With the help of Fat White Family, The Kills and Wild Beasts, Cale's re-imagination of a stone cold classic was executed poorly
There’s a real irony to the fact that, of all the places on earth that John Cale could’ve chosen to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’, he chose Liverpool. After all, when his old band’s masterwork hit its golden birthday back in March, it seemed to pass with nary a peep from the wider media beyond the rock press. The same day Cale brought his ambitious tribute to Merseyside, The Beatles’ most famous album, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, hit that same milestone. It was eulogised not just in music magazines, but in various broadsheets, with a new remaster unanimously hailed as a triumph.
Of course, Lou Reed would be spinning in his grave at the idea that the best LP he ever put his name to would be fodder for nostalgists one day, and anybody who’s followed Cale since the original dissolution of The Velvet Underground – which must account for a considerable chunk of tonight’s bumper audience – will know full well that he doesn’t do an awful lot of looking backwards, and when he does, it’s a case of it being any excuse to experiment.
That would explain why the sprawling cohort of collaborators that he’s brought with him tonight are all forward-facing. He opens with purpose, with ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’, but fails to recapture the magic of Reed’s misanthropic original turn, no matter how much The Kills’ Jamie Hince might ham up the guitars in the background. On the other hand, his bandmate, Alison Mosshart, follows up by tearing through a stirring take on ‘White Light/White Heat’ and as well she should– everything about her has always screamed Velvets, attitude and aesthetic especially.
Elsewhere, the other guest turns are a mixed bag to put it politely. Wild Beasts are one of the country’s sharpest art-rock propositions but merely make up the numbers on tepid versions of ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ and ‘There She Goes Again’. Fat White Family’s frontman Lias Kaci Saoudi predictably tries to make a sloppy ‘Heroin’ all about himself. Nadine Shah is a thoroughly pale imitation of the late Nico on ‘Femme Fatale’. The weird thing about all this is that the show sort of chugs along with no introductions of who’s who; there must be a fair slice of this crowd who don’t know who these hip young gunslingers are, and Cale’s near-muteness means they’re never enlightened.
There are glimpses of why the Welshman thought this whole thing might be worth a try. Clinic, playing in their hometown, are utterly ferocious on both ‘Run Run Run’ and ‘European Son’. Even then, though, they’re hampered – like everybody else – by the evening’s biggest disappointment, the utterly puny sound system. The show is nowhere near loud enough, a far cry from the shock-and-awe tactics that the Velvets would so readily employ in their pomp. Add to that the venue is ill-thought-out at best – an ordeal to get to and basically a gravel pit once you do arrive – and this particular show will have to go down as a case of “nice idea, shame about the execution”. It was never going to please anybody looking for a cosy stroll down memory lane, but it’s also too awkward to excite those after a radical reinvention. Perhaps some things are best left in the past.
John Cale’s The Velvet Underground & Nico Reimagined. Liverpool Sound City. Clarence Dock, Liverpool. Friday 26 June
Photography by Michelle Roberts