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Featured Artist: Al Stewart – The Discography, Pt. 2

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Here we continue with the second installment of my foray through the discography of folk-rock legend Al Stewart. Part One covers 1966 through 1982, the years that took the Scotland-born Brit from London’s folk-club scene to global rock-star status and from post-adolescent confessionals to historically based observations of the human condition. We pick up the musical journey after the release of Indian Summer/Live, the last LP from his so-called superstar years.

The success of Year of the Cat, Time Passages and 24 CParrots gave Al Stewart a brand-new lifestyle. He was living in Los Angeles now and was treated like a huge star, a major deal. Which he was: He’d sold millions of records and had headlined major sold-out concerts (as documented in Indian Summer and Live at the Roxy ’81). In the 1970s he had even found a new hobby that continues to be a passion for him: wine collecting. Life was good. But then came the lawyers.



Russians and Americans (Passport/US, RCA/UK, 1984) – By the mid-1980s, the mainstream pop-music world had pretty much had its fill of singer-songwriters. The record buying public had moved past trends that started in the 1970s – we had survived punk, had seen new wave turn old and had packed away spandex. And we had our MTV – consequently, many music consumers put music’s superficial aspects over artistic ones. The music business, on the other hand, was becoming more corporate. True, money had always been the thing for the money men behind the star maker machinery. In previous decades, though, some sort of love for music existed in the hearts of most of those in the field. This was becoming less and less the case. The record labels saw a public in search of fluff – and they were (and still are) all too happy to give (and tell) the public what it thinks it wants.

In this climate, Stewart released R&A, an album that takes on contemporary life while continuing to look at yesterday through modern eyes. The album, produced by Michael Flicker (though European editions add that Peter White and Rolf Henneman offered production assistance), shows the artist still collaborating with White and the Shot in the Dark crew and with many of the old crew (Andrew Powell, Steve Chapman, Phil Kenzie). A newcomer was backing singer Marcy Levy, who toured with Bob Seger, co-wrote Eric Clapton’s 1977 hit “Lay Down Sally” and, under the name Marcella Detroit, was due to become part of Shakespear’s Sister in the late 1980s.

Interestingly, the sound and feel of the record are quite reminiscent of Modern Times, and while R&A is not at the top of the list of greatest Al Stewart recordings, there are some fine songs here: the resigned “Accident on 3rd Street” (he sounds so detached from the words he is singing that he renders the news the song delivers even more chilling that it otherwise might be); “The Candidate,” inspired by Stewart’s love for American political party primary campaigns; “Cafe Society,” a look into the empty lives of the rich and richer; and a cover of the old chestnut “1-2-3.” If you’re familiar with dairy ads running in the US, you probably think of this bouncy number and a shiny, happy tune. Listen to Stewart’s take on the John Madora – David White – Leonard Borisoff composition: By changing some of the lyrics, he imbues the song with a new cynicism while offering listeners a cautionary tale:

The hard part is learning about it,
The hard part is breaking through to the truth.
The hard part is learning to doubt
What you read, what you hear, what you see on the news.

If Stewart sounds cynical on the album, it’s no wonder. Success can breed tension – and much of it was brewing behind the scenes as Shot in the Dark members wanted to pursue their own musical journey (Stewart’s backing band released its own LP to disappointing sales, in 1982). That tension could not have served the singer well – he admits to being uncomfortable in recording studios. In addition, there were the aforementioned lawyers. R&A was released in the US on Passport Records, which was aligned with Jem Records. The firm was caught up in a huge bankruptcy situation and many Passport recordings that appeared at this time were kept from being released in a timely fashion. By the time Russians and Americans finally saw release (with precious little promotion provided), mainstream radio and most record buyers didn’t notice.

