- Stereo Review
- Volume 29 #4 Page78
- October 1972
- Contributed by Linda Crafar
- Cat Stevens - An Early Retrospective
By Noel Coppage
Many have picked up
scraps of the story by now; at the age of nineteen (in 1967) Cat Stevens had written three
of the songs on the British charts. His own recording of I Love My Dog (on Deram)
was "number one and still climbing" as George Carlin used to say, and his
recording of Matthew and Son . and the Tremeloes recording of Here Comes
My Baby werent far behind. America had not yet heard of him, but the lad was an
overnight wonder in England, and he has hinted, in the laconic and infrequent interviews
he has granted in the last few years, that it was another of those
"too-much-too-soon" stories. It is sad that studio smartasses wouldnt even
speak to him, and it is obvious to anyone who listens to his albums then and now that
Stevens had little to say about how those early songs were recorded.
We can surmise that the
pop-star treatment was torture for the sensitive young man. We can also surmise that
something had to give from the evidence that something did givehis physical
health. He contracted tuberculosis. Odd Judy Collins came down with the same disease at a
time when her life personal and professionally, was in turmoil. It isn't all that
common a disease these days, and since it attacks the lungs which pump the air past the
vocal chords, it is presumably one of the ailments that singers dread most if they
really like being singers. But in both these cases, the illness gave the singers a second
wind, providing a moratorium from the rat race, a time in which to think things through.
Popular mythology has it
that the recuperative period was the turning point in the life of Cat
Stevensand in some ways it was: his first album after that ("Mona Bone
Jakon") was on a different label (A&M) and was so much simpler and cleaner than
the previous records that it seems likely Cat demanded full control of the recording
sessions this time. The illness unquestionably affected his lyrics, too, for such lines as
"My baby will be waiting there/With a yellow ribbon in her hair" and
"School is out now, were gonna have some fun/We're gonna make like we're the
only ones" were never to appear again. His lyrics became more reflective, less sure
of themselves. And yet, it is not at all surprising that the boy who wrote songs like Lady
and I'm So Sleepy should become the man who wrote songs like Moonshadow and
Wild World. Once youve developed the knackadmittedly no easy task
of listening through the horrendous glop of the over arrangements of the early
albums "Matthew And Son" and "News. Masters" (especially the latter),
you realize he was no pimply male teenybopper. There are songs such as I'm So Sleepy and
Blackness of The Night (it still sounds brand new), in which the listener can
sense, as he sometimes can with classical music, how a melodic theme inspired the
composer to invent a secondary theme based on the first one's climactic bars.
Heavy stuff for a kid who,
producers and audience alike assumed, just wanted to be a pop star.
Stevens maturity as
a vocalist didnt suddenly happen as a result of his illness. The turning
point in his singing occurred before that, between "Matthew and Son" and
"New Masters." In the earlier album, he seemed to be trying In hide the
attractively furry raggedness that now distinguishes his vocals. He was holding back,
trying for a more "pleasant" sound than he was comfortable making. There is a
bit of this too-careful modulation in "New Masters" also (try I'm Gonna Be
King). but by and large it had disappeared, and Moonstone and Blackness are
sung (but not arranged!) the way he would do them today.
Of course, as Ive
already pointed out, it's almost impossible to hear what he sounds like in
"Matthew and Son," and difficult enough in the case of "New Masters."
The bloated arrangements in "Matthew" are nondescript rockin' with the
(1967) trend here and brandishing an arty bank of George Martin cellos there: the only
thing consistent about them is that they always bury the Iyrics. The arrangements in
"Masters" are uniformly lush, the approximate consistency of a slightly fatigued
prune whip. Still, I dont know of many 1972 songs, however arranged, that top Blackness
Of The Night as its preserved in "New Masters." Even with a mushy
arrangement, it has a melody that compares favorably with the bulk of Jacques Brel's work,
and the lyrics, though no threat to the reputation of Yeats, are almost as pretty as some
of Byrons: "In the blackness of the night I see a sparkle of a star / From a
sweet silver tear of a child / Shes clutching a photograph of long, long ago / When
her parents were happy shes too young to know
After Cat won fame on
A&M, Deram Records re-released "Matthew and Son" and "New Masters"
as a two-record set, then brought out a third album, "Very Young and Early
Songs." This appears to be the result of an intensive search through all the tapes he
left on the premises. Since only four of the songs were written in 1967, the album for the
most part is not as early as "Matthew and Son." It sounds like a reject version
of "New Masters," having the same cello-rich embellishments, but it contains two
songs. Here Comes My Wife (1968) and Where Are You (1969), that might
compare with Stevens off-hand work today if he did any off-hand work
today. It also contains some trite stuff, such as Image of Hell, that I expect
Stevens hoped hed heard the last of. And it contains Come on Baby, which
could be an outtake from "New Masters," although it sounds identical to Shift
That Log in that album. These moderately young and fairly early songs provide some
documentation about an intellect that sought, in those days, to go beyond such lyrics as
"Ah got you under mah thumb" or "Aint it great to get stoned."
but mostly the album merely documents how earnestly record companies slam the barn doors
after the horse, or the Cat, has made his escape.
