Al Stewart, On the Border and “Year of the Cat”

In case I’ve confused anyone, yes it’s still me, but I’ve dropped the Alfie from my site title and changed the header image – I have been troubled for some time by the fact that I merrily entered into blogging without really thinking too hard about my site’s title. The domain name is jukeboxtimemachine.com which I liked right at the start but then thought it sounded too Dr Who-ish. As a great fan of Burt Bacharach and late ’60s movies I quickly changed it to What’s It All About, Alfie?, as an homage to the song of the same name, but as was likely to happen I am now thoroughly sick of the song and if I ever hear it again in my entire life, it will be too soon. Also the character Alfie is a bit of a misogynist womaniser and I don’t think I want to be too closely associated with that kind of person in my 21st century life, so he is going to have to go – Farewell then Alfie (and Jane Asher), it’s been nice knowing you but it’s time to move on.

bfi-00m-dgm

So, what song to feature in this new Alfie-less blog? A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a song that was inspired by the picture of Barbra Streisand on the cover of the magazine that pops through my letterbox every Saturday. I like a challenge so thought it might be interesting to use the weekly cover as inspiration for future posts – Lo and behold, what appeared on last Saturday’s cover but a cat of all things. I am not really a cat lover and much prefer dogs so what could I come up with to write about? My first thoughts led me to the song Moon River as the final scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’swhere Audrey and George finally get together to the strains of Henry Mancini, revolved around the search for Audrey’s cat, imaginatively named Cat.

But no, that is more of a film song (although I still love the term “huckleberry friend” as it conjures up something that I just don’t think we have any more) – My next thoughts led me to the song Year of the Cat by Al Stewart and amazingly it occurred to me that all these years on, I still don’t know what Al looked like, as he was more of an album artist and as far as I know never appeared on Top of the Pops or any mainstream TV shows I may have watched. Unbelievably Year of the Cat only made it to No. 31 in the UK Singles Chart in 1977 and those must have been the heady days when I laboriously recorded chart positions in notebooks, as I still remember his song being the first to be played on a Radio Luxembourg chart rundown from that year (must have been a Top 40 bearing in the mind the paltry No. 31 peak position). So now I know what Al looked like and perhaps it’s just me but does he have a hint of the late George Harrison about him? What a fantastic song though with a great saxophone solo – All apparently about a tourist who is visiting an exotic market when a mysterious silk-clad woman appears and takes him away for a gauzy romantic adventure. He of course awakens the next day beside her, but soon calmly realises that his tour bus has left without him and he has lost his ticket. Sounds as if it was all worthwhile though!

Year Of The Cat by Al Stewart:

Regulars to this place will know that I am often earworm-afflicted and it usually comes about from hearing long-forgotten songs played on the radio on my way home from work. This week, just as I approached one of the trickier roundabouts in town, Al’s song On the Border came on and it has been going round and round in my head ever since. As I had already been pondering the works of Al Stewart this week, it confirmed that he would feature in my next post. On the Border never did make an appearance in the UK Singles Chart although I see it did enter the US Billboard Chart – It is another fantastic song that I often hear on the radio so what the heck were we thinking of back in 1977? Not Al Stewart by the sound of it! Time to find out a bit more about this chap.

On the Border by Al Stewart:

Well, shock of shocks, Al turns out not to be American as I had always thought but was indeed born in Glasgow. Sadly his father, a Royal Air Force flight lieutenant, died in a 1945 plane crash before he was born so his mum moved down to Dorset which is where Al grew up. After school he moved to London and rose to prominence as part of the British folk revival of the ’60s and ’70s. He developed a unique style of combining folk-rock songs with delicately woven tales of characters and events from history. He knew Yoko Ono before she met John Lennon, shared a flat with a young Paul Simon and bought his first guitar from Police guitarist Andy Summers. Why oh why am I only finding out about all of this now, and why wasn’t he a lot more successful in the UK?

