Friday 4 July 2008

Cat Stevens "Buddha And The Chocolate Box" (1974) ('Core' Review #62, Revised Edition 2014)

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Cat Stevens "Buddha and the Chocolate Box" (1974)

Track Listing: Music/ Oh, Very Young/ Sun-C79/ Ghost Town/ Jesus// Ready/ King Of Trees/ Bad Penny/ Home In The Sky (UK and US tracklisting)

‘Home at last, because all of the bad times have past’

Yesterday I was on the edge, hoping everything was going to work itself out. A good honest reviewer, doing the work of Max The Singing Dog, trying to find something interesting to say about (gulp) five very similar albums by Poco or (bigger gulp) six very different and very odd albums by Hot Tuna. A lover of life, in a school for fools where the Spice Girls are popular and the Coalition keeps trying to interrupt my work with yet another medical form/interview/unnecessary interruption. But all we need is music - sweet music - to brighten the world, to save us. 'Buddha and the Chocolate Box' is a record that doesn't often get mentioned as being the sweetest, the brightest or the most healing record in Cat Stevens' fine collection of eleven original albums recorded in the eleven years between 1967 and 1978, but it should. Most Cat Stevens fans will rave on about ‘Teaser’ and ‘Tillerman’ till the firecats come home, but it’s generally forgotten to the world at large that Cat made several other fine LPs in the 1970s. In truth Buddha isn’t much like either of Cat’s famous twin albums, not having the same thematic consistency or acoustic honesty that they do. But 'Buddha' has so much to offer, being easily the best and most consistent album from the second-half of Cat's career, at the same time breaking so much new ground ('Music' is Cat at his angriest, 'Oh Very Young' at his most philosophical, 'Sun/C79' at his most prog rockish, all three Cat at his best) and at the same time sounding 'more' like a Cat Stevens record than ever.

For years 'Buddha' got somehow left behind in the rush of fans to Cat's side in the early 1970s. Released hard on the heels of an 'experimental' album of only five songs (the under-rated 'Foreigner'), Cat realised that he had gone too far and now that he is safely back home this is one last attempt to make music his priority and lure as much of the crowd back as possible. It reminds me of ‘Mona’ in that now that Cat is back home and out in the world again everything seems bigger all over again: more bold, more beautiful, more brilliant with stronger moods of pure anger sadness and happiness. However Cat is less interested in the humility and acoustic fragility he had before and seems to treat this record as his last great big chance to say something to the fans, packing everything into this high budget album. As a result ‘Buddha’ has the biggest and most expansive sound of any Cat album: full of bleeping synthesisers and equally bleeping choirs filling up every possibly hole, while the instrumentation tends to fill the songs up with three guitars and four pianos where usually one or two would do.  'Buddha' is a very 'busy' album, with a lot going on even for Cat, and these are usually the sort of increasingly-desperate albums we despise at the AAA: albums big on sound but short on ideas (as a general rule we prefer the 'weird' experimental five song albums instead). But 'Buddha' is an album that, from the opening angry snarl, doesn't ever do quite what you expect of it, a record one step ahead of us most of the way through. Despite the hugeness of the sound and the wideness of the scope, this is also Cat at his most personal, intimate and downright engaging he’s been since 'Mona Bone' with an honesty and bite to his lyrics that’s long been buried under his guise as an age-old philosopher. No longer does he sound like the cold hard detached ‘Old Testament’ Cat of ‘Foreigner’ – this album is as warm-blooded and emotional as he ever made, with the benefit of a full band sound behind him. Buddha may have swapped the acoustic guitars and pianos for electric guitar riffs and keyboards but this is still a very Cat Stevens-like album, full of sensitive philosophical ballads, angry rockers putting the world to rights and plenty of mystical lyrics and drop-dead gorgeous tunes along the way.

You may have noticed that the album title mentions religion overtly for the very first time - and it's not yet the religion most fans associate with Cat. In the context of Cat’s career Buddha ought by rights to have been his ‘conversion’ album, the moment when after the doubts of ‘Foreigner’ he finally comes out and admits that he’s heard God a-calling. However Cat is for now not yet sure which God he can hear. Is it the Catholic one of his childhood as depicted on ‘Jesus’? Is it the Buddha he has been reading about? Is it, as he wonders aloud in that very song ‘both’? It is, as it happens, a ‘different’ God altogether that will arrive in his life soon, but Cat isn’t sure yet. All he knows is that he is on roughly the right path, has roughly the right ideas and is roughly sure that he wants to get his audience alongside him this time, giving us spiritual nuggets literally in bite-sized chocolate-covered pieces judging by his latest charming illustration on the back cover (sadly, his last). Though long dismissed because of that title and that track and the timing as Cat's 'religious' album, this is another album like ‘Foreigner’ that hedges its bets, trying to work things out in song but still presenting these recordings in a way that doesn’t make them sound like sermons (there actually won’t be a religious album until he changes his name to Yusuf, indeed). However there are hints throughout and it’s notable that the most overt references come on ‘Jesus’,  which is fittingly right at the ‘heart’ of this album, track five on a nine-track LP. You can still see the cogs in Cat’s head working overtime about what life is all about in the other lyrics on this album, however – never has a Cat Stevens record been so dominated by the theme of searching for spiritual enlightenment, as he tries to come to terms with how the world seems different and yet the same since his awakening.

