It’s a gigantic pyramid, working up to fame with ‘Year of the Cat,’ then coming back to where I came in. It’s not a bad life. You can cast the odd, wistful glance in the direction of Elton John, but then of course you have to put up with being Elton John.
Not long ago, Al Stewart was asked about his long, storied music career, which peaked (in terms of US pop-chart acclaim) in the mid-1970s – the above is his witty reply. For Stewart’s fans and devotees, his has not been a bad life at all: The artist’s deep, rich, peak-heavy discography – the 40th anniversary of his first recorded solo release comes Aug. 12 – features scads of inspired music, thoughtful lyrics and ideas and a wealth of stories from the mind of an imaginative man with a perennial eye on the past, present and future.
[ADBLOCKHERE]For those in need of an introduction to the folk-rock troubadour’s huge catalog, those interested in learning what he has done beyond his big hits – those who could use a reminder of the man’s singular voice and prolific ideas – here we will explore all of Stewart’s official releases in brief. The hope is that you will give his music a spin and expose yourself to a highly literate, intelligent artist whose carefully crafted works can amuse, enlighten, enthrall and provoke.
“The Elf” b/w “Turn into Earth” (Decca, 1966) – After an unpleasant stint in public school, young Alastair Stewart turned to scribbling poetry and expressing himself via the guitar. (Robert Fripp was an early teacher.) As a teen, the Scottish native began playing in dancehall bands in his hometown of Bournemouth, England. His dreams of making music took him to London in 1965. There, in the big city, rock and folk-rock music ruled the scene. These were the days of Lonnie Donegan‘s skiffle and Pentangle Bert Jansch‘s folk songs, the Beatles and the British invasion and swinging London. Stewart landed gigs as compere (host) at the cool Soho folk clubs Bunjies and Les Cousins; he began performing his own songs before long. In 1966, he landed a deal with Decca Records that gave the world “The Elf,” a twee ditty that uses magical creatures to reflect the life of a Bournemouth songwriter. The single (which featured a pre-Zep Jimmy Page on guitar) didn’t sell well – just under 500 copies, according to legend. The B-side is, according to Stewart, an unmemorable tune written by the Yardbirds’ Paul Samwell-Smith. “The Elf” is available on To Whom It May Concern, a retrospective of early Stewart recordings.
Bedsitter Images (CBS, 1967) – The next year, Stewart’s manager/producer, folk-club impresario Roy Guest, negotiated a new deal for his client with CBS Records. The songwriter says the signing was less about his skills or marketability than it was about business: “I was only signed to CBS in 1967 because my manager had another band they wanted to sign called the Piccadilly Line,” he told Record Collector magazine earlier this year. “CBS didn’t want me, but I ended up making six albums for them.” The first was Bedsitter Images, a collection of tunes that reflected on life in London for a struggling, young musician striking out to make his way in the world. The Sinfonia of London was hired to flesh out the accompaniment to Stewart’s lyrics and guitar. Initially, the chamber orchestra was a great way to get attention: A live concert of BI‘s songs took place at London’s in November, 1967, and brought the fledgling artist lots of media notice, along with the attention of young, university-age Londoners who could identify with the tales of Stewart’s hardscrabble artist’s life and his youthful reminiscences. Stewart eventually expressed discontent with the orchestral takeover of his debut album, which he came to consider woefully overproduced. The album was remixed without the Sinfonia and rereleased with some new tracks as The First Album (Bedsitter Images) in 1970. Neither version was released officially in the US, but as with all of Stewart’s non-American releases (his first, third and fourth LPs), they can be found as imports or through collectors and in various compilations.
- Bedsitter Images
- Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres
- The Carmichaels
- Scandinavian Girl
- Pretty Golden Hair
- Denise At 16
- Samuel, Oh How You’ve Changed!
- Cleave To Me
- A Long Way Down From Stephanie
- Beleeka Doodle Day
(In the remixed version, the gorgeous “Clifton in the Rain” and Mike Heron’s “Lover Man” are swapped in for “Scandinavian Girl,” “Cleave to Me” and “Pretty Golden Hair.”)
Love Chronicles (CBS, 1969) – Stewart’s second LP cemented his place in the hearts of London’s folk- and college sets. UK music weekly Melody Maker‘s Folk Album of the Year offers listeners the sublime and the ridiculous. The confessional song style that populated Bedsitter Images is back: About half of the album focuses on Stewart’s life, friends, and gossip. Sex too – “In Brooklyn” recounts Stewart’s go-round with an American girl and, most notoriously, the title track covers every love connection the young musician had made to that point, starting with the ethereal Stephanie (whom we met on BI) and finishing with Mandi, the winsome lass snuggling with Al on LC‘s rear cover and who was to become Al’s tragic love obsession for a while. The song is also notable for unleashing a controversy over its use of the phrase “getting laid” and the F word (Stewart contrasted “fucking” to the act of “making love,” which, naturally, is quite a different thing). Under pressure from his record label, the artist refused to bow to censorship: “This was a personal song which was written for Mandi,” he said in 1970, “and I’m not going to change the lyrics for anything in the world.”