Al is an artist who seems to have worked with just about everyone and one of the people he collaborated with from the 1960s onward was Alan Parsons who produced the album “Year of The Cat”. I don’t know about you but I just can’t think of Alan Parsons now without being reminded of that scene in the Austin Powers movie where Dr Evil, having travelled forward in time, just doesn’t get modern day cultural references. When he names his new scheme to achieve world domination “The Alan Parsons Project” in honour of its inventor, Dr Parsons, it of course causes great hilarity.

So, “What’s It All About?” – It seems that there are some artists who just quietly get on with the job of making great albums but who never really become household names. As a music fan myself I find it very strange that I didn’t even know what Al looked like, or that he was British, considering he had recorded three songs that I have always really loved but only ever hear on the radio (the third being Time Passages from 1978).

Al went to live in Los Angeles shortly after the release of his “Year Of The Cat” album and seems to have consistently sold more records there than in his native UK. It turns out he became a bit of a wine connoisseur and has built up a vast collection of fine wines over the years – Preferable to some of the other vices his contemporaries succumbed to!

At this year’s BBC Folk Awards, which will take place in April at the Royal Albert Hall, Al will receive the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award. He will also it seems perform at the awards ceremony, so after all these years, I may actually manage to watch Al on television – Looking forward to it already.

Until next time ….

Year Of The Cat Lyrics
(Song by Al Stewart/Peter Wood)

On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolour in the rain
Don’t bother asking for explanations
She’ll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat

She doesn’t give you time for questions
As she locks up your arm in hers
And you follow ’till your sense of which direction
Completely disappears
By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls
There’s a hidden door she leads you to
These days, she says, I feel my life
Just like a river running through
The year of the cat

While she looks at you so coolly
And her eyes shine like the moon in the sea
She comes in incense and patchouli
So you take her, to find what’s waiting inside
The year of the cat

Well morning comes and you’re still with her
And the bus and the tourists are gone
And you’ve thrown away your choice you’ve lost your ticket
So you have to stay on
But the drum-beat strains of the night remain
In the rhythm of the new-born day
You know sometime you’re bound to leave her
But for now you’re going to stay
In the year of the cat

Author: Alyson

Whenever I hear an old song on the radio, I am immediately transported back to those days - I know I'm not alone here and want to record those memories for myself and for the people in them. 50 years ago the song "Alfie" was recorded for the film of the same name and I'm hoping that by writing this blog, I might finally work out the answer to his question, "What's it all about?"

16 thoughts on “Al Stewart, On the Border and “Year of the Cat””

  1. Love Al Stewart and saw him in concert around 1978. Must say in the video for Year of the Cat he looks a lot like Eric Idle did at that time, like in the Rutles movie when they were making albums like “Shabby Road” ha-ha!

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    1. It must have been great to see him around that era – I feel very embarrassed that I have never taken the time to find out much about him up until now considering I love these songs so much when I hear them. And him a born Scot too!

      Maybe that’s what I’m thinking of when I say he looks like George Harrison – You are right he is more like Eric Idle in his Rutles guise. Good call!

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  2. Like the new header and shorter blog title – I think blogs can happily evolve over time and it’s good to change things now and then – but it still keeps its identity.
    Whilst I’m not a fan of Year Of The Cat, there are some earlier Al Stewart tracks I know and like and so maybe you would too – think they’re both late ’60s or 1970 thereabouts – ‘Electric Los Angeles Sunset’ and ‘Life And Life Only’. He has that very distinct enunciation which I like in small doses but might get on my nerves if I heard too often, however I think it works in these – I also find his story-telling style lyrics interesting, very evocative.
    And I agree, he looks like a kind of cross between George Harrison and Eric Idle and maybe even a touch of a young Bill Wyman – perhaps there were some strange genetic experiments going on in the 1930s/40s?!

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    1. PS – just talking about Al Stewart to Mr SDS (who I have to thank for first introducing me to the two tracks I mention here as he’s a few years older than me and knew of him beforehand.) Anyway he thinks he sounds like Tony Blair! And looks a bit like him too…

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      1. You are so right – He has now become a hybrid of George, Eric, Bill and Tony. As you say there must have been a factory cloning dark bushy-haired men with quite feminine faces back in the day who all became very successful in their chosen fields! And the voice is that non-descript, non-regional accent that confused me but also makes him sound like Tony Blair. Sadly regional accents are dying out I think as people move around more – I have a very ordinary sounding, non-regional accent now but when I was young I spoke in Doric which is the language of the North-East of Scotland (and when I say language I really mean language as the words are all totally different but very, very descriptive and colourful – being lost now I fear).

