Home / Featured Artist: Interview with Al Stewart, Sept. 2005 (Part Two)

Featured Artist: Interview with Al Stewart, Sept. 2005 (Part Two)

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Here is the second half of my Fall 2005 interview with acclaimed singer-songwriter Al Stewart — yeah, yeah, the “Year of the Cat” guy, get over it. In this installment, we continue discussing his captivating new release, A Beach Full of Shells on Appleseed Records. As promised, the gifted musician and conversationalist recalls English rock’s good old days (providing us with some fascinating history lessons), contemplates man’s love for felines, and shows he’s ready for some football.

ND: The song from A Beach Full of Shells that I hear most people talking about is “Class of ’58.”

AS: There’s a long version of that.

ND: Yes, I finally heard the long version two days ago, and Al, it was such great fun.

AS: I wrote it as a 13-minute epic about the early days of English rock and roll. The story behind that is — well, it’s interesting to me — back in the beginning, there were session musicians backing cabaret singers masquerading as rock and roll stars. That’s exactly how, in England, it began. In America, it was a long, slow evolution. You had R&B and the country thing, western swing, and these things gradually evolved into different forms that eventually merged into rock and roll. But this took an awfully long time — you can trace rock and roll back into the 1930s and ’40s, “Rocket 88”, and what everybody talks about and whatever. In England, that tradition was completely absent. We had, I don’t know, “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” and all these terrible 1950s Doris Day songs and whatever, Patti Page…

And then one day, we woke up and there was Elvis Presley. And then a lot of English lads thought they were going to copy this — notably, Cliff Richard. The early people who tried to do rock and roll all came from this sort of cabaret background, and they didn’t understand it. Worse still, all the English musicians had never played it. They had no idea; they mostly were dance-band guys playing jazz guitars and all of a sudden, they had to play this stuff they detested. These musicians hated rock and roll — even more than the Parents Music Resource Council or something. (They laugh.) “I’m not playing that!” “Here’s five pounds.” “Well, all right, I’ll play it, but I won’t like it.”

This, compared with guys like Eddie Cochran in the States who played because they loved it. They were real rock and rollers. The people who were trying to do it in England were B-movie stars and cabaret singers. And then in 1958, all that changed with one guitar riff. It wasn’t the song that matter, it was the intro: The record was “Move It” by Cliff Richard. It was a hit single, and the song was actually pretty good; it was written by Sammy Samwell. It’s a pretty good early rock and roll song, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the 10-second intro, where the guitar actually sounded like a rock and roll instrument. Up to that point, they’d all sounded like jazz players. This was twangy and it was echo-ey and it was absolutely…It erased the blackboard. It was like someone had taken a cloth and erased everything on a blackboard to start all over again.

Within six years, and this is what I find incredible, from the release of “Move It,” England conquered the world with the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Animals, the Zombies, bang. It all came from different sources, but in my simplification of it, I think everybody who became a star between 1958 and 1964 probably heard that riff from “Move It” and probably learned it and probably played it. So what I’m doing in “Class of ’58” is examining the impact of that riff (which actually opens the long version) and the life of one person who was inspired by that particular riff.

Now, there are references in the song that I love — because they’re really inside references that no one will get. I think you’ll like this one, Natalie: The guy in the song signs to Oriole. Oriole? Baltimore Orioles?

ND: That hit me when I heard the long version. Nice of you to recall.

AS: It occurred to me when we were setting up the interview. I thought of you and of this song and I thought you would find the reference amusing. Anyway, in England, there were two big record companies, EMI and Decca, and EMI won the Battle of the Bands because they signed the Beatles while Decca got the Rolling Stones. EMI got most of the others — [among them] Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas. [For the record, Stewart’s first label was Decca; he was signed in 1966.] Then there was, like, a secondary level, which were Pie and Philips. Pie signed the Kinks and Philips signed Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders [“Groovy Kind of Love,” “It Was Easier to Hurt Her”].

ND: Oh, my god…Fontana fan…I must be old…

AS: (laughs) Right at the very, very bottom of the record-label heap was Oriole Records, which I love, because they had no money and no publicity department and they never made hits. They signed all the people who were left. I cannot put it more simply than to say that Oriole Records signed Rory Storm and the Hurricanes after Ringo left. (Resounding laughter.)

