Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Guest Post: The Skids "Joy" (1981)




Dear readers, well this is all terribly exciting! For the first time in our site’s nine year history we have a ‘guest reviewer’, the fabulous Kenny Brown, who has written about the excellent under-rated fourth and final Skids album from the early 1980s. If you have a burning desire to read about one of your favouritest albums in print – and it doesn’t have to be an AAA member – then why not drop us a line at the AAA twitter feed @alansarchives. In the meantime our thanks to Kenny for his excellent appraisal of an album I look forward to knowing better now that I’ve read his informative review!

The Skids “Joy” (1981)

Blood and Soil/A Challenge/Men Of Mercy/A Memory/Iona//In Fear Of Fire/Brothers/And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda/The Men Of The Fall/The Sound Of Retreat/Fields


“Joy" is the final studio album by Scottish band The Skids released in 1981. The song writing axis of Richard Jobson and Stuart Adamson had been ever present in a band which had changed rhythm sections on their three albums to date. Going into Highland Studios Inverness in May 81 to begin recording their fourth album the two plus Russell Webb (formally of Scottish band Zones) on bass, were joined for the session by former Slik and Zones drummer Kenny Hyslop. It was to be Adamson’s last session with the band, walking out leaving Jobson and Webb to complete the album.

When the band reconvened later that year it was as a two piece, augmented by many musicians including Mike Oldfield, Billy MacKenzie, Alan Rankine, Alan Darby and Virginia Astley.  The resulting album ‘Joy’ was an attempt to fuse Jobson’s poetic leanings with the use of folk instrumentation. Russell Webb took on the producer’s mantle and delivered a carefully crafted sound that juxtaposed the acoustic with the available technology of the day, largely using emulators for some traditional instruments. The drum sound rarely used traditional rock tropes preferring tom toms, bass and bodhran and electric guitars largely swapped for acoustic.

Context is important in exploring the album’s themes and musical approach. 1980/81 was a time when the Sound of Young Scotland was making itself felt across the land. Fresh angular rock/pop that took its influences from the Velvet Underground and the Modern Lovers seemed ever present. The Skids went against the grain and delivered a muscular acoustic roots album, unashamedly Celtic in its perspective and heightened by the use of Scottish diction in Jobson’s vocal approach.

The first song was ‘Blood and Soil’, one that the band had been playing live during the previous tours. The song has a largely standard structure of many Skids songs but is differentiated by its use of bass guitar to provide rhythm. Jobson sings “we can be taught blood and soil” and is augmented by a studio choir throughout. This is clearly a different Skids to that of “Days in Europa”.

‘A Challenge (The Wanderer)’ is next up with Jobson initially singing unaccompanied but as the song progresses, instrumentation is layered via flute, acoustic guitar and bodhran (an Irish frame drum). His voice is unashamedly Scottish is diction, giving it an authenticity that was refreshing in its difference from most Scottish bands at the time.

‘Men of Mercy’ is a short song accompanied by guitar, drums and choir segueing into ‘A Memory’.  Jobson sings longingly against a background of bodhran, guitar and piano with the regular refrain of “will ye no’ come back again”?  This builds up gradually into a crescendo of acoustic guitars, accompanying voices and finally an acoustic piano augments the music until we hear a solitary snare drum against the wind.

The final song of side 1 is ‘Iona’ (https://youtu.be/yhIkgbSZTdg), which continues the Highland/Jacobite theme of the previous songs. Again instruments are layered over each verse and chorus and it is the most melodic and complete song on the album.  It was to be Stuart Adamson’s last appearance on a Skids song and is worthy of his legacy.

Side two starts with what seems a tape played backwards then a short sea shanty followed by Jobson singing ‘In Fear of Fire’. Soon Webb plays a propulsive bass guitar on the next song ‘Brothers’, which Jobson begins by singing “stood in a field and echoed a thunder”.  It’s rough and ready and with the addition of electric guitar, it might’ve made an earlier Skids record.

‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ is a folk song written by Eric Bogle about the failed Anzac incursion at Gallipoli during the Great War. Here Jobson sings plaintively and descriptively, the thoughts of a battle-scarred soldier returning from war, with a help from the accompanying studio choir. It is spine tingling in its simplicity and message.

Completing this suite of songs about war and brotherhood is ‘The Men of the Fall’. Here the full weight of the studio and musicians is felt as Webb builds on Jobson’s voice to accompany each verse with new sonic textures. It is a slow march that is both melancholic and haunting at the same time.

Completing side two is the first single culled from the album, ‘Fields’. This is ‘the Skids unplugged’ with a traditional song structure but using acoustic guitars, bass and traditional drums to carry the song through. Following an acoustic middle section of bodhran and flute the voice of Billy McKenzie soars above the guitars before Jobson and studio choir sing the final verse and chorus. Thus, the album is closed by a song about the land, perfectly book-ending Jobson’s journey celebrating the common man.

Released in November 1981, the album reportedly sold 3000 copies. On the back of such poor sales no touring resulted and the Skids were disbanded. Richard Jobson’s immediate future heralded an artistic period of publishing and touring his poetry ‘For Russell Webb’, he produced the English ambient classic ‘From Gardens Where We Feel Secure’ by Virginia Astley.

‘Joy’ was ultimately a polarising album, one that some felt did not belong in the Skids canon of work, largely due to the absence of Adamson.  It is however a finely produced album and has a narrative, but one that requires patience and listening to get the most from it.  This is a Hygge album for listening in the long nights of winter. I suggest you hunt down a copy, pour a large malt whisky, settle in front of a fire and listen in full to a unique recording.

Kenny Brown

Monday, 19 June 2017

George Harrison "Cloud Nine" (1987)




George Harrison "Cloud Nine" (1987)
Cloud Nine/That's What It Takes/Fish On The Sand/Just For Today/This Is Love/When We Was Fab//Devil's Radio/Someplace Else/Wreck Of The Hesperus/Breath Away From Heaven/Got My Mind Set On You

'I can rock as good as Gibraltar!'
We've said it before on this website and are running out of time to say it again but...wasn't the 1980s weird? This was the decade where introverts became loud and noisy and extroverts became obnoxious. You'd think that George Harrison, ex-Beatle, full-time gardener, life-long cynic, would have been the first person to see through the decade. But no, there he is on the front of the album cover in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, an unconvincing photoshopped cloud disappearing behind him and an airbrushed look about his skin-tones. When I first saw this as a Beatle-obsessed five-year-old (already cynical and holier - or is that Holliesier given my other favourites of the time? I was a very weird five-year-old by the way - than thou about modern pop) I thought it was a joke, a parody from George's generation to the one above mine about what music should be, could be and would be. But if anything the contents inside get worse. George's music has been airbrushed, his vocals digitally treated and his lyrics sweetened while the ex-Beatle least likely to have ever agreed to a reunion without a gun to his head records using the most Beatley production any of the fab four had used on their solo albums so far (although, this being a Jeff Lynne production, the result is only a third Beatles and a third-Rutle and w third-Womble). I was bitterly disappointed - and more so when both album and first single made number one in the UK. Now my schoolfriends on the playground thought my music tastes were, shock horror, on a par with their love of Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan. George, you were the musician I trusted more than anyone else to tell the truth and never sell out (yep, I really did think this, I really was a weird five-year-old), how could you do this to me?

Well, here's how. Beatles don't speak about money much - they're like The Royal Family and civil servants in that regard - but we know now that George was, if not exactly poor, then closer to the breadline than he was to being a millionaire. His solo career had stuttered to a quiet halt since the release of 'Gone Troppo' in 1982. George had made that record because he felt he ought to rather than because he wanted to and when it died a death (thanks partly to George doing no publicity for it whatsoever) he shrugged his shoulders and let music take a back-seat. Sadly the compositions on this album suggest that George never really changed his attitude towards making this album and only did so because of the latest of an endless sea of legal troubles that had dogged him since the early 1970s. This time it wasn't The Beatles of The Chiffons' legal team getting antsy though and George had brought the court-case himself against his Handmade Films co-founder Denis O'Brien for running off with the company's profits, embezzlement and fraud that had left his wallet several billion pounds lighter. With a massive mansion to keep up, several good friends and relatives on the pay-roll and a now-eight-year-old Dhani to look after, George had to do something. The lesser of many evils (reuniting The Beatles, appearing on MTV, maybe forming his own F1 team 'Harrison Haas'?!) was to make another record. But making another 'Gone Troppo' clearly wasn't going to get George very far. What he needed was a hit record that appealed to casual music-goers, not just a few faithful Beatle fans. What he needed was Jeff Lynne.
Lynne's band The Electric Light Orchestra had for a long time been hailed as the 'true' heirs of the Beatle-sound, although to my ears this argument was never as convincing as that made for Badfinger (who had the sound and the moody ideas), CSNY (who had the attitude and the talent) or Oasis (who had a similar record collection, Northern swagger and close-enough haircuts). ELO had, you see, made some vaguely abstract concept albums on vaguely the same lines as 'The White Album' (only most of their album covers seemed to be red for some reason) and after years of being a Beatle fan and years of being told he sounded like The Beatles, once his 'day job' ended and he got more into production work, he was naturally eager to work with a real live Beatle. George, a bit uncertain of strangers in his life (and especially raving Beatle looneys at that) took to Jeff straight away, enjoying his music and saw immediately what Lynne could do for his fading fortunes; despite first coming to fame in the 1960s, as far back as the end days of The Move and being best known for his songs from the 1970s, Jeff had a real grasp of the 1980s sound and would be much nicer to work with than some young upstart teenage kid with a baseball cap on. The pair found they shared the same musical tastes (though Jeff's love of 1950s is never apparent in his productions, bar The Traveling Wilburys occasionally) and the same humour, although they were still very different characters, Jeff all logic and George all spirit (They also had what sounds like an unintentionally hilarious 'cultural exchange' week where Jeff took George to the cricket where he was bored to tears and moaned for a whole ride home how bored he was before taking Jeff to a formula one grand prix where he said exactly the same!) George even starts looking like Jeff, growing out his hair into a 'Lynne' frazzle and adding stubble to his cheeks as can be seen by contrasting the 'making of' gatefold sleeve pictures with the 'all finished' front cover.

George got what he wanted thanks to Jeff - a successful hit record that raked in badly needed millions and out-sold anything Paul and Ringo were doing in this period (though Macca's similar 'Press To Play' wins on every level, especially courage). It appealed to current pop-goers who had never heard of George (with the single 'I Got My Mind Set On You' greeted as if it was by a 'new unknown' for a while until parents pointed out the name and their Beatle LPs to their teenage offspring; Harrison getting the last laugh as it was a cover of a song that dated back to his own teenage days in the 1950s!) and Beatle fans who wanted something 'normal' and 'Beatley' to buy (Jeff really knew his Beatle stuff, especially the drum sound and harmony arrangements). 'Cloud Nine' even appealed to casual music fans who'd heard of the 'super-group' at the core of this record (George, Ringo, Jeff, Eric Clapton and Elton John, all but the drummer pictured in the gatefold sleeve in a pose that looks in retrospect like a first try-out for the first 'Traveling Wilburys' album later in the year). This album was hailed by many a critic as the album of the year, many casual Beatle-fans really adored it and for a glorious year there George was regularly being called 'the nation's favourite Beatle' rather than 'grumpiest Beatles' as per usual (this is also a measure of how low Paul McCartney's stock had fallen for the first time since the 1970s; his own 'comeback' album 'Flowers In The Dirt' is very much modelled on this one, winning on points - again mainly for bravery).

