Cat Stevens

TrackAlbum
Matthew And SonMatthew & Son
Lady D'ArbanvilleMona Bone Jakon
Sad LisaTea For The Tillerman
Into WhiteTea For The Tillerman
The WindTeaser And The Firecat
RubyloveTeaser And The Firecat
How Can I Tell YouTeaser And The Firecat
Morning Has BrokenTeaser And The Firecat
18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)Catch Bull At Four
Blackness Of The NightThe Laughing Apple
Bonus Track
Father And SonTea For The Tillerman²

Cat Stevens photo 1

 

 

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Cat Stevens playlist

 

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that I grew up with Cat Stevens’ music. I think it was one of my older brothers who owned the copies of Tea For The Tillerman and Teaser And The Firecat that we had in our house. However, it was my sister who really claimed them as her own. She played them pretty constantly and along with records like Gordon Lightfoot’s Sundown, Carole King’s Tapestry, Eagles Hotel California, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, they formed part of the background to my teenage years. Indeed, I heard both so often that for many years afterwards I barely listened to them at all or to any of Stevens’ other music. It was only a few years ago that I picked up CD versions of both of those records. What surprised me then was how well they stood up to the test of time and how finely crafted were the best of the songs on them.

What was also refreshing was the non-macho persona Stevens adopted on those early classic albums and how different this was from the stance taken by many of his contemporary male artists in the 1970s. In some respects, he was a forerunner of the Sensitive New Age Guy (or SNAG) well before the term itself existed. His music also combined a strong melodic sense with a willingness to experiment with unusual chord progressions. This gave his work an added edge and, in Norman Lamont’s words, gave it “a new kind of tension and eagerness”. In my opinion, Norman’s pieces about Cat are among the best so far written and are highly recommended (they can be found here and here.

As Lamont has suggested, Stevens’ musical adventurousness may have owed something to his emigrant origins. He was born Steven Georgiou and had a Greek-Cypriot father and Swedish mother. He grew up near Denmark Street in Soho which was then a major centre for the UK music industry. From an early age he had a keen interest in musical theatre (among his early favourites was Leonard Bernstein’s classic musical West Side Story and George Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess). Later, his musical tastes expanded to include pop groups such as the Beatles and singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan. His early immersion in that world helped to prompt his ambitions to pursue music as a career. Early on, he was primarily focused on achieving stardom in the pop field. To attain that objective, he began to pitch the songs he was now writing to various record companies around London. One of the few to bite was Deram Records, a subsidiary of Decca. He was signed to the label by Mike Hurst who also produced his early singles. Of these records, Matthew And Son is probably the best and is my first choice. It is probably Stevens’ catchiest pop song and it’s strong enough to survive the over-the-top production which Hurst gave it. The lyric of the song also gives a surprisingly gritty account of working life in London at the time it was written.

Around this time, Stevens was also writing other classic pop songs like I Love My Dog and The First Cut Is The Deepest. Unfortunately – in the latter case – Hurst’s production of Stevens’ own version was an unsympathetic one. In consequence, the definitive versions of the song remain those by P.P. Arnold and Rod Stewart. Here is another fine performance of the song by Linda Ronstadt.

In 1968, Stevens contracted TB and endured an enforced period of convalescence first in hospital and later at home. In his own words during this time “he started reading metaphysical books” and “looking into … [himself] quite deeply”. He also began to envisage a shift in musical direction towards a simplified, quieter and more folk-influenced style. This would mark a decisive break from his early days as a ‘pop’ performer. Stevens was very fortunate that his new musical style was closely aligned with the broader shift towards more personal and introspective songs which marked the emergence of the ‘singer-songwriters’ of the early 1970s.

In a sense, this movement had been foreshadowed by earlier songs such as Changes by Phil Ochs and Violets Of The Dawn by Eric Andersen. The songwriters who followed up on the shift in direction signalled by such songs were far less directly political than their 1960s forebears had been. Even when they did write on political themes, their songs tended to be far more universalist and vague in tone (as with Stevens own Peace Train and Where Do The Children Play) than were the far more specific and localised songs of the ‘topical’ songwriters of the early 1960s. Their work also concentrated far more on personal dilemmas and on relationship issues than broader societal ones. They were also more focused on spiritual/existential issues than had been the case up to that point. In all these respects, Cat Stevens’ new music was very much in tune with his times, and this perhaps accounted for the extraordinary commercial success he achieved in the early 1970s.