ND: (through tears) Oh. Well.

AS: That was the uniqueness of Oriole. I loved them, because I always love underdogs. My local band in Bournemouth [an English resort town where Stewart spent his teen years], a duo considered to be the English Everly Brothers signed to Oriole and I had all their records. I went out of my way to buy Oriole singles because, though they were never hits, they were interesting. It was a label that just couldn’t win. They only had one Top 10 single, which was “Orange Blossom Special” by the Spotnicks, but I’m digressing.

It’s just one line in the song [the extended 13-minute version, not the CD edit]: “The song came out on Oriole / And it did not make the charts…” Now, to a lot of people, that’s a meaningless line, but to me, that’s almost the soul of the whole song: If your song comes out on Oriole, it’s probably not going to be a hit. The long version is filled with these references, which a lot of American people probably wouldn’t get — a lot of English people wouldn’t get them. But for me, the song is dense with references of the time period and I loved it. I gave it to EMI [Stewart’s present English label] and they hated it. They said, “This is not what we like. We want you to write ‘Roads to Moscow’ and ‘Trains.’ What is all this rock and roll shit? And I said, “Well, I love early rock and roll; it’s what I grew up on. It’s a historical song.” And they said, “It’s not a historical song; it’s dreadful. Go away and don’t do it again.”

ND: Typical.

AS: They basically made me truncate it into the four-minute version for the album. But I like the long one.

ND: I do, too. And from what I hear, a lot of people do. We’re digging through and working to figure out the references we don’t know. [The extended single — a decided rarity — may be available through NevilleJudd.com.]

AS: There’s Andrew Loog Oldham, who of course did some great books, and Cathy McGowan, who was the host of [Brit TV pop show] Ready Steady Go!. And my favorite line — it’s not even a line in the song; it’s from a spoken part — is: “I may not know much / But I do know I’m partial / To an E-major chord / Through a stack of Marshalls.” The first thing any guitar player from the period did with a stack of Marshalls amplifiers was to play E-major with the speaker on 10 or 11, if it’s Spinal Tap. (Laughter.) So many guitar players going, “CRA-A-ANG.” In fact, if you go to any guitar shop, you will see kids who are 19-years old, or even 15-years old, playing E-major chords through stacks of Marshalls. It never stops.

ND: God, I taught myself to play guitar, started right before I turned 40. First thing when I got my electric…E-Major through a wall of speakers, probably the Marshalls they have hooked up at Bill’s Music, here in Baltimore. So normal…you nailed that feeling.

AS: For my money, I thought I captured it perfectly. EMI thought otherwise; I just don’t think they got it. But that’s fine, because now we have the short version, which works on its own, on the record, and the long version has become a collector’s item. Only about 1,000 printed.

ND: I’m telling you, people are talking about it. And down the road, they’ll trade them over the Internet, hawk them on eBay, you never know. Anyway, here’s a question, Al: Do you actually have an Egyptian couch?

AS: No, I do not have an Egyptian couch, but I can imagine one.

ND: In fact, you did imagine one for “My Egyptian Couch.”

AS: Yeah, in that one, I’m looking at photographs of my grandparents, imagining their lives. In the song, they’re looking back at me and trying to fathom the time that I live in. It’s almost like a movie, that song.

ND: Interesting times.

AS: Yeah, that’s a Chinese proverb which I’m sure you know, but there are many people in the world who probably don’t.

ND: It’s actually a curse.

AS: Yeah: “May you live in interesting times.” And they don’t mean what you think they mean.

ND: Indeed, in fact, I wouldn’t want to say aloud what they’re really wishing. (Much laughter.) What’s your favorite song on the album?

AS: There are two I like particularly. There’s “Somewhere in England, 1915″…

ND: Yeah…the epic. Just lovely.

AS: I think that one just nails it. I read a biography of Rupert Brooke and it was through this that I realized that when you start reading about the period prior to World War I in England, all the characters connect because they all kept voluminous diaries and wrote lengthy letters to each other every day; so all this correspondence exists and they all mention each other. It’s one of the little literary worlds of that period where everyone knew each other.

