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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 weren’t 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 wouldn’t 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 give—his 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 Stevens—and 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, we’re 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 you’ve developed the knack—admittedly 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 didn’t 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 I’ve 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 don’t know of many 1972 songs, however arranged, that top Blackness Of The Night as it’s 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 Byron’s: "In the blackness of the night I see a sparkle of a star / From a sweet silver tear of a child / She’s clutching a photograph of long, long ago / When her parents were happy— she’s 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 he’d 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 "Ain’t 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 Cat’s 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 Ryan’s 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 didn’t 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 he’s 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 doesn’t make extraordinary claims, doesn’t pose as a Messiah. He doesn’t 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 "I’ve 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 D’Arbanville turned out to be a success musically, although it must he regarded as an experiment lyrically. Maybe You’re 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 listener’s 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 reactionary—had to swing the pendulum all the way back to be sure he had a good grip on it—and 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.

I’m still a bit sad that everyone in the world isn’t 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 he’s supposedly been working on another song about flying saucers.

Following up "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 Tuesday’s Dead, another of Cat’s 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 I’ve 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 I’ve 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.

Stevens’ main strength as a songwriter, aside from his marvelous ability to construct melodies, lies in his own desire for growth. He’s willing to take risks. He has tried bossa nova, calypso, and other exotic rhythms; he’s tried standard-beat rockers; he’s done something approaching an art song; he’s written at least one song in the twelve-measure blues motif; he’s 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 — let’s-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 don’t pretend to be anything much beyond verses that will be sung for a few months and then forgotten—which 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 Cat’s melodies — and now we routinely nit-pick about words. I’m not saying it is a bad situation—a 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; It’s 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; I’m 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 You’re Right; Pop Star; I Think I See the Light; Trouble; Mona Bone Jakon; I Wish, I Wish; Katmandu; Time; Fill My Eyes; Lillywhite. A&M SP4260.

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;Tuesday’s Dead; Morning Has Broken; Bitterblue; Moonshadow; Peace Train. A&M SF4313.

 

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