Al Stewart

TrackAlbum
Old AdmiralsPast, Present & Future
Life And Life OnlyLove Chronicles
Time PassagesTime Passages
Josephine BakerRhymes In Rooms
Paint By Numbers24 Carrots
Somewhere In England, 1915A Beach Full Of Shells
Lori, Don'’t Go Right NowRussians And Americans
If It Doesn'’t Come Naturally, Leave ItYear Of The Cat
Electric Los Angeles SunsetZero She Flies
Night Train To MunichBetween The Wars

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Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

Like many of my contemporaries, my introduction to Alastair Ian (Al) Stewart was with the release of Year Of The Cat in 1976; the title track was played (seemingly) endlessly by Nicky Horne on Capital Radio. Nice song, thought I, but what’s all the fuss about? I wasn’t inspired to explore the album or find out if there was a back catalogue. Roll on two years and a student house on Park Road in Coventry. One of my new housemates had a copy of Year Of The Cat and also Love Chronicles (1969) and Past, Present & Future (1973). I was blown away by both records and thought to reassess Al Stewart. When I heard Time Passages on the local radio station, Mercia Sound, I went out and bought the album – there is not a bad track on it. Funnily enough, my housemate reacted to Time Passages as an album the way I did to Year Of The Cat.

Al Stewart has often drawn on historical subjects for his songs and has always used clever lyrics and occasionally tried to put too many words into too small a space. His tunes always have a quality about them and a production that is always perfect for the song.

Old Admirals is a fabulously evocative song based on the life of Admiral Lord Fisher (1841-1920) who is regarded by some as second only to Lord Nelson in British naval history. I would have liked to include The Last Day Of June 1934 with its ‘bottle green Bentley’ and Post World War Two Blues with its reference to my birth year (1959) but where there are ten or more albums to choose from my ‘Toppermost rule’ is not to bring more than one track from any album. Past, Present & Future also has Nostradamus, Al Stewart’s summary of the prophesies of the medieval seer. That could have been 40% of the tracks from one album.

Life And Life Only from Love Chronicles is a series of character studies wrapped up in a song and brought together on the beach at Bournemouth, and I love the pictures painted by the lyric. For me it’s the best song on the album. I also like In Brooklyn but it tries to be too clever with many short words peppering quavers. The Ballad Of Mary Foster is a bleak story and difficult to follow. The elephant in the room is Love Chronicles itself; an eighteen minute trip though Al Stewart’s personal history with its centrepiece being the confession of naivety and the first mainstream use of the f-word which is, incidentally, used perfectly in context. Did it all really happen that way? How embellished is it? Does it warrant inclusion? Did you know that the electric guitar part is played by Jimmy Page?

There seems to be an unwritten Toppermost rule not to choose the title track of an album or the opening track. Time Passages is both and in a discussion about music on Facebook some time ago I nominated it as an example of a perfect pop song.

In 1992, Al Stewart and Peter White embarked on an acoustic tour, the resultant album was Rhymes In Rooms and is a live ‘best of’. Josephine Baker had originally appeared on 1988’s Last Days Of The Century. Josephine Baker (1906-1975) was an American-born French dancer, singer, and actress who came to be known in various circles as the Black Pearl, Bronze Venus and even the Creole Goddess. She was the first African-American film star.

The follow up to Time Passages was 24 Carrots (1980) and was the first album to be recorded with the band, Shot in the Dark. The album contained the US hit single Midnight Rocks, and two other singles, Mondo Sinistro and my selection, Paint By Numbers. It has a good rock feel and uses art as an allegory for a failed love affair.

In 2005, Stewart released A Beach Full Of Shells that opens with a track called The Immelman Turn, an aerobatic manoeuvre and a theme that Stewart had tried to explore in the song Flying Sorcery on Year Of The Cat. Katherine Of Oregon is a word play on Catherine of Aragon. Somewhere In England, 1915 has all the confusing imagery of a complicated dream and a beautiful tune that I simply adore and which I could not exclude from the list of ten.

Lori, Don’t Go Right Now was a single and opens 1984’s offering Russians And Americans, the title track being an observation on the Superpowers of the time. The Candidate explores what might happen if no-one turned up to an expensively appointed political fundraiser. My choice is a simple love song with a great tune.

OK so I succumbed, there is a track in my Al Stewart top 10 from Year Of The Cat! If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It is a bittersweet love song with its tongue firmly in its cheek. I nearly chose a live version to ‘hide’ its source but this is simply a bloody good smile of a pop song. I also like On The Border and Broadway Hotel in retrospect but I still don’t get the title track – convince me someone!

