The Great Albums


Rock legends didn't let discord stand in the way of greatness


October 5, 2003


On paper, the pairing looked ideal: Two English art-rock legends, John Cale and Brian Eno, coming together to craft the sort of buoyant, uplifting pop album that neither had made in more than a decade. And the result, 1990's "Wrong Way Up," was indeed a brilliant effort: a collection of 10 amazingly beautiful, wildly inventive and instantly unforgettable tunes.

But as the cover art depicting daggers shooting between the two men indicates, the making of the disc was anything but idyllic.

The Welsh-born, classically trained bassist, keyboardist and viola player Cale was and is a rock legend, a founding member of the hugely influential Velvet Underground who also has recorded more than a dozen classic solo albums, in addition to producing the debut efforts by the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, Patti Smith and Squeeze.

BRIAN ENO & JOHN CALE: 'Wrong Way Up' (Warner Bros., 1990)

The track list:

1. "Lay My Love"

2. "One Word"

3. "In the Backroom"

4. "Empty Frame"

5. "Cordoba"

6. "Spinning Away"

7: "Footsteps"

8. "Been There, Done That"

9. "Crime in the Desert"

10. "The River"

Eno was among the many who'd been inspired by Cale's work in the Velvets. He drew on their raw energy and dissonance first as the synthesizer player in Roxy Music and then on four electrifying solo pop albums through the mid-'70s: "Here Come the Warm Jets," "Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)," "Another Green World" and "Before and After Science."

From there, he abandoned rock to concentrate on ambient sounds -- sparse collections of atmospheric instrumentals such as "Thursday Afternoon" and "Music for Airports" that laid the groundwork for new age music -- though he continued to produce other artists, including David Bowie, the Talking Heads and U2.

The two strong-willed giants had worked together before, when Eno produced Cale's 1974 album, "Fear," and Cale performed on Eno's "Another Green World." They also performed together live as part of the art-rock supergroup captured on the concert album "June 1, 1974." They had always shared an appreciation for each other's working methods -- both believe in improvisation and encouraging "happy accidents" in the recording studio -- and they first reunited in 1989, when Eno went to Moscow with Cale to produce "Words for the Dying," an album of Cale compositions performed by the Orchestra of Symphonic & Popular Music of Gostelradio.

Tacked on to that album almost as an afterthought was a short, catchy throwaway called "The Soul of Carmen Miranda" that Eno and Cale wrote while fooling around in the studio. "It was kind of like ESP, the way it developed, and I was really encouraged," Cale told me at the time. "I never expected that Brian and I would work together on songs, so it was a surprise. I thought that if we could reproduce the circumstances, we could do the same thing for an album."

Eno fans had been asking for years when he would sing on album again -- the stacked harmony vocals on his pop albums was one of the highlights of those discs -- but he'd been more interested in creating instrumental landscapes. "If you look at the transition through my first three albums, you'll see that the vocals occupy less and less of a place on those records," he told me. "People always assume that the stuff with words is the good stuff, the stuff that sold a lot and that everyone liked, and the other [ambient] stuff was not so well-liked. In fact, the opposite is true. My most popular record is 'Music for Airports.'

"I like the way I sing, but I never really expected anyone else to like it," he said. "I think of my voice as a sort of precision instrument. It's like a very sharp pencil. But most of the voices that people seem to like, most of the people that get described as good singers, have these fantastic paint brushes and great palettes of color."

Nevertheless, inspired by the chance result of "The Soul of Carmen Miranda," Eno decided to sing again, and he invited Cale to spend at month at his home and studio in Woodbridge, England. Hypnotic, driving and ultramelodic songs such as "Lay My Love" (which would eventually be covered by Chicago's Poi Dog Pondering), "Spinning Away" and "One Word" came together in the studio as Eno created gently pulsing rhythm beds on the drum machine and played swirling synthesizer and odd guitar parts while Cale added regal piano, organ and viola. They both arranged the tasteful contributions of a handful of outside musicians (notably the string players who color several songs) and shared the vocal duties, Cale with his rich, resonant baritone and Eno with his dirty choir-boy tenor.

The typically enigmatic lyrics were improvised at the mike. For "Cordoba," a haunting tale of a terrorist searching for his mark, the two musicians drew inspiration from a Spanish-language instructional text that happened to be lying around the studio. They flipped through the book's random sentences to find the most interesting, then strung them together to create a creepy and mysterious story-song.

Though the collaboration yielded great results, from the beginning, the artists made it clear that the chances of a reprise were slim. Eno issued a press release at the time the album was issued, listing several obvious questions and his responses. In answer to the query, "Do you plan to work with John Cale again?" he wrote, "Not bloody likely."

"A lot of people, when you're going to do an album, give themselves more time than what we were given," Cale elaborated. "When [Eno] was in the hot seat all the time as the engineer, the host, as a creative artist, those are things that you're really treading the light fantastic to think that something isn't going to give there. I understand that he wants to be a hero. Everybody in rock 'n' roll wants to be a hero. Then when things start going wrong, you've got to be prepared to understand."

Still, "Wrong Way Up" stands as one of the best albums of either man's career, and it remains a unique and captivating disc that draws the listener in each and every time he or she plays it. Regardless of the turbulence behind its making, Eno and Cale drew the best from each other.

"To me, the end result is a true collaboration," Cale said. "'One Word' is a perfect example of collaborating: two personalities really fitting together and even singing different things. I think that's ideal. I'm really happy that we persevered."