I have already expressed my embarrassment over not liking Cat Stevens the first time I heard him back in January 1973.
By way of defence I can only add that my musical head must have been so very packed with ‘prog’, that a singer/songwriter warbling about simple things like love and peace must have sounded ‘dull’. Not for ever though, thankfully.
“Teaser and the Firecat” is my second-favourite Cat Stevens album. (Top spot is definitely reserved for “Tea for the Tillerman”)
“Teaser..” yielded no less than three chart singles. The worst of them is the anthemic and somewhat bleating “Morning has Broken“, Cat’s interpretation of an old Christian hymn. The other two are much better: “Moonshadow” is a beautifully uplifting acoustic number, whilst “Peace Train” remains, even to this day, as strong an anti-war song as you’re ever likely to hear.
Of the rest of the cuts, opener “The Wind” is a short but stunning guitar duet wherein Cat sums up his personal philosophies about life, and “If I Laugh” is a straightforward, but sublime ballad. The others cuts really don’t do a lot for me, although I realise that “Bitterblue” is a favourite of many Cat fans.
Where “Teaser…” was pretty instant, “Catch Bull at Four” is an album that grew on me over time. Despite repeat playing however, it took me many years of listening to realise that it is an LP which is openly bi-polar.
Side 1 is all upbeat and optimistic. “Sitting” sets the scene, with all that happy, happy piano and words of growth and hope, and “The Boy with a Moon & Star on his Head” talks about finding love that was thought lost. “Angelsea” – a tribute to his wife – saw Cat flirt with synthesizers for the first time, and to great effect. The sound on this cut is so very dense and involving, and I just LOVE that drumming!
“Silent Sunlight” finds Stevens in a contemplative mood and Side 1’s closer “Can’t Keep It In” is a wonderful open expression of (again) love and optimism. (It proved to be the album’s only hit single, reaching #13)
Side 2 by contrast feels a complete downer. “18th Avenue“, for all its wonderfully theatrical flourishes, seems to suggest Cat is already worrying about his old age and impending lack of mental comprehension. “Freezing Steel” finds him scared about being kidnapped and “O Caritas” ( a beautiful song sung in both Greek and English) has Cat concerned he won’t live long enough to find spiritual fulfillment.
The dour mood continues with “Sweet Scarlet“, a piano ballad that seems to suggest a lost love, and the album is then wrapped up with “Ruins” where Stevens predicts ecological disaster for the planet, loooooong before it was trendy to do so. (Helloooo, Sting)
1973 saw Cat Stevens release “Foreigner”, an unweildy and excessively pretentious album wherein he tried to merge his sound with that of authentic Black American ‘soul’ music. Despite its chart positioning – reaching Number 3 in both the US and UK – it was not an LP which stood the test of time and soon fell off people’s collective radar. (With the exception of “How Many Times” I pretty much hate it)
The follow-up album, 1974’s “Buddha and the Chocolate Box” was, thankfully, a little easier on the ear. Despite its religious overtones, it is an album which I personally still have a lot of time for.
One thing (the otherwise disastrous) “Foreigner” did seem to achieve was to allow Cat to break away from his beloved “acoustic” roots. This is highlighted by the multi-instrumental and multi-faceted “Music”, which contains the ludicrously joyful chorus of
“New Music, Music, New Music
Sweet Music can lighten us
Can brighten the world, can save us”
35 years later and I still sing along – usually out loud – to the sentiment.
The single, “Oh Very Young” is a little tribute to Buddy Holly. “Sun/C79” has always been one of my favourites of Cat’s output. I love how the rhythm blows hot and cold and how Stevens emotionally remembers “she was back in C79” with a little scream whilst explaining to his (imaginary?) son who his mother was and where he met her.
“Ready“, starting Side 2, is always a song that sounds as if it being played WAY too fast and “King of Trees” is lyrically a little too suspect for my liking. By contrast, “A Bad Penny” is all too clearly the words of a man wanting to turn his back on the ‘rock & roll lifestyle” and the closer “Home in the Sky” suggests he’s ready to walk away, actually ending with the words “bye bye“. Somewhat prescient given later events.
Between 1975 and 1978 Cat Stevens would release three more albums – “Numbers”, “Izitso” and “Back to Earth” – none of which attainted the heights of his early seventies material. In 1978 he changed his (real) name from Steven Demetre Georgiou to Yusuf Islam and abandoned his musical career for almost three decades.
Instead he immersed himself in the Muslim faith, briefly courting controversy over the years with poorly timed remarks about author Salman Rushdie and the 9/11 attacks on America. He also got in the news for being denied entry to the USA when it was discovered he was documented on the Transport Security Adminstration’s ‘no fly’ list, supposedly due to “concerns of ties he may have to potential terrorist-related activities“.
As if to highlight USA Immigration’s apparently mandatory requirement to be bureaucratically bumbling, ignorant and stupid in equal measures, it actually took a complaint from Britain’s Foreign Secretary to the US Secretary of State to finally straighten things out. It later transpired that the TSA had ‘the wrong spelling’ in their database…. a mistake which took them a full two years to rectify before Yusuf could fly again.
In 2007 – as Yusuf Islam – he released the commercial “An Other Cup” album which, at least in part, did hark back to his glory years.
He’ll always be Cat Stevens to me though, and these three albums (plus the aforementioned “Tea for the Tillerman”) perfectly spell out just how good he was. He was one of the few acts I never saw live in concert, although a few years ago we did catch an acoustic show recorded (I think by the BBC in the seventies?) on TV which showcased his material. I’ll admit I sat on the sofa and sang along to far more songs than I thought I would remember!