Cat didn’t become committed to one particular belief overnight and though the album barely touches on religion it is notable how many of these songs are about conflict, of characters who keep being pulled this way and that. For now Cat is still waiting for a sign and many of the people on this album are too, the narrators constantly having to work out their way forward by themselves, struggling to work out if what they’re doing is right or not. ‘Music’ finds the narrator complaining about the obstacles in his way trying to do work for ‘him’ which make him question his faith altogether; ‘Oh Very Young’ questions the point of waiting when life is so short and humanity only has a short time span with which to make their mark on the world; Sun/C79 tries to answer a child's question ‘why am I here?’ – only to end up telling the story about a relationship instead, the narrator trying to come up with a stories about the Gods and the world and the stars but reduces it to the simple fact that he and his mother were in love and that’s all there was to it; ‘Ghost Town’ sounds like cat suddenly realising that if God is true then an afterlife must be too, poking fun at who he might find there when it is his turn to pass over. Being a Hollywood fan he imagines it all as some epic overgrown B-movie full of celebrities jostling for the limelight; ‘Jesus’ has it both ways, showing the similarities rather than the differences between Jesus and Buddha who both wanted to make the world a better place; ‘King Of Trees’ is the tale of a man who grew up admiring a tree in his childhood forced as an adult to make money from cutting it down. The only unambiguous songs here are ‘Ready’, another song about being impatient for spiritual change and ‘Home In the Sky’, a far more serious take on the afterlife and where Cat might end up. This is a conflicted album though, like ‘Foreigner’, with Cat still confused as to where his fate lies – ‘A Bad Penny’ for instance is worried about making the wrong choice, of being blinded by ‘idle lies’ as Cat worships the ‘wrong’ God. However instead of forcing religion down our throat like chocolates Cat is also writing these songs in a way his fans will relate to again: for instance you don’t have to believe that you are waiting for a telephone call from God to understand the anger at the heart of ‘Music’, you don’t have to believe in an afterlife to get the joke in ‘Ghost-Town’ and `you can be just as ‘Ready’ to have sex as you can to be ready for love and enlightenment.  

Even the title of this album, accompanied by that typically wacky but thought-provoking illustration on the back cover, reflects Cat’s dilemma or perhaps more accurately his audience’s.. In this story, I think, a Buddhist student travels down the path until a spider makes him rear. However he is only programmed to have a phobia of the spider because he doesn’t ‘understand’ it. Instead the tune that the spider plays makes the boy think about wonderful things. As he imagines chocolates his senses fill him up with pleasure. Only when he unwraps them does he realise that actually he has been given chocolate Buddhas, edible nuggets of spiritual goodness with religion dressed up as confectionary. His head spinning the boy walks past the spider into a new path lit by the sun, although he does look awfully pale all of a sudden. This is meant to be us I think. Cat wants to draw our attention to the religious ideas on this album but he knows that a majority of his fanbase will never buy anything with religion as a central theme. So instead he makes it a quirky album title name and gives us chocolate in pretty bite-size pieces in the hope that we will somehow get the flavour of what has just happened to him all the same. This is, for me at least, a brilliant conceit. Elsewhere in the AAA cavalcade of religions we get George Harrison deeply committed to Hinduism after dabbling with hare Krishna, Paul Simon exploring his Jewish faith and fear of death plus The Byrds in their hippie Christian phase. None of them, for me, handle their respective belief systems as well as this (and admittedly Cat himself will come a cropper on the unlistenable sermon that is ‘An Other Cup’ in 2006), mostly because Cat has enough faith in his audience to leave us to work this out for ourselves if we want to, or leaving us to enjoy this album as nine slices of ‘sweet music’ if we don’t want to see it (the illustrative point is, after all, on the back sleeve not the front – and only dedicated fans look at back sleeves nine times out of ten). In a way this album cover is Cat’s dilemma in a nutshell (chocolate nutshell?) too and adds to the debate at the heart of both ‘catch-Bull’ and ‘Foreigner’. Does he give in completely to spiritual matters, even though it means taking the harder, painful course that has already caused a great deal of anguish in his musical career? Or does he continue to live a pampered luxurious rich lifestyle, as personified by the enticing chocolate box painted on the original album’s inner sleeve? (Not that Cat ever did live this sort of a lifestyle, even at his pop-star peak, but he would undoubtedly have been better off financially by giving up his beliefs and writing another couple of [72] Moonshadows. George Harrison has another thematic link with this album – Savoy Truffle from the White Album taunts the listener into over-indulgence with various tasty treats before reminding us that we’ll have to have our teeth pulled out if we scoff our faces with every great thing on offer to us – that worry might well be in this alb8um’s key imagery too.

