Listen To The Band 4: Cat Stevens

In case you’re wondering about the ‘band’ bit in the title, I did say when I began this series that I would occasionally be featuring solo artists as well as bands, but somehow ‘Listen to the Singer-Songwriter’ didn’t quite have the right ring to it. It has been just over a month since the last of this occasional series appeared – the one featuring The Eagles and their notoriously prohibitive record company – but I’ve now recovered from all of the amendments I had to make to find videos that I was allowed to use. Well, I thought I had, but I’ve just checked and found that two more have been taken down, so more adjustments will be made after I finish this piece. In coming back for another go I’m keeping everything crossed that my latest subject doesn’t have an unpleasant record company!

Today I’m featuring Cat Stevens, whose music has been an important part of my life for more than fifty years. Cat was born as Steven Demetre Georgiou in July 1948, but changed to his stage name as he thought his real name might be difficult for people to remember when they were in record shops. He chose ‘Cat’ as a girlfriend said he had the eyes of a cat, and ‘Britons liked animals,’ and kept his first name as it was also easier to pronounce. He started recording his songs in 1966, and his debut album, Matthew And Son, was released in March 1967, reaching #7 in the UK albums chart, and #173 in the US. His first single was I Love My Dog, released in 1966, peaking at #28 in the UK and #118 in the US. The title track from the album was his second single, and gave him a big hit in the UK, where it got to #2, though it only made #115 in the US. For those who know his main catalogue, the style of this one may come as a surprise:

He was 18 at the time of that – he really does look so young! His second album, New Masters, was released in December 1967, but failed to have an impact on the charts anywhere. But it did give us this song:

I chose that version rather than his original recording, as he gives it his heart and soul, which I don’t think can really be said of any of the cover versions which have hit the charts. He sold the song for £30 to P.P. Arnold, who did the best cover of it that I know, and took it to #18 in the UK charts in 1967. You may also know the covers by Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow, but I’m not tempted to play them – after all, as the man in the video says, Rod didn’t write it!

After the failure of his second album, Cat became disillusioned with those around him, and engaged in a kind of sabotage act to get out from underneath his record contract: he wanted to find someone more sympathetic to the folk-rock style he was writing in, rather than overblown orchestral arrangements. He was then stricken with tuberculosis, and was near to death on being admitted to hospital, where he spent several months and, in total, a year of convalescence. From Wikipedia:

During this time Stevens began to question aspects of his life and spirituality. He later said, “to go from the show business environment and find you are in hospital, getting injections day in and day out, and people around you are dying, it certainly changes your perspective. I got down to thinking about myself. It seemed almost as if I had my eyes shut.” He took up meditation, yoga, and metaphysics; read about other religions; and became a vegetarian. As a result of his serious illness and long convalescence and as a part of his spiritual awakening and questioning, he wrote as many as 40 songs, many of which would appear on his albums in years to come.

After his enforced absence, he managed to escape his record company and found a much more sympathetic home at Island Records, for whom he signed in early 1970. He was assigned Paul Samwell-Smith, formerly the bass player with The Yardbirds, as his producer, and PS-S introduced him to Alun Davies, to be his guitar and vocal accompanist. Thus began a working partnership and friendship which has lasted to this day. The songs he had been writing started being released fairly soon, with two albums in 1970 and another in 1971. The first of these was Mona Bone Jakon, which was released in April 1970, charting at #63 in the UK and #64 in the US. The title, by the way, is a nickname he made up for his wedding tackle – I bet you didn’t know that before! This was the lead single from the album:

I still think that is a beautifully touching ode to his then girlfriend, Patti D’Arbanville, an American actress and model, who worked on several projects with Andy Warhol. The single reached #8 in the UK, but didn’t chart in the US.

