Archive Archaeology
Searching for John Cale’s Sabotage/Live

Searching for John Cale’s Sabotage/Live

Spy Records, 1979

Sabotage/Live is a record that changed the way I listen to music. I got the record when it came out in 1979. It was on the “Punk” rack at one of the East Lansing record stores that I frequented in my college days. The record jacket had a negative image of John Cale wearing a hard hat, grasping a microphone and a mushroom cloud in the background. At the time, I had no idea who John Cale was or who the Velvet Underground were. All I knew was that the image looked dangerous, and the song titles pointed to the content being anything but silly love songs. The album was recorded live at the Mecca of NYC punk, CBGB. That alone made it feel dangerous.

I bought the record.

Sabotage/Live, 1979, Spy Records
Sabotage/Live, 1979, Spy Records

I took my purchase back my dorm room and plopped it on my turntable. My initial reaction was brains splattered on the wall. It was the angriest, most violent, most surreal record I’d ever heard (up to that date). The album opened with “Mercenaries (Ready for War).” The song opens with a thunking bass line and Cale intoning, “Mercenaries are useless, disunited, unfaithful. They have nothing more to keep them in a battle other than a meager wage. Which is just enough to make them want to kill for you, but not enough to make them want to die for you.” Cale’s rant is followed by a screaming guitar solo, then he launches into the psychotic thoughts of a gun for hire, looking for the next conflict to jump into. John sings about fighting in the Belgian Congo, fighting to get paid, and ultimately, nuking Moscow. The song remains one of the starkest takes on the insanity of war that I’ve ever heard.

The first side continues with character studies of the deranged and dangerous. “Evidence” has a grinding riff and Cale singing about not knowing if he was a “good boy” or if he “started a fight.” The character looks to the physical evidence to tell him if he did something heinous the night before. “Dr. Mudd” follows with a mutant disco track about dropping atomic bombs on Japan and the inevitability of nuclear war.

Side one ends with a frightening version of Rufus Thomas’s “Walking the Dog.” The soul staple is taken at a much slower pace, with a sinister fretless bass line. In John Cale’s world, even walking a dog can be terrifying.

After side one, I was convinced that this John Cale guy was brilliant and psychotic. Side two threw me for a loop, though.

The side starts with a downtempo “Captain Hook;” about a sailor losing his soul in the service of the British East India Company. That downer is followed by a sweet song called “Only Time Will Tell,” sung by percussionist Deerfrance. After the lovely little interlude, we get the rawest blast of anarchy in the form of the title track, “Sabotage.” The song is built around flailing riffs with Cale shouting lines like “military intelligence isn’t what it used to be. So what! Human intelligence isn’t what it used to be either!” For my freshman and sophomore years, “Sabotage” was my go-to song to crank up and scream along to when I was angry.

I said that side two threw me for a loop. After the brain-splattering “Sabotage,” Cale finishes off the album with an almost a capella song called “Chorale.” Cale is walking though the wasteland he’s created with the rest of the album, but in the glow of an atomic sunset, he offers hope. “If your life is all broken and empty, like the streets of New York in the dark, and you need just one friend to hold onto, I’ll be there in the corner just for you.”

Sabotage/Live, 1979, Spy Records
Sabotage/Live, 1979, Spy Records

Sabatoge/Live was my gateway drug to a lot of different sounds. The next John Cale album I bought was Vintage Violence, expecting more chaotic rock and roll. Much to my surprise, it was mostly pretty pop tunes. I became a fan of John Cale because each of his albums offered surprises. Church of Anthrax introduced me to Terry Riley and the minimalist composers. Academy in Peril was Cale doing orchestral music. From Cale, I explored his old band, the Velvet Underground, and his former bandmates, Lou Reed, and Nico, and the avant garde of ’60s New York, like Andy Warhol and his gang at the Factory. The noisy, chaotic sounds of Sabotage opened my ears to the Gang of Four, The Pop Group, and punk in general. One of the best rock shows I’ve ever seen was John Cale on the Honi Soti tour in Ann Arbor. One of the worst shows I’ve ever seen was Cale in Tampa going through the motions for an almost-empty hall on the Walking on Locusts tour. You just never know what you’ll get from John Cale. His most recent albums have been experiments with hip hop production methods.

I lost my copy of Sabotage/Live in an apartment fire in 1991. I’ve been looking for a replacement copy, but the original was put out on a tiny label called Spy Records. There hasn’t been a reissue in the US, and the copies I have found are just too expensive. The record isn’t on regular streaming services, either. I was able to revisit the album for this column because someone posted an unauthorized copy on YouTube. Thank you, Mr. YouTuber. Maybe someday I’ll find a copy of Sabotage/Live I can afford.

Featured photo, “John Cale at Urban SimpleLife Festival, 2010,” by Rex Huang.


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