For those who feel they ‘know’ Cat through his music, or in as much as you ever know anyone through the layers of double-glazed glass that songwriting represents, this question might seem stupid. We know that Cat was brave enough to change his life once in 1970 and the whole world seemed to love it—therefore, why not again? We also, of course, know how the story ends - with Cat disappearing from the limelight in just four years to take up religion full time (and interestingly it's neither of the two mentioned across this album, Cat hearing the calling but not understanding the source of it yet). But Cat is torn: any more ‘self indulgence’ as he taps into a source with which to save the universe and he will have lost his followers all over again, something that really stung him when ‘New Masters’ came out at the end of 1967. However by concentrating purely on music to the detriment of everything else he might lose the chance for the final spiritual boost he seeks. From now on all the records Cat will go on  to do in the rest of his ‘first’ career are a compromise: albums such as ‘Numbers’, ‘Izitso?’ and ‘Back To Earth’ are albums that are half when-do-I-get-finish-my-contract? nothing songs (particularly the instrumentals which is something Cat had never bothered with before 1975) and half are wondrous, full of some of Cat’s best spiritual writings, touching directly on the issues troubling him on tracks like [116] Life and [132] Father.

Buddha And The Chocolate Box is along with 'Foreigner' Cat's 'stepping stone' album. He knows by the very title of 'Catch Bull At Four' (about the 12 stages of enlightenment) that there is more to life than he's experienced so far and that being a millionaire writing catchy hits (even spiritual catchy hits) isn't enough. 'Foreigner' finds him lost and isolated, trying to find a direction which he sort-of discovers on that album's last wondrous track '100 I Dream'. 'Buddha' hasn't yet found the true destination either  - but it thinks it knows where to look for it and is largely a much happier album than its predecessor (although 'Music' and 'A Bad Penny' reveal how hurt Cat still is by betrayal and sycophantism). 'Buddha', in contrast to what's about to come, is the last Cat Stevens album not to have this worry running through it directly and doesn’t have that same compromise between the deeply-felt and the throwaway: practically everything here is deeply felt and on the few times Cat doesn’t seem to believe in what he is singing, it shows quite brilliantly. The first side of this record may well be Cat’s best quarter-hour (it is a very short side, alas!) as he does everything no other songwriter could do, in turn, in fresh new ways. ‘Music’ is him at his most angry, using that bitterness that usually fires up his romantic songs of heartbreak to rail at the world for being narrow-minded and pig-headed before delighting that we can at least talk to each other through music. ‘Oh Very Young’ is the song Cat has been trying to write for years since nearly dying from TB that has come into focus at last, that we only get a short time to make our mark and have to make the most of our chances or it will be over and any attempt at living longer than we are meant to is going to go badly. ‘Sun/C79’ is devastatingly beautiful as Cat feels the pangs of nostalgia, wondering about the alternate life as a family man that might have been, a simply hotel number shining through the years like a beacon. ‘Ghost Town’ is one of cat’s admittedly small list of comedy songs, mingling up different people from different eras to create chaos. And ‘Jesus’ is Cat putting his spiritual thoughts into words, telling us about two religious leaders who only wanted us to be better. What's more, unlike the distracted 'Izitso' and ';Back To Earth', Cat makes several mentions of music still being his greatest mistress: the album is bookended to two hymns to the power of music, one actually titled 'Music' reflecting on its ability to heal even as angered and bitter a soul as his and the closing 'Home In The Sky' adds that music 'is a lady that I still love - because she gives me the air that I breathe'. Even though Cat is aware that he has a role in life to play beyond selling pop singles, he’s not ready to give ‘us’ up yet, with music too important to quit just now. Cat hasn't sounded this inspired since his glorious year in 1970 - and sadly will never sound quite this driven or committed again.

There's a secondary theme running through this record too about the shortness of our time on this planet, an idea taken in nine very different ways. We complained in our review of 'Tillerman' that [54] ‘But I Might Die Tonight' was a great song restricted to just ninety seconds. This entire album feels like nine variations of that