What Jeff never ever understood - and what true Harrison maniacs like me can't stand about this LP - is that he never for a minute understood solo George. There is not a single reference to God on this album for instance - though there is a song about the devil, sort of. Wahoo, you might be thinking (especially if you're come to this album direct from 'Living In The Material World' where that's the only subject matter the whole album). But that leaves George nothing else to write about. His songs used to be, if not always the very best then certainly the deepest of solo Beatle-dom, concerning our passage through the human world, the sea of distractions that keep us from our path of life and how to prepare for what comes 'next'. Though George's albums often had silly moments in them, they are by and large substantial, serious creations. 'Cloud Nine' by contrast feels trivial, the flimsiest Harrison album since the I've-just-bought-a-moog-and-do-you-kno-w-how-much-they-cost?-I'm-making-an-album-to-p-ay-for-it 'Electronic Sounds' in 1969. What does George have to write about now he no longer has life, death and the universe to play with? Happy songs about feeling on top of the world, grumpy songs about modern music not being what it used to be, silly banal songs designed for the radio not for the soul. A 'normal' Harrison production might have rescued it, but Jeff Lynne's frivolous production, full of twinkly synths, brass horns and cute mass harmonies makes this sound like a 'Beatles-lite' production, with all the 'fat' taken out (no calories maybe and it won't take that long to digest, but it's hardly going to make your head and heart feel better the way, say, 'All Things Must Pass' always does even though it tries a similar trick of taking 'humble' songs and making them feel 'big'). This time round, though, 'Cloud Nine' isn't a cloud but just a lot of hot air, the one George Harrison album that has little or nothing to say. After five years of being away gardening, you'd have thought George would have had a little something to say, even if he'd kept it for a B-side or something. The result is the least interesting Harrison solo album, even if it was by far his best-selling (at least since 1970, arguably more so judged by merely instant sales rather than re-issues).

There are exceptions to this rule that show how well this idea could have worked and what George perhaps wanted Jeff to do a little more of across this album. Hit single 'Got My Mind Set On You' is catchy as hell, even if it says nothing (whereas 'Devil's Radio',  funnily enough, hasn't got a chance in hell of being a hit single however much Jeff tries to dress up George's grumpiest song in years). 'When We Was Fab' is fabulous, Jeff taking every Beatle cliché he can think of and offering up a genuine sense of awe, mystique and wonder that contrast nicely against George's manically acerbic lyrics about what a horrid time he had in the 1960s when everyone else was off having fun. 'This Is Love' - the relative flop third single - may actually be the best, with a lyric written from the heart about Olivia (and maybe God?) simplified to the part where everything is simple, an 'All You Need Is Love' for the 1980s that's similarly warm and glorious. And then there's the one moment where George sings from his heart and not his bank balance on the mournful ballad 'Just For Today', his more immediate response to his financial difficulties: just when things were looking up and he felt he had his life under control something comes to make him question everything, making him desperate to live through this time of agony and get to the happy stuff. It's a moving moment because, singing in a lower register and without the bouncing freak show of Lynne's other productions, it reminds you just how good George is at this sort of thing.

A whole album like those four songs and I wouldn't be complaining a bit. But the rest is ugly, bordering on offensive. 'Breath Away From Heaven' unwisely returns to the Chinese stereotyping of the recent 'Shanghai Surprise' film flop, a debacle that cost Madonna and Sean Penn their marriage and George very nearly his livelihood. The fact that most of the album sound like outtakes from his written-on-the-spot soundtrack (made at the last minute when another musician fell through and George realised he needed a big name to sell it so might as well use his) suggests that this record too was written in a hurry. Maybe, too, there's an alternative agenda here, George crying for 'Help!' behind the pop facade. What, really, does 'Cloud Nine' mean? George has clearly been told to sound 'cheerful' and there's a booming drum-track anyone who survived the 1980s will recognise from every hit single released in a three year period back then. But George sings deep, scarily, sombre, anywhere but on cloud nine. We never find out what 'it 'takes' in the album's second song where he admits to us he doesn't want to pay such a high price. 'Fish On The Sand' admits to being totally helpless and out of his comfort zone. 'Devil's Radio' complains that all modern music is patronising and filled with messages of hate - and then does exactly that by putting down everything in the charts even though it's that sort of music that offer George his lifeline here. 'Wreck Of The Hesperus' is a bunch of weak jokes about middle-age in a song that strains at the leash to portray George as young and vibrant when he feels a million years old. 'Someplace Else' longs to be a million miles away from 'here' with a past loved one that George used to be with (God? His old production team?) You get the message...this is a Beatle playing at being a 1980s rockstar for fun and the joke feels a little bit on 'us' for swallowing it and making it such a big hit. Clever? or mean?

One other irony of this record is that it's the one that features George on the front cover clutching his guitar like a lucky talisman, while the back cover gets a much weirder picture of a guitar neck sticking up through a 'lumberjack' shirt., the bottom half removed and replaced with a table. This is, you see, George's least guitar-driven album - certainly since the keyboard heavy 'Extra Texture' and even that had a few solos in it. On 'Cloud Nine' only the songs 'Someplace Else' and the solo in 'When We Was Fab' feature that recognisable guitar sound as the most important thing in the mix - elsewhere Lynne clobbers it over the head with extraneous noise like drums, saxophones, Eric Clapton and synths. My guess is that George got told somewhere down the line that in order to 'sell' this album he had to remind people of his 'signature sound' (hence the cover) but under no account was he allowed to play it on the record for anything other than 'colour'. Hence, perhaps, the 'joke' on the back where the guitar has literally become 'part of the furniture'. In more practical terms George asked a guitar expert to preserve his original teenage guitar for posterity and was so proud of the work he decided to use it on the cover instead (the back cover, too, may be a shot George too while visiting the 'workshop' where his guitar was being put back together), but hey I like my theory more!

The revelation - and what nearly makes the album work anyway - is George's vocals across the album. Even if I'm right and this album's collection of songs started off as sarcastic 'Blood From A Clone' diatribes about having to go through with the process of making an ironically 'material' album for a 'material' world when George's heart and head is already in the 'spiritual', he sounds like he's enjoying himself here. Heck, George sounds as if he's attending a party - and as The Beatle least likely to attend a real-life party, that's a surprise. Most past Harrison albums sound solemn and as if George has the weight of the world on his shoulders (all except the beautiful 'George Harrison' album from 1979 where he sounds in love and at one with the universe). This album sounds like fun. There's a twinkle in George's voice that puts it at one with Jeff's ho-ho-ing production rather than the grimness of many of the lyrics. The three singles, especially, wouldn't sound half as good had George sung them in his more 'normal' tones and even the acid tongue in 'When We Was Fab' is also laced through with affection. George is sending up his legacy something rotten here and seems to be wanting to prove that he can sound every bit as young, vibrant and 'hip' as any newcomer - he just chooses not to because he's above all that. The runaway success of the album somehow masked his original intentions that's all and the fact that George got distracted into making the similarly good-time 'Wilbury' records with Jeff Lynne and friends immediately after this delayed the 'serious' sequel he had been attempting to deliver since 1990 (the record that became the basis for 'Brainwashed' fifteen years later).

The end result, then, is a record that's divided Beatle fans right down the middle ever since its release. To 'us' fans who understand how deep, sincere and magical George could be when he wanted to be it's a travesty, a joke, a waste of talent  and a bitter disappointment whereby George feels like a guest on his own album, his ideas somewhere down below the booming drums somewhere down the album's pecking order (seriously the name in bigger print on the back is Jeff's, as if George is already distancing himself from it, expecting a critical disaster as his price for a few extra sales). To the 'non-we' it's what every Beatles solo album should have sounded like: fun, funky, trendy and catchy. This is, in short, the Harrison album you're most likely to love if you've come here straight from the '1' or the 'red' and 'blue' Beatles compilation albums, rather than the 'Rubber Soul' and 'Revolver' fans of this world (who mainly go for 'All Things Must Pass'). Personally I think my inner five year old is still beating strongly as I still look on aghast as this album gets celebrated in a way that quirkier, more original and certainly deeper and more moving albums like 'George Harrison' and 'Gone Troppo' get short shrift compared to this album of dance tunes. My older thirty-four-year-old self, adrift a bit more in the material world myself, understands and sympathises with it a bit more - that still doesn't mean it's 'right'. 'Cloud Nine' still leaves me feeling in a very very low place indeed.

It speaks volumes that the first instrument you hear on the first track, title track 'Cloud Nine', is actually Clapton's and even then the guitar part is drowned out by a thick and heavy drum part (which is almost certainly Ringo's). This deeply odd song ticks all the right production boxes (happy lyrics, saxophone production, heavy beat accentuated) and yet still sounds deeply odd and probably the single most non-commercial track on the album, as if George is hinting at us that he's only going along with this 'rockstar pose' for reasons he doesn't want to reveal yet. Musically this is just a cooked-up sped-up blues and even though everything is quicker, sillier, louder and more frivolous than your average blues song George's vocal is still right there in doom and gloom. George sings at the bottom of his register and sounds deeply depressed even though what he's singing should be joyous, about a loved one agreeing to date him and join in his idea of 'ecstasy' ('Join my dream! Tell me yes! Bail out should there be a mess!') It's as if George was told that if he wants to write a 'hit' album he needs to write about love - not religious or married love but teenage crush kind of love - and in no way should he be writing blues songs (so, being George, he simply 'adapted' a blues song instead, having his cake and eating it). The result is an odd song that tries to be happy and ecstatic from the title on down, but never quite allows itself to 'let loose' and throughout seems to have on eye on things ending in disaster even while he's offering up love and romance in a way we haven't heard from George since The Beatles' 'Help!' album. The song ends too with the distinctly unromantic line 'if you want to quit that's fine!' ringing in our ears. This song is though a welcome chance to hear George and Eric trading lines for the only time in their careers (with the possible sole exception of 'Ski-Ing' from the 'Wonderwall' soundtrack, which some say is just Clappers overdubbed anyway).