Around this time, he also began to work with two people who were to be vital to his new musical style; Paul Samwell-Smith as producer and Alun Davies, a wizard on the acoustic guitar. Both made a major contribution to the classic records Stevens made at this time. The first of these albums, Mona Bone Jakon, was released in 1970. From it I have chosen Lady D’Arbanville, a madrigal-inspired song with a strong rhythmic drive. Its lyric also seemed inspired by Troubadour songs and by English romantic poetry

As it demonstrated, Stevens’ move towards a more folk-inspired style had not lessened his ear for a good pop hook.

As good as Mona was, it was his next two albums which – for me at least – rank as his finest musical achievements to date. Both Tea For The Tillerman and Teaser And the Firecat (my personal favourite of his albums) were masterful records, studded with an array of superbly crafted songs. Both display an artist at the peak of his powers, with a complete command of his craft. The songs on both albums are also so consistently excellent that it was very difficult to decide which ones to exclude from this list. In the end, however, my choice was based on selecting those tracks which give a good representation of the general qualities of the records. (It was a wrench to leave out songs as good as Miles From Nowhere, Bitterblue, Moonshadow and several others.)

Of those I have selected, both Sad Lisa and Into White stand out as keyboard driven ballads. They also feature the kind of unexpected chord changes and innovative arrangements which marked Stevens’ musical style at this point in his career.

By contrast The Wind is a beautifully minimalist acoustic piece. Its lyric is also marked by the spiritual searching that Stevens was undertaking at this time (a recent performance of the song can be seen here).

Of the other choices, Rubylove reflects Stevens’ Greek background and features brilliant bouzouki parts by Andreas Toumazis and Angelos Hatzipavli.

How Can I Tell You is one of Stevens most beautiful songs and has a romantic yearning quality which few other songwriters can match.

The spiritual element in Stevens’ work at this time is beautifully exemplified in his version of the classic hymn Morning Has Broken. The track also features a fine understated piano part by Rick Wakeman.

While the clichéd image of Stevens is as a kind of kaftan-wearing fey ‘peace and love’ type (almost on the lines of Neil in The Young Ones), in reality he was a far more turbulent character than this depiction suggests. In the studio, for example, he was driven by a relentless perfectionism. This trait led some of those who encountered him in this phase of his career to see him as dictatorial. This volatile element in his character also played a role in his regular shifts in musical direction in the years immediately after the release of Tea and Teaser. These later records tended to be more uneven affairs, although at their best they displayed a kind of spontaneity and musical inventiveness which had not been as marked a feature in his earlier work.

A classic example of this is the song 18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare) on Stevens’ 1972 album, Catch Bull At Four, which I have chosen for inclusion. In Norman Lamont’s words, it is a superb demonstration of his ability to surprise the listener with “a chord change, tempo change” or a “sudden lurch” into “a different gear”. It also features some superb drumming from Gerry Conway, another of the relatively unsung but vital contributors to Stevens’ best work. In its sudden shifts in musical dynamics, the song also reminds me at least of some of Bruce Springsteen’s early work. In this respect it is a long way away from Cat’s earlier acoustic classics, although it is just as accomplished musically.

After Catch Bull, Stevens’ work became even more inconsistent and his ‘Midas touch’ – in a commercial sense – began to desert him. He was also becoming increasingly disillusioned with the rock star lifestyle and casting around for some path to a more meaningful existence. Soon after a near-death experience while swimming in Malibu in 1976, his brother gave him a copy of the Qur’an. This eventually led him to convert to Islam and abandon his musical career. He also adopted the name Yusuf Islam, by which he is still known today.

For most of the ensuing two decades, he was heavily involved in education and charity work, both with a strongly Islamic focus. In the late 1990s, however, he made a tentative return to music making. This re-embracing of his musical career took more concrete form in 2006, with the recording of An Other Cup, his first full pop record since Back To Earth in 1978.

My final selection comes from The Laughing Apple album which was first released in 2017. Stevens had first recorded Blackness Of The Night as the B-side to his 1966 single, Kitty. While the original version is quite good (it can be heard here), the later rendition takes the song to an entirely new level of soulfulness. Given the plight of refugees around the world, its lyric has also taken on an even deeper resonance in more recent years.

