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Melody Maker
June 23,1973
Courtesy of Linda Crafar


Cat Stevens And A Revolution In Athens

Athens1.jpg (9769 bytes)

By James Johnson in Greece

The shining white block of the King George Hotel stands imposingly on Constitution Square, Athens. It’s dauntingly grand in the true sense of the word: a luxurious memorial to rich, idle living in days gone by. You pass by the comissionaire and into the air-conditioned hum of the foyer before coming face-to-face with the elderly impassive Greek behind the desk; a man who surveys his post with an expression moulded to discourage unwanted intruders. I ask hopefully to be put through to Mr. Georgious’ room and draw little response. The man continues to look vaguely through his books. Gingerly I mention Cat Stevens, and suddenly there’s light. A change comes over him. He brightens, smiles and replies in a fair resemblance of English:

"Oh, you mean Steve — the singer?"

Yes, that’s right, Steve — the singer.

Last week Steve the singer, or Cat Stevens as he’s better known, was in New York Working on the final production of his new album "Foreigner". This week he’s in Athens, primarily on a holiday but also keeping a prospector’s eye open for any land that might be worth investing in. He’s well-known in Athens, at least around Constitution Square, not only through his records but also for his family connections. Although he was brought up in London, his family is related to Greece by less than one generation. He’s more than just another tourist passing through. Why, even the commissionaire at the next-door hotel turns out to be George, his half-brother. Explains Stevens:

"My father was born in Greece and brought up a family before coming to London and doing it all over again."

Even though Cat Stevens is not alone in Athens, it’s still a city that sympathises with the isolate; the kind of solitary, slightly vulnerable figure that Cat Stevens appears to be. It’s easy to get lost with oneself along the wide, hazy, heated streets, among the noise and the people. It only gets you down in the old part of town, the Plaka at the foot of the Acropolis, a crawling ant hill of cars and tourists, jostling for space among the narrow streets which house most of the old tavernas. When the temperature is 84 degrees, Cat Stevens wisely prefers to spend his time in the quieter reaches of the city. He’s not in his hotel room but out on the Square, a gold crucifix around his neck, a strawberry badge in his lapel and sunglasses to hide from the afternoon glare. He’s sipping a beer and talking about revolution. Not in the political sense, a dangerous occupation anyway with the current regime in Greece, but in a more personal way. He explains how he’s been through a personal revolution himself just lately and how this has naturally affected his music and especially his new album, wholly recorded in Jamaica and now due out in the first week of July.

He feels a change in himself, partly from being able to escape the pressures of having to keep up his own high standard in the style which initially established his reputation. He says he’s now carved himself more freedom, both as an individual and as a musician. His last album "Catch Bull At Four" was a first step away from the set, determined idea of how a Cat Stevens album should be. With the new one, he’s made an utterly clean break, producing himself for the first time, using a different set of musicians and recording it in Jamaica.

"This is the age of personal revolutions and that’s when people and things change," he says firmly. "I want this album to be a shock. I want it to cause some kind of reaction. I don’t just want people to say 'Oh, the new Cat Stevens album is out this month. Have you got it?'"

He admits he’s following a difficult trail, in that he doesn’t want to repeat himself yet can’t break loose completely.

"I’ve got to remember my name. I can’t wake up every morning with something new even if I feel it. But it’s a difficult tightrope to follow. Basically I just want to aim for more truth with my music. Every time I want to catch that moment when you’re totally open. When you’re in bed perhaps, with somebody. That moment that if you gain love then . . . then it’s truthful love." He’ continues: "On 'Catch Bull At Four' I was searching. Perhaps I’ve now found a truer path with the new album. The last album had a lot of directions on it and none of them I’ve necessarily followed on the new one. However, maybe bits of everything may have combined on some of the tracks. I think it’s important in the sense that I’m allowing more freedom to take place in the studio. I still love having everything tight and arranged as it used to be, but then that stops a lot of the flow which is really what I’m after."

This was part of the reason why Stevens recorded in Jamaica and not as he explained before simply because it’s a fashionable place to record right now. Instead he wanted to capture some of the island’s sunny feel. He wanted to make it a summer album.

"The feel tends to come out in all the music from Jamaica. You know, you can have a bad song, a bad singer and a bad sound. . . . yet the feel, you know. . . . wow. That’s what I was searching for, and l found it came naturally."

But didn’t he find the actual studio set-up and equipment a little sparse and restricting?

"It’s not such a great studio, admittedly. It’s adequate but there are better studios in England. The equipment isn’t so sophisticated, which was the only thing I had to fight with. . ." He grins: "That and keeping the bloody piano in tune. You know, it’s so hot out there everything kept going out of tune. I think the whole album is just slightly off concert pitch. It’s not noticeable on its own, but maybe if you heard some of it among other songs it would sound just a fraction tuned down." He moves on. . . "But the actual recording was very short. We finished in three weeks. The thing is, they’ve got musicians out there who are paid on three dollars a song so, like, they’re super-quick: you know, they just rush through it to get on to the next one."

Stevens also says he brought in some musicians from New York who he’s admired from afar for some while. It helped him, as he puts it, to cut the cord. He even parted with Alun Davis.