'That's What It Takes' sounds like a more genuine attempt at writing a catchy hit song, although yet again the mood is oddly downbeat considering the plethora of production, the sunshiney melody and the strummed acoustic guitar chord changes. This song sounds at first like much more of a natural 'love' song, but even more than the last song it's the antithesis of the 'normal' love song. George's narrator, faced with a choice between falling in love or running away, has to dig deep, sounding deeply uncertain about what he's taking on and sighing over all the major life changes that are about to happen whether loves work out or not. By the time of the chorus he's more sure of himself, offering up the idea that 'if that's what it takes then I've got to be strong', but even then he adds again 'if that's what it takes' for good measure. This isn't the sound of a man head over heels in love (the song even starts off in an awkward minor key) but one whose in love and clearly doesn't want to be. Could it be, given that George was by this time celebrating his tenth wedding anniversary to Olivia, that this song isn't about 'love' at all but George's nervousness at suddenly sounding 'commercial'. is the relationship, which he both craves and fears, actually the partnership with Jeff? This is the first real chance to hear Lynne's fingerprints on the album and they're everywhere - Wilbury style backing harmonies, strummed guitars, bleating saxophones and goodness-knows-what played on the synth, which sounds like a cross between a doorbell and the clanging bell of doom. Unfortunately what we don't have is a 'song' to go with the production, as George gets all poetical and vague in the opening verse ('And now you found the eyes to see each little drop at the dawn of every day...') and never quite gets round to writing a second one (delaying it with repeated middle eights, instrumental passages and 'oohs'). Not so much of a song, more a sentiment with production effects.

Meanwhile, on the next song, George isn't so much a man, more a 'fish on the sand'. Lyrically this may be George's strongest set of words on the album, recalling the lost humble narrator sounding huge style of 'All Things Must Pass' exaggerated to the point where he sounds sure and loud. George, however, goes perhaps a stage too far in relating his latest existential spiritual crisis in terms of a love affair and seems to 'borrow' many of his words from other 'hit' writers be they Smokey Robinson ('You really got a hold on me') or even himself (copious references to 'Teardrops', but without the doo-dah-doohs for good measure). The music, too, is downright ugly, a sea of pinged guitars that no longer sound much like guitars, repeating the same stabbing lines over and over. This kind of thing works for bands who excel at repetition (The Rolling Stones could have a good stab at this song one day) but George is a subtle writer, not an aggressive one and he just sounds silly trying to offer his version of a 'Mick Jagger' lead vocal, barked rather than sung. He's clearly realising how daft he sounds by the time of the last repeat when he's trying hard to stem the tide of giggles. Perhaps not coincidentally, he also sounds lost - just as lost as the lovestruck narrator who again sounds oddly teenage, unable to function properly without his lover by his side. George might perhaps have done better to drop the idea and switch it for the 'stop playing games with me!' verse, which sounds much more suitable to the ringing relentless guitars and George's desperate cries to go back to something a bit 'safer' and 'simpler'. I'm not convinced by the endless metaphors about George's lover being a 'fish' either (only Neil Young can pull off that sort of thing, believe it or not), 'swimming in your teardrops', although he might be throwing some Christian symbolism in to go in place of where his usual Hare Krishna and Hindu references would be (or, perhaps, referring to his astrological sign of Pisces as per the follow-up).

After three pretty lacklustre opening moments 'Cloud Nine' suddenly gets going. The gorgeous 'Just For Today' is, for the only time on the record, the 'real' George and no amount of Jeff Lynne production novelties (and there are a lot thrown at this song) are going to get in his way. Harrison is heartbroken, his trust betrayed by someone he trusted and he longs to go back to a time in his life when he was happy - when, indeed, it appeared he had so much going for him he could never be unhappy again. He longs to go back and make the most of his past happiness, even if its 'just for today', instead of dealing with 'all life's problems'. In many ways it's George's equivalent to Paul's 'Yesterday' and if anything even more beautiful and poignant as Harrison kicks himself for not realising sooner what he knows now (the piano lick meanwhile recalls John's 'Imagine' and indeed George is using his imagination as an 'escape' here too). It's clearly about his 'Handmade Film's court case (oddly Denis O' Brien, his co-founder who'd just been in court for embezzlement, is in the 'special thanks' list on the back sleeve - which is either George being nice and forgiving his latest adversary in a very public manner  or a 'clue' to his fans as to why this album turned out the way it did, as without Denis' financial pressure you sense 'Cloud Nine' would never have turned out the way it did). The lyrics to this song don't say much and merely repeat the same verse in slightly different ways, but somehow that doesn't matter: this is a revelation so overwhelming that George can't move on and see past it, 'stuck' as he tries to count his blessings as always but still comes up short. It's the melody though that makes this song, all warmth and heart and big gloopy tears where much of this album is sterile and artificial. George's double-tracked guitar solo is also really lovely, as if he's so 'sad and lonely' that the only comfort he can find comes from himself, while his vocal is - for the only time on this album - sung from the heart rather than with a manic grin. Lynne tries to ruin the effect of a simple straightforward song with some off-putting Beach Boys style harmonies, 10cc style synthesised 'aaahs' and more big clobbering drums, but even they just make George sound out of place and isolated, even in the middle of a sound as busy as anything else on the album, just slower.

The solution arrives like a bolt out of the blue with the most convincingly commercial album track 'This Is Love'. While the majority of this album has George either kicking and screaming or pastiching current commercial pop songs circa 1987, this one sounds as if he's found a way to meet halfway between what he wants to say and what his public want to say. Told to write a catchy 'love song', he does just that, writing about how great love is and how much it changed his life for the better and that love is as much a part of the cycle of life as heartbreak. In many ways it's a sequel to 'Blow Away', itself a sequel to 'Here Comes The Sun', in which all it takes is a change of the 'weather' as provided by 'God' to make him feel happy and at peace once again. The decision to put this track after the last song sounds deliberate, George kicking himself for ever getting miserable and ignoring his own advice from 'Beware Of Darkness' that sadness is manmade and 'not what we are here for - instead love 'helps me to remember what we all came here for'. Along the way George remembers how he first felt falling in love with Olivia (we forget it now but there was some aversion to George marrying his secretary and for a time many assumed he'd gone a bit potty leaving a blonde model wife for an olive-skinned unknown), the 'us against the world' feeling they got from 'knowing' that their love was sacred and meant to be in a way that no outsider, thinking rationally, ever could. A celebration of how 'little things can change you forever', this is George remembering to count his blessings anyway and he makes the most of Lynne's production energy here too, offering up a neat recycling of all sorts of proven pop formulas from Jeff's squeaky synths, to a Motown style 'la-la-la-la-love' chorus and even a snatch of Culture Club's 1983 hit 'Karma Chameleon' ('come-a come-a come-a come-a...') George also turns in his 'fanciest' guitar solo in the song and it's a delight, his slide guitar for once used to express joy rather than sadness when set against another 'rattled' aggressive arpeggio burst. This is love and it's an obvious hit - so why was this only the third single from the album, released after the LP had already been a success (and everyone who was going to already owned it?)

'When We Was Fab' makes it a third clever song in a row as George finally gives in to pressure to record a 'beatley' style tune and uses it instead to both affectionately mock and grumpily scowl at how tough those times really were. Everyone else around George talked about The Beatle days as if they were the highlight of their life, but they weren't even the highlight of his own. To put us right he scowls that the 1960s was a time when 'income tax' was high, 'the fuzz' (ie the police) thought they could 'claim you' and in ther song's funniest line that instead of a constant hug from adoring admirers he found himself being 'fleeced' by 'caresses' of people out for something more than he was prepared to give them. He then chunters about the way the Beatle days have been viewed since, pored over with a microscope so that every 'wart' is 'magnified' and basically says that everyone more interested in the Beatle days than the Beatle themselves should get a 'life'. But that's only half of George's nature: there's an affection there too and - aptly for the one Beatle to actually write about Beatlefans affectionately in 'Apple Scruffs' - he slots in lots of lines he knows will please his fans, from the 'gear...fab' chorus shout, the presence of Ringo on drums and the fadeout that 'borrows' from everything from Dylan ('It's all over now baby blue') to Smokey Robinson (again, that 'you really got a hold on me') and himself ('Still the life flows on and on' recalling 'Within You Without You'). The joke too is that staunch Beatle fan Jeff Lynne hasn't noticed the words and treats the production as if George really was affectionately talking about the past as if it was glorious. We get a whole bunch of tricks here on easily his best production, from the 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' style piano riff to the 'I Am The Walrus' style strings to the gorgeous Indian raga playout finale that instantly takes you back twenty years. In 1987 the twentieth anniversary of 'Sgt Peppers' was everywhere with even George (still needing the money) joining in - this track sounds like an attempt to correct the balance, showing us that what the world enjoyed in memory as a halcyon time wasn't quite so fun for the people caught up in it and that those times were 'long ago' and George no longer feels quite so 'fab'. There is, though, enough of a twinkle behind the words and enough of a genuine joy behind the production for George and Jeff to get away with this song, especially thanks to a very clever music video (by 10cc's Kevin Godley, who must have admired the familiar-sounding synth 'aaahs' nicked from his band's own 'I'm Not In Love') that both wickedly sends up and successfully conjures up memories of a bygone Beatle era. George has his cake - and scoffs it too.

Alas side two isn't just a step down from the end of side one but a sudden fall through a trap-door. After turning on his own music, George next turns on 1987's with 'Devil's Radio', a damning and grumpy song about how awful then-contemporary music is, made up of gossip and attacks on people ('like vultures swooping down below'). Not withstanding the fact that this is all true and 1987's music scene was amongst the worst and certainly the emptiest (see, my playground chums, George agreed with me - we must be right!), it's a strange song that uses the sounds of 1987 to appeal to music listeners of 1987 in order to sell lots of copies to music buyers of 1987 that is also being a slap in the face to 1987 music buyers that's actually quite rude. George can be as rude as he liked about other styles of music if he uses his own to 'argue' why he can offer something they can't - or he can enthuse about  other styles of music if he uses them too. But using a snarling sarcastic song about how modern music sucks, while using that modern music backdrop against a lyric that complains that all modern music does is be rude to people, is a slap in the face too far. There's no redeeming feature about this song, which doesn't even have much to say other than 'gee, this is awful' and though George teases us with a mention of the 'devil' there's nothing here about 'God' and why thoughtful, kind music might be better for mankind's spiritual progression. The fact that Jeff and Eric (who plays all the guitar) sound so at home here says more for how much they'd both gone over to the 'dark side' in this era than it does about the song itself, with its snarled gibberish, big booming drums and mass-layered George n Jeff backing vocals. 'It shapes you into something cold, like an eskimo igloo' sings George at his most antiseptic'. Yeah, you got that right, I'm feeling pretty chilly about this song myself. Oh and why is 1987 music 'white and black like industrial waste?', surely one of George's strangest lines in his career and perhaps summing up just how little time he spent thinking about this song.