So when I started reading the book on Rupert Brooke, I looked at the pictures and saw Virginia Woolf in there and Lytton Strachey and wow, you know. But the new information that I didn’t know was that Violet Asquith had a crush on Rupert Brooke. It got me to thinking: She was probably the last civilian to see him alive, because she was standing on the beach when his troopship sailed off for the Dardanelles campaign, which he didn’t get to because he died [from blood poisoning on his way to battle]. So, I thought, what if Violet Asquith had married Rupert Brooke? As it happens, she married a fellow called Bonham-Carter, and her granddaughter is now a successful actress. Helena Bonham-Carter would be a different person if her grandfather had been Rupert Brooke. You get started on these paths and it can lead to madness (laughs), but it’s still an interesting conjecture.

So, I thought, there’s Violet Asquith standing on the beach waving goodbye to Rupert Brooke. Whatever happens, their lives are never going to be the same, in the way that World War I changed the world. In my way of thinking, World War I is the dividing line between the old world and the new, modern one we’re still living in. In the way it changed the world, it also changed the lives of these two people. Brooke hadn’t got long to live, even though he didn’t know it. Violet Asquith was destined to live for a very, very long time, to become best friends with Winston Churchill and then, eventually, a leading figure in the Liberal Party. And, as I said, her granddaughter grows up to be an actress. Rupert Brooke becomes the first rock and roll star.

ND: (Cracks up.)

Rupert Brooke AS: Well, he wasn’t a very good poet. He wrote one poem that I really like and two more than I did quite like, and then a load of terrible stuff that is very dated. But he looked absolutely great. He looked like a rock star, a godlike figure — he looked exactly like what a poet is supposed to look like.

ND: He was beautiful, yes.

AS: Rupert Brooke sets this mold into which everybody comes, from Nick Drake to Jim Morrison.

ND: Golden gods.

AS: Brooke was the first of the James Deans; the list goes on and on and on. So I tend to look at him as the first rock and roll star. “Somewhere in England, 1915” is an interesting lead-in to “Class of ’58.” You’re dealing in a way with the same sort of thing, but from a radically different angle.

ND: Substance falling second to image…

AS: There you go. The other song I really like, which no one else seems to like, is “Out in the Snow.”

ND: I admit, it took me a bit to warm up to that one, but over time, “Out in the Snow” — its moodiness, the strings of images — well, it’s become endlessly intriguing to me. I wanted to ask you: What were you thinking of when you wrote it?

AS: Its language. Musically, it’s Beatle-y. But I loved this line that came to me: “The exhalation of an Arctic god…” It was like, whoa…

ND: It’s beautiful and speaks to so many things, like the coming of winter. And so visual — you can actually see that picture so clearly.

AS: Yes! It’s exactly how I’ve always thought of winter. That one did it for me. It’s one of those songs — “Optical Illusion” [from 1980’s 24 PCarrots] is another one…

ND: You probably don’t remember, but that is my hands-down favorite Al Stewart song.

AS: It’s one of my favorites, too. Well, it makes sense that “Out in the Snow” grabbed you over time. “Optical Illusion” is very similar.

ND: And that one took time to seize my being, too. They both are dark pieces that capture the human condition and its loneliness and frailty.

AS: They’re songs I like. They’re not flashy and showy, and they’re not necessarily going to be the ones that millions of people like, but I like them, and I am pleased when others appreciate them.

ND: What I’ve been telling people is to give it time.

AS: Yes.

ND: I had to listen to it a few times because I knew something was there…

AS: (giggling) But you didn’t know what it was…

ND: Right. I just had to let it settle. Connect. And once it did, I just went wow. But that one line, when I heard it the first time, I could actually see the Arctic god’s breath hanging in the frozen air. Chilling, in more ways than one.

AS: That’s great. Me, too. (laughs) So, those are my two favorites, but I have to say there isn’t anything on the album I don’t like, which makes it somewhat unique, because usually when I put a record out, there are moments where I go, “What was I thinking?”

ND: That’s fairly normal. Are you liking the recording process any better?

