1976 was rock’s annus mirabilis. America’s Bicentennial Year–which I spent patriotically popping plenty of red, white, and blue pills—saw the release of such immortal LPs as Frampton Comes Alive, Hotel California, and Fly Like an Eagle, to say nothing of such timeless singles as Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Let ‘Em In,” Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver,” Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now,” Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs,” and Leo Sayers’ “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing.”
Despite the ominous pall cast by the advent of punk—that surly horde of three-chord barbarians who threatened to storm the gates and sack classic rock, just as the Visigoths did Rome—1976 may well be greatest year of rock ever. Fortunately punk soon went the way of the dodo, with just about everyone involved trashing their “Please Kill Me” t-shirts to join Haircut 100, where they wore their socks over their pants legs like complete prats.
But returning to 1976, it seems I have omitted to mention what may well have been the year’s finest release. I’m talking, of course—as you’ve almost certainly guessed—about Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat. Its amazing singles “Year of the Cat” and “On the Border” took America by storm, and all but the hopelessly unhip (i.e., Patti Smith, and Overdrive of Bachman Turner Overdrive) knew the opening lyrics of “Year of the Cat” by heart: “On a morning from a Bogart movie/In a country where they turn back time/You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre/Contemplating a crime.”
While Stewart seemed to come out of nowhere—a fact that only added to the allure of his mysterious and cinematically detailed songs—the Scottish singer-songwriter and folk-rock musician had actually been mucking about England since 1966, when he released his debut single “The Elf,” which was about an elf. Four hundred and ninety-six copies were sold, mostly to elves. Jimmy Page, who looks like an elf, played on it.
Stewart’s sophomore LP, 1969’s Love Chronicles—the cover of which depicts the glum Scot wearing what appears to be the pelt of a gorilla—catapulted him to the forefront of England’s ongoing folk revival, largely on the strength of the 18-minute autobiographical title cut, which has the distinction of being the first recorded song ever to include the word “fucking.” “Love Chronicles” is surprisingly listenable for an 18-minute song about male impotency, or so I gather from Stewart’s frequent repetition of the phrase, “But it was no sense at all/But too much sense/That took me to the bridge of impotence.”
Stewart—who sounds a bit like Donovan, only with the twee dial turned way down—established his reputation as a writer of historical-themed songs with his third album, 1970’s Zero She Flies. The LP included such minor hits as the winsome “Queen Mary Faire Wore a Gentle Merkin,” the ribald “The Purple-Hued Malt-Worm Fopped by The Beldams Three,” and the frankly lewd “Twat Pocket” (“I put my plug into your electric love socket/Man do I dig me some hot twat pocket”), which Stewart based on the 19-year courtship between the thin-lipped American poet T.S. Eliot and Cambridge governess Vivienne Haigh-Wood.
Okay, so I just made that last paragraph up. That said, Stewart really has spent the better part of his career writing history lessons in the form of song. His is the case of a man in thrall to history—indeed, a man obsessed by it—and his chief contribution to pop music has been as the writer of a seemingly infinite number of lovingly detailed songs about historical figures and incidents, ranging from the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday to the scandal surrounding the Warren Harding administration to—believe it or not—the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
Indeed, there seems to be no subject of a historical nature that Stewart hasn’t written about, no matter how esoteric or bizarre. “The Last Day of June 1934,” for instance, is almost certainly the only song ever written about Ernst Röhm, the Nazi stormtrooper leader executed on Adolf Hitler’s orders during the infamously bloody Night of the Long Knives—to which Rudolf Hess, never one of your brighter Nazis, brought a fork. And you’ll search in vain for another song about Elvis Presley as brilliant or strange as Stewart’s “Elvis at the Wheel,” a song about The King driving his entourage across the desert. During the drive he looks up, and sees “The sky has something to reveal/It is the face of Joseph Stalin being formed by drifting clouds/Above the sleeping Memphis Mafia and unsuspecting cows/This is a sign from God, it’s plain/This is a sign that nothing he does for the rest of his life/Will be the same.” Elvis and “Uncle Joe” Stalin in the same stanza? That, my friends, is what I call songwriting.