'Someplace Else' is the album's second and final ballad which after the sincerity of 'Just For Today' just sounds dull and dreary. One of the slowest songs in the Harrison songbook, it's a shame that this melody got [paired with this set of words, which are a rare love song to Olivia about how much inspiration she gave him when he needed it and recalls Paul's similar tribute to Linda on 'Maybe I'm Amazed' (George, wanting a certified 'hit' album, may have assumed that it was one of Macca's highest sellers given that everyone else assumes so too, but actually he kept it private as an album track only his wife and true Beatlenuts were ever meant to hear - you wouldn't think Paul would be the Beatle with the most scruples about his private life, would you?) While the lyric has some occasional gems in there, reflecting on the last time George felt so depressed and sorry for himself, back in 1975 when Patti and much of his audience had disappeared ('I don't know how you found me, but you did - it stopped me heading 'someplace else' and George's shy chat-up lines as he tried to find the courage to speak to Olivia as more than just her 'boss'). There's also the classic line where George sums up a difficult spell in his life when everything was falling apart but he didn't want the world to know that just yet that he's pleased she's still beside him now that things are getting 'untidy'. The way George emphasis that word makes it clear that this is the 'polite' way of putting things! Unfortunately the melody is slow and the production soggy, robbing what should have been a magical song about the transforming powers of love and devotion into a song that sounds like the most tedious relationship ever. Note too how none of the lines in this song actually rhyme with each other (well, 'tidy' and 'me' is as close as it gets), as if George wrote it as a poem first and only later set it to music, which would explain a lot.

So far both album cover (where George looks really good for forty-four) and the songs could just about have fooled younger listeners into thinking that George was a hip new artist that had just been discovered, rather than an aging Beatle. 'Wreck Of The Hesperus' is another album joke aimed at just those sorts of people, as George jokes about being middle-aged,  'getting as old as my mother' and 'feeling like Big Bill Broonzy' (a blues singer who died around aged sixty-five in 1958, when fan George was fifteen - the favoured demographic in 1987 - and he must have seemed, like, well old). George isn't played out just yet though - the title is that he doesn't feel like the 'wreck of the Hesperus'  (an ancient wooden schooner from Biblical times in the poem by Longfellow) but more like 'the great wall of China', built to last the years in an active, useful state. Along the way George re-acts to awards like the Oscars and Tonys as if they're 'real' people, meets a 'snake climbing ladders' and calls himself a 'plucked spring chicken'! Unfortunately what could have been a fine middle eight or a rip-roaring B-side sounds rather dull when drawn out to a full song and it's clearly another one written to short measure to cover up for other things on Harrison's mind (just check out the odd line 'I'm not the power of attorney', which makes no sense in context of the song but every sense given the weary year George has just spent in court).

'Breath Away From Heaven' may have been the best thing about the wretched 'Shanghai Surprise' movie (another bottomless pit that took much of Handmade Films' money), but it's still easily the worst thing here. George sings over some vaguely oriental sounding chords, played by Jeff as if he's in a Chinese Restaurant while George sings about a goodtime Geisha girl as if he's a randy Mick Jagger. It's clear she's broken-hearted and will only contemplate love again if its deep and real - it's equally clear that the narrator simply lusts after her and isn't going to offer her the life she dreams of and is simply taking advantage of her. It's all terribly 'wrong' somehow, both the patronising backing and the closest George ever came to writing sexist lyrics - fitting for the film it may have been, but without the context this is just inexcusably low for a writer who usually reached so high. George's narrator, much like Sean Penn in the film, is simply taking advantage of a local girl's vulnerability, describing her as 'a wounded tiger on a willowy path' and praising her not for her character but purely for her looks. As for Jeff's cacophony of Oriental keyboards, it always made 'Shanghai Surprise' feel a lot more like one of those 1950s B-movies with evil Chinamen played by Americans with dodgy accents rather than the film revolution that took place somewhere around the mid-1970s and 'allowed' actors from ethnic backgrounds to play themselves, by and large. Out of time and out of luck, this song sounds particularly out of place on an album that's otherwise always trying to think 'modern', even if George is simultaneously a bit of a grump over how good that sound actually is. Imagine if someone else had made this song about girls from India, a place he loved - George would have been the first to cry 'foul'.

The album then ends with the first single which had already proven to be a hit. Many casual Beatle fans are amazed when I tell them that George didn't actually write 'Got My Mind Set On You' - and even more amazed when they learn that it's actually a song that dates back to the 'Love Me Do' days, back in 1962 (long before the demographic for this album were born!) Not that big a hit on first release (though written by Rudy Clark, author of 1960s classics 'It's In Her Kiss' and Good Lovin', as covered by AAA bands The Hollies and The Grateful Dead respectively, it was given away to singer James Ray, whose version just missed the charts), you can see why not many fans then now or always ever knew of it. George himself only knew the track because it was his elder sister Louise's favourite song - she'd travelled out to America circa 1960 and the pair were reunited during the Beatles' first tour where she played it to George and gave him a spare copy. The younger brother loved it too and a quarter century later played it to fellow 1950s nut Jeff Lynne, who loved it too. A cover version seemed obvious, especially as it was the kind of repetitive, nonsensical catchy fluffy song George needed to be singing if he wanted a 'hit' and the pair had far more faith in an 'oldie' cover (even a flop oldie cover) than in George's own attempts at this. Weird Al Yanokovic later spoofed the song with his cover 'It's Only Got Six Words!', a measure of just how repetitive this chorus us, but the track makes more sense if you realise it's an R and B cover where repetition is the name of the game. George and Jeff really smarten the song up too, adding an 'Elvis' flavour to the middle-eight not there in the original ('This time I know it's for real...'), lots of sax and a snazzy drum part that dominates the song (the only two things really in common with 1950s and 1980s productions). The new arrangement is also 'looser' limbed, making more of the song's groove compared to the awkward stop-start beats of the original while the sections flow together more easily. Together with George's best vocal on the album, bright and bold and clearly enjoying himself, this single was always going to hit big and big it did, becoming only George's second - and final - number one single in the UK. It was exactly what Harrison needed to do for his bank and marketing prospects, but still feels a little flimsy as an album closer, even for an album as lightweight as 'Cloud Nine'.


The result is at once George's most immediate and heaviest-going LP. While Harrison was never one for consistency (except for 'All Things Must pass' perhaps) and his albums are all an uneven ride at times, this one especially has just gaping chasms between what does work and what doesn't that it's hard to accept they are part of the same album at all. The very in-yer-face 1980s production and the amount of slow songs where nothing much is happening except the booming drums makes you wonder, thirty years after the fact, how this album sold any copies at all the first time round - and yet to this day this record is held up as an example of how good 1980s albums can be when delivered in the right way and that it's one of George's best (I sense both those comments are probably made by people who only know the three singles and didn't bother to hear the rest). The result is an album that did what it had to do (i.e. sell millions of copies) but didn't go the extra mile for what George usually wants to do (offer fans some comfort, some hope and some advice). Short on ideas, big on synths and the catchiest, emptiest moment in the Harrison discography, 'Cloud Nine' has divided fans ever since release and to my ears sounds like a wasted opportunity, even if it is still arguably the best album Jeff Lynne ever made. Sadly George will be 'stuck inside a cloud' for far too long, with the lesser half of the abandoned sequel that became 'Brainwashed' (likely dropped when George realised he didn't need the money quite so desperately anymore) and most of the Traveling Wilburys pair of records suffering from a similar case of 'brain drain'. Personally I'd rather have paid George not to make this record and let him 'Go Troppo' again (both a holiday or a second album like that one, I'm not fussed) rather than hear him be given the identikit 1980s treatment, but that in itself is a measure of how great George usually is and how much we generally expect from him. There are, you see, worse 1980s albums around than this one - but somehow, being a George Harrison album and being quite so 1980s this one sounds spectacularly, woefully, painfully wrong at times.

'Extra Texture (Read All About It)' (1975) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/george-harrison-extra-texture-read-all.html

'Thirty-Three And A Third' (1976) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/george-harrison-thirty-three-and-third.html

'George Harrison' (1979) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-74-george-harrison-1979.html

‘Somewhere In England’ (1981) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/george-harrison-somewhere-in-england_20.html

'Gone Troppo' (1982) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2014/02/george-harrison-gone-troppo-1982.html

'Brainwashed' (2002) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/george-harrison-brainwashed-2002.html

'Hidden Harrison - The Best Unreleased Recordings' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/george-harrison-hidden-harrison-best.html

Live/Compilation/Spin-Off Albums Plus The Occasional Wilbury http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/george-harrison-live.html

Non-Album Recordings 1968-2001 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/george-harrison-non-album-recordings.html

Surviving TV Appearances 1971-2001 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/george-harrison-surviving-tv.html


Other Harrison-related articles from this website you might enjoy reading: 

Cat Stevens/Yusuf: Non-Album Recordings 1966-2014

Non-Album Recordings Part #1: 1966

Sixteen-year-old Cat might have failed at every school exam he'd ever taken (with the exception of art) and been told by endless teachers that he'd never amount to anything - but he'd never lost his faith that he'd amount to something one day and, like his pal Alun Davies, knew he was meant for a career in music however long it took to happen. He'd  been writing and recording demos of his own songs across 1965, signing up with publishing company Ardmore & Beechwood and recording demo after demo in the hope that some other singer would have a listen and take an interest - sadly all these tapes seem to have since disappeared, probably chucked out as no one realised the 'Steven Demetreus Georgiou' on the tape-box was the same person as future star Cat Stevens. However Cat did win a lucrative meeting with Decca manager Mike Hurst, who'd once been Dusty's sidekick in 'The Springfields' and was coerced into recording yet more demos in 1966. We know for a fact that 'I Love My Dog' was one of them and probably 'Portobello Road' and 'The First Cut Is The Deepest' too, but to date the only demo that's appeared from this second batch of sessions is the otherwise unreleased  [1] 'Back To The Good Old Times'. A nice bluesy R and B style song, it's somehow typical that Cat begins his career, still at a tender young age, feeling nostalgic for times gone past. By Cat's own admission later, the lines in this song about 'making love like we've never done before' is pure fantasy (Cat won't get his first girlfriend until he's a 'star'), but he plays the part of someone whose had his heart broken like a professional. Cat's urgent guitar propels his Tom Jones-style gruff vocal along nicely and while the arrangement is a little bare even for a demo you can hear this song's promise had Hurst or Alan Tew added an orchestral arrangement to this song (probably something dramatic and intense, like the end section of 'A Bad Night'). Though not that deep by Cat's standards, every other trademark is in place: the catchy chorus, the long held notes, the intelligence of the lyric which is a cut above most love songs being recorded by lovesick teenagers in 1966. Cat sounds far more confident than he will on most of his early recording sessions too, suggesting these demo dates were a relaxed affair. Though no long lost classic, this was still a pretty major discovery when uncovered for the 'On The Road To Find Out' box set a full thirty-four years after it was recorded; one wonders why it didn't make the 'Matthew and Son' album as it's a lot more complete sounding than 'I See A Road' or 'When I Speak To The Flowers'. Find it on: the box set 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'In Search Of The Centre Of The Universe' (2000)