Most Americans first heard
of Cal Stevens when FM stations started playing cuts from "Mona Bone Jakon" the
first album on A&M and the first post-hospital recording. From the first tinkle of
Cats seedy guitar playing the introduction to Lady D'Arbanville it was clear
that the album was going to be as clean as a surgeon s scalpel. There were flute
accents here and there, and even strings in some of the ballads, but all the background
stuff was background stuff, with Stevens relying mostly on his own voice and piano,
the somewhat more conventional (than his) guitar picking of Alun Davies, and John
Ryans bass. It is almost an exquisite little album, with melodies that charm slowly
and left-handedly, with the Stevens vocal style fully realized, and with sly revelations
such as the one in his rendering of Pop Star, a bit of tough humor about the
business: that Stevens, had he wanted to, could have been among the best of the
young. white blues singers.
Happily. he didnt
want to be. A young, white, blues singer is by definition an actor, an illusionist, but
Stevens connects well with his audiences in part because he convinces them hes real.
As soon as they could hear him, they started becoming convinced, and "Mona Bone
Jakon" is where they started hearing him. People believe him, I think, because he
doesnt make extraordinary claims, doesnt pose as a Messiah. He doesnt
write the tumble-of-words kind of "poetry" excoriating all the values the world
had adopted before he arrived on the scene; he does not write any new verses in the
"Ive found it" cant of the middle-class guru in I Wish, I
Wish, he lets "I wish I knew. ." trail off into the fade-out.
The songs of
"Mona" were better than the previous songs. They, like their arrangements, were
simpler Stevens seemed to be writing now like a man who realizes he does have time,
after all, to work out each idea fully instead of having to launch a rocket with every
chord. There is no doubt that the illness had something to do with that. Lady DArbanville
turned out to be a success musically, although it must he regarded as an experiment
lyrically. Maybe Youre Right, Trouble, and Katmandu each had
some outstanding feature of music and words that was headturning, and Fill My
Eyes and Lillywhite needed to steep in the listeners mind for a time
maybe weeks to be fully appreciated. Time may have been a mistake,
one of those moody jazz-grounded experiments that everyone, even Gordon Light-foot. seems
determined to try at least once.
"Tea for the
Tillerman" is so good and so well known that most commentary about it now would be
superfluous. It has a fuller sound than "Mona," although its arrangements are by
no means cluttered. The logical assumption is that Stevens in "Mona" was being a
bit reactionaryhad to swing the pendulum all the way back to be sure he had a good
grip on itand in doing "Tea" he was confident that he could add sounds and
maintain control. His piano was brought up a bit; be did more vocal overdubbing, and, in a
song like Wild World, the pickers were allowed to cut some figures.
Im still a bit sad
that everyone in the world isnt humming Sad Lisa (even though
the melody is a bit too baroque for most hummers, it was the melody of the year), but the
outlandish popularity of Longer Boats, another of my pets, is some
consolation. Longer Boats, Stevens has said, is about flying saucers, in whose
existence he believes. He has been telling concert audiences that he later wrote another
verse to make that clear (it says if you look up you may see them looking down),
and hes supposedly been working on another song about flying saucers.
"Tea" was something like the problem the Who faced in following up
"Tommy." Almost anything would be a disappointment and "Teaser and the
Firecat" was, to some degree. In following up "Tommy," the Who resorted to
a "live" album, certainly the easiest way out. "Teaser" is not a
"live" album, but it reads like one, with songs recorded in a sequence that has
up-tempo pieces waking up the "audience" after the ballads have lulled them into
mellow-mellow land. Changes IV provides a raucous change of pace between the
peaceable If I Laugh and the almost painfully lovely ballad How Can I Tell You. Turn
the disc over and Tuesdays Dead, another of Cats forays into Latin
rhythms, snaps your eyes open again before Morning Has Broken calms you. So it
goes, but it is an album of quite some substance. Songs like If I Laugh, How Can I
TelI You, The Wind, and Morning Has Broken contain some of the
finest melodies Ive ever heard on a single pop album and have me speculating again
that Cat may be in a class by himself or maybe in a class by himself with Joni
Mitchell in the art/science of constructing melodies for pop songs. One of the nicer
people Ive met through the mails, a young lady in California, is a devotee of
lieder, especially the songs of Mahler, and she assures me that if Cat Stevens had lived
in the right time and place. his songs would now be sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
strength as a songwriter, aside from his marvelous ability to construct melodies, lies in
his own desire for growth. Hes willing to take risks. He has tried bossa nova,
calypso, and other exotic rhythms; hes tried standard-beat rockers; hes done
something approaching an art song; hes written at least one song in the
twelve-measure blues motif; hes even, in Rubylove (in Teaser), done something
Greek-sounding with a couple of bouzoukis, Not every venture is a success, but Stevens at
a very early age has earned more respect than several of our aging rock stars who keep
rewriting their first hits.
