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You Should Have Listed To Al, An Interview With Al Stewart

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Well I did, actually I listened to the answers Al Stewart had to my questions. The title of the article actually comes from a track from his second album Love Chronicles which was released in 1969. Yes Al Stewart has been around for quite a while. Many people think of this performer as "The Year of the Cat" guy and are hard pressed to remember any other songs. Yes, ‘Year of the Cat’ was his biggest hit, but there is a whole lot more to this fine musician than this one Billboard hit.

Over his 40+ years of entertaining he has released 17 albums. That may not make him the most prolific artist, but quantity does not always equal quality. Al found himself in the awkward situation where many of his albums were out of print. For a constantly ‘On Tour’ musician this is not a position that is attractive. As he said, “It is hard to tell fans that I have no idea where you can get them”. The solution to the problem was supplied by Collectors Choice, who have released new digitally re-mastered versions of the 13 albums that were out of print.

Al Stewart is a very candid guy, and when I asked him about his favorite album he said “I like 8, I dislike 8, and there is one that I can’t make my mind up about”. This was hardly the response I was expecting. I did discover that his first four albums were included on the dislike list, and his first album Bedsitter Images got the most abuse, “Oh, it was special all right, none of us knew anything about making a record, the sound quality was awful, it was done on a 4 track. It has some horrible drumming, and the orchestra was out of tune. So yes, it was memorable, but not for the right reasons.”

Al Stewart left England in 1976 and as a fan that had seen him perform several times, I was disappointed. I thought his departure was yet another example of the Brain Talent Drain. The real story is much better, and I have to quote Al here:

"No, it was all quite accidental. We had just wrapped up a European tour that had been pretty successful, and we planned a 6 week 20 gig tour of North America to coincide with the release of Year of the Cat. When we started the tour "Year of the Cat" was gradually inching it’s way up the Billboard charts at an agonizingly slow pace. We could not go home while it was still climbing the charts, so we stayed and played, it ended up taking 6 months for "Year of the Cat" to peak, so instead of 20 gigs as we had planned it was over 100.

The hotel bills were mounting and I actually ended up renting a small apartment. At the end of the six months I thought about my situation, and it was not a difficult decision. I could stay in sunny Southern California, with the great weather and all the pretty girls, and here I was a singer with a big hit on my hands. Or I could go back to rainy, dreary London, which incidentally was the one city that "Year of the Cat" was not a success in. No one cared less about it. It was also 1977, and as I recall England was largely on strike around then."

Of course I could not resist asking Al the question that he has been asked about 10 million times. Al Stewart was (and I stick by my guns on this one) the first performer to use the ‘F’ word on a mainstream recording. Al argues this point.

"No, you are wrong! I was not the first, I have been asked this question several times. I was not the first, however you can’t actually hear the word on the first, they mixed it right down to be inaudible. It was Bob Dylan on Rainy Day Women #12 & 35."

Now, I cannot argue that fact, so I decided I would try a slightly different approach. I asked him how much heat he took over the use of the ‘F’ word. Again I was surprised by his answer.

"Actually the record label didn’t seem to have any problem with "Love Chronicles", but it certainly made the press. It was front page news in the Sunday People, with a headline that read ‘Banned From The BBC’, although even without the F word the Beeb would never have played an 18 minute song on their stations. There was some talk about releasing the album stateside, now that was a different deal, they wanted the word replaced. In the end though I don’t think the album was released."

Many musicians felt their careers stalled in the mid 70’s with advent of Punk, losing their younger audience to the raunchy style. I asked Al if he had been affected. It turns out that Punk was not Al’s problem as he left England just as the Sex Pistols were getting started. However, he did encounter a problem in America. His arrival in the US coincided with a major shift in the mindset of the radio stations. Almost overnight seemingly en mass they shifted their play lists from singer/songwriter to ‘power pop’. As Al put it “it wasn’t the Sex Pistols that got me, it was Loverboy”. But, he did point out that most musicians in the folk world are not dependent on air play, they rely much more on concerts and word of mouth for album sales.

As far as any new album is concerned he does have some material ‘up his sleeve’ when the opportunity arises, actually I believe his exact words were “if and when someone makes me the right offer”.

I was greatly by impressed by Al Stewart, I had always admired him, he is a charismatic performer. And that charisma shows through in person.

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