Saturday, September 8, 2007

Coral Moon

I don’t mean to be unfair. Sometimes John Cale wasn’t responsible for outtakes making it onto albums. In fact, in the most infamous case, one of his most famous scenery-chewers got thrown off an album in favor of a song that wasn’t really intended for release. The year was 1975, the album was Helen of Troy, and Cale’s turbulent sojourn with Island Records was coming to a bitter end.

If I read his autobiography correctly, Cale had successfully gotten his label to recall the first pressings of Helen of Troy. You see, they didn’t appreciate the finished tracks that were resulting. They decided to try an end-run on him, releasing (in the Netherlands) a version of the album consisting of tracks edited by Cale's two-timing engineer. He happened to be touring there, got a copy from a local record promoter, listened to it, and gave them a call. One presumes that shouting, screaming, kicking and biting ensued.

What’s weird, though - if Cale's version of events is correct and complete - is that Island Records didn’t object to “Leaving It Up to You” at that time. It’s a marvelously malevolent track, one well worth the attention it will be receiving at some future date. But some time after the album’s release, I believe after the first general pressing, they decided that not-very-veiled threats alluding to Sharon Tate wouldn’t do. Without consulting Cale, they replaced it with the previously unreleased and unloved pastoral “Coral Moon.”

And there’s nothing wrong with Coral Moon as an outtake, or a b-side, or a minor album track. It carries forward the flame of Cale’s crooner/mid-period Beach Boys side, directly following up “Sylvia Said” and recalling the debut’s “Big White Cloud.” It’s got the lush instrumentation, the cooing backing vocals, the thin and vaguely off-key crooning vocal, that satisfied refractory feeling. The lyrics aren’t anything to dwell on, I suppose, but in this they are not so unique. They’re simple, naturalistic, and pastoral, rather threatening the validity of my insight about Cale and nature. But they’re functional and not embarrassing, at least.

There’s really not much to complain about in this lovely if unexceptional track. I wouldn’t even mention flaws like the way the well-constructed bridge is wasted, the way said bridge’s melody rips off the better bridge of album opener “My Maria”, or the way the song peters out without a satisfying ending. It would be a pleasant surprise as an outtake, really cool as a b-side, enjoyable as filler.

But it replaced “Leaving It Up to You,” one of Cale’s most visceral and frightening songs. The keystone track of Helen of Troy, even. Pulling out that slab of violent paranoia and slipping in this slight amusement showed an insensitivity to quality and album construction on Island’s part that still rankles. It’s not fair to blame a song for the way it’s used, but life’s not fair, and “Coral Moon” will always carry an asterisk for me.

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