His main weakness is that
he tends to fall into banality at times, and this shows in some lyrics, it shows
particularly when he tries to write Moody Blues-style lyrics
lets-wrap-up-the-universe-in-three-verses-and-a-bridge. Changes IV is an
example. His best lyrics seem to have been knocked out in a few minutes and dont
pretend to be anything much beyond verses that will be sung for a few months and then
forgottenwhich is, after all, the natural lot of most pop music. Stevens is not a
verbal genius, but he is sometimes lucky enough to encounter inspiration. When that
happens he can, as I said, be almost as pretty as Byron, or he can chase a small to
middling insight all the way back into the crannies of the psyche, depending on the form
the inspiration takes.
His strength as a
performer is his voice. He has been blessed with an interesting one, lower-pitched than
most, with a weather-beaten fringe around it, and he has just enough taste and technique
to keep it out of trouble. He has a tendency (which seems to be diminishing) to
supplement the lyrics of his songs with "0h yes" and "Ooh-woo." That
could be maddening if he let it get out of hand the way Sam Cooke did and Josť Feliciano
still does. But he always pulls up short of that, and I can only conclude that taste comes
to his rescue.
It says something about
the times when we consider how much we have come to expect of one so young as Cat Stevens.
Years ago we made LeRoy Anderson rich and famous for writing melodies alone many
of them inferior to Cats melodies and now we routinely nit-pick about words.
Im not saying it is a bad situationa world without any attempt at
critical judgement would be a pretty squishy place. But I am saying: How old is a
young artist nowadays? How long can they last, the John Lennons and the Cat Stevenses who
have come so far in so little time? Time, as they say, will tell, and maybe Cat was stuck
into our time with us for the purpose of making it a little more livable. He does.
- CAT STEVENS: Very Young and
Early Songs. Cat Stevens (vocals, piano, guitar); orchestra. Here
Comes My Wife; Lovely City; The Tramp; Come On and Dance; Image of Hell; Where Are
You; Its A Super Duper Life; A Bad Night; Come On Baby; The View from
the Top. DERAM DES 18061.
CAT STEVENS: Matthew
and Son. Cat Stevens (vocals, guitar): instrumental accompaniment, Mike Hurst and
Alan Tew, arrangers. Matthew and Son; I Love My Dog; Here Comes My Baby; Bring
Another Bottle Baby; I've Found a Love; I See a Road; Im Gonna Get a Gun,
School is Out; Baby Get Your Head Screwed On; Speak to the Flowers; Hummingbird; Lady.
(Now sold as a two-disc set with "New Masters" below.)
CAT STEVENS; New
Masters. Cat Stevens (vocals, guitar); orchestra. Kitty; I'm So Sleepy;
Northern Wind, The Laughing Apple; Smash Your Heart; Moonstone; The First Cut
Is the Deepest; I'm Gonna Be King; Ceylon City; Blackness of the Night; Come On
Baby (Shift that Log); I Love Them All. A two-disc set with "Matthew and
Son." DERAM DES 18005-10.
CAT STEVENS: Mona
Bone Jakon. Cat Stevens (vocals, guitar, piano); other musicians. Lady
D'Arbanville; Maybe Youre Right; Pop Star; I Think I See the Light;
Trouble; Mona Bone Jakon; I Wish, I Wish; Katmandu; Time; Fill My Eyes; Lillywhite.
- CAT STEVENS: Tea for the
Tillerman. Cat Stevens (vocals, guitar, piano); other musicians. Where Do the
Children Play?; Hard-Headed Woman; Wild World; Sad Lisa; Miles from Nowhere; But I Might
Die Tonight; Longer Boats; Into White; On the Road to Find Out; Father and Son; Tea for
the Tillerman. A&M SP428O.
- CAT STEVENS: Teaser and the Firecat.
Cat Stevens (vocals, guitar, piano); other musicians. The Wind; Rubylove; If I Laugh;
Changes IV; How Can I Tell You;Tuesdays Dead; Morning Has Broken; Bitterblue;
Moonshadow; Peace Train. A&M SF4313.