The best part of the album, however, is the rest of the material: Stewart begins looking beyond himself and shows a real knack for seeing through the eyes of others and speaking with their voices. Observational songs like the masterful “The Ballad of Mary Foster” demonstrate his deep humanity and his respect and empathy for people and the lives they live. Consider the nimbly worded “Life and Life Only,” which interweaves several storylines – Stewart proves himself the Robert Altman of popular music. (Or Richard Curtis, perhaps – the final verse is the sonic equivalent of the closing scene of Love Actually. No, definitely Altman.) Meet one of the characters: “Mr. Willoughby / Whose only luxury / Is the sugar in his tea / Teaches history / At High Worthington School…”
Stewart’s ability to see and value people – to describe them and their situations and to point out connections that exist between us all, regardless of our nationality and station in life – is one that will lead him to lyrical gold.
And then there is the music, a haunting, compelling bit of guitar-fueled folk-rock that reminded many of art-folk outfit Fairport Convention: LC, also produced by Roy Guest, features another set of performances by Jimmy Page along with the appearance of three interestingly monikered artists: guitarists Marvyn Prestwick and Simon Breckenridge and drummer Martyn Francis. In reality, the three are, respectively, Richard Thompson, Simon Nicol and Martin Lamble – Fairport members who performed incognito at the time because of contractual difficulties.
- In Brooklyn
- Old Compton Street Blues
- The Ballad of Mary Foster
- Life and Life Only
- You Should Have Listened to Al
- Love Chronicles
Zero She Flies (CBS, 1970) – Stewart’s third album, a “stark” collection of previously unreleased Stewart compositions, followed in the footsteps of its predecessors in mining the personal life of Al and his friends. Some memorable songs are featured, however, among them: the plaintive, deceptively simple “A Small Fruit Song,” the rocking “Electric Los Angeles Sunset” and, most importantly, “Manuscript,” which was Stewart’s first foray into using historical themes, something that would become the norm as years passed.
ZSF was never released in the US; many of its songs can be found on To Whom It May Concern.
- My Enemies Have Sweet Voices
- A Small Fruit Song
- Gethsemane, Again
- Electric Los Angeles Sunset
- Black Hill
- Room of Roots
- Zero She Flies
Orange – (CBS, 1972) More of Al’s musical confessions or, as I call this one, Tales of Al and Mandi. This album covers the heartbreaking dissolution of the couple’s affair, and while the story isn’t pretty, songs like “I’m Falling,” the wrenching “Night on the Fourth of May” and “The News from Spain,” for which tissue is required, are at once too painful to hear, too compelling to resist, completely relatable and soulshatteringly gorgeous. In a 1970 interview with Melody Maker, Stewart said that after Mandi dumped him, he suffered a year-long bout of writer’s block.
The album features strong performances by guitarist Tim Renwick (catch the Quiver axeman’s Spanish action on “Song Out of Clay”), Brinsley Schwarz on the 12-string, and Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman.
Orange was never released in the US; many of its songs can be found on To Whom It May Concern.
- You Don’t Even Know Me
- Songs Out Of Clay
- The News From Spain
- I Don’t Believe You (by Bob Dylan)
- Once An Orange, Always An Orange
- I’m Falling
- Night of the Fourth Of May
Past, Present and Future (CBS, 1973; released in the US on Janus Records) – For many Stewartphiles, the magic really gets started with this LP. As the title would indicate, this is the first project where most of the artist’s attention is focused on the world and the people living within it. History (and how it affects the lives of the powerful and the not-so-powerful) takes center stage on tracks like “Old Admirals,” “The Last Day Of June 1934,” “Post World War Two Blues,” and two of his classics, the stately “Roads To Moscow” and “Nostradamus,” an epic piece that predicts the history of the world.
Produced by John Anthony, this LP moved Stewart into more verdant musical and thematic landscapes, vistas he made tangible through his use of rich language and references from the arts, literature and past and current affairs. PPF shows the songwriter’s descriptive abilities are becoming even sharper – see how “Soho (Needless to Say)” puts one right in the middle of London’s arty, seedy red-light district:
Rainstorm, brainstorm, faces in the maelstrom
Huddle by the puddles in the shadows where the drains run
Hot dogs, wet clogs clicking up the sidewalk
Disappearing into the booze shop
Rainbow queues stand down by the news stand, waiting for the late show
Pinball, sin hall, minds in free fall
Chocolate-coloured ladies making eyes through the smoke pall…
Musically, Tim Renwick and Rick Wakeman make welcome repeat performances, Peter Wood provides accompaniment on accordion and organ and we are introduced to vocalist Krysia Kocjan, who offers the transcendent descant vocal on “Roads to Moscow.” The singer turns out to be more than a mere shot in the dark – she’ll appear again – memorably – as part of Stewart’s backing band.
