Al Stewart: Year Of The Cat Page 2

At times his soul-baring could tip over into self-indulgence and Stewart feels that this happened on his 1969 album Love Chronicles, particularly the 18-minute title track, which was a very detailed existential survey of his love life at the time. The album featured musicians from Fairport Convention including lead guitarist Richard Thompson, and playing on the early recording sessions were Jimmy Page on guitar and John Paul Jones on bass. It was voted folk album of the year in Melody Maker.

By the time of Stewart's fourth album Orange, released in 1972, he was beginning to move away from this confessional style of songwriting and explore more historical subjects. Musically he followed some of the currents prevalent in progressive rock, with Rick Wakeman playing keyboards.


This theme was continued into 1973's Past, Present And Future, which was more of a band album with Wakeman joined by Francis Monkman on synthesiser. Stewart has said 'I think Past, Present And Future was the complete turning-point on everything I've done. What I was doing before was an apprenticeship'. The second side contains two of his most famous historical songs: 'Nostradamus' examines the cryptic writings of the 16th-century seer, while 'Road To Moscow' is about the German invasion of Russia in World War II. Stewart was an avid reader of history and reckoned that over 40 different books had fed into 'Road To Moscow' alone.

Stewart was making little headway in the States – the album only reached No 133 in the Billboard charts – so he discussed the issue with an American DJ. He was advised that US radio played anything with guitar solos, and so he should seek out a good producer and guitarist.


For the follow-up album, 1975's Modern Times, Stewart decided to approach Alan Parsons who had recently engineered Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon and drafted in guitarist Tim Renwick, who had played with The Sutherland Brothers & Quiver. Stewart also made a point of visiting as many radio stations as he could while on tour in the States. This album reached No 30, while the single 'Carol' was also a minor hit.

For 1977's Year Of The Cat, Stewart switched labels to RCA. His manager suggested he keep up the guitar solos and go for an even bigger sound with an orchestra. DJ Bob Harris has described the combination of finely crafted songs and supple, subtle ensemble playing as: 'One of the most complete recordings you could imagine'.Stewart kept Parsons and Renwick from Modern Times and moved from that album's more personal themes back to his history-based lyrics.

The song 'On The Border' references Basque separatists smuggling arms into Spain, and also the independence of Rhodesia and the decline of the British Empire, while 'Lord Grenville' follows the exploits of the Elizabethan sea captain. The title track seems to be a paean to a mysterious woman, but it also references both Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre in the classic 1942 film Casablanca.


Paws For Thought
The song had originally been about the comedian Tony Hancock and was called 'Foot Of The Stage'. Stewart's American record company complained that no-one in the US knew who Hancock was, so he wrote a spoof follow-up about Princess Anne and called it 'Horse Of The Year'. Needless to say, this wasn't received too well either.

Stewart then decided to name the song 'Year Of The Cat' and effectively wrote the song around the title, which had been inspired by his girlfriend's book on Vietnamese astrology. The song was actually co-written by keyboard player Peter Wood who had been playing the piano melody at every soundcheck. Stewart liked it and suggested that he fashion it into a song.

In the UK, while Year Of The Cat only charted at No 38, with the title track reaching No 31 in the singles chart, in the US the LP reached No 5 and the single charted at No 8. 'On The Border' reached No 43. Flushed with the success of both the album and the 'Year Of The Cat' single, Stewart then decamped to the US.

'I'd just moved to LA and I used to drive down Sunset Strip in my Karmann Ghia,' he recalls. 'The sun was shining and everything was great and "Year Of The Cat" came on the radio and I thought, "It can't get any better for the rest of my life". I pushed the button, and it went to the next station, and it was also playing "Year Of The Cat" and I thought "It just got better".'