Zero She Flies could have contributed four songs; Electric Los Angeles Sunset which I chose on the grounds that it’s a song I return to time after time. I could easily have included Manuscript, Zero She Flies and A Small Fruit Song which I shall quote in full: Said the apple to the orange, “oh I wanted you to come close to me and kiss me to the core then you might know me like no other orange has ever done before.” Marvellous.

My last choice and possibly the most difficult. Between The Wars is set in the period 1918 to 1939 and I could have made a case for the whole album. There is a joyous feel to it and the musical styles fit the period perfectly. Life Between The Wars is a vignette of the period and cites some of the people in the news. Marion The Chatelaine describes a failed actress who runs an alpine hotel. Night Train To Munich was a 1940 film directed by Sir Carol Reed that starred Rex Harrison. The song has more in common with an Agatha Christie thriller than the film itself but the lyric is evocative and the tune perfect for the time in which it is set.

All life is here, and the range of Al Stewart’s work over a 40 year period, and I couldn’t make room for the humour of Hanno The Navigator from Stewart’s most recent release, Sparks Of Ancient Light (2008). I make that a top ten that refers to thirty songs – what a cheat.

 

Al Stewart – Official Website

Al Stewart biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #139

6 Comments

  1. Kasper Nijsen
    Dec 2, 2013

    Ah, this is wonderful. I first heard of Al Stewart two days ago and have been listening a lot to Love Chronicles over the past weekend. Maybe the melodies and music aren’t always as original or brilliant, but on this album at least, he’s a great writer and storyteller (with a strong Dylanesque touch on songs like ‘In Brooklyn’, which reminded me of ‘Fourth Time Around’ in places). Much more still to discover I gather!

  2. Peter Viney
    Dec 2, 2013

    Great piece, Ian. The information on later albums gives me something to follow up – I know only the early big sellers. Like our host, I used to see Al Stewart in his pre-fame days at a Bournemouth folk club. On which, Al Stewart fans may enjoy “Bournemouth A Go! Go! A Sixties Memoir” by Jon Kremer, an old friend of Al Stewart’s, and Al Stewart wrote the forward. It describes the beginnings with, for example, stuff about the G-Men (a band Al was in).

    On choosing the title track or first track of an album, avoiding it is a rule I don’t follow myself. Very often an artist will choose the best track (in their opinion) to start an album or as the title track. They’re often right. Life and Life Only is one I love, but I wouldn’t be embarrassed to choose “The Year of The Cat” either. To save walking 20 yards to get the CD, I just put on the YouTube version … 3.2 million viewings!

    • Ian Ashleigh
      Dec 2, 2013

      Thanks for your kind words Kasper and Peter.

      I’ve listened to Year of the Cat again, following the song with the lyric, and I still don’t get it – although 3.2 million people do. It goes to show just how personal music is.

      I love Time Passages, Owen didn’t.

  3. peter Viney
    Dec 3, 2013

    The Year of The Cat … this brings up a pet theory. Think of racks of 70s albums … I can’t walk past someone’s record or CD rack without reading the titles. Rack 1: Al Stewart, Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen, Simon & Garfunkel. Rack 2: Black Sabbath, Yes, ELP, Jethro Tull. We could make a sexist, though fair guess at the gender of the owners, though personally I’d take Rack 1 every time Well, maybe not Cat Stevens. My pet theory is that at concerts, if the gender ratio is within 60:40 (either direction) you get the best music. Veer to 90% male for Iron Maiden or 90% female for Barry Manilow or NKOTB (that was 99% female) and the quality suffers. I’ve noticed Dylan over 20 years go from 50:50 to 80% male, which is not a sign of improvement. In the 70s, Al Stewart, I’m sure, had a higher percentage of female fans. The Year of The Cat was the big one and has stayed so. The romantic vignette obviously appeals in a way we might not get! (It was written in the Vietnamese Zodiac Year of The Cat according to Wiki.)

  4. Rob Millis
    Dec 4, 2013

    I too started listening to Al Stewart in a roundabout manner; I was working in an independent record shop in Kingston-upon-Thames and in the early 90s a CD ‘3 for 1’ reissue came out of Bedsitter Images, Love Chronicles and Zero She Flies, complete with the extra tracks from the second issue of Bedsitter Images (that had been re-released with”The First Album” title prefix and some track changes) and we all loved it. Came as a shock because we all used to shun the AOR-style albums from Al Stewart, and if I’m honest I still haven’t changed that opinion. But I still regularly dig out Zero She Flies for a listen and enjoy it every time, without fail.

  5. David Lewis
    Dec 29, 2013

    Very pleased to see ‘Time Passages’. Just a great song… Perhaps there’s a Toppermost on songs that require the singer to be bought a passage to travel… ‘Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight’. (When i started writing this post, I had another three or four… They’ve all gone)

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