Cale was born in Garnant in the heavily industrial Amman Valley, and Welsh is his first language. Having discovered a talent for piano, he studied music at the University of London, and travelled to the USA to continue his musical training, thanks to the help and influence of Aaron Copland. Arriving at New York City, he met a number of influential composers. With John Cage he participated in an 18-hour piano playing marathon, and, more significantly, he played in La Monte Young's ensemble the Theater of Eternal Music (also known as the Dream Syndicate, which should not be confused with the 1980s band of the same name). The heavily drone-laden music he played there proved to be a big influence in his work with his next group, the Velvet Underground.
In 1965, he joined Lou Reed (who is exactly a week older than Cale) in the newly-formed Velvet Underground, but left in 1968. Cale appears on the Velvet Underground's first two albums, The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat. He sings on a couple of numbers, plays bass guitar and wrote some of the material, but perhaps his most distinctive contributions are the electrically amplified viola drones which add greatly to the overall atmosphere of the records.
After leaving the Velvet Underground, Cale produced a number of albums, including Nico's The Marble Index, and began to make solo records. His first, Vintage Violence came in 1970, following which he collaborated with yet another classical musician, Terry Riley, on the largely instrumental Church of Anthrax. His solo record of 1973, Paris 1919, is regarded by many as a classic. It is made up of elegantly crafted and tastefully arranged songs with obtuse and complex lyrics, apparently with underlying political concerns.
Cale moved back to the United Kingdom and made a series of solo albums which moved in a new direction. The tasteful elegance was now replaced by a dark and threatening barely-suppressed aggression, perhaps most obviously evident in his somewhat disturbing cover of "Heartbreak Hotel". His live performances at this time were also extreme - during one gig he chopped the head off a chicken with a meat cleaver.
Having married and had a child, he took a long break from performing, making a comeback in 1989 with settings of poems by Dylan Thomas, most notably, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, which he performed on stage in the concert held in Cardiff in 1999 to celebrate the opening of the Welsh Assembly. Songs for Drella, a tribute to one time Velvet Underground manager Andy Warhol, saw him reunited with Lou Reed, and Nico (1998) was a tribute to Nico. Cale has also written a number of film soundtracks, often using more classically influenced instrumentation.
Cale's autobiography, What's Welsh for Zen?, was published in 1999.
John Cale should not be confused with JJ Cale.