Tracks:

    The One That Got Away (Peter White co-wrote)

  1. Rumors of War (Peter White co-wrote)
  2. Night Meeting
  3. Accident on 3rd Street
  4. Strange Girl
  5. Russians and Americans
  6. Cafe Society
  7. One, Two, Three (John Madora, David White & Leonard Borisoff)
  8. The Candidate
  9. Lori Don’t Go Right Now (Peter White co-wrote; on UK release only)
  10. The Gypsy and the Rose



Best of Al Stewart (RCA/UK, 1985; Arista/US, 1986) – What does one expect? Stewart makes his labels millions. Legal troubles happen. Stewart is sans record deal. Former labels pimp his catalog for filthy lucre. It’s the music business. In any event, this slight recap of Stewart’s rock-star years is a fine introduction for people who only know Alastair Stewart as the infant son of a former soccer player named Rod. Points and this writer’s deepest thanks to the team that opted to include YOTC‘s stately “Lord Grenville” on the Stateside edition.

Tracks: (UK release)

  1. Year of the Cat
  2. On the Border
  3. If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It
  4. Time Passages
  5. Almost Lucy
  6. Merlin’s Time
  7. Valentina Way
  8. Running Man
  9. Here in Angola
  10. Roads to Moscow (live)
  11. Rumours of War

Tracks: (US release)

  1. Time Passages
  2. Running Man
  3. Delia’s Gone
  4. Roads to Moscow
  5. Song on the Radio
  6. Midnight Rocks
  7. Lord Grenville
  8. Merlin’s Time
  9. Nostradamus 1/World Goes to Riyadh/Nostradamus (live)2
  10. On the Border (live)
  11. Year of the Cat



Last Days of the Century (Enigma, 1988) – The view of the future on the album cover – along with the synth-heavy production by Joe Chiccarelli – offers a clue that Stewart, at the turn of the last century, was considering the changing world. The songs offer views of change from the past (“Fields of France,” about a pilot’s tragic journey that forever changes his life and that of his waiting true love; “Antarctica,” which references Shackleton and Scott’s journey to that untouched frozen land in griping about a “frosty woman who refused to sleep with me,” as he has explained during onstage patter) and present (“License to Steal,” where an angry troubadour tells us how he really feels about attorneys, and the sensual “Where Are They Now?,” where Al reconnects with lost love Mandi [yes, they ended up as friends; I’ve met her, and it’s easy to see the reason for his youthful obsession].

The Stewart faithful purchased the album, of course, but the mainstream had moved on. By now, the chart-topping Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant was the nasally tenored Brit the masses embraced (PSB’s cover of Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind” peaked at number four on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988; Stewart admits to being a fan of the synth-pop duo). Also noteworthy: the wacky “Red Toupee,” which features a young Tori Amos on backing vocals, and “Josephine Baker,” a midtempo rocker that recalls how the legendary banana-dancing stereotype smasher shook things up in her heyday.

Among the synthesizers you’ll find some lovely music as performed and created by Stewart and Shot in the Dark. Real musicians tend to be drawn to quality, not Billboard chart rankings, so while LDOTC didn’t strike marketplace gold (though “King of Portugal” won adult-contemporary airplay and became quite popular in Spain), the great players that helped make Stewart’s music so glorious – Peter Wood, Tim Renwick, Phil Kenzie and Steve Chapman among them – showed their loyalty by contributing to the project.

Tracks:

  1. Last Days of the Century (Peter White co-wrote)
  2. Real and Unreal
  3. King of Portugal (Peter White co-wrote)
  4. Red Toupee (Peter White co-wrote)
  5. Where Are They Now (Peter White co-wrote)
  6. Bad Reputation (Peter White co-wrote)
  7. Josephine Baker (Peter White co-wrote)
  8. License To Steal
  9. Fields Of France
  10. Antarctica (Peter White co-wrote)
  11. Ghostly Horses of the Plain (Steve Recker co-wrote)
  12. Helen and Cassandra (only available on CD version)



Chronicles (EMI, 1991) – Much better retrospective than Best of Al Stewart – then again, this enterprise was blessed with much “creative interference” from the artist himself. This collection includes the big hits and some live tracks from the Roxy era, but also offers a wee peek into Stewart’s bedsit-era output. The liner notes (by David Dasch, former editor of Stewart fan newsletter Chronicles) present information on the background of each song.