- Old Admirals
- Soho (Needless to Say)
- The Last Day of June 1934
- Post World War II Blues
- Roads to Moscow
- Terminal Eyes
Modern Times (CBS, 1975; released in the US on Janus) – Naturally, I’ve met many an Al Stewart fan over the decades; most tell me that this was their first favorite Stewart album. Not surprisingly, this record established the erstwhile bedsit bard as an American musical cult figure – MT sold more than a million copies and cracked the Billboard Top 30.
This album was also the first helmed by Alan Parsons, the brilliant and innovative musician (he plays flute), producer and engineer (he might say “recording director”) who gained notice for his work on the Beatles’ Abbey Road and for working with artists like Ambrosia, the Hollies, Pink Floyd and his own Alan Parsons Project. Parsons took Stewart’s folk-rock and added jazz sensibilities to it, making it more commercially attractive to the mainstream US pop market.
Again, Stewart works with a loose theme – modern times, natch – and presents a collection of still-evocative tunes including “Carol,” the story of a fast girl in trouble; the rollicking “Apple Cider Reconstitution;” the sweeping, regret-filled title track; Stewart’s homage to Kurt Vonnegut’s sci-fi novel The Sirens of Titan and “The Dark and the Rolling Sea,” a moody piece that tells a tale of high-seas suspense. Guitarists Tim Renwick and Simon Nicol and pianist Peter Wood use their instruments in service to Stewart again, wonderfully, and there is lots of lovely color provided by gorgeous string arrangments by Parsons and gifted multiinstrumentalist Andrew Powell.
- Soho (Needless to Say)
- What’s Going On?
- Not the One
- Next Time
- Apple Cider Reconstitution
- The Dark and the Rolling Sea
- Modern Times (Dave Mudge co-wrote)
Year of the Cat – (RCA, 1976; released in the US on Janus) This, Stewart’s first platinum album, was the one that cemented Stewart in the annals of pop-music history (the album hit Billboard’s Top 5) and made him a huge international star. Producer Alan Parsons’ formula from Modern Times, mixing Stewart’s historically themed folk-rock pieces with jazz conventions (like the unforgettable Phil Kenzie saxophone break in the title song) and absolute gorgeousness (Peter Wood’s heartstoppingly lovely “YOTC” piano intro), worked like the proverbial charm when it came to electrifying music listeners and encouraging them to part with their dollars and pounds.
Why? Yes, the combination of the sophisticated Parsons touch with Stewart’s folk-rock foundation piqued interest, but in the end, Stewart won appreciators through his unforgettable stories and songs: the arousing title track, the sad “Broadway Hotel,” and “Flying Sorcery,” the first of Stewart’s songs to focus on the exploits of pilots. [See my recent interview with the artist for some background on his flying songs.] At the time, Billboard hailed YOTC for its “exceptionally well-arranged songs that are progressive without being pretentious. … This set was recorded at the Abbey Road Studios in London, and through heavy use of strings has a symphonic, almost classical beauty.”
Extremely noteworthy is the first appearance of guitarist Peter White, then a sessionist hired to play Spanish style guitar for the swirling, intriguing Top 20 hit “On the Border”; his long, fruitful collaboration with Stewart began on Year of the Cat.
- Lord Grenville
- On the Border
- Sand in Your Shoes
- If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It
- Flying Sorcery
- Broadway Hotel
- One Stage Before
- Year of the Cat (Peter Wood co-wrote)
Time Passages (Arista/US, RCA/UK, 1978) – This LP continued the Stewart-Parsons partnership, proven so profitable by Year of the Cat‘s success, and to good effect: It hit the Billboard Top 10 and produced two hit singles, the mellow, reflective title track and the undeniably catchy “Song on the Radio.” As is obvious from its title, the album’s theme covers time, be it time running out (“Man for All Seasons”, “End of the Day”), the discovery that it’s time to take action (“Almost Lucy”) or reconstruct oneself (the breezy “Valentina Way”), or recalling a time gone by (“The Palace of Versailles,” “Timeless Skies”).
