Half Past France: John Cale’s Paris 1919 at 50

Looking back on the Velvet Underground violist’s solo masterwork

John Cale on the back cover of Paris 1919 (Image: Discogs)

In John Cale’s storied career as a member of The Velvet Under-ground, solo artist and producer and arranger for everyone from Nico to The Modern Lovers, there are many highlights.

But none of his esteemed albums quite occupy the tonal and lyrical space as does his 1973 masterwork Paris 1919. An album that is firmly rooted in its time while evoking the ghosts of the early European 20th century past and the events that led to the rise of the third reich. Sound heady? Well, don’t worry you are in and out in a little over a half hour and the smooth Southern rock backing of several members of Little Feat as well as the orchestral backing of the UCLA Symphony Orchestra is here to keep you comfortable. 

Cale is a man of many modes; do you want the avant garde viola squonker or the dirty ass rock ‘n’ roll screamer? This album occupies him in a stately and elegant baroque pop mode with detailed character sketches of the state of Western Europe during the end of the first great war. But Cale also doesn’t shy away from being faintly autobiographical of his own working class Welsh upbringing. What I love so much about this album is it’s tight and seamless nature as it careens through genres and localities all in a tight just over half an hour span. 

John Cale Paris 1919, Warner Bros. Records 1973

Listening to each song, one by one, shows the economical display on hand and how deftly Cale can mix past and present, urbane and pastoral. The album opens with the nostalgic and autobiographical “Child’s Christmas in Wales” led by a quaint, twangy guitar as played by Lowell George. Cale recounts the lovely and not so lovely aspects of his childhood holiday traditions in Wales and later we will see how this relates to the overall geopolitical themes and implications of the remainder of the album. Next up is “Hanky Panky Nohow,” which reflects on man’s need to connect deeper with nature and do away with the systems of human oppression that bind us to chains and lead to further worldwide tumult. Swooning strings belie the message beautifully. “The Endless Plain of Fortune” builds to the crescendo of a set of characters that build great personal fortune at the expense of their surroundings “It’s gold that eats the heart away and leaves The bones — to dry,” he sings. The orchestra builds to a stunning finale of fanfare. 

“Andalucia” is a stark ballad that asks his lover to return to his loving arms whilst dispensing advice for her as she may be in a younger life space than the narrator. The music has a country lilt, between the guitar playing and its overall yearning nature, By this point you probably want to rock already and you are in luck as “Macbeth” is a storming rocker that sounds like it could be a more enhanced Velvet Underground stomper with some boogie to it, especially in the guitar and drums. 

The title track “Paris 1919” is the centerpiece of the album and is named after the summit that helped to end World War I but failed to stop the next one decades later. This describes geopolitics as a one-on-one social interaction that leaves one party at a clear disadvantage. The arrangement is string and horn led with a bouncing piano motif throughout. The best part is in the middle when you hear birds chirping as though we begin a new dawn, only to be undercut by the cheerfully sung lines like “you’re a ghost la la la la la la la la, I’m the church and I’ve come to claim you with my iron drum.” 

“Graham Greene” is perhaps the biggest departure on the album musically. It’s got a reggae-like arrangement and instrumentation, celebrating the famed author–or perhaps just using his name to copy the British writer’s style of novella. The bouncing vibraphone and trumpet sound belies a tale far darker than the music is letting on as white nationalist Enoch Powell is namechecked. This shows how we deal with the same enemy seemingly all the time, be it WWI, 1973 or today

Paris 1919 promo copy (Image: Reddit)

“Half Past France” regales a long train ride mourning a loss of a former life to ringing guitar and almost hymn like church organ backing. Likely it’s about a soldier who knows he can’t go back home until his mission is done and feels a separation from his past domestic self. This is as close to gospel as the album gets but the God is not a deity but rather a state of mind. The end is a call: “We are so far away, floating in this bay.” A backing chorus swells. Cale, like the audience listening, needs a reprieve and is highly beleaguered as he finishes in quite literally a whisper for the closer “Antartica Starts Here”. Cale is now relaxing at the movies escaping the geopolitical implications of the world he lives in. The song ends seemingly with a final accordion note and then the album is over. 

What makes this album so different from much of his other work is how it marries the light nature of the music of the day with weighty themes and a primal stomp. Cale never reached this exact zenith again and approached the mood he did here, perhaps this being the commercial failure that it was, he felt no need. Simply put, he is an ever evolving restless creative soul.

Either way, we can revisit its vistas whenever we wish. 



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David Richman

David Richman is a writer and improvisational comedian living in Baltimore, MD.

3 thoughts on “Half Past France: John Cale’s Paris 1919 at 50

  • March 20, 2023 at 7:40 am

    Cale kicked Lowell George out of the sessions and used guitarist Paul Barrere

    • March 20, 2023 at 9:32 am

      Thanks for letting me know. I appreciate that.

  • March 22, 2023 at 8:22 pm

    Good and amazing times, wish I lived in them


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