Non-Album Recordings Part #2: 1967

Here's a rather unfortunate song, where a soon-to-be advocate for peace and a future well regarded Islam fundamentalist gives in to his still-teenage mood swings and sings [28] 'I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun' because he'd feeling a tad cross. This song has followed Cat around somewhat since he released it, perhaps because it touches on a 'darker side' to his personality he'd rather keep hidden and which clashes so badly with his future values (see 'Killin' Time' on 'Izitso?' for this song's polar opposite about gun control), while giving idiots who don't understand Cat's role in the Salman Rushdie fatwah more ammunition. All that said, though, it's hard not to delight in this song's simple charms: who out there hasn't wanted to take revenge on 'those people who put me down' and get back control over them at some stage in their lives (and the song is fairly clear that it's all going on in the narrator's head - he's not really going to roam the streets looking for people to shoot). It's the despair in the song that comes over most: 'I've been demoralised too many times but now I realise - ah-ha - no more!' is the song's sighed opening, making it clear this song is in 'self defence'. A rollicking arrangement won't stay still for a second, mimicking the narrator's confused mind where they keep flying from one thought to another and won't let go of their main thought, which keeps returning to them (I suspect of all Cat's orchestral arrangements this is the one that would sound best heard on it's own, without the pop backing). We're a long way from 'Peace Train', but that's kind of the point: this is an artist experiencing his first critical backlash (the 'Matthew and Son' album wasn't universally liked) and he's too young to handle it yet (I wouldn't at 19 either). This is very much the sound of someone giving into his darkest fears rather than keeping it to himself as the older, wiser, living-above-it-'cause-I-nearly-died Cat would have done; the difference between them is huge, but then it would be - like so many of the teenage murderers we hear on the news the teenage Cat hasn't realised how universal or how temporary this feeling is yet and all he can feel is 'that' rage overwhelming everything else, even his sense of reason (chances are he's never had that sense of losing face and rejection before and it's hit him hard). A much misunderstood song that still sold well (top ten, if not quite a number one as before). Find it on: any decent Decca Cat Stevens compilation and the CD re-issue of 'Matthew and Son' (1967)

The rollicking B-side [29] 'School Is Out' came out a full five years before Alice Cooper's  better known song of the same name. A cute song about school-=leavers setting their sights high as they leave school, you can't help but feel that this song is slightly autobiographical (given that Cat was all of 19 here, his school-days weren't that far behind him - and, for now, his greatest hopes have come true). A kind of 'To Sir With Love' in reverse, this song doesn't try to prepare the students for the big wide world but instead encourages them to be anything they want (although some of Cat's choices sound odd - how many kids then or now dreamed of being a 'local surveyor' or 'a history maker who'll call myself Richard The Third?! These lines sound suspiciously like the only lines that would 'rhyme' with Cat's carefully constructed sentences, allowed through because it's 'only' a B-side). A sad, reflective wordless middle eight seems to add an extra layer of pathos to the song but it doesn't last for long: soon Cat's back dreaming of the big time. An odd song very much of its times, although another excellent orchestral arrangement and another lively Cat vocal raises this song a little higher than it deserves. Find it on: the CD re-issue of 'Matthew and Son' (1967) and the 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'The Search For The Centre Of The Universe' box set (2000)

[36 ] 'A Bad Night' is an adventurous flop single released at the end of 1967 that deserved to do better - especially in amongst the 'Magical Mystery Tour' style climate (where songs got more and more complex but more and more spaced out, which is what happens on this one, Cat's only real 'psychedelic' song). The song starts as a simple love song: cute but dumb ('My baby you're cool and even though you've never been to scho-e-ool...') but then out of nowhere comes a sudden change in mood and a dramatic orchestral climax as she 'changed her mind'. This sudden switch is so violent that even now, after knowing this song really well, I don't always see it coming; it's as if Cat set out to write a different song altogether and then got 'dumped' in the middle of writing it. The song then rights itself, sort of, with a fiercely rattled fast-paced backing track a little like 'It's A Supa (Dupa) Life'  and another song where Cat and an orchestra breathlessly race each other to the finish. Cat's now in bed, tossing and turning, wondering if there was anything more he could have done (perhaps it isn't even him? 'Maybe if the weather was just a little better it might not have happened that way' he sings hopefully). A final surprise is revealed from Cat's box of tricks at the end as a backwards drum-part and some Hawaiian style guitar hit the 'phased' orchestra at its shrillest, making the end of this song the most overtly psychedelic moment in the Cat Stevens canon. Ironically both Cat and the arranger, Arthur Greenslade this time, are now fully working from the same page just as Cat's days with orchestras are about to come to an end, making the sound that bit 'younger' and more contemporary at just the point where they're about to part company. Like a lot of Cat's songs from the 'New Masters' period and the  handful of 1968 recordings this song is impressively inventive and really points the way way forward to how revolutionary and groundbreaking a third Cat Stevens album at the end of the year might have been. But alas it was not to be and groundbreaking psychedelia is the last thing on cat's mind when he finally returns to creating music in 1970 with a new look, a new sound, a new approach, a new record label and a whole lot of other 'new' things besides. As it turned out that 'Bad Night' turned out to be merely temporary - although for a while the nights got a whole lot worse. Released as Cat's fourth single, as a the follow-up to 'Gun' (and with 'New Masters' album track 'The Laughing Apple' on the B-side), it  struggled to #20 in the UK charts. Find it on: the CD re-issue of 'New Masters' (1967)

Non-Album Recordings Part #3: 1968

The chirpy [31] 'Lovely City (When Do You Laugh?)' is much better. Cat had done a lot of travelling by 1968 - more than most lads his age - and it comes out in his writing, with references to 'Katmandu' and 'Ceylon City' in the years before he realises he can experience the world better using his mind and speaking with his 'maker'. Cat's view here is very much a Western tourist, 'an unexpected visitor whose dropped in for tea', slightly cross at being ignored by the locals (if this was Elton John he'd be exploding 'don't you know who I am?!? Rude vile pigs!' Cat though just gets a bit sulky). Cat clearly isn't enjoying himself wherever he is, with 'stony-faced people' who never laugh, although he loves the surroundings. A so-so song is rescued by a remarkable arrangement, featuring a lovely acoustic guitar in the right speaker (the first sign of Cat playing his signature instrument), some thumpy drumming that really pushes the song along and some excellent orchestrations that flesh out the song without getting in the way (the strings are closer to the 'eerieness' of 'I Am The Walrus' than the usual arrangers who worked with Cat, with the latest Lew Warbuton another good find in the singer's final days at Decca). The result is an under-rated song that finds Cat expanding his sound nicely. Find it on: the CD re-issue of 'New Masters' (1967) and the 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'The Search For The Centre Of The Universe' box set (2000)

 [30] 'Image Of Hell' is a truly odd track, left in the vaults after being taped for a long time before release. Cat doesn't so much sing as groan over a slow blues backing dominated by the piano and complaining of a disappearing girl leaving him 'wearing nothing but a shell'. Could Cat mean his fading audience here? (The feeling that you're losing your touch is an 'image of hell' for several performers, aware of how quickly the music business moves on - it's hard enough picking up your life when you're an adult, but going back to a 'proper' job after tasting the high life at 17/18/19 is truly scary - ask any of the X factor/Pop Idol contestants a few years on). Of course we know from Cat's future life that very soon he'll be seeing what 'hell' is really like; that doesn't take away from this song's very real feeling of sadness and frustration though. It's just a shame that, in his sorrow, Cat couldn't come up with a better tune or some slightly better lyrics, with this being one of his weakest recordings so far. Find it on: the CD re-issue of 'New Masters' (1967)

 [33] 'Here Comes My Wife' is very much intended as a return to the 'poppier' catchier songs of old (it's ever so nearly 'Here Comes My Baby') and in many ways is a backwards step for a writer whose been pushing his horizons to their limits. Cat won't get married until his late 30s and his Islamic bride will be very different to the angry, badgering one he imagines here: 'She haunts me, though she don't want me she follows badly...crying, looks like dying on me'. Cat is clearly imagining what his life might have been with one of his rather histrionic teenage girlfriends and realising he had a lucky escape, while simultaneously trying to sound a bit 'older' (this is a 'wife', not a casual girlfriend). Cat sounds unusually unsympathetic to his wife's threats of suicide and imagines himself telling her she's a 'bore' - although he's too nice to say it to her face (instead sounding like a put-upon parent: 'Come come, it's quite alright!') At one with the slightly aggravated and upset sound of 1968, 'Here Comes My Wife' isn't one of Cat's greatest ever songs but it's a surprise it didn't do better - perhaps it would have done had Cat not fallen deathly ill while promoting it. Find it on: the CD re-issue of 'New Masters' (1967) and the 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'The Search For The Centre Of The Universe' box set (2000)

[34] 'It's A Supa (Dupa) Life' is one of my favourite of Cat's early songs, a complete meeting of the ways between his past and his future. For the most part this is a fun song, rushed off its feet with how great life is and then slowly unravelling like a coil with the title becoming gradually more and more ironic and less and less heartfelt. A busy Salvation Army style backing rushes along beside Cat as he first earns and then spends all his money ('You're broke you dope you!') And then at the end something most unexpected happens: a funeral march walks into the song from nowhere, cutting through this song's silliness and pointless rushing around with it's gloom and finality, walking towards the listener and getting louder and louder before 'switching off' mid-note. This is an eerie premonition of the 'partying too hard, getting ill' theme of 1970 that turns Cat's life around forever and sounds like his sub-consciousness trying to warn him (at least assuming it was his idea - it could conceivably be something arranger Mike Vickers added and Cat's ringing off 'supa' is exactly what singers do when they've expected a song to 'fade' and know people won't hear what they've just been singing - until 50 years later in the CD age at least). It's remarkably prescient too (take it from one whose been through way too many of these crashes and burns with his own illness - this is the song we wrote about in 'New Masters' as being the perfect musical allegory of a chronic fatigue syndrome crash; although sadly I'm still not allowed to submit in 'songs' format rather than 'forms' format, as it were, to describe the way I'm feeling to the benefits office!) The result is another excellent song, among Cat's best for Decca, and shows him fully mastering a whole new style. Find it on: the CD re-issue of 'New Masters' (1967)

An unused song from the 1968 singles sessions (which starts off like a simple demo but then gets bigger, suggesting it's a 'real' take), [37] 'If Only Mother Could See Me Now' finds Cat back in the dark mood of the rest of the period. Cat appears to know that his time is over and is already critical of the way he's frittered away his success, referring to himself a 'devil boy' and cackling sarcastically that both mum and dad would be 'proud' to see him now, but he wouldn't feel proud inside. It's all a little bit over-written and self-awarely poetical and sounds as if Cat has been listening to a bit too much Simon and Garfunkel ('The night was long and lonely, everything inside was warm and tranquil, I took a walk along the dark deserted stones of some old chapel...'), but like the other songs released this year it's another stepping stone on the way to Cat singing from the heart and his vocal is a good one, despite cracking under the strain at times. It's certainly a more released state than 'Image Of Hell'! Find it on: the 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'The Search For The Centre Of The Universe' box set (2000)

