Pick of the Political Pops: John Cale “Buffalo Ballet”

The track ‘Buffalo Ballet’ taken from John Cale’s 1974 album ‘Fear’ describes the scene in Abilene, Texas, the sparse piano-based sound lulling you into a deceptive ease as it starts off describing the town as “young and gay” with “cattle roaming.” Idyllic ay! The next verse goes on to describe a sleepy, almost decaying scene before the killer bridge: “We all joined in and all joined hands; All joined in to help run this land; Then soldiers came, long long ago; Rode through the town and rode down those who were sleeping in the midday sun.” The scene describes the US cavalry’s defense of landowners against peasant populations, often immigrants, while nowadays the peasant populations often form the cavalry. Cale himself called the song a “European version of the Old West.” (Paul Kelly’s version is better than the original imho but not available outside of Australia on YouTube sadly.)

About Mark Whitfield 2027 Articles
Editor of Americana UK website, the UK's leading home for americana news and reviews since 2001 (when life was simpler, at least for the first 253 days)
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Despite having listened to VU and Cale since my college days? Including “White Light/White Heat,” and a handful of oddities such as Music for a New Society (which holds up well), and Academy in Peril (of which I could never could make much sense)?

Somehow I never got around to hearing his Fear LP until the past year or so.

Though the songs “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend” and “Gun” were the first to catch my attention…and which remain essential?

Now, the ones playing in my head—occasionally, at irregular intervals—are always: “Buffalo Ballet” and “Emily”

These may lack the immediate excitement of Manzanera’s angular/strangulating guitar work. Ah…but the songwriting, and their tone: enchanting…acute and searing.

David Clark

“Fear” is an amazing piece of work. “Helen of Troy”, also.


Love John Cale but absolutely agree that the Paul Kelly version is better.