The second 1970 album was Tea For The Tillerman, released in November of that year. This was his real breakthrough album: it got to #20 in the UK but was a big US hit, reaching #8. It is a long-time favourite of mine, so I’m going to give you three tracks from it. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary last year, Cat re-recorded the songs and released the album as Tea For The Tillerman 2. Several videos were made for this, and this is one of my favourites:

That is simply lovely. The song’s message is even more powerful now than it was fifty years ago, and the video is terrific. This is one that has never been released as a single, so may not be familiar to you, but I think it deserves to be heard! I saw him play live in 2009, as part of a series of concerts to mark the 50th anniversary of Island Records. He began with a track from his newly released album, and then played this: you could have heard a pin drop, apart from the audience singing quietly along with him. We were all word perfect, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house!

This next one is, I think, one of his best:

That wasn’t released as a single here, as the cover version by Jimmy Cliff – which is excellent – had been a big hit, but it was a #11 in the US and #14 in Canada.

I promised you three tracks from this album, and this is the third. Again, I’m giving you the reworked version from last year, with its new video:

I think that is stunningly good. There have been a number of cover versions of the song over the years, most of them absolutely dire (remember Groaning Ronan?), but it has taken the man himself to come up with the perfect cover of his own song. The change in his voice over the intervening fifty years is quite subtle, but is sufficiently pronounced to add a whole new depth to the two voice parts in the song. I absolutely love this one.

Cat’s next album was released in October 1971: Teaser And The Firecat. The cover for this depicted a lovely painting of the title characters – a little boy and his cat – who were also in a book he wrote for children. This has recently been republished, and it sounds lovely. After he left the music industry in 1978 – following his conversion to Islam – he devoted himself to charitable work, providing education for children. The organisation I used to work for did some projects with the school he ran – sadly, in my visits there I never got to see the library and find a copy of it. I’m sure he won’t remember meeting me there once, either – a brief ‘hello’ and handshake won’t have been enough to place me indelibly in his mind! The album was his most successful at that point, reaching #2 in both the US and the UK, and #1 in Australia. The single from it that most will remember is Morning Has Broken, his version of a 1931 hymn written by Eleanor Farjeon, which reached #9 in the UK and #6 in the US, but I always preferred this one, which was the first to be taken as a single release, and this charming animation from three years ago introduces you to Teaser and his Firecat:

That reached #22 in the UK and #30 in the US. Frankly, I think he was robbed!

Cat released an album a year for the next four years, missed a year, then one each in 1977 and 1978. Commercially, he enjoyed huge success. Catch Bull At Four, released in 1972 (three days before I went to university, so I just had time to buy it and take it with me) also got to #2 in the UK but gave him his first (and only) #1 in the US. 1973’s Foreigner was #3 in both the US and the UK, and then came Buddha And The Chocolate Box in 1974, from which this comes:

Oh Very Young reached #10 in the US but didn’t chart in the UK. The album, however, fared much better, peaking at #3 in the UK and #2 in the US. He subsequently released three further albums – Numbers, Izitso and Back To Earth – which were moderately successful in chart terms in comparison with his heyday. He continued to do better in the US than the UK, though.

There followed a long period when he was out of the public eye in musical terms, but he continued his interest, using music as part of his religious involvements. The Wikipedia article on him, from which I have drawn for this piece, gives much more detail on this if you’d like to follow it up. He returned to popular music again, under the name Yusuf, in 2006 with the release of his album An Other Cup, which reached #20 in the UK and #52 in the US. He followed that in 2009 with Roadsinger, which was released a few weeks before I saw him play live, and reached #10 in the UK and #41 in the US. This is the title track from that album:

He’s still got it, hasn’t he. That voice, and those intelligent, caring lyrics, which always make us think. He has since released three further albums, all of which have enjoyed some chart success. Last year’s reworking of Tea For The Tillerman 2 actually peaked at #4 in the UK, which is better than the 1970 original version! That was the album that first really drew me in to his music – I caught up with Mona Bone Jakon on the back of buying it. Tea For The Tillerman closes with its brief title track, and last year’s version did too. It seems a suitable way to leave this post:

I hope you’ve enjoyed allowing me to indulge my love of Cat Stevens’ music, and that you have found something here that you like. I’ve shared more songs than I intended, but leaving any of these out just wouldn’t have felt right. I’ll see you again soon for another in-depth look at one of my musical favourites.