Non-Album Recordings Part #4: 1969

The only release Cat made in 1969, [35] 'Where Are You?' is a curious way to say goodbye to Cat's 'Decca' years (actually taped back in September 1968 and held over - Cat was at the time lying dying in a hospital bed so this single didn't get much publicity, to say the least). Vocally this is the 'modern' Cat Stevens, singing with his deeper, 'realler' voice and with an acoustic guitar as his main support underneath the orchestral accompaniment and a harpsichord. Lyrically too this is almost 'Mona Bone Jakon' - 'The more I think, the more I know, the more it hurts'. But this is still very much a Decca period recording, with some horribly over-written lyrics ('How can I live without the love I cannot see?') and a general sense that the narrator is feeling sorry for himself. Cat is searching for someone - perhaps the soulmate he'll find in 'Sun/C79' - but hasn't met her yet. Funnily enough the next song but one - coming after a gap of some 18 months - will give 'her' a name: 'Lady D'arbanville'. Find it on: the CD re-issue of 'New Masters' (1967) and the 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'The Search For The Centre Of The Universe' box set (2000)

 [32] 'The View From The Top' is another oddly sad song from a now world-weary 20-year-old which almost certainly touches on how upset he is at the way his records have stopped selling. 'Why am I always trying to be somebody else?' he sighs, as he pines after yet another girl who left him - possibly because his records have stopped selling. or the most part this is an average song by Cat's high standards, but listen out for a key line that even before his near-death experience points the way forward to his later sound: 'Even with the view from the top you could be missing such a lot!' Find it on: the CD re-issue of 'New Masters' (1967) and the 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'The Search For The Centre Of The Universe' box set (2000)

Non-Album Recordings Part #5: 1970

[62] 'I've Got A Thing About Seeing My Grandson Grow Old' is an oh so Cat Stevens song taped during sessions for 'Mona Bone'. Though it's not quite up to that album's high standard, it would have made a fine B-side, with a sweet song about Cat's determination to hold on to life and take care of himself properly. Clearly still affected by his recent brush with death, the twenty-two-year old dreams of the future when he's had not just children but grandchildren, determined to take it easy and not rush around - except when wasting time on 'silly chitter-chatter'. Cat's organised, he's been to the dentist and buys only the best things from the 'supermarket store' and wants to last long enough to see men on the moon, 'with air conditioned gardens that will play your favourite tune'. A clever, jovial tune keeps the mood 'up', while Cat throws in one of his trademark Buddy Holly hiccup 'growls' at the bottom of his register on the word 'old', but despite the easy-going humour (it's not lost on Cat that he's still so young to be thinking these things!) this is clearly also a heartfelt, serious song, too good to have languished at the bottom of a vault for thirty years. Find it on: 'The Very Best Of Cat Stevens' (the 2000 one, not the 1990 one) and the box set 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'The Search For The Centre Of The Universe' (2000)

A most unusual outtake, [38] 'Honey Man' is the only result of the close friendship between two singer-songwriters struggling to rebuild their careers in 1970. By this point Elton's released one flop album and found work as a sessionman (for The Hollies amongst others) but can't get any further up the career ladder, while Cat was a 'star' (and takes the 'lead' here) but hasn't had a top twenty hit in two-and-a-half years. In truth 'Honey Man' sounds more like Elton John's work than Cat's, with a jolly piano rag time beat and oddly lascivious lyrics that might as well be titled 'Candy Man'. Cat doesn't sound too convincing on the vocals, but then neither does Elton and the whole exercise smacks a little too much of yesteryear with the last orchestral part on a Cat Stevens record for many a long year ('Catch-Bull' in 1972 in fact). The song's just too far out of Cat's comfort zone and probably right to stick back in the vaults, but it still makes for a fascinating outtake. Elton's career will take off big time with the release of his second, self-titled album in April 1970 (with 'Your Song' out the following February) and will take off suddenly he had to bail out on a promise to record the soundtrack for a low budget film 'Harold and Maude' in 1971. He'll pass the job on to his old friend Cat instead who'll honour the commitment despite being an even bigger star than Elton by the following year with 'Tillerman' and 'Teaser' under his belt. Don't give up struggling singer-songwriters, your break might be around the corner - what a difference a year makes!...Find it on: the box set 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'The Search For The Centre Of The Universe' (2000)

[39] 'The Joke' is an oddly aggressive song taped early on in the 'Tillerman' sessions that would have sounded very out of place on the album. Noisy and full of electric guitar bursts alternating with horns, the lyrics are a list of complaints about how humans aren't taking their 'job' of looking after each other and their planet sensibly enough. 'There's too many schemers, not enough dreamers' snarls Cat, 'The world's disappearing - but nobody's caring'. Suddenly the joke doesn't sound very funny, with a yearning middle eight finding Cat complaining that nobody else seems fussed to put things right while he's impatient for change, but unfortunately unlike most Cat Stevens lyrics there's no pay-off or solution here either. Find it on: the box set 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'The Search For The Centre Of The Universe' (2000)

[  ] 'Love Lives In The Sky' is a fascinating outtake, recorded near the end of the 'Tillerman' sessions and patently unfinished, with a treacly work-in-progress lyric that sounds like the plot of a Care Bears film ('The looooove lives in the sky!') Both the melody and the first two verses, however, will be resurrected a full five years later for [  ] 'Land O'Free Love And Goodbye'. The biggest difference lyrically is that this original version is a laidback, slightly hippy lyric about some imaginary utopia, while the finished version is clearly meant to be some sort of afterlife/heaven, with the chorus now changed to 'and the God I love, loves me'. Musically, too, there are a few changes, with a less pretty production on this first version without so much gloss and a slower tempo that makes the song sound slightly sad and reflective. This is the only Cat Stevens song we know about that took so long to come into fruition and it's fascinating to compare the two versions, although this early take is clearly not in a released state. Find it on: the box set 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'The Search For The Centre Of The Universe' (2000)

Non-Album Recordings Part #6: 1971

Recorded in the 'Tillerman' sessions, [63] 'The Day They Make Me Tsar' is a most unusual Cat Stevens song. As the title suggests, this song has a nice Russian feel to it as Cat plays the part of a child prince dreaming of growing up to be king one day in the most perfect of backdrops, his head still 'too small for the crown'. Though there's no hint in the lyrics, 'we' know of course that the Russian royal family came to a sticky end and it seems Cat may be juxtaposing the Russian Prince Alexie's joyful innocence with what the audience know about his bloody assassination and future in 1918 as part of the 'Russian Revolution': he imagines 'strangers with no danger' for instance and dreams that it will be snowing on the day he's made Tsar, rather than the day he's buried instead. It's a clever idea for a song, but perhaps a little too clever without any sudden ending or twists in the lyrics. Find it on: the box set 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'The Search For The Centre Of The Universe' (2000)

As the B-side of 'Morning Hass Broken', there was a time when every fan knew the charming [64] 'I Want To Live In A Wigwam', which is even more Cat Stevens-ish than the A-side, but in time the song has been forgotten thanks to its non-appearance on any Cat Stevens album. Socialist Cat, his head now turned from his brush with death, is quite content to live in a wigwam, an igloo, a treehut or a commune ('Where people can call me a hippy!') but is scared of living in a barracks and would hate to live in a palace ('There's too many empty rooms!') The song's nursery rhyme feel becomes a big noisy jam-along with musicians adding one by one and with Gerry Conway's most prominent role on drums, thundering his way through centuries of supposed progress. The end of the song is a delight, Cat singing 'I thank God I'm alive!' and for the first time delivers his mantra 'We've got to get to heaven, get a guide!' The song ends ominously, suddenly fading away mid-sentence as if this is life and work still in progress, the fight for equality and sharing not yet over. Though it's simpler than every other way Cat spelt out his message of love for all (especially God) and a warning over the trappings of stardom that's a key theme in this period, this song sounds different to every other track in this era somehow, Cat laughing at himself as edits his message down to its bare essentials but still believing in it all the same. A most charming B-side, perhaps his best. Find it on: 'Footsteps In The Dark' (1987) and the box set 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'The Search For The Centre Of The Universe' (2000)

Cat's soundtrack for 'Harold and Maude' consisted of around half a dozen previously released songs and two new tracks especially written for the film. A black comedy about what stops humans from killing themselves straight away when they learn they'll only die one day anyway, Cat is particularly adept at getting into the head of the teenage protagonist whose increasingly scared of living and of growing close to people who won't always be there.  [75] 'Don't Be Shy' is the best of his two responses, Cat gently tugging at Harold to leave the prison of his bedroom behind and embrace the world. Urging the character to 'just lift your head and let your feelings out instead', Cat tries to show that feelings are natural, however strong and overwhelming they sometimes feel and that to 'wear fear' is to prevent anyone from having feelings for you too. Cat doesn't talk down to the character, he never pretends things are going to be ok and what's he worrying for - he just lures him out of his enclosed little room full of music with the promise that  'love is better than a song' and that 'it's where we all belong'. A chorus or another verse would have made a promising song better still, but this is pretty and effective enough with a lovely dancing piano part merrily leading the character on to the final transcendental repeat of the main verse, by which time it feels as if we've really been on a 'journey'. Find it on: the 'Harold and Maude' soundtrack (2007) and multiple best-ofs including the box set

[76] 'If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out!' is cut from the same tree, a jollier song that sees Cat encouraging Harold to be himself, to live however he wants 'because there's a million places to go'. A song about freedom, this song has none of Cat's usual angst as he suggests that if any of us really needed freedom we could get it 'today' and giving us the power to say 'yes' or 'no' as we see fit. Cat again plays the elder brother, encouraging a character out from his shell that he clearly feels some connection with (the young pre-fame Cat wasn't quite the party animal of lore either, preferring to sit up on rooftops and stare at London alone than attend discotheques and school get-togethers). Find it on: the 'Harold and Maude' soundtrack (2007) and multiple best-ofs including the box set

Non-Album Recordings Part #7: 1972

The lop-sided instrumental [87] 'Crab Dance' was the B-side to two separate singles released from 'Catch-Bull'. The song's title might refer to either the song's unusual rhythm (which really does sound like it's scuttling back and forth and sideways at different times) or Cat's horoscope (he's right on the Cancer-Leo cusp in fact!) Like many an instrumental this one goes on too long and feels like it needs some words, but is a jolly enough piece, suddenly shooting off in different directions line by line, Jethro Tull style. The closing moments with two guitars, an orchestra, a harpsichord, horns and an early use of synthesiser makes for quite an impact, though and quite an intense finale. Find it on: the box set 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'The Search For The Centre Of The Universe' (2000)

