The lure of the Top 40 is strong. Few musicians are immune to its pull, some alternating their sound dramatically in the hopes of achieving the commercial success that comes with a climb up the charts.
In contrast, two new releases by John Cale and Marianne Faithfull will not be to everyone's taste and, what's more, they don't aspire to be. Both Cale, a founding member of the Velvet Underground, and Faithfull, once a protege of the Rolling Stones, have survived too many walks on the wild side to surrender to convention now. "Sabotage/Live" and "Broken English" are respectively the latest efforts of two semi-legendary nonconformists and serve to reaffirm our faith in rock 'n' roll individuality.
Cale ranks with Iggy Pop and former cohort Lou Reed as a godfather figure in the punk/new wave movement, and "Sabotage" does little to diminish his reputation for originality, lunacy and intensity. Perhaps because it is live (recorded at New York's CBGB last June), the album is not as subtly textured as Cal's "Vintage Violence" or "Paris 1919" (now both quite rare but well worth seeking out). Still, he is a proficient enough producer to keep things crisp and clean without losing the immediacy of the live recording. Cale is nothing if not a master of controlled frenzy.
Side one is all up tempo, opening with "Mercenaries (Ready for War)," a 7 1/2-minute diatribe on the killer-for-hire syndrome that reveals Cale's affinity for military jargon as well as a healthy paranoia. The track rocks along insistently, with Marc Aaron playing some appropriately raunchy guitar and, after Cale playfully suggests attacking the Kremlin, the song ends with a simulated bomb blast. After "Baby You Know," a somewhat nondescript plaint, comes the more bluesy and energetic "Evidence," a musical mystery story (complete with a cocaine sniffing Sherlock Holmes) with no solution -- "so much for the evidence," Cale shrugs.
"Dr. Mudd" defies logic by successfully contrasting pop falsetto background doo doo doo's (reminiscent of the Rolling Stone's "Heartbreaker") against Cale's alarming lyrics concerning the use of atomic bombs. The side ends with the only nonoriginal composition of the LP, a mechanical yet somehow funky arrangements of Rufus Thomas' 1963 R 'n' B classic "Walkin' the Dog."
Side two is more ambitious but less consistent. The 11 1/2-minute "Captain Hook" opens with a sweeping, Pink Floyd type instrumental and becomes a plodding narrative of a sailor's life. Cale has always used geographical locations to suggest exotic moods, but this song travels on suggestively without reaching any discernible destination. The tone shifts abruptly with "Only Time Will Tell," a lovely, lilting melody sung in a little girl voice by a band member named Deerfrance in a style similar to the early Velvet Underground ballads sung by Nico. "Sabotage" is more rock paranoia, featuring the memorable lines, "Military intelligence isn't what it used to be . . . so what!Human intelligence isn't what it used to be either." Finally, there is "Chorale" ending the album on an uncharacteristically optimistic, even religious note.
It's hard to believe that "Broken English" represents the same Marianne Faithfull who was recruited from a convent school to sweetly sing a hit version of the Jagger/Richards "As Tears Go By" in 1964. Her voice is now brittle and dispassionate, the result of a last life (Jagger supposedly wrote "Wild Horses" about her, and Faithfull herself wrote the lyrics to "Sister Morphine") and the passage of time (she is now 32 years old). But, far from hiding behind a new image, she sings most of the things we've come to associate with her in the past: broken love affairs, self-indulgence, social mores and drugs.
Musically, the eight songs on the album are of a piece, with producer Mark Mundy creating a hypnotic, synthesizer-dominated backdrop for Faithfull's crooning. The only songs that don't mesh are the two not written by Faithfull or her musicians: Shel Silverstein's folky "Ballad of Lucy Jordan" and John Lennon's "Working Class Hero," which undermine the originals by injecting an unnecessary dose of melodrama. Otherwise, the songs are affecting and unsettling largely because they can be presumed to be autobiographical.
Four cuts constitute the highlights of the LP. "Broken Engligh" is a quasi-disco dirge about terrorism, both political and personal. It is the oral equivalent of Bunuel's film "The Obscure Object of Desire." "Guilt" and "Brain Drain" are antidrug songs with a difference. The singer/user is unrepentant. In the former, it is not so much the chemicals "streamin' through my veins" that she minds, but the guilt that seems to come with it, while in "Brain Drain" ("it goes on and on like a blood stain") she is just "trying to get high without having to pay." Even more explicit is "Why D'ya Do It" which offers further proof of the adage that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Although Faithfull's expletives preclude any airplay, the song is a refreshing respite from all the wimpy whining done on the jilted lover theme. In real life, this is how people react.
Cale and Faithfull are too abrasive and unpolished to be palatable to mass tastes, but both have strong cult followings. These fans are likely to remain loyal for as long as these two artists continue to go against the mainstream, following their own musical muses, being true to themselves.