But on to Year of the Cat! Recorded at Abby Road Studios by super-producer Alan Parsons—whose Alan Parsons Project’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination was yet another brilliant release during that bellwether year of 1976—Year of the Cat is a remarkable collection of songs, some historical, some more romantic in nature.
The LP opens with the slow and stately “Lord Grenville,” a paean to Sir Richard Grenville, the English naval commander who died upon a Spanish flagship after a doomed attempt to intercept a Spanish treasure ship in the Azores. “Lord Grenville” has an elegiac feel, thanks largely to the string arrangements of Andrew Powell and some poignant guitar work. As for Stewart’s lyrics about the Revenge’s final moments, they’re nothing less than heartrending: “Go and fetch the captain’s log and tear the pages out/We’re on our way to nowhere now, can’t bring the helm about/None of us are left in any doubt/We won’t be back again.” Equally poignant are the echoing refrain of “We won’t be back again,” and Stewart’s final words, “Go and tell Lord Grenville/The tide is on the turn.”
The fast-paced and flamenco-flavored “On The Border” is about Rhodesia’s guerilla war during the 1970s, as seen through the eyes of a young Rhodesian. It opens to the vaguely ominous sound of some very Elton John-like piano, followed by strings and castanets. To the sound of Spanish guitar Stewart sings, “The fishing boats go out across the evening water/Smuggling guns and arms across the Spanish border,” and the melody is so beguiling, and Stewart’s lyrics so haunting, that you can almost imagine yourself on board one of those boats. The chorus is beautiful, and Stewart shows he has a real flair for poetry when he sings, “The torches flare up in the night/The hand that sets the farms alight/Has spread the word to those who’re waiting on the border.”
“Midas Shadow” is about a professional gambler who is always on the move to the next casino. Its opening sounds like it comes straight from a Steely Dan song—in fact the whole song has Becker and Fagen’s fingerprints all over it—but its tempo is too slow and its melody doesn’t move me, although it does boast lots of nice electric piano work and a very pretty chorus: “You stole the game so easily/Your luck ran with the seasons/But still the shadow that the night won’t free/Just follows wherever you go.”
“Sand in Your Shoes” is the first of three consecutive irresistibly catchy songs, and perhaps my favorite tune on Year of the Cat. With its Dylanesque organ riff and very fetching melody, “Sand in Your Shoes” is a song about a mysterious lady of the islands, and as much as I love Elton John it beats his “Island Girl” by a country mile. “On Remembrance Day,” sings Stewart, “The bands all played/The bells pealed through the park/And you lay there by the “Do Not” signs/And shamed them with your spark.” I love the way Stewart sings this one, laying stress on certain words, just as I love the lushly melodic “So it’s goodbye to my lady of islands” that ends most of the verses, and why this song didn’t follow “Year of the Cat” and “On the Border” onto the singles charts is a mystery to me.
Almost as good is the jaunty and infectious “If It Doesn’t Come Naturally Leave It,” a bona fide rocker featuring a pair of excellent guitar solos that sound like the work (but aren’t) of Mark Knopfler. Stewart has described “If It Doesn’t Come Naturally” as a distillation of his personal philosophy, which so far as I can tell comes down to (1) nothing that’s forced can ever be right, and (2) always wear a gorilla pelt coat. I love the verse that goes, “Well I’m up to my neck in the crumbling wreckage/Of all that I wanted from life/When I looked for respect all I got was neglect/Though I swallowed the line as a sign of the times,” and all I can say is that if the song’s lovely melody doesn’t linger in your cranium long after you’ve heard it, I personally promise to come to your house and set fire to my eyebrows.