Tracks:

  1. Year of the Cat
  2. On the Border
  3. If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It
  4. Time Passages
  5. Almost Lucy
  6. Song on the Radio (CD only)
  7. Running Man (CD only)
  8. Merlin’s Time
  9. In Brooklyn
  10. Soho (Needless to Say) [live; CD only]
  11. Small Fruit Song
  12. Manuscript
  13. Roads To Moscow (live)
  14. Nostradamus 1/World Goes To Riyadh/Nostradamus 2 (live)



Rhymes in Rooms (Mesa/US, EMI/UK, 1992) – Preceding this lovely live set, which features the duo of Stewart and Peter White and covers a wide range of songs from Stewart’s career so far. Generally, this is the setting in which you’ll find Stewart the performer these days. Now signed to Mesa Records, he experiences music-business drama again and takes his own advice: If it doesn’t come naturally, leave it. By changing the business model – hitting the road as a solo player or with one or two co-performers, he is able to take his songs on the road in the US and Europe and have them promoted via word-of-mouth. It’s a long-term plan that eventually pays off. The power of the songs and the stripped-down beauty of Stewart and White on their guitars (Peter also shines on accordion and piano), so lovingly captured by producer Michael Fagrey on RiR, present the reasons why. Frankly, as much as I love the Live at the Roxy band performances, I prefer Rhymes in Rooms.

Tracks:

  1. Flying Sorcery
  2. Soho (Needless To Say)
  3. Time Passages
  4. Josephine Baker
  5. On the Border
  6. Nostradamus
  7. Fields of France
  8. Clifton in the Rain/A Small Fruit Song
  9. Broadway Hotel
  10. Leave It
  11. Year of the Cat



Famous Last Words (Mesa/US, Permanent/UK, 1993) – Stewart sounds happy on this disc, and no wonder. He’s gotten married and will soon become a father. Songs like “Feel Like” and the effervescent “Genie on a Tabletop” are a testament to the artist’s good spirits. The list of dramatis personae has changed: the Peters, Wood and White, are on hand (White actually produces the disc with Ross Hogarth), as is bassist Adam Yurman, but the others are session players who do a good job on the album’s offerings. Which is no faint praise: FLW has some amazing stuff, including (in addition to those mentioned previously) Trains, a latter-day Stewart classic; the heart-tugging “Don’t Forget Me”; and “Peter on the White Sea,” which soars as it recounts the story of a sea voyage by Russia’s 17th- and 18th-century czar Peter the Great. Also interesting: the silly “Hipposong” and “Charlotte Corday,” a Stewart-Tori Amos collaboration about a principled French Revolution-era woman who paid the ultimate price for being true to herself. (Stewart has talked fondly of his time working with then-upcoming artist Amos at the piano in his living room.)

Despite continuing small-label woes – Mesa soon will find itself dealing with dwindling funds. Eventually, it will merge with another tiny acoustic-music-focused label, Bluemoon, enter a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, and see responsibility for marketing its offerings – including FLW – shuffled from hand to hand. Thankfully, Stewart is focusing on pursuing his interests – marriage, books, film, and wine – and leaving the rest. Whatever the problems with record companies, his classic and new songs are embraced passionately by those who see his acoustic shows in small venues across the US, so things are good.

Tracks:

  1. Feels Like
  2. Angel of Mercy
  3. Don’t Forget Me (Al Stewart & Peter White)
  4. Peter on the White Sea (Al Stewart, David Pack & Andrew Powell)
  5. Genie on a Table Top
  6. Trespasser (Al Stewart & Peter White)
  7. Trains
  8. Necromancer
  9. Charlotte Corday (Al Stewart & Tori Amos)
  10. Hipposong
  11. Night Rolls In



Al Stewart 1966-1970: To Whom It May Concern (Mesa/US, Permanent/UK, 1993) – See Part One for more on this quite marvelous and extensive collection of Stewart songs covering the first three albums of his recording career.