AS: Of the three albums I’ve done with Laurence [Juber, guitarist formerly with Paul McCartney and Wings, longtime Stewart collaborator, produced Stewart’s Between the Wars (1995), Down in the Cellar (2000) and the newest release, A Beach Full of Shells], he did the best job on this one. When you consider that my records are made on a bit of a shoestring…

ND: You can’t tell from listening to this.

AS: Yeah, this record sounds like someone spent some money on it, you know what I mean? It sounds like a proper record. That’s largely Laurence’s doing.

ND: Strong praise from someone who’s been produced by Alan Parsons, and yeah, Laurence deserves it. A Beach Full of Shells… the sound is just masterful.

AS: He’s really getting the hang of it. I keep telling Laurence that he ought to produce more records — he spends most of his time doing sessions and music for television shows and his own music. He’s really busy. But I would think anyone listening to this record who knows the budget that was spent for it would be strongly advised to race to Laurence Juber’s door and demand that he produce them. But as we said earlier, we don’t live in that kind of world.

ND: I try to be hopeful on that front. It’s not always easy. But then… my son is nine now and I’m amazed at the music he listens to in defiance of his friends.

AS: Yes!

ND: That leads me to believe that there is some hope out there. Was there some sort of theme for the album beyond whatever is floating around in Al Stewart’s mind?

AS: Originally, “Class of ’58” was one of the first things I wrote, and I was thinking in terms of ’60s pop, which I grew up on. I mean, I’d done the ’30s and the ’40s on Between the Wars and then I did the wine record [all of Down in the Cellar‘s songs had to do with wine — the idea came about because Stewart is an award-winning wine connoisseur]. So, I said ’50s-’60s pop, because that’s something I know a great deal about. But I don’t record that kind of thing — I record singer-songwriter-y kinds of things. But, you know, there’s a whole side to me… If I put an electric guitar around my neck, I can play all these rock and roll things. [Author note: Yes. He can. Brilliantly.] It’s just that I don’t when I’m on stage. So I was thinking, let’s do that. Then I wrote “Mona Lisa Talking” and “Gina and the Kings Road,” which is very ’50s-’60s pop, and then “Class of ’58,” so I was headed that way. EMI listened to “Class of ’58” and hated it, and that brought me to a quick stop. “Oh, well maybe they’re right.” So I showed them “Katherine of Oregon” and “Royal Courtship,” which are guitar-based, and they liked them. And then I thought I’d better write some acoustic stuff.

So, what you’re left with for A Beach Full of Shells is a little schizophrenic, in the sense that it began as a ’60s pop record and then took a detour into singer-songwriter acoustic guitar stuff, “My Egyptian Couch” being another example. But for whatever reason, when you play the whole thing, it seems to hang together. To me, because it musically harks back to 30-40 years ago, this is the record that I would have made between Past, Present and Future (1974) and Modern Times (1975). It has elements of both: “Somewhere in England, 1915” and maybe “Egyptian Couch could have easily been on Past Present and Future, whereas Modern Times had more uptempo rock things and there are tracks on this record that could have very easily been on that. [Just for grins, play 1975’s “Apple Cider Reconstitution” and follow it with “Class of ’58.” You’ll see.] It’s almost like a lost record that should have come out in that time period. Which is fine by me, because it ends up sounding like a fairly classic Al Stewart record.

ND: And yet it sounds so perfect for now.

AS: That’s for others to judge, I don’t know. But that’s the origin of it, anyway.

ND: Well, it’s a marvelous disc for past, present, and future. Oh — I can’t forget to mention “Mr. Lear.” I was so in love with Edward Lear

AS: A lot of people in America don’t know him, but he was a big deal in England. People know “The Owl and the Pussycat”…

ND: I grew up reading his nonsense poetry, all his stuff. Lewis Carroll, too.

AS: Well, you’re an exception, Natalie Davis, and exceptional…

ND: I don’t know about that.

AS: Trust me. If you walk out the door, go through 100 people and find one person who knows Edward Lear the 19th-century nonsense poet, you’re lucky.

ND: True. Most probably would think of the guy who put Archie Bunker on TV.

AS: (Laughing) Absolutely right. I grew up reading Lear too, though I think Lewis Carroll was actually a much better nonsense poet, but Edward Lear was there first. I don’t think he had a very strange life, but the only person — well, the only creature — he was close to or had a great love for was his cat. When his cat died, he died. Just one of those odd things.