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    2. Glad you like the new title – a bit bland but have been regretting the whole Alfie thing for some time now but not easy to change your title without going back and editing a lot of earlier posts that refer to it. Will do it gradually.

      Will have to check out those earlier Al Stewart songs – Still can’t believe I didn’t realise he was British and a born Scot at that! Must be the enunciation (great word if properly enunciated!) that you mention. To be fair Year Of The Cat is my least favourite of the 3 tracks featured it just fitted the “cat” theme that I used for inspiration and I try to keep my featured songs pretty mainstream so that everyone should know them – I have really enjoyed the On the Border earworm this week though and Time Passages is great too.

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  3. I can see the Tory Blair resemblance and clever use of a Dr Evil clip there
    I saw Al Stewart at the Renfrew Ferry once getting a free ticket after my pal had been stood up!

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    1. Ah one person’s misfortune was your gain! Still feel really stupid for not realising he was of Scottish extraction – with a name like Stewart an’ all!

      I have dropped the Alfie from my site title – Not sure if you have to do a change at your end but as you kindly added me to your sidebar it might need a bit of an edit? Thanks

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  4. Liking the new look and I’m glad you changed the title as despite the Bacharach involvement, I never really dug that track.

    A good start to feature Al too, someone I’ve listened to more in the last year or so than in the rest of my life… I’ve been saving Year Of The Cat for a Top Ten I keep promising I’ll do one day… The opening line might give you a clue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now you tell me! I’ve been hating the song Alfie for the last 6 months but thought I was too far down the line to change now. Not too difficult as it turns out.

      Ah that would be an interesting Top Ten – will get my thinking cap on before it makes an appearance. Al certainly wrote some colourful lyrics and just really appreciating them properly now – Can’t believe I didn’t even know what he looked like or where he came from. That’s what I love about writing this blog (and reading other people’s) – always something new to learn.

      As you kindly include me on your sidebar could you do an edit to the new title if need be? Thanks

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      1. It would be rather rude to say “I like your blog but don’t really like the song you named it after”, wouldn’t it? Besides, it didn’t bother me that much. It’s not like you called your blog I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. That might have been a dealbreaker.

        Sidebar dutifully changed.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ha ha that would have been rude I suppose but although complimentary comments are nice, I’m open to criticism as well so feel free! It’s a quagmire though and still feel very nervous about some of my song choices as although there are supposed to be no “guilty pleasures” I am aware that some of them will be met with raised eyebrows. Onward and upward.

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  5. Back in the day, I had a mate who summed up Al Stewart thus: “He’s the sort of bloke who’d take a lass home, then write a song about everything that happened while he was with her – I’d hate to be his girlfriend.” That searing analysis more or less ended any interest I had in Al Stewart’s musical output.

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    1. Yes I think you’re right – A rugby-playing alpha male he wasn’t and there would be a good chance you would be written about in a song afterwards. Then again, here I am all these years later, not writing songs about the various men in my life (not too many to be fair) but writing blog posts – Still lots more stories in the tank so they should be very afraid!!

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  6. Like you, I first heard ‘Cat’ on FAB 208 but would have sworn on a stack of Bibles it was ’74/’75; only because by 77 I’d discovered John Peel and thought I’d ditched crackly medium wave.

    Having never known you in your Alfie years, I can’t really comment on the rebrand. So ‘break a leg’ as they say.

    J

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    1. Sorry but just found your comment now, 10 days later, as it had gone to spam for some reason. Yes Radio L was pretty awful crackly medium wave wasn’t it but when you don’t have much else….. – They don’t know they’re born nowadays!

      My Alfie years were very similar in fact so not much of a rebrand but just got so fed up of that song (and the character from the film is pretty awful) so a change was needed. Thanks for dropping by – have seen your name pop up on C’s site.

      Liked by 1 person

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