Tracks:

DISC ONE:

  1. The Elf


  2. Turn into Earth (Paul Samwell-Smith & Rosemary Simon)
  3. Bedsitter Images
  4. Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres
  5. The Carmichaels
  6. Scandinavian Girl
  7. Pretty Golden Hair
  8. Denise at 16
  9. Samuel, Oh How You’ve Changed!
  10. Cleave to Me
  11. A Long Way Down from Stephanie
  12. Ivich
  13. Beleeka Doodle Day
  14. Lover Man (Mike Heron)
  15. Clifton in The Rain
  16. In Brooklyn
  17. Old Compton Street Blues
  18. The Ballad of Mary Foster
  19. Life and Life Only

DISC TWO:

  1. You Should Have Listened to Al
  2. Love Chronicles
  3. My Enemies Have Sweet Voices (Al Stewart & Peter Morgan)
  4. A Small Fruit Song
  5. Gethsemane, Again
  6. Burbling
  7. Electric Los Angeles Sunset
  8. Manuscript
  9. Black Hill
  10. Anna
  11. Room of Roots
  12. Zero She Flies



Between the Wars (Mesa/US, EMI/UK, 1995) – Stewart’s touring schedule was flourishing – he was getting to make music for appreciative audiences and take care of his growing family, which now included a baby daughter. The music he was making reflected his growing comfort with the role of folk-pop troubadour, elder statesman and family man.

Another encouraging development was Stewart’s new collaborator: former Paul McCartney and Wings guitarist Laurence Juber. With Al’s blessing, Peter White had set off on his own creative path; he is now a successful solo smooth-jazz recording artist. Juber, a virtuoso player, and Stewart, no slouch himself on the six-string, shared a love for history and classic musical forms – both are huge fans of Bert Jansch and Django Reinhardt. As Juber supported Stewart’s acoustic act on the road, the two decided to work together on a new Stewart album. This one – with Juber producing and playing guitar, banjo, dobro, mandolin – would tell stories from the time between the two world wars and incorporate the sounds of various eras.

BTW was the practically perfect melding of music and theme. Songs like the Asian-inspired “Sampan,” the swinging spy intrigue “Night Train to Munich,” the epic “Three Mules,” and “A League of Notions,” a rhythmically rolling and incisive piece that makes absolutely irresistible the history lesson contained within (the apportioning of control over losing nations after World War I; the League of Nations was a predecessor of today’s United Nations).

I think I’m gonna take a piece of Russia
And a piece of Germany
And give them to Poland again
I’ll put together Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia
And hope that is how they’ll remain…

Given the small-label status of the project, the recording budget was tight, but Juber proved himself a skilled producer capable of fashioning lush sounds on a shoestring – for instance, the rich-sounding strings that color a number of the tracks was the work of Stewart and Juber on synthesized strings. The resulting product is especially memorable and another true Stewart classic, thanks to great songs – do try them all – and to a creative partnership that excels in painting vibrant sonic pictures that linger in the mind, soul and toes.

Tracks:

  1. Night Train to Munich
  2. The Age of Rhythm (Al Stewart & Laurence Juber)
  3. Sampan
  4. Lindy Comes to Town
  5. Three Mules
  6. A League of Notions
  7. Life Between The Wars
  8. Betty Boop’s Birthday (Al Stewart & Laurence Juber)
  9. Marion the Chatelaine
  10. Joe the Georgian
  11. Always the Cause
  12. Laughing into 1939
  13. The Black Danube



Down in the Cellar (Mesa/US, EMI/UK, 2000) – Putting five-year intervals between new albums isn’t fun for fans, but the schedule seems to be suiting Stewart just fine. Seeing even larger crowds at his concerts, which are being booked in ever-larger venues thanks to increasing demand resulting from hardcore Internet-connected fans sharing info and music with one another, with those who lost touch with Stewart’s career, and with new fans across the globe.