ND: He died of a broken heart.

AS: For his cat, who actually appears in a caricature on the cover of the album.

ND: Yes, I saw that and nearly wept. I love the way he draws. I actually have some framed reproductions of his engravings. They just bring back so much from the life of a little dorky child.

AS: Some of the lines in “Mr. Lear” are amazingly understated, but they nail it for me. “The world…” I don’t have it in front of me.

ND: (reciting from memory) “The world is a lot more mysterious than we knew…”

AS: Yes! That’s a wonderful line, to my way of thinking. “Mr. Lear” has some of my favorite lines on the album. They’re not showy or flashy, but of course, the world is more mysterious than any of us knows, and it’s the sort of line that Edward Lear would have written. I was trying to channel his writing style.

ND: I think you got it, because it rings very, very true.

AS: What is it? “Unusual things…”

ND: “Unusual things are prone to wander.”

AS: Yes — prone! (Both crack up yet again.)

ND: Another word that does not appear in popular songs. And it’s tough to wander while prone.

AS: And, of course, Edward Lear would have said, “Unusual things are prone to wander.” I can see him writing that line. Again, it’s not a line that jumps at people, but it should, and there are a lot of lines like that, but they’re written in a very understated English way.

ND: Well Al, the whole album is a delight. I’m so blessed to have had had the opportunity to hear and review it, and I’m really, really happy to have had the chance to talk with you about it.

AS: I am very pleased that you like it. We ought to come to Baltimore and play it live.

ND: That would be marvelous. And now that you’re touring all over creation, selling out larger and larger venues, the word is out. There are scads of people who would love to see you do the new songs live.

AS: Just make sure you come see me. You haven’t gotten to the west coast yet.

ND: No, where was the last place we saw each other?

AS: Was it the Point near Philadelphia?

ND: That’s right, the Point.

AS: You know, I also distinctly remember being pleased with myself when I had picked the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl.

ND: I remember! In 2000. You wrote me a letter and you teased me about the Ravens and predicted they would end up on top, and you were right. So, I have to ask you — because I know the Ravens will be completely in the toilet for 2005-06 [and they were] — any predictions from my favorite Scottish pigskin prognosticator?

AS: I can’t do it again. It was just one of those miracles. I actually predicted they’d go 12-4, which they did.

ND: Indeed they did. It was an amazing year.

AS: My one moment of sporting glory, where I was actually right about something.

ND: Well, who do you think will do well?

AS: We’re already two games into the season, so you’re going to have to trust me on this, but my pick to surprise everybody was going to be the Cincinnati Bengals. They’re 2-0 now, but they haven’t played any tough teams yet. But they’re my underdog pick. Bear in mind that the Cincinnati Bengals have not had a winning season in the last 14. This pick is really out there. But they’ve already surprised a couple of teams and we will see what happens. I pick the Bengals — not to win the Super Bowl, but to do much better this year [ultimately, Cincy ended up at 11-5].

ND: That’s not putting yourself out there very much, but okay. I’ll take it.

AS: If you’re going to nail me down to a Super Bowl pick, I’d have to go with the Indianapolis Colts. [He was close.]

ND: Not my favorite team, but you’re probably right. I like the Bengals better.

AS: The last two seasons they went 8-8 and before that they were much more dismal.

ND: Yeah, but just like you like Oriole Records, I have always loved underdog sports teams.

AS: If the Bengals were a rock and roll act, they’d sign to Oriole. (More raucous laughter.) No doubt in my mind. Perhaps this is the year when Oriole will get its once-in-a-blue-moon hit. Perhaps this will be the Bengals’ Red Sox year. Oh, don’t get me started… if the Orioles [Baltimore’s beleaguered pro baseball team] were signed to a record deal, they’d be signed to Oriole…

ND: Al, it’s so great to talk with you. How’s the family?

AS: They’re doing fine. And yours?

ND:: Splendid, thanks for asking. I know you’re busy and we’ve been gabbing for a long time, so I’ll give long-distance a break. As usual, this was fun — you always keep me plenty entertained.

AS: It was lovely talking with you too, and hopefully I’ll see you very, very soon. Take care.

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

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