Non-Album Recordings Part #8: 1974

His last three singles, taken from three different records, having all flopped, Cat decided on a change of tack and dropped his usual intelligent original songs for a rock and roll Sam Cooke cover. [102] 'Another Saturday Night' is a fair enough song, with its sense of carnival in the music and suicidal thoughts in the lyrics, but it's not an obvious fit: Cat isn't this sort of vocalist and the song just shows up how much better he is at his slower, more thoughtful songs than this Mick Jagger style barking. Hearing Cat singing such stupid lines as 'If I don't help me find a honey to help me spend my money I'm going to have to blow this town!' also seems like a betrayal, somehow, of everything Cat's recorded up till now. The shrill mariachi horns and subdued multiple extras on the backing vocals don't help much either. Still, I suppose everyone needs some light relief - it's just a shame that was a high profile single release, rather than a B-side like it deserves to be. Most odd, but still catchy enough to be Cat's first top twenty hit since 'Sitting' so, hey, what do I know? Find it on: most Cat Stevens compilations starting with 'Greatest Hits' (1975) and including the box set 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'In Search For The Centre Of The Universe' (2000)

Non-Album Recordings Part #9: 1975

 [112] 'Two Fine People' is an unusual song, the second in a row released as a stand-alone single  (with 'A Bad Penny' from the 'Buddha' album on the flip-side). It starts off as if Cat was trying to write another 'Moonshadow' (the opening line has the same tune as the 'Now that I've lost everything to you' line), before the song explodes into perhaps the archetypal late-Cat era sound full of swirling synths and spit and polish; the difference between a lighthouse in the dark and a chandelier. The lyrics are amongst the simplest Cat will ever write in pure 'I love you' terms, although even these touch on postmodernism by referring to the song being written ('I'll love you and the song that I sing is the only way that I can explain!') The chorus then leaves this dreamworld where Cat's being Mr Lovely (the Mr Men the Hargreaves family haven't got round to inventing yet) and as romantic as he's ever been, to a stinging outcry of outrage and impatience: 'Two fine people should love each other!' Cat Cried, unable to comprehend why this perfect relationship isn't working out the way it did in his head. As the song moves on things get more and more surreal - Cat's love is now going to last until 'snowmen sleep in the sea' and he feels he's 'flying on the power of love', literally by the last verse - in a sort of metaphor language we haven't heard since 'Longer Boats' (thank goodness). The end result is a song that keeps defying description every-time you've just got a hang over what it all means, which may of course be what Cat was after in the first place. The timing seems odd though: while songwriters can of course dig into their past for inspiration, Cat was 'between girlfriends' at the time (one night stands on the other hand...) and this song doesn't sound at one with the songs of love for Patti D'arbanville and co either, which tend to be dreamier, more romantic and wracked with guilt than here. Instead, like 'Ready' from 1974, Cat's impatient for love - though at least he remembers what having all the time in the world sounded like too. Find it on: mult iple Cat Stevens compilations starting with 'Greatest Hits' (1975)

Taped the week the 'Numbers' album came out at Cat's last studio session for nearly eighteen months, [113] 'Blue Monday' is a Dave Bartholomew cover that sounds as if it was light relief from all those Pythagorean theory tales as well as a warm-up for the heavy rocking of the 'Majikat' live band. It's a sort of sequel to 'Another Saturday Night' but not even that good, with clichéd lyrics that run through how horrible the days of the week are until 'Friday when I get my pay' and Saturday is party night all over again. Cat plays this one as if he's trying to sound like his old friend Elton John: this is a thick, heavy piano song that features a much gruffer vocal than usual from Cat and that stilted sort of boogie-woogie sound. He was probably right not to release this one at the time. Find it on: the box set 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'In Search Of The Centre Of The Universe' (2000)

Non-Album Recordings Part #10: 1976

The chirpy instrumental [114] 'Doves' had an interesting life  in the more forgotten end of Cat's discography; it was the 'theme song' of the 'Majikat' tour and was played (to an earlier fade) most nights before the band came out to perform. Cat also released the song in some countries as the B-side of the 'Old School Yard' single in 1977, though not all. As a result it's become one of the most searched-for Cat Stevens songs down the years by fans, who remember the song's distinctive rhythmical sound and sci-fi mix of synths and tones but not necessarily how the tune goes or what the song was called. It's more interesting than most of Cat's instrumentals, mainly because it never keeps still and keeps flying around the musical room, 'landing' on each different instrument in turn (maybe that's why they called it 'Doves'?) Given that most of the instruments are played by Cat overdubbed, this tune must have been a nightmare to put together. Considering the name this track is oddly aggressive too, sounding like [  ] 'Whistlestar' played in anger rather than fun. Find it on: the box set 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'In Search Of The Centre Of The Universe' (2000)

Non-Album Recordings Part 11: 1981

Following the release of 'Back To Earth' in 1978, Cat's life was different in nearly every way. He officially changed his name to Yusuf Islam at the end of 1978 and got married to wife Fauzia Muburak Ali in September 1979 before retiring from music completely - well nearly completely. Not many fans realise it, but it while 'Back To Earth' represents the ending of Cat's first  (or is it his second?), he marked the opening of his next the only way he knew how, with a song. [135] 'God Is The Light', a one-off recording made in 1981 and released mainly within the Muslim community, isn't like Cat/Yusuf's past songs though. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Cat was a searcher, questioning everything and accepting nothing (except, occasionally, love) and though believing that life came with an extra 'dimension' not quite sure what that dimension is. Here he's no longer searching - he's just making a quick return to tell us that he's at the end of his road to find out and he's experienced everything he ever wanted to know. Yusuf sings in a slower, deeper, stiller way that's more in keeping with Muslim 'Anasheeds' (religious 'hymns') than his old music, while the backing features a great deal of backing vocals and a fluttering percussive sound perfectly in keeping with a mosque service. A song full of praise for 'The Creator', Yusuf fits in a quick lyric wondering why so many others won't open their eyes and hearts to see and understand everything he's felt, ending with a lyric that recalls 'Moonshadow' as Yusuf watches the sun go down and realises that even in the darkness he can sense his God around him. Musically this is a completely different to anything Cat/Yusuf has ever given us before, a more serene version of 'I Think I See The Light!' with the shouting and self-doubt removed; this is a man whose always known but now knows and the change in his demeanour is complete already. Yusuf's last recording for fourteen years, he'll be even further down his new road when we hear him next, his belief in the light undimmed. Find it on: the box set 'On The Road To Find Out' aka 'In Search Of The Centre Of The Universe' (2000)

Non-Album Recordings Part #12: 2003
As the 20th century came to a stuttering end, fans had become used to the idea that they would, in all likelihood never hear from the former Cat Stevens again. And that felt kind of OK: Yusuf had a school to run, a family to raise and was far from the recluse many papers pointed him out to be, appearing every so often to tell us all he was still contented whenever the media needed a go-to Muslim to talk to or the school was doing something interesting. Then in 2001 everything changed: until 9/11 religions had been living fairly happily (if ignorantly) alongside each other and had learnt to be as tolerant of each other as people with deeply held views can ever be, but the attack on the twin towers (itself, it could be argued, in response to American - and therefore largely Christian - meddling) turned Muslims into an 'alien race' overnight and everyone was under suspicion. Even Yusuf, who was temporarily deported from America in the days after the attacks until a public outcry and a rather embarrassed American Government press release about how Yusuf wasn't violent after all but was being allowed to go on his way after all...to attend a Nobel Peace Prize giving. Yusuf, feeling the responsibility of speaking out on behalf of the 'real' Muslim community, as shocked and stunned at the attacks as anyone else, gave an impromptu performance of 'Peace Train' in 2001 that became his first recording in twenty years (albeit only caught by press cameras). This feeling that maybe Yusuf could be doing some good by spreading the message of peace and that he was in a unique position to help the world came at the same time his son 'discovered' his dad's old music and asked to borrow his favourite guitar (still hanging on the back of Yusuf's bedroom door as a reminder of times gone by). Yusuf had gone twenty years without hearing music except during services, figuring that he no longer needed it in his life, but seeing it again through his son's eyes and how strong his musical genes must be (and therefore that he must have been created that way on purpose) Yusuf relented and tried to teach his son what he could remember. The lessons took place over two years sporadically, Yusuf regaining his enthusiasm as his son got better and better and asked to hear more of his dad's songs.
The first fruits the public heard was in 2003 when [  ] 'Peace Train '03' was released as a standalone single. Fans of the old single were in for a shock as the difference between the new and old was like the difference between steam and electric power. The song starts as a chant repeating the chorus before an older, sadder Yusuf speak-sings the first verse, ending with an extended passage, free of the uncertainty that the Peace Train might not arrive: 'Oh yes I know it's going to come', Yusuf now joined by his backing singers. It's not necessarily a pleasant listening experience, the original's happy go lucky freedom now curtailed by the weight of the world on its shoulders and the song smacks perhaps too much of Yusuf's 'new' world to appeal to those of the 'old' one, which was the original intention. But this slow and gloomy yet more sure-footed 'Peace Train' has its heart in the right place and played it's small part in calming the world post 9/11.  Find it on: 'Footsteps In The Light' (2006)

The B-side was [  ] 'Angel Of War' a percussive-heavy and dramatic track that sounds not unlike 'Lady D'arbanville' but delivered harshly rather than sweetly and in a noisy a capella 'n' drums style rather than the fragile beauty of the acoustic guitar. Yusuf's lyrics are good though, singing about how confused he feels despite the certainty of his beliefs and confused over 'whose my enemy' with Muslims attacking Muslims as well as other religions. He sums up the dichotomy of this fractured world well, turning to youngsters and telling them to put things right by defending their faith - that 'if peace is your wish then to battle you must go'. This track is a little too much like a sermon to be a song, though. Find it on: 'Footsteps In The Light' (2006)