This album focuses on the perfect theme for Stewart: Every song incorporates the subject of wine or features wine as a storytelling element. (The veteran connoisseur by now had amassed a number of distinctions including the Compagnon de Bordeaux, Matres-Conseils en Vin de France and the Commadeur d’honneur. His collection of fine French wines at one point numbered in the thousands; now, he says about a thousand bottles remain.) DiTC is another Stewart-Juber collaboration, with the latter producing and playing acoustic and electric guitars, and its overall effect leaves a lingering feeling of satisfaction reminiscent of the aftereffects of indulging in the grape. Songs like the delicate “Toutes les Etoiles” (“All the Stars,” which features Peter White on accordion); “The Night the Band Got the Wine,” whose moral, I suspect, is “everything in moderation, now”; the moving “Under a Wine-Stained Moon”; and a surprise cover of Bert Jansch’s own “Soho” make the disc most intoxicating – and, oh, the bouquet.

On DiTC‘s liner notes, wine merchant and longtime friend Dennis Overstreet gave an excellent answer to the question, “What makes Al Stewart and his music so compelling?”

Al is an outstanding composer and performer and an equally modest individual. He calls himself ‘just a folk singer’ but really his domain extends over a wide range of the pop rock spectrum. We’ve built a lasting friendship around our mutual appreciation of these precious liquids.

As Cole Porter was quoted, “a song is not a song without a lyric”.

Music, like wine, is not only entertaining, but it also has a story to tell. … Unlike many contemporary artists, the songs of Al Stewart don’t feel or sound like they come with an expiration date. Al’s works exist outside of any time frame. Let the listener be entwined around Stewart’s words and emotions, expressing his love for the wine and music.

Tracks:

  1. Waiting for Margaux
  2. Tasting History (Laurence Juber co-wrote)
  3. Down in the Cellars
  4. Turning it into Water
  5. Soho
  6. The Night that the Band got the Wine
  7. Millie Brown
  8. Under a Wine-Stained Moon
  9. Franklin’s Table
  10. House of Clocks
  11. Sergio
  12. Toutes les Etoiles
  13. The Shiraz Shuffle (Laurence Juber co-wrote)



A Beach Full of Shells (Appleseed/US, EMI/UK, late 2005) – Another half-decade goes by, another small record company deal has been signed, and another Al Stewart release is born. I reviewed the album for Blogcritics shortly after its release:

…[T]he talents of the now-60-year-old Stewart only grow richer and more potent over time. [ABFOS] features 13 songs that take listeners through periods of time ranging from World War I to the late ’60s to the present day. … Through his musical tales, he points out that our fears, loves, and insecurities don’t differ much from those of people who walked this earth generations ago — in the land of dream, sense memory, and instinct, our past, present, and future all roll into our here and now.

… Songs such as the intriguingly mideastern “Rain Barrel,” the epic and dream-laden “Somewhere in England 1915,” “Mr. Lear” (which pays homage to English poet Edward Lear), and the memorable “Katherine of Oregon” show Stewart’s lyrical skills and fertile imagination, already renowned, are at least as strong as ever. And with producer Laurence Juber, a longtime Stewart collaborator and Grammy-winning guitarist … he has created sonic portraits that reinforce and color the stories told.

Also recommended: the dark and pensive “Out in the Snow”; “Royal Courtship,” a song language mavens will love, the early-rock memoir “Class of ’58” and the hummable “Mona Lisa Talking.”

Tracks:

  1. The Immelman Turn
  2. Mr. Lear
  3. Royal Courtship
  4. Rain Barrel
  5. Somewhere In England 1915
  6. Katherine Of Oregon
  7. Mona Lisa Talking
  8. Class of ’58
  9. Out In The Snow
  10. My Egyptian CouchGina In The King’s Road
  11. Beacon Street
  12. Anniversary



As for Al Stewart’s musical future? His fan base continues to grow. Soon he will headline a major date at London’s Royal Albert Hall. And despite his recording reticence, he tells me his creative juices are still churning, his mind still traveling to places near and far and times recent and long ago. Which means that with any luck, there will be new stories to hear (perhaps in, say, five years, if the present schedule holds). And of course there is a huge catalog of classic music to take you on magical journeys. Take my advice and avail yourself of it – check out his old and new recordings and catch him live when he hits your area. You won’t be sorry.

