilt" and some aspects of experimental Jimi Hendrix pieces such as "and the gods made love".  The voice is strong, involved, expressive, alive and possessed. 

The album finishes on a clear piano score. Slow, delicate and beautiful.



Music For a New SocietyFrom magicistragic

This an album for days when you just feel unable to get out of bed and life has yanked your hair as a prelude to kneeing you in the balls. Music For a New Society is John Cale’s last great album before a parade of underwhelming efforts. Although his live album, Fragments of a Rainy Season, is one of his best, everything after this paled in comparison to the brilliance and creativity of his 70s works. Of all the members of the Velvet Underground, John Cale is the one who is responsible for the most challenging and interesting work after their slow, pathetic dissolution. To hell with Metal Machine Music, Cale’s Paris 1919, Vintage Violence, Church of Anthrax, Fear, Slow Dazzle, Academy in Peril, Helen of Troy and Music For a New Society are sometimes nasty and claustrophobic and sometimes lush and sentimental, but always worth your full attention. There is no excusing such dreck as Artificial Intelligence and Caribbean Sunset, but Cale’s decade of genius is enough to last me for an eternity.

Enough proselytising, let’s get back to the matter at hand. Music For a new Society is Cale’s most sparse and single-minded record as it is just Cale’s voice, piano, minimal percussion, eerie electronics and the occasional bagpipe solo. “I Keep a Close Watch on this Heart of Mine” is one of the most heartwrenching portraits of a man who has been burned too many times. He captures the essence of betrayal and its subsequent damning effects on the one who has been betrayed. It is a dark look at love and how it can harden the heart.

Never win and never lose

There’s nothing much to choose

Between the right and wrong

Nothing lost and nothing gained

Still things aren’t quite the same

Between you and me

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine

I still hear your voice at night

When I turn out the light

And try to settle down

But there’s nothing much I can do

Because I can’t live without you

Any way at all

I don’t know why this song haunts me so. I have a healthy, optimistic view of love and its potential to cast life in a new light, but we’ve all been to that desperate place described in this song.An even more disturbing view of love, obsession and hard feeling is “If You Were Still Around.” It is a bit of a hateful ditty about what he would do to those who have done him wrong. There is a lot of violence in his intentions and probably much more lurking in the subtext of this one. Actually, it’s pretty much in plain view as Cale openly lobbies for some sort of psychic or emotional cannibalism.

If you were still around

I’d hold you

I’d hold you

I’d shake you by the knees

Blow hard in both ears

If you were still around

You could write like a panther

Whatever got into your veins

What kind of green blood

Swung you to your doom

To your doom

If you were still around

I’d tear unto your fear

Leave it hanging off you

In long streamers

Shreds of dread

If you were still around

I’d turn you facing the wind

Bend your spine on my knee

Chew the back of your head

Chew the back of your head

‘Til you opened your mouth

To this life


It starts off as a tender song about longing and regret, but builds into something ugly. In fact, it’s a pretty primal song and reveals a man who wants to punish a lover who revealed herself to be a traitor to his love and friendship. The rest of the album isn’t quite so morbid and grisly, but it is still pretty damn depressing. Music For a New Society may be one of my favorite albums, but it isn’t one that I dust off often because it’s so full of bad juju.




Allmusic has called it « Spare, understated, and perhaps a masterpiece. » « (I Keep A) Close Watch » is a re-recording of the song originally released on Helen of Troy. The original « Mama's Song », featured a telephone call between John Cale and his mother. She had sung « Arlan y Mor » (On The Sea Shore). When she was taken ill, Cale decided not to include it on the album. The engineer misread Cale's handwritten title of « Sanctus » and thus the track was named « Santies » on the LP. The first CD reissue, which is no longer manufactured, calls it "Sanities". The song was the inspiration for the title and closing quote of the twelfth chapter of the comic book « Watchmen » entitled « A Stronger Loving World ».

The cover photography is by Betsey Johnson, Cale's former wife. « Changes Made » is the only track to feature a full band - Blue Öyster Cult's Allen Lanier plays lead guitar on it.

The U.K magazine « UNCUT »  listed « Music For a New Society » at number 10 in their list of great 'lost' albums in the May 2010 edition.

The Most Disturbing Halloween EVER!

Oct 2009

Read the article

All Song written by John Cale except :
« If You Were Still Around » & « Risé, Sam And Rimsky-Korsakov »
Written by Jone Cale & Sam Shepard
« Damn Life » Written by John Cale  & Risé Cale
All Songs John Cale BMI administrated by Island Music Ltd

John Cale  • Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards
Accompanying Musicians  
David Lichtenstein
John Wonderling 
Mike McClintock 
Robert Elk
Tom Fitzgibbon
Chris Spedding  • Acoustic Guitar
Allen Lanier • Guitar 
Dave Young • Guitar 
Keyboards • J. Young
Vocals on  Risé Cale  on
« Risé, Sam And Rimsky-Korsakov »

Recorded and mixed at Skyline Studios, New York, NY
Engineer  • David Lichtenstein 
Assistant  Engineer • David Young 
Originaly Mastered By  Miles Green 
Producer  by John Cale 

Original Sound Recording Made by ZE Records © 1982 
Remastered By Charlus de La Salle  at South Factory
John Cale Music, Inc.

Artwork by Rob O'Connor 
Photography by Betsey Johnson

Track List
  • 1
    Taking Your Life in Your Hands
  • 2
    Thoughtless Kind
  • 3
  • 4
    If You Were Still Around
  • 5
    (I Keep A) Close Watch
  • 6
    Broken Bird
  • 7
    Chinese Envoy
  • 8
    Changes Made
  • 9
    Damn Life
  • 10
    Risé, Sam And Rimsky-Korsakov
  • 11
    In The Library Of Force