Also, this version of the song by the unlikely pairing of Bonnie Prince Billy and Bill Callahan is also highly recommended.

As Blackness Of The Night clearly demonstrates, at his best Cat Stevens is a consummate artist. Indeed, his best work is characterised by a consistent, mellow and finely crafted excellence.

 

Bonus Track

Father And Son has always been one of my favourite Cat Stevens’ songs. Its quality is such that it has survived a plethora of inferior cover versions over the years. Its lyric is also unusual in its portrayal of generational conflict, which carefully balances the perspectives of both its older and younger protagonists. In a sense both have right on their side, but it is clear from the song that the son will end up leaving, as this is a crucial rite of passage which cannot be avoided. Rather than the original rendition, I have chosen the one from Stevens recent re-recording of his fourth album, Tea For The Tillerman². It was Stevens’ son, Yoriyos, who came up with the idea of using his father’s voice from a live recording from 1972 for the son’s part. In essence, this resulted in Stevens singing the song as a duet with his younger self. This device fits the themes of the song perfectly and gives this version an added depth, evident in this excellent video.

 

 

Cat Stevens poster 1

CatSong Festival 2020 – a virtual festival celebrating the music
of Yusuf / Cat Stevens (view in full here)

 

A FEW OTHER VERSIONS OF CAT STEVENS SONGS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yusuf / Cat Stevens official website

Yusuf / Cat Stevens discography

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Cat Stevens (2014)

Majicat: Cat Stevens Scrapbook (fansite)

“Hearts of Darkness: James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens and the Unlikely Rise of the Singer-Songwriter” by Dave Thompson (2012)

Yusuf / Cat Stevens On Remaking ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ (NPR 2020)

Father & Son: A Duet 50 Years In The Making

Yusuf Islam’s Golden Years: Cat Stevens on Islam and His Return to Music – Andy Greene (Rolling Stone 2015)

Dale Kawashima interviews Yusuf/Cat Stevens, new inductee Songwriters Hall Of Fame (SongwriterUniverse.com May 2019)

Yusuf/Cat Stevens Reclaims His Name – Mike Greenhaus (Relix 2018)

Cat Stevens (Wikipedia)

Alun Davies (Wikipedia)

Cat Stevens biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs.

TopperPost #981

4 Comments

  1. Dave Stephens
    Aug 31, 2021

    Andrew, I have to state that Cat Stevens was one I wasn’t expecting, or, to misquote Guy Clark (from Dancin’ Days): “You’ve still got a couple of two-steps you ain’t shown no one”. Excellent choice with fine song selection and perceptive commentary. Nice one!

    • David Lewis
      Sep 1, 2021

      The legacy of Cat Stevens was tainted, I suppose, by his conversion to a religion that is misunderstood by certain elements, and not helped by several public attitudes, long since rescinded. The big one I guess was his questioning of the holiness of stringed instruments. This I think stopped him being active in pop music, and he really disappeared for a long time. (The opinions he once held on the fatwa of Salman Rushdie is irrelevant to here, though never I suppose to Mr Rushdie. I didn’t agree with Cat then either).
      Having reconciled his faith with his craft, we are free to appreciate a singer songwriter who didn’t sound like anyone else – the bridge in Matthew and Son sounds like something a Pete Townshend might have written. Tea for the Tillerman is a gospel song, only lasting 61 seconds, and used by Ricky Gervais in Extras for end credits. Maybe Elton would have been so brave as to stop a very promising idea before it even got started and still manages to be perfect.
      As for a Wot! No? I quite like Remember the Days of the old Schoolyard, but there’s nothing I’d take out for it.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Sep 1, 2021

    Thanks for the kinds words Dave. Like to keep a few surprises in store. Also I grew up in early 70s when Cat’s music was everywhere. Was thinking while researching this piece that if Cat had not been so successful, albums like ‘Teaser’ would be being rediscovered now as ‘lost’ masterpieces. Also, in my case, I see Cat as having been something of a ‘gateway’ drug to discovering other artists like Nick Drake and John Martyn.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Sep 1, 2021

    David, thanks for your comment. Like ‘Remember The Days’ too, although the synth-based arrangement sounds quite dated to me. This is not the case with Cat’s classic early 70s albums.

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