Sunday, December 21, 2008

Past, Present & Future - The Evolution Of Al Stewart

The early to mid 70s was a (possibly the) golden era for the singer/songwriter, and produced some of the most memorable songs of the last half century. Some of the bigger names like Elton John, Billy Joel, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens and Don McLean take care of themselves in terms of an enduring profile. But there were so many more, who struck once, or maybe twice, with absolute gems, before fading to the background. One of the songs that burns brightest in my memory from that era is ‘Year of the Cat’ by Scottish singer/songwriter Al Stewart.

Like so many singer/songwriters Al Stewart knows how to tell a good story. ‘Year of the Cat’ evolved from an earlier incarnation titled ‘Foot of the Stage’. The earlier version was written about the late British comedian Tony Hancock, and featured alternative lyrics. But Stewart and co-writer Peter Wood (Stewart’s keyboard player), decided to re-write the lyrics to recount the tale of a stranded tourist in the Casablanca of Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre. The hypnotic opening piano sequence acts as a curtain raising on a cinematic world. Stewart’s lyrics are rich and evocative, conjuring up intensely vivid imagery. The central character is left stranded, and succumbs to the allure of a mysterious, beautiful temptress - “She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a water colour in the rain”. Our tourist is left to stay for a year, the ‘Year of the Cat’ (derived from Vietnamese astrology - the Year of the Cat occurs every 12 years). Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, the mercurial Alan Parsons produced the mid-tempo ballad ‘Year of the Cat’, and married crystalline guitars, piano, and a searing saxophone solo, seamlessly to heighten the cinematic quality of the song. Al Stewart’s sublimely smooth vocals apply the final layer of brilliance. My favourite lyric is “You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre, contemplating a crime”, in reference to the legendary screen bad guy of the 30s and 40s. By the end of six and a half minutes listening to ’Year of the Cat’, I liken the feeling to walking out from a darkened cinema after two hours in front of the silver screen - the song truly does envelop the senses. ‘Year of the Cat’ became the biggest hit of Al Stewart’s career, when it was released in late 1976, but as brilliant as the song is, it was but a passing moment (though memorable) in the evolution of Al Stewart, musician and songwriter.

Al Stewart arrived in Glasgow, Scotland in 1945 - exactly half way between two separate ‘feline’ years. Stewart was raised by his widowed mother, and by his teenage years turned to learning the guitar for solace. He learned guitar alongside Robert Fripp (future core member of King Crimson) on an instrument he purchased from Andy Summers (future Police), and after leaving home Stewart became a budding rock musician, though struggling to begin with. Stewart played solo, and with a local bands in the Bournemouth region. Like so many others, Stewart’s musical ambitions were influenced by seeing Bob Dylan in concert. Stewart began writing his own material, and adopted a softer, more folk oriented style. He once shared a rooming house with another (then) struggling folkie, Paul Simon (and for a time Art Garfunkel). In July ‘66 Stewart released his first single, ‘The Elf’, on the Decca label - the song featured a young session musician called Jimmy Page on lead guitar. Stewart spent the next year performing in a variety of London folk club venues, and was no doubt playing some of the same venues as another young singer/songwriter around that time, Steven Georgiou (Cat Stevens).

Stewart was signed to the CBS label in 1967, and released his debut album ‘Bed-Sitter Images’. It was the archetypal introspective piece, focused on angst-ridden confessions and naval gazing. Sales were poor, but the suits at CBS saw enough potential in Stewart, that he was offered a shot a redemption on 1969’s album ‘Love Chronicles’, which was the only one of Stewart’s first four albums to gain a U.S. release on Columbia. The album took the brooding, contemplative premise of the first album, and centred on tales of doomed romance, ‘In Brooklyn’ being the strongest example - thoroughly uplifting stuff. But musically Stewart was really hitting his straps, and with studio assistance from the likes of Jimmy Page, the album was critically well received. ‘Love Chronicles’ even scored the gong for ‘Folk Album of the Year’ from Melody Maker magazine.

Stewart’s 1970 album ‘Zero Flies’, became the first of his albums to crack the mainstream charts, peaking at #40 in Britain. The album continued Stewart’s folk style, with occasional rock flirtations, but he broadened the subject matter of the songs, to include tracks addressing historical themes and events, such as the track ‘Manuscript’. The song takes some of the same personal issues but places them against historical events, to set up intriguing contrasts and parallels. In a way Stewart places himself, or a first person character, into an historical setting, setting up an interesting dynamic - ‘Manuscript’ served as a stylistic template of sorts for Stewart’s later work. The ‘Orange’ album (1972) revealed the first indications that Stewart was about to make the leap into a more folk-rock area, but the album didn’t contain anything too different to the last - Yes keyboard genius Rick Wakeman did play on a number of tracks, including ‘The News From Spain’, giving hints of a prog rock sound. Al Stewart would later distance himself from the first four albums of his career, preferring to focus on the shift in style and subject matter offered up by his subsequent work.

Stewart signed to the Janus label (for U.S. distribution), and in 1973 released a breakthrough album with ‘Past, Present & Future’, both musically and thematically. Stewart traded in the first person songs of love and loss, to fully embrace the historical saga. Thankfully Stewart didn’t go overboard on the prog-rock musical accompaniment to these epic tales - not that prog-rock is necessarily a bad thing, but Stewart’s voice and delicate treatment may have been lost in translation. To give some insight into the weighty material Stewart dealt with in his lyrics, ‘Road To Moscow’ is set within the context of Hitler’s invasion of Russia. It tells the tragic story of a young Russian soldier captured by the Nazis. After Berlin falls to the Allies, rather than being repatriated, because of Stalin’s reputed paranoia about former prisoners-of-war, the young soldier is banished to a transit camp in his own country. The closing track on the album ‘Nostradamus’, focuses on the book ‘The Centuries’, with Stewart cleverly weaving himself into the tales of prophecy. But they weren’t all historical epics, and in the song ‘Soho (Needless To Say)’ he recalled his early days living and working in London in the mid 60s. Stewart suddenly found that his music was being played on FM radio in the U.S., and soon the singer/songwriter located Stateside to concentrate on taking his career to the next level.

1975’s ‘Modern Times’ (US#30) was Stewart’s final album with CBS. Stewart brought in a new backing band, at that time called Home, comprising Gerry Conway, Simon Nicol, Pat Donaldson & Simon Roussel. Producer Alan Parsons also came on board, and immediately lifted Stewart’s work to a new level of richness, with lush and layered production, edgier in places, augmenting but not overpowering things. Stewart continued to construct sweeping historical tales, in exotic locales, yet maintained a personable, accessible feel. More importantly, the melodies were better than ever. No doubt Stewart had evolved from bare bones folk, to a more elaborate folk-rock style, and all signs were positive.

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