John Cale’s lifelong love affair with drones


This weekend Velvet Underground founding member John Cale will unleash an art installation that tries to redeem the word “drone”.

Drones are today synonymous with war and surveillance. They are autonomous flying objects that can fire weapons at (presumed) terrorists, or film city life for the security services. It appears drones are going to become an ever-more visible part of our lives. No wonder artists are intrigued by these robotic aircraft. A video installation at this year’s Edinburgh festival combined the image of the electronic drone with the “drone” of Scottish bagpipes.

Cale has a different artistic take on drones and drone. In collaboration with architect and techno-visionary Liam Young, he has devised an installation for the Barbican in which drones hover above an audience as part of a performance by the Drone Orchestra. The hope is that the fear of drones will evaporate in a wall of mesmerising sound from above and around the stunned audience.

Drone has been a part of Cale’s music since the beginning. In the 1960s, this classically trained Welsh musician played in La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music before meeting Lou Reed and experimenting with dark rock songs in what became the Velvet Underground. Art and music are inseparable in the avant garde tradition that formed Cale. At La Monte Young’s Dream House in Manhattan, a permanent sound and light installation deranges the senses and uncouples you from the “reality” of the outside world. In the performances Andy Warhol helped stage for the Velvets, light shows and cinema heightened the music’s onslaught.

“Drone”, a mesmerising repetitive sound, was introduced into the Velvet Underground’s music by Cale, then freshly schooled in the most radical innovations of the minimalist avant garde. From Mo Tucker’s pounding drum beat to the colourless rhythm guitar in I’m Waiting for the Man to Cale dragging an amplified chair across the stage in European Son, the lyrical drive of popular music has never been so brutally undercut by the toneless repetitions and grinding chaos of advanced modernism.

The American avant garde is essentially an art of acceptance. John Cagecreating collages of tape-recorded everyday sounds was seeing modern life itself as music. Robert Rauschenberg did the same in his Combines of found stuff and sensual paint. In embracing the beauty of drones and connecting it to his drone soundscapes, Cale is doing what modern art must do, and finding beauty in the most ugly and monstrous novelties of our time.