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                           Muses on The Music

Al Stewart’s Histories in Song

March 23, 2018

        The Continuing Digitization Project almost took a U-turn — maybe taking a Mulligan would be a better description — before continuing last week.

        Amongst the vinyl-to-rip piled on my bookshelf was Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat. Which was odd, because I could have sworn that was one of the first LPs I digitized a decade or so ago, when I got my Ion turntable, but it wasn’t in my iTunes library.

        I keep an index of my Audacity project, though, and there it was. And the folder was still in the Music folder. So I scratched my head, reloaded the songs into iTunes. And listened to it. And remembered why I like Stewart’s stuff.

        But I could be getting ahead of myself, because Al Stewart may not be a household name in every household. Born Alastair Ian Stewart in Scotland in 1945, he’s been recording and performing for more than half a century, but other than the above-mentioned album and its title cut — a U.S. Hot 100 No. 8 in — he isn’t what you’d call a hitmaker.

        What he does, ever since his debut album in 1967, is make interesting music: folk-rock-infused story songs, character studies and history lessons. A product of the British folk revival of the 1960s and ’70s, he appeared at the first Glastonbury Festival — a 47-year-old performing arts gathering that started as a hippy happening — and was, fun fact, Paul Simon’s roommate for a time in the ’60s.

        His early work had critical, and some commercial, success in the U.K., but his albums weren’t marketed much in the U.S. until 1973. His fifth studio LP, Past, Present and Future, got free-form FM radio play, particularly the “Nostradamus” cut. Nine minutes of selected quatrains from the 16th Century supposed seer, it was just the thing for college and “underground” radio.

        For his next project, Stewart hooked up with legendary producer Alan Parsons (the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon). Modern Times reached No. 30 on the U.S. album charts, and while it included such eclectic items as a song named after a Kurt Vonnegut novel, it didn’t produce a charting single.

        But Stewart and Parsons caught lightning in a bottle with the former’s next two albums. Year of the Cat went platinum, and included two Top 25 singles, the title cut and “On the Border.” Time Passages didn’t chart quite as high, but its title cut was a U.S. No. 1; the followup single, “Song on the Radio,” hit No. 10. But the followup album, 24 Carrots, was the last of Stewart’s LPs to chart.

        The success of the mid-70s Stewart albums had a lot to do with Parsons’ slick production work and the artist’s turn to more pop-ish songwriting. But while the songs were more FM rock-friendly, the lyrics still told stories and inspired you to think.

        Listening to YotC for the first time in a number of years, I was reminded what caught my attention 40 years ago. The title cut has a catchy melody, and lyrics like “You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre contemplating a crime.”

        “On the Border,” the other successful single from the album, is more in Stewart’s earlier, historical style. Its references to early-20th Century revolutions and conflicts makes the hair in your ear canals stand on end: “I thought I saw down in the street/The spirit of the century/Telling us that we’re all standing/On the border.”

        “One Stage Before” takes you back to the theater of Shakespeare’s time, via the ghosts of those who faced what passed for floodlights back then. “And was I there among them/In some traveling show/And is it all still locked inside my head,” Stewart sings, of a possible previous life.

        Perhaps my favorite, though, is “Flying Sorcery,” with its soaring lead guitar riffs, the piano flourishes that conjure up eddying breezes, and the allusion to England’s version of American aviatrix Amelia Earhart. “With your photographs of Kitty Hawk/And your biplanes on the wall/You were always Amy Johnson/From the time that you were small.”

        Year of the Cat inspired me to buy one of Stewart’s “greatest hits” (he’s one of those artists where that phrase hardly applies) CDs. Which introduced me, on many of the tracks, to his earlier work — and to his more historical songs.

        “Roads to Moscow” is another one of those make-your-hair-stand-on-end lyrics, eight minutes about a Russian soldier who fights for the Motherland for almost four years. He participates in the Red Army’s conquest of Berlin — and then is sent to the gulag because he was a prisoner of the Germans for a short time.

        Another is “Merlin’s Time,” which takes the listener back to a much earlier England. “Oh, who would walk the stony roads of Merlin's time?/And keep the watch along the borderline/And who would hear the legends passed in song and rhyme?/Upon the shepherd pipes of Merlin's time.”

        Then there’s the above-mentioned “Nostradamus”; his predictions have been largely debunked, but Stewart’s take on them is still fascinating.“The Running Man” is a fugitive — the Wiki entry says a Nazi war criminal, but I don’t interpret the allusions that way — who is always, and barely, one step ahead of his pursuers: “Time only for the essentials/Better gather them and run/The false name inside the passport/The gold bars and the gun.”

        Unfortunately, the Stewart compilation turned up missing at some point, apparently before I started putting my music in an iTunes library. Maybe left in the CD player of a vehicle I traded? In some CD caddy that I misplaced?

        I miss it, and will at some point either replace it, or buy more of Stewart's music in some form. A guy who likes history and music can’t have too much from a songwriter whose subject matter ranges from old English admirals to Thomas More to the Shah of Iran.

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