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Taff At The Top

By Ray Fox-Cumming 

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Alun Davies was a hard working session guitarist looking forward to the rare treat of a Sunday off at home with his wife and kids, when Paul Samwell Smith rang up and asked him to give up his precious Sunday to do some session work on an album he was producing. Alan was reluctant: he didn’t want to give up his day off, had plenty of other interesting work to keep him occupied and didn’t think much of the past work of the artist concerned.

But Paul persisted. AIun eventually gave in and that, three years ago, was the start of a close friendship and working relationship with Cat Stevens that has lasted through five world tours and five albums (four of Cat’s and one of Alun’s).

"The album they were working on then," recalled Alun, "was ‘Mona Bone ". I think that on that first session we did Lady D’Arbanville’ and I was knocked out by it."

In the three years that Alan has been Cat’s guitarist their names have become inextricably linked, so when Alan’s first solo album 'Daydo’ was released this year at more or less the same time as Cat's 'Catch Bull At Four,' his work was bound to be compared to Cat's. But while people were busy pointing out the similarities between their phrasing and overall sound, the differences tended to become overlooked. Whereas Cat’s lyrics are expressions of emotion, Alun's strength lies in narrative and this basic difference is indicative of a difference in their personalities.

Cat, or Steve as he is known to his friends, is the more introvert, recording his feelings in song, while Alun, more outgoing, more sure of himself, is a man who likes to document his past experiences—be it in the form of diaries, a succession of stamps on his passport, or music.

Perhaps surprisingly, Alan is Steve’s mentor rather than the other way round.

"Steve expects me to know more than he does, which isn’t always true," Alun explained, "but whereas he isn’t very interested in stepping outside what he already knows, I am. I read a lot and sometimes I buy him books I’ve particularly enjoyed and mark passages I’d like him to read, but I don’t think he ever bothers."

"After his illness, Steve was a bit of a recluse. He needed bringing out of himself. I got him out of, himself and introduced him to drink! For someone to get to know him now would be very hard. He has his close circle of friends and that’s his world as he wants it."

AIun has recently returned from accompanying Cat on a four-month long world tour, the high spots of which he has faithfully recorded in a sketchbook that serves as a scrapbook-cum-diary.

"I enjoyed it immensely, though we were all very tired at the end, Steve particularly, After all, it was his tour and I think it took a lot out of him. I don’t know what his immediate plans are, but I think he should take a sabbatical away from music. "I can’t stand the usual tour syndrome — getting up, eating, watching TV in the hotel, going to the bar, then to bed and then on to the next place the next day. I have to get out and go somewhere. On the tour I was always banging my fists on the table, saying things like 'Come on, you've got to come and see the Grand Canyon, you may never get the chance again’. Maybe because I kept making them all get up and do things they found me hard to live with, I don't know."

"On tour everything had to be just right. If a roadie set up the gear carelessly, he’d really cop it from Steve, unless he knew how to stand up to him. Steve’s a perfectionist. When we were recording 'Catch Bull At Four' we spent 40 hours on one track, ‘Can’t Keep It In’. It hung like a cloud over us for ages. I nearly went mad: I'd go out of the studio, pace up and down and end up banging my head against the coffee machine out of sheer frustration. I couldn't see anything wrong with the first take, but I was really impressed that, after all that time we spent on it, Steve could still make it better.

"On the other hand, when we recorded 'Peace Train' on the 'Teaser' album, Steve did one take of the vocal, played it back once, then went straight back and did the double tracking vocal perfectly the first time. I'd have had to listen to it for hours to be sure of getting it right.

"I think 'Tea for the Tillerman' was my favourite album of Steve's. It was so spontaneous and quick in the making. I loved doing that album. I got very bored doing 'Catch Bull' because I think it took too long and we worked in three different studios on it.

"Steve hates talking about his music. In Australia he only gave two press conferences which caused bad feeling among the press. I think he feels that his music says it all and that by talking about his music he might somehow betray it. I think he also feels that people expect him to say things that are clever and worries that he might not be up to it."

"In Australia Steve really wanted to give them a show because they expect it, so although I’m not much concerned about clothes, along with the others, I went out and got some gear." He pointed to his shoes, made of patchwork crocodile and very much on their last legs (pardon the pun). "I felt embarrassed wearing these at first, but I think they look more me now," he said, smiling down at the shreds of crocodile skin taking leave of the uppers.

Leaving the subject of Cat Stevens and the world tour, the conversation turned to Alun’s solo work.

"I’m proud of ‘Daydo’. After all, it was my first solo album and I’ve heard a lot worse, but I find it hard to listen to it now without wishing that I’d done a lot of things differently. I much prefer to play to the new improved versions. "

Before the world tour, Steve asked Alun if he’d like to play a couple of his own songs during the set.

"I said 'yes great' at first," said Alun, "but after a while I changed by mind. It would have made a break in Steve’s set and it might have seemed a bit patronising, Of’ course, my record company went spare about it but I’m sure I did the right thing. The only alternative would have been to do an opening set first, but it would have meant taking my own musicians and that just wasn’t practical."

Alun started out as a picture restorer and eventually gave it up, because the work was "too predictable," but he has retained his interest in art and when he came to start work on his second album, it was natural for him to design the cover first, think of a title and then work inwards. Four songs are now complete, the rest well on the way and he hopes to begin recording at the end of January. Then when it’s released (hopefully, around April) he aims to go out on the road with his own band.

"I’m not leaving Steve though," he added quickly. Since we share the same manager, he works things out so our commitments don’t clash. "I want to tour abroad as well," he said. "You know, if you worked for three years just in Britain, it would be a very boring existence, because the circuit here is quite small—and there are so many bands working it, that it would not provide you with much of a living."

Warming to the subject of touring, which he loves. Alun was full of praise for roadies.

"They’re the greatest people in the world. They have to be so many things—not least of all father confessors. They really have a lot of power, a bad roadie could finish a band."

If the kind of success that Cat enjoys came his way Alun doesn’t think it would turn his head.

"I think I’ve got over the ego thing now."

The success that he has had so far has brought him, his wife and children, a comfortable home in Surrey, and he’s just bought a period farmhouse ‘in his native Wales, where he aims to spend quite a lot of time once he’s finished having it done up.

At home in Surrey, if he’s tinkering around with his guitar and suddenly gets an idea, his wife is sent rushing off in search of the tape recorder and the kids all have to shut up while he gets it down, so as the Welsh retreat is to be a place of work, it seems a modest indulgence. But then Alun Davies is a disarmingly modest person.


  Article Courtesy of Linda Crafar

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