Tag Archives: Teaser & the Firecat

(1974 Albums) Cat Stevens – Catch Bull at Four / Buddha & the Chocolate Box / Teaser & the Firecat

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.

Ghost Town” is peculiarly offbeat (including offbeat lyrics too), whilst “Jesus” doesn’t tell us anything new and is, by far, the worst cut on Side 1.

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!

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January 22nd 1973

“Got Tarkus bak” / “FOUND HISTORY BOOK (This’ll go down in ‘istory)” / “Went up Nigs, Mal there – listened to ELP (grate) + Cat Stevens (ugh)”

Uppercase for FOUND HISTORY BOOK eh? That means it was a MUCH bigger deal than earlier posts about its loss may have suggested.

Oh, and a ‘joke’ about the discovery. I’ll bet Tommy Cooper was quaking in his boots.

The final part of this entry has me slapping my head with a certain amount of shame.

Naturally I would have said ELP were grate in fact it may have been the case that I forced Nig & Mal to listen to them? – but to castigate the (IMHO) mighty Cat Stevens with a lousy ugh is deeply embarrassing to me now.

If I was a betting man – which, it has to be said, I am sometimes – I’ll lay odds that the Cat Stevens album we listened to that night was “Catch Bull at Four

Cat Stevens was born Steven Demetre Georgiou in 1948 and spent his early life living above the restaurant his family owned just off London’s Piccadilly Circus. He learned to play the piano in his early teens, extending his skills to the guitar at 15 years old, when he also started writing his own songs.

He started playing them in pubs and coffee houses in and around London, changing his name to “Cat Stevens” when he realised that he couldn’t imagine anyone going into a record shop and asking for an album by “that Steven Demetre Georgiou” (He was right)

He recorded a few demos for Deram Records, which led to a contract. He then had three hit singles in a row. “I Love My Dog“, “Matthew & Son” and “I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun“, of which only the first would come to represent the eventual ‘Cat Stevens sound’. (The other two, however, are MAGNIFICENT slices of 60’s orchestral beat, loved by aficionados like myself)

On the strength of his hits, he toured with the (somewhat varied) likes of Jimi Hendrix and Englebert Humperdinck, and was marketed very much as a ‘pop star’.

Things changed drastically in the late 60’s for Cat. His album “New Masters* inexplicably flopped and in 1968 he became very ill with both tuberculosis and a collapsed lung.

His approach to life altered during his convalescence. He became a vegetarian, took up meditation and generally became more spiritual. It is said that during this period of ‘self-awakening’ he wrote the vast majority of all his subsequent recorded songs.

Unhappy with his ‘pop star’ status and wanting to work on a more folksier sound, he swapped record labels, signing for Chris Blackwell‘s influential Island Records. (Licensed to A&M in the USA)

The move was a resounding success. His first album for Island, “Mona Bone Jakon“, yielded the hit single “Lady D’Arbanville”, whilst the follow-up “Tea for the Tillerman” sent his signature sounds into the international stratosphere, selling ‘gold’ in both the USA and the UK, helped along by more hit singles like “Wild World

A brief romance with Carly Simon preceeded the release of the “Teaser & the Firecat” album in 1971. This was very much a tour de force which yielded a trio of massive hit singles in the shape of “Peace Train“, “Morning has Broken” and “Moon Shadow

Which brings us to “Catch Bull at Four“, a release that reached Number 1 in the USA, number 2 in the UK, eventually sold almost 3 million copies, yielded a couple of hit singles (in “Can’t Keep It In” and “Sitting“)….. but was reviewed as “ugh” by first-time listener TRO!

Cat: Then & Now

Stevens converted to the Islamic faith in 1977, his pop career faltered and he changed his name to Yusuf Islam. He stayed out of the headlines until 1989 when he made an unfortunate and ill-advised statement in support of the Islamic fatwa on author Salmon Rushdie. Needless to say his prior protestations of ‘peace’ on so many beautiful songs were undermined and he became somewhat ‘hated’ by the press and certain ignorant elements of society.

More recently he has gently nudged his way back into public consciousness and returned to the studio to record “An Other Cup“, an album which is ‘classic’ Cat Stevens in sound, but feels a little laboured and ‘old fashioned’ in construction. He’s returned to live performances too, including turning up at the “Peace One Day” concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 2007.

Like I’ve said, I feel embarrassed about my review of “Catch Bull at Four“. I adore almost the entire Cat Stevens output up to (but not including all of) “Izitso” in 1977. To have castigated him so readily in 1973 is an insult to both Cat Stevens and my own pair of ears! Maybe proof that “first listens” don’t always count (as I tend to otherwise believe)

* Trivia Corner:- The”New Masters” album included the song “The First Cut is the Deepest” which Stevens sold to PP Arnold. Arnold had a massive hit with her version, and it was later also covered with *ahem* considerable international success by Rod Stewart, James Morrison, Sheryl Crow and others. However, Cat sold the song for…… £30! *oops!*

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