"Yeah, it was a complete break. Maybe I should start thinking of another name or something as well."

The most obvious innovation on the album is the "Foreigner Suite" that takes up the whole of one side. It came about when Stevens discovered certain songs he’d written seemed to link together, making it logical to join them up on the album. Also, there’s a song called "Later" which Stevens describes as encompassing what to him is "the latest feel — something that’s developed between ‘Shaft’ and ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’.

"You see, I think just lately I’ve been listening to more black music than anything. I’ve found the rest rather insipid really. Those guys, though, are not going round any corners. They’re coming out with the facts as they are. It was a feel I was especially getting off on when I was writing the number. And it’s an instant number. It might die sooner than the rest. But I like it for being instant."

In may ways Cat Stevens seems a complicated individual. He goes to great lengths to explain himself exactly and sometimes the process can be confusing. He seems to take his life and music on a very intense level. He admits that he sometimes wishes he could be slightly more spontaneous.

"I love people around me like that. People who don’t think about it — just do it." he says.

Yet when you ask him what he thinks is the overall theme to "Foreigner", the answer couldn’t be simpler. Love, he says, is what it’s all about.

"I’m going through a very nice experience at the moment that recently has predominately taken up my mind. I don’t know whether I’m fully in love, but at least I can talk about it."

Oddly though, his lyrics in the past concerning chicks often seem written from an unusually removed, objective stance. He tends to think so himself. Athens3.jpg (12925 bytes)

"I think it arose from the time when I was very young, you know." He tenses his face. "I always questioned the odds of me turning out to be a girl. Right? And it’s not a question many people ask. I felt at the moment of conception a fraction of a second might have made all the difference. And then I thought, well I don’t necessarily claim to be what is known as a man. I saw these idols like Spartacus and Kirk Douglas and thought I’m not of that. When I was very young, I never really felt one sex or the other. Gradually I was brainwashed into thinking I was a fella, but maybe when I write a song or a story about a relationship, it has many more areas. True emotions. Maybe I see things that aren’t normally seen."

Stevens says he writes best when he’s in a lonely or nostalgic mood; when maybe he hasn’t seen anybody for a day. It all ties in with his image of being a solitary person —a picture of himself that he feels is accurate.

"If that comes across then that’s great, because that’s how it is," he says definately. "I am solitary, I am vulnerable. I am incredibly susceptible to changes. Even the weather alters what mood I’m in."

But why does he tend to write in his more insular moments?

"It’s frustration. To feel lonely is frustration, and it comes out of that."

He admits he writes partly to discover himself, but adds quickly that he’s lucky to have people to listen to his music as well. "I think it would be unbearable to live the lonesome life of an artist, sitting up there in your garrett, with nobody taking any notice of you. That must be terribly frustrating. He continues: "Now, for me, playing live is what music’s all about. It’s a thing that everybody enjoys, everybody experiences together. To me sometimes albums seem a load of crap because live shows are what is a real experience of music. One day I think it’d be great to go on stage and play an album’s worth of material that’s never been recorded, and play and then never record it — just leave it for the sake of live shows. That way it would never get dry."

He values his previous albums only for what he can learn from them. That’s the only sense in which he finds them interesting. He says most of his old songs were fine for their time but failed for what he’s into now — a more truthful, open approach. I suggest this new way of thinking may make him more upfront with his lyrics, which in the past have often been a little understated.

‘Yeah. I think that’s true. I’m now more able to say something without going round a corner and then saying ‘ere I am’. I think I’m saying things more straightforwardly now."

And apart from a certain lack of faith in albums, for a songwriter and lyricist Cat Stevens professes a suprisingly low regard for lyrics. He says ultimately his ambition is simply to compose music — free-form music maybe.

"Your belief has to be stronger than your words, and music expresses a feeling much more strongly than lyrics. That’s why I’m writing less and less lyrics these days and more and more music," he says. One day I’d like to compose music that is untimely because, musically, that’s as far as you can progress. That’s it. As far as lyrical progression goes, you can only sing about what you say you are. That’s what I’m aiming at at the moment — greater truth."

Are there any other songwriters he feels are working in the same areas?

He thinks for a moment: "I suppose really Dylan. He got to a certain point and then I think he backed away. That’s the feeling I got. I thought he was going in completely the right direction, everything was right. And then I think he became selfish in a way because he started to say he wasn’t preaching anything which, okay, perhaps again he wasn’t. But I still think he backed down somehow."It makes it unfortunate because I don’t feel akin to anybody now because I want to go as far as possible. As far into myself as possible, as far as possible into people."Athens2.jpg (13670 bytes)

His eyes wander round the square. There are more people around now, as the intense heat of the day gradually subsides. The traffic sounds softer, more distant, and Cat Stevens feels it’s time to get back to practicalities. He says he has to get back to his hotel to pursue his inquiries about the land he’s buying.

He's a complicated man, a stark contrast to his half-brother who has now joined us, a simple straightforward soul.

"You know, the family proud of Steve," says George the Commissionaire, with a pleased smile: "Very proud indeed."

Cat Stevens and his half-brother George Georgiou, a pavement re-union in Athens.

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