Musically, we see (hear) the return of Stewart’s old-school posse (Tim Renwick, Peter Wood, Andrew Powell), appearances by notables like drummer Jeff Porcaro and steel guitarist Al Perkins, and the nucleus of what will become Shot in the Dark, Stewart’s early 1980s backing band: Peter White, vocalist Krysia Kocjan (now using the surname Kristianne) and bassist Robin Lamble.
- Time Passages
- Valentina Way
- Life in Dark Water
- A Man for All Seasons
- Almost Lucy
- The Palace of Versailles
- Timeless Skies
- Song on the Radio
- End of the Day (Peter White co-wrote; reportedly this song inspired his aspiration to follow a solo-artist path, something he eventually did, and quite successfully).
PCarrots (Arista/US, RCA/UK, 1980) – The theme became “change.” Busy as Alan Parsons became with his own successful Project, Al Stewart found himself with a record due and without a producer. With a new decade looming and a new album to create, a new challenge for Stewart seemed timely: He took on the mantle himself, co-producing with recording engineer Chris Desmond. A new attitude showed itself too: While the songwriter’s sense of whimsy and love for wordplay have been hinted at on past releases (come on – “The Elf”?), never before has it been so up-front as on the disc’s cover, which features Xed out parrots and a P in its title replaced respectively by bright orange carrots and the letter C. Obviously, something is different – and much of what’s changed is the sound. Stewart is in collaboration mode – 24 PC features four Stewart-White tunes and it’s apparent that his new backing band (Peter White and his Shot in the Dark mates, who now include guitarist Adam Yurman and saxophonist Bryan Savage), supplemented by various session players (among them alternating drummers Jeff Porcaro, Russ Kunkel and Steve Chapman [now Stewart's manager]) contributed to the album’s harder-rocking sound.
That isn’t to say that everything changed: Yes, 24
PC‘s sound is harder, but it’s in no danger of resembling Metallica. This is still rock music played most elegantly. The theme may be “change,” but the topic is still explored through historically based songs (including the epic “Murmansk Run/Ellis Island”) and musings on modern times and relationships. And while the record is a tad less satisfying on the whole than previous Stewart classics, it is most assuredly superior to much of what was released in 1980 – and of what is released today. The quality of the musicianship is as high as expected, though listening today, some of the bright-sounding production – though very well done – feels a bit sterile. That is not because of the songs, by and large: the tense, ever-moving “Running Man,” the hilarious rocker “Mondo Sinistro,” the pensive “Optical Illusion” and the resplendent hit “Midnight Rocks” (which boasts a chorus that soars on swoon-worthy harmonies) help make what turned out to be the final album of Stewart’s rock-star period such delicious punishment.
- Running Man
- Midnight Rocks
- Merlin’s Time
- Mondo Sinistro
- Murmansk Run/Ellis Island
- Rocks in the Ocean
- Paint by Numbers
- Optical Illusion
Indian Summer/Live (Arista/US, RCA/UK, 1982) – This interesting collection offers songs performed at the Roxy in Los, LA Angeles in 1981. Called Indian Summer/Live in the US, the British version, pictured left, is known as Live at the Roxy, L.A. ’81); 2002′s Al Stewart Live on Razor and Tie features much of the same material.
The live release came at an interesting time – during the initial transition between Stewart’s Elton John years and his post-stardom career. Intentional or not, it offers us a pause to appreciate works gone by – and it’s a welcome souvenir of the live Al Stewart concert experience, complete with his extemporaneous and wildly entertaining stage patter (check out his homage to Clarence “Frogman” Henry). In addition to the live tracks, which feature cuts from Past, Present and Future through 24
PCarrots, there are also brand-new studio songs on the 1982 American release (which eventually show up on new CD reissues of 24 PC). My recommendation: the exotic and thought-provoking “The World Goes to Riyadh.”
- Here In Angola
- Pandora (Peter White co-wrote)
- Indian Summer
- Delia’s Gone
- Princess Olivia
- Running Man (live)
- Time Passages (live)
- Merlin’s Time (live)
- If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It
- Roads to Moscow
- Nostradamus 1 / World Goes To Riyadh / Nostradamus 2
- Soho (Needless To Say)
- On The Border
- Valentina Way
- Clarence Frogman Henry
- Year Of The Cat
We’ll continue our exploration of Al Stewart’s official releases in part two, where the journey becomes rocky and we’ll hear stories from between the wars, down in the cellar and from beachside. Trust me, there is more story to tell, and the music is something you need to hear.
Sources: The Al Stewart Mailing List Discography, AlStewart.com, Al Stewart Now, Songfacts, SuperSeventies.com, Neville Judd‘s Al Stewart: The True Life Adventures of a Folk-Rock Troubadour, Charlie Hulme’s late, lamented Page27 Archives
Please see more on featured artist Al Stewart here.