Friday, December 14, 2007


Of course John Cale worked with Brian Eno from early on. I mean, sure, Brian Eno works with everybody. He does unreasonably brilliant work with almost everybody. What's impressive is how unique his collaborations are: the Enoed Phil Manzanera guitar part in "Gun" does not sound like David Bowie's Enoized instrumentals, which don't sound like the Talking Heads' Enoid nightmares. There's a common aesthetic and set of techniques there, but very different sounds. It's giving him too much credit to call him the central figure of "art music" in the 1970s, but it's not that far from the truth.

Not that I'm going to give Eno credit for this track. His processing is amazing, but it isn't the keystone. If I had to give credit for Gun's frightening power to a single instrument, it would be the drums. Playing ahead of the beat (establishing the track's nauseating anxiety), thumping so atavistically as to embarrass Meg White or Moe Tucker, throwing in violent tumbling fills... fuck flash and precision, this is great drumming*. The guitar is close behind, screaming eerily like human voices in distress, chopped up into stroboscopic pieces and reassembled. And then there's the vocal, at a singularly effective spot in Cale's range - particularly on the choruses, where it brilliantly undermines the potentially stadium-rock riff.

And his phrasing! He gets so much mileage out of the lyric, a film noir script about detectives on a bad beat in an awful world. It doesn't sound that original or compelling if you haven't heard it, maybe; but there's so much fear and hatred in his delivery of these Philip Marlowe-esque lines that the song completely surpasses the concept.

This song is on every single Cale compilation, and for one reason: it is essential. I will brook no dissent here. If you don't own The Island Years/Gold (which includes Fear whole and entire), you should buy it. If you don't want to, pirate the track for all I care. But you'd better goddamn listen to it, or that final guitar solo might rip out your throat.

* I do appreciate technique. But you've got to know when to just pound those suckers.


Jack Feerick said...

Another song with a comic book connection, BTW: the chorus was (mis-) quoted in a late issue of Jamie Delano’s run on HELLBLAZER.

I’m curious: How do you rate Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of this? It’s an entirely different beast, to be sure—much more observational and arch, pushing the over-the-top noir imagery almost to the edge of absurdity—but I think it works very well. It fully embraces the immaculate pop structure that Cale does his best to subvert, landing somewhere between music-hall and arena rock, flirting with camp, but a particularly menacing breed of camp.

It may be heresy for me to say, but I consider the Banshees take to be the definitive version of an amazing song.

Inverarity said...

Honestly, I haven't gotten that far in the SATB discography yet. Will do, though.

Definitive, though? That's a high bar to clear...

Mark of the Asphodel said...

Every time I get this one stuck in my head, I think it's a Jethro Tull song. I like Jethro Tull, mind, so that's not intended as an insult.