A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a song that was inspired by the picture of Barbra Streisand on the front 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’s, where 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 didn’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
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