Non-Album Recordings Part #13: 2004

By contrast Yusuf's next move was perhaps the highest profile thing he's ever done. By 2004 the former Boyzone singer was everywhere and inescapable, the new face of 'sophisticated pop' in the same way that The Beatles summed up everything great about the 1960s and The Spice Girls summed up everything bad about the 1990s. Like many former boy band members, Ronan's voice is at best average on its own, but at least unlike most boy band members he has an interest and sympathy for past singers and writers. A duet with Yusuf, now playing the elder role on 'Father and Son' to Ronan's youngster, is one of several canny career moves, embracing Ronan's role as keeper of the musical flame by introducing singers of the past to those in the then-present day while making his singles 'stand out' more than their competitors. 'Father and Son' was a career choice too, appealing to fans as a memory of the first song Keating sang in public, at the Boyzoine auditions. You sense in any other era Yusuf would have turned the idea down flat: he gave up hanging round with pop stars in 1968, really didn't want the publicity for himself and hadn't performed the song in 38 years. However, with so much Muslim-bashing going on and a chance to get people talking for the right reasons, Yusuf agreed to sing his 'father' lines, bagging the most-discussed they-didn't-did-they? single of the summer and a #2 UK hit. Yusuf even appears in the video, singing his lines much like he did on the 'Tillerman' original, just vaguer. The song deserves its success, if only because it's far better than the rest of the material Keating wasted even his average vocals on in this period and the song did lead to an increase of interest in Cat's back catalogue, which can be no bad thing. However fans of the original will find this re-recording hard to take: what was so sincere about the original is now cheesy and fake, with Yusuf's sincerity ill-matched to Keating's eager young pup trying to make a hit record and the synths are no match for Yusuf's guitar. However, perhaps that's how it should be: Yusuf was too self-aware and grown-up, even as a twenty-two-year-old in 1970, to play the part of a youngster wanting to discover life for himself; finally he's found someone whose as rich and famous as can be willing to play that part for him, even if Ronan was thirty-seven - fifteen years older than Cat - when he recorded it. Not recommended for fans with a love for the original or of a weak disposition, though it's a good halfway house to weaning your boy and girl-band pop loving relatives/friends/flatmates onto something deeper and less irritating. Believe me, I feel your pain. Find it on: The Ronan Keating record 'Ten Years Of Hits' (2004)

Non-Album Recordings Part #14: 2005

To these ears one of the best songs by the 'comeback' Yusuf is [  ] 'Indian Ocean', a track that touches not on religion or time past but on the very Cat Stevens theme of finding hope in the depths of despair. The song was inspired by the Boxing Day earthquake/tsunami in Indonesia which killed 230,000 people across fourteen different countries and left many millions of children homeless. Footage of the weeping children on TV, especially, got to Yusuf who figured that it was his duty as someone in the spotlight to put things right for them, with this track - surprisingly perhaps - his first ever 'charity single', the proceeds going via his own children's charity 'Small Kindess' to help those orphaned in the district of Banda Aceh. You can tell instantly that Yusuf 'means' this song more than any of his other comeback songs (at least until 'Roadsinger'), that this recording is less about 'us' trying to persuade 'them' what they're missing in an irreligious world and about the shock and heartbreak shared by everyone. Yusuf even puts his narrator in the action, playing the part of a holidaymaker promised fun in the sunshine 'going East' because it looked so good in the brochure. His wife doesn't agree, but he persuaded her: 'in life, this may be the only chance we get!' He comes to regret the irony of those lines, as three minutes (half of the song) in the track gets heavy and noisy and the first wave hits. Yusuf may well be remembering his own time fearing he would be washed away by a current before crying out for God that so changed his life back in the mid-1970s: this song matches the sense of panic and dread, tinged with a feeling of having properly understood how the world works for the first time. The family makes it back to a completely changed looking shore, completely changed themselves and doing their own part by taking in and looking after orphaned children in their holiday hut. Yusuf uncomfortably rhymes 'ocean' with 'lotion' as a sop to the pop audience, but musically this is the best hybrid yet of the 'old' and 'new' Cat, with heavy hypnotic percussion but also a strong tune, with the same quirky 'dance' as his percussive Catch-Bull period. This is a major stepping stone in Yusuf getting some of his old sound back again which did his own muse a lot of good, as well as raising some valuable money for a much-needed cause. Of all these 'extra' songs, it's probably the track on this list most substantial and worth hearing - at least since 1971. Find it on: 'Gold' (2005)

Non-Album Recordings Part #15: 2008

Yusuf's second charity release was a new song offered as a contribution to a various artist's album released to raise money for the support of indigenous tribes people around the Amazon river. The project was masterminded by Bruce Parry, who worked a TV series around the rights of these millennia-old tribes, plus Molly Oldfield, the son of singer-songwriter Mike (though you'll be pleased to hear there are no tubular bells across the album). Many of the tracks, though not Yusuf's, feature 'real' tribal drumming in a fascinating mixture of modern and ancient cultures, united in the same language. Yusuf's pre-recorded track [  ] 'Edge Of Existence' is still the album highlight though, another of his better 'comeback' recordings performed in the acoustic style of 'Roadsinger'.  This is a slow burning song, starting off simple and quiet with just Yusuf and his acoustic guitar before growing in scale and tone, with cutting electric guitars and heavy percussion coming in. Lyrically Yusuf imagines himself and perhaps humanity too going out on a limb, pushed further and further from what mankind ought to be doing and in danger of disappearing. Yusuf wonders what their ancestors might think if they had the chance to save the world (the tribe?) and didn't do anything, sighing 'it's too late now - history's dying and our names won't be found!' Yusuf's vocal is a little atonal here and hard to listen to, but the melody is a strong one, with the urgency of the acoustic and nonchalant swipes of the jagged electric guitars making for a particularly strong double act. Find it on: the Various Artists CD Bruce Parry Presents Amazon Tribe: Songs For Survival' (2008)

Non-Album Recordings Part #16: 2009

Though the religions both men ultimately chose may have been different, Cat Stevens and George Harrison had very similar careers, learning early the hard way that being a pop star wasn't what it was cracked up to be and looking for a chance to make life deeper and more meaningful. Yusuf was an obvious person to ask, then, when '42nd Beatle' Klaus Voormann (Hamburg friend, 'Revolver' cover artist and all round nice guy) put aside his days guesting on other people's albums and asked them to guest on his instead. Klaus was particularly close to George and a particular fan of his under-rated 'Living In The Material World' album from 1973, which is the Harrison record most like Yusuf's 'comeback' albums (especially the lecturing 'An Other Cup'). Yusuf is a natural fit for that album's composition [  ] 'The Day The World Gets Round' and, though no 'Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)' or 'Be Here Now', it's a pretty song that mirrors 'Peace Train' in longing for a better day when the world leaves petty grievances behind and starts getting on with running things properly. Yusuf's a good fit and performs well, delivering a song that was successful enough to be chosen as the project's single, credited to 'Klaus and Yusuf' (which sounds like the weirdest solicitors since Crosby, Stills and Nash!) Beatles fans may be excited to learn that the picture sleeve features a 'modified' version of Klaus' 'Revolver' cover, modified to feature a likeness of the early 1970s Cat. proceeds from the single went to Save The Children in order to raise money for war-torn Kosovo, though sadly not much: this fine single deserved to do better and all but disappeared without much publicity. How great would this project have been if George had still been alive to sing on it too?   Find it on: the original single or Klaus Voormann's album 'A Sideman's Journey'

The collaboration was successful enough for a second recording, the sadly much more obvious choice of [  ] 'All Things Must Pass'. Though a stronger song (it's one of George's best, dealing with the inevitability of change and death, but in a Cat-like way that it won't be as bad as we fear), this is an inferior copy, losing the original's sense of haunted longing, panic and restlessness and replacing it with a cheap synth sound and a slow tempo that has Yusuf singing in his clipped, insincere 'Foreigner' voice again. 'Beware Of Darkness' or 'Isn't It A Pity?', from the same album, would have been more original choices and much better fits for Yusuf's voice. Find it on: the original single or Klaus Voormann's album 'A Sideman's Journey'

Meanwhile, back in Yusuf's 'real' career, he surprised many by releasing his first stand-alone 'mainstream' single since 1978 with [  ] 'Boots and Sand'. The publicity leading up to this song sounded delicious: Yusuf was going to obliquely refer to the shabby way the Bush government treated him in the wake of 9/11 and the singer was going to be joined by two music legends in Paul McCartney and Dolly Parton. What could go wrong? Well, for a start when Yusuf said obliquely he meant it - this song about a walk through the desert would make no sense at all if you didn't know the story and still makes little sense if you do, the closest Yusuf comes to outrage as his treatment is a line of confusion as two sheriffs ask him to pass along. There's a strong second verse that feels like it belongs in 'Mona Bone Jakon' where Yusuf's idealistic young narrator arrives in America, the 'magical place' where 'records turn into gold' that's sung with the same self-deprecating sarcasm as 'Pop Star'. Ultimately, though, this is a self-indulgent song where the humour is for Yusuf rather than 'us' and instead of us laughing together it feels as if the joke lost it's punchline in translation somewhere. The nursery rhyme melody is beneath Yusuf too and the spoken word interjection in the middle ('What song is this? I think it's a good one!') so arch and awful you briefly wonder if you've stumbled accidentally into a Spice Girls song. As for the two guest artists, Yusuf must have barely said a 'hello, Dolly' as the country star sings about two lines the whole song and doesn't sound particularly interested in those (odd, as she does one of the better cover versions around of 'Peace Train' and 'Where Do The Children Play?' in 1996 and 2005 respectively). As for the second Beatle collaboration of the year (in all likelihood Yusuf plucked up the courage to ask Macca while making Klaus' album, which also features Paul) - he sings a lot, but none of it well and the pitching between two very different voices is awkward and unconvincing. Probably a good move to boot this odd song off the album, although it's strange why it made it onto a single at all. The music video - part cartoon, part what the? surrealism - is pretty bonkers too. Find it on: the single only having never appeared on album, although the music video appears as a bonus cut on the deluxe edition of 'Roadsinger' (2009)

Non-Album Recordings Part #17: 2011

A final standalone single from in between the 'Roadsinger' and 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' albums,     [  ] 'My People' is the angriest we've heard Yusuf yet about the treatment of Muslims around the world. 'Stop oppressing us!' he yells, claiming they want 'bread, clothes, space to rest - and be left alone'. Though the singer is careful never to mention who 'my people' are (they could be all of humanity in the first verse), Yusuf goes on to ask for them to be let out of jail and for people to stop 'building walls' around them all which does suggest his religious followers. The music for this track is a sort of jazzy 'Give Peace A Chance', though without the catchy chorus. Politically, many people were quick to point out the 'Muslims did it to us first' syndrome, but like 'Give Peace A Chance' this isn't about who threw what first but why nobody should be throwing things at all. A bit disappointing, really, with the heartfelt words never quite progressing into the powerful statement you think they're going to be or coaxing any real sense of emotion out of Yusuf who may as well be reading a shopping list. And there wasn't even a B-side to go with it!  Find it on: A download single (2011)

Other Cat Stevens/Yusuf related articles from this website you might be interested in reading:

'Matthew and Son' (1967) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/cat-stevens-matthew-and-son-1967.html

'New Masters' (1968) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/news-views-and-music-issue-114-cat.html

'Mona Bone Jakon' (1970) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-35-cat-stevens-mona-bone-jakon.html

'Tea For The Tillerman' (1970) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-41-cat-stevens-tea-for-tillerman.html
'Back To Earth' (1978) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/cat-stevens-back-to-earth-1978.html

'Roadsinger' (2009) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/05/news-views-and-music-issue-31-yusuf-aka.html

'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' (2014) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/yusuf-cat-stevens-tell-em-im-gone-2014.html