More info on Stewart’s music and concert appearances can be found at his official site and at NevilleJudd.com.

Sources: The Al Stewart Mailing List Discography, AlStewart.com, Al Stewart Now, Songfacts, Billboard.com, 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.

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About NR Davis

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    R&A is not at the top of the list of greatest Al Stewart recordings

    The Hell it’s not! It’s at the VERY top of my list.

    Incidentally, “The Gypsy and the Rose” is also UK only. I have the original US pressing or R&A and it ends with “The Candidate.”

    It’s awfully hard to get past the synthesizers in LoDC. The songs really are as good as you say but the synths do date the album horribly.

  • http://gratefuldread.net NR Davis

    I’m with you on the LDOTC synths, Mr. West. Oh, yes. And thank for the head’s up on “Gypsy and the Rose” – I thought I’d included that it was UK only, but I’ll repair that. As for R&A, I’m glad it’s your favorite. It isn’t mine, and of course the piece is labeled Opinion, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it. That would be categorically false.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com Michael J. West

    Of course you’re right, Ms. Davis, that the piece is labeled Opinion. But acknowledging that at the outset would have made it much harder to argue passionately and heatedly, which is the fun part of arguing isn’t it?

    While I’m here again, I might as well add that in so many ways it seems like Between the Wars was the album that Al had been wanting to make forever–most of his historical interest is in that period and the guitar parts for him and Juber both are an excellent showcase. In your encounters with him, Ms. Davis, did you ever ask him if he had a particular favorite among his releases?

  • http://absent-mind.blogspot.com/ Jet in Columbus

    As sad as it is to say this, I think two factors drove me away from Al.

    Being a HUGE fan of Alan Parsons, when he wandered off to work on his other projects, Al’s sound did indeed change, and it hurt, because I consider the Year of the cat, and Time Passages to be two of my all time favorite albums.

    Another thing that kept me out of touch was that as Disco and Rap/hip-hop started taking over in that era, he got less airplay.

    I thoroughly enjoyed both parts of this article, and you have my sincere compliments.

    Jet

  • http://gratefuldread.net NR Davis

    Mr. West: Couldn’t say. I don’t find arguing or debate at all enjoyable.

    You make a great observation about BTW, which many consider one of his masterpieces. Most of the time I’ve spent with Al has involved subjects other than him, but I do know that his favorite changes fairly regularly (and often it is whatever was released most recently). He has told me that “Optical Illusion” is one of his favorite compositions.

    Mr. Jet: That is perfectly understandable, but do recall that Al was making music before his association with Parsons. Each man has his own muse to follow: Parsons followed his, before, during and after Al [the Project started in 1976]; it only makes sense that Al would do the same. Do not feel badly about it, though; your reasoning made sense and worked for you, which is what counts.

    I thank you very much indeed for your kind words and hope you’ll try some of his non-Parsons stuff with an open mind. I believe you’ll find it a worthwhile experience – and trust me, Alan Parsons will be perfectly OK with you listening to his stuff and enjoying other stuff as well. :)

  • Rob Macdonald

    Natalie, I’ve just read Pt1 and Pt2 after attending Al’s astonishing live performance at The Dome in Brighton (as it was November and he was in Brighton, he re-learnt the words to to ‘Not the One’ which as always been a favourite of mine). Thank you so much for this. I was considering extending the commentary on Al’s albums on Wikipedia, but your words are so much better than any I would write, perhaps you might rise to the task?

  • Jack Schwab

    I interviewed Al regarding his association with Tori Amos. It was done for the Caldwells’ “Really Deep Thoughts” Tori ‘zine. They had the right to do with it whatever they wanted. I admit to over-reacting and acting immaturely at the time of publishing. That being said, Al himself was disappointed with the end result, as both him and Steve Chapman had approved my version. If any of you reading this are curious after all this time, it can be arranged to send you a hard copy. It’s too long to transcribe again and save to a USB to send as an attachment.