Music for a New Society  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Music for a New Society is an album by former Velvet Underground member John Cale. Released into an era dominated by bands like the Jam, ABC and Dexys Midnight Runners the album sank without trace. The songs sound as though they were written, examined and then dismantled, Cale removing any linear structure, any obvious melody, any choruses or verses leaving a series of stark sketches giving the listener nothing to hold on to.

Desolate, horrifying and by no means easy-listening it has few peers, it is an album of tormented lullabies representing a life in ruins. Mostly improvised live in Skyline studios New York City, Cale sat down at a piano, and the engineers turned on the tape; all the songs were recorded that way over a ten-day period, apart from "Damn Life".

Cale has described it as his most tormented work but with a formal structure behind all the mess, and the recording process a grotesque experience, but describes the results as the kind of beauty he can live with. His record label had requested it would be a proper solo album, Cale reinterpreted that immediately as meaning solo with overdubs, with only one band track.

It would be something Cale had not attempted before but similar in style to arranging Nico's The Marble Index. In a Melody Maker interview shortly after its release Cale was quoted as saying "That album was agony. Apart from a couple of poems that Sam Shepherd... (at the time Cale was working with Shepherd on his opera "The sad lament of Pecos Bill on the eve of killing his wife")... sent me that I set to music, the songs were completely improvised in the studio. It was like method acting. Madness. Excruciating. I just let myself go. It became a kind of therapy, a personal exorcism. The songs are mostly about regret and misplaced faith. There were some examples where songs ended up so emaciated they weren't songs any more. There is not much in the way of comedy. Tortuous is a good word for it. What I was most interested in was the terror of the moment...but it wasn't made to make people jump out of windows".

It was first released in the UK in October 1982 on Ze Records. It went in stark contrast with his previous album, Honi Soit, which was Cale's most commercial on both sides of the Atlantic, as it contained very minimalist instrumentation and a great deal of sonic space. Allmusic has called it "Spare, understated, and perhaps a masterpiece." "(I Keep A) Close Watch" is a re-recording of the song originally released on Helen of Troy and was released as a single in both the UK and Europe. The original "Mama's Song", featured a telephone call between John Cale and his mother. She had sung "Ar Lan y Mor" (On The Sea Shore). When she was taken ill, Cale decided not to include it on the album, a decision he was later to regret.

The engineer misread Cale's handwritten title of "Sanctus" and thus the track was named "Santies" on the LP. The CD reissue, which is no longer manufactured, calls it "Sanities". The song was the inspiration for the title and closing quote of the twelfth chapter of the comic book "Watchmen" entitled "A Stronger Loving World". Twenty years after its release Cale commenting in UNCUT Magazine about the album's continued popularity said "Maybe what people are seeing there is the pain involved. People like watching suffering. I just have painful memories of it. There's only so much heroism you can milk from a situation like that. I think its really passionate, really interested in the humanity of people. It is something I am proud of."

The cover photography is by Betsey Johnson, Cale's former wife. "Changes Made" is the only track to feature a full band and was the b side of the "Close Watch" single released in Europe. Cale was not happy with the song and wanted it removed from the final track listing despite recording a promotional video for it. - Blue Öyster Cult's Allen Lanier plays lead guitar on it.

UNCUT Magazine listed it at number 10 in their list of great 'lost' albums in the May 2010 edition.

Allmusic regard this album as 'perhaps his masterpiece'.

Track listing

All tracks composed by John Cale; except where indicated

Side A

  1. "Taking Your Life in Your Hands"
  2. "Thoughtless Kind"
  3. "Santies" (misspelt "Sanities" on CD reissue)
  4. "If You Were Still Around" (Cale, Sam Shepard)
  5. "Close Watch"
"Mamas Song" (removed from CD reissues since 1993)

Side B

  1. "Broken Bird"
  2. "Chinese Envoy"
  3. "Changes Made"
  4. "Damn Life" (Cale, Risé Cale)
  5. "Risé, Sam and Rimsky-Korsakov" (Cale, Sam Shepard)
  6. "In the Library of Force" (included on CD reissues since 1993)


"Close Watch" b/w "Changes made" 7" Germany 1982.

"Close Watch" b/w "I Keep A Close Watch" 7" Germany 1982, UK 1983. (the B-side is the Helen of Troy version)


  • John Cale: vocals, guitars, keyboards
  • Allen Lanier: guitar
  • David J. Young: guitar, assistant engineer
  • David Lichtenstein: drums, engineer
  • John Wonderling: autoharp
  • Mike McLintock: background vocals
  • Robert Elk: bag pipes
  • Pipe Major Tom Fitzgibbon: bag pipes
  • Chris Spedding: acoustic guitar
  • Risé Cale: vocal on "Risé, Sam and Rimsky-Korsakov"

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Music for a New Society" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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