“Flying Sorcery” is an indescribably beautiful song about Amy Johnson, the pioneering English aviatrix who died ferrying supplies for the British Army early in World War II. Haunting and rich in historical detail, “Flying Sorcery” is an jauntily upbeat number that opens with some lovely guitar/piano interplay, and features some very fine guitar—including a great solo—as well as some evocative harmonica. Meanwhile, Stewart sings, “No schoolroom kept you grounded/While your thoughts could get away/You were taking off in Tiger Moths/Your wings against the brush-strokes of the day/Are you there?” And that “Are you there?” is repeated again and again, growing more poignant with each repetition, making “Flying Sorcery” a classic of the small but important subgenre of songs about doomed female aviators. It’s lovelier and more touching by far than anything off Plainsong’s 1972 concept LP In Search of Amelia Earhart—America’s more famous version of Amy Johnson—and almost as good as The Handsome Family’s sublime and haunting “Amelia Earhart and The Dancing Bear,” a vivid and brilliant conjuration of Earhart’s doomed flight’s final moments that demonstrates that Stewart’s brand of history-based songs will always have its adherents.
“Broadway Hotel” is another cut I’m not crazy about, although it’s pleasant enough with its rich orchestration and beautiful violin solo, to say nothing of the monumental and swelling instrumental interlude at the song’s close. A story song about a man in hiding, if only from himself, it opens with Stewart singing, “You told the man in the Broadway Hotel/Nothing was stranger than being yourself.” It’s a promising beginning, but the song largely goes downhill from there, if only because it lacks the level of lyrical detail that makes Stewart’s best songs so compelling. “Broadway Hotel” wants to be a mystery, but it lacks the necessary elements—not a clue is provided to why he’s there or what he’s hiding from, and a mystery without clues isn’t a mystery, it’s the formula for a failed song.
“One Stage Before” is a rock number about a juggler who may or may not be a ghost in the stage lights, performing his act before an equally ghostly audience, perhaps for all infinity. It includes a strummed guitar opening that could be by Heart, one very long and rapturous guitar solo, and lots of appropriately eerie-sounding keyboard work, and has Stewart singing, “And now these figures in the wings with all their restless tunes/Are waiting around for someone to call their names/They walk the backstage corridors and prowl the dressing rooms/And vanish to specks of light in the picture frames.”
Any good showman knows to save the best for last, and so it is for Stewart and “Year of the Cat.” Stewart has gone on record as saying, “I think of songs as cinema, really. It’s aural cinema. I want to show you a movie when I’m playing a song.” And few songs exemplify this aesthetic better than “Year of the Cat.” The story of a man’s chance but life-altering encounter with a mysterious woman in an unnamed exotic locale, “Year of the Cat” opens with a long piano interlude, followed by the entry of the full band playing the divinely inspired melody that makes the song such a classic. Drums and piano dominate as Stewart sings, “She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running/Like a watercolor in the rain/Don’t bother asking for explanations/She’ll just tell you that she came/In the year of the cat.”
The mystery woman leads him to a hidden door “by the blue-tiled walls near the market stalls,” and there they make love, as the string section swells, a guitar plays a lovely solo that explodes like a petite mort, and a saxophonist plays a lovely refrain to give everybody involved time to lie back and smoke an après-coitus Chat, the brand of cigarettes featured on the album’s cover, a painting depicting a woman’s dressing table covered with cat-themed items. As for the man, to paraphrase Stewart, he’s lost his choice and thrown away his ticket, so he has to stay on. And all I can say is if you don’t like this song you’re a homunculus and probably shouldn’t have children, because they’ll hoot and walk on all fours like that family of quadrupeds discovered living in Turkey a while back.
Meanwhile, Stewart—who quietly continues to release his song-sized history lessons on albums that will never, unfortunately, get the attention they so richly deserve—is owed our eternal gratitude for the great Year of the Cat, as well as for all the other wonderful songs he has recorded over the past five-plus decades. As for me, I remain convinced Stewart will never die, but will one day simply vanish through a hidden door in the blue-tiled walls of a market stall, a man possessed, and finally called home by, the mysterious well-springs of history, and a past that William Faulkner once famously declared “is never dead. It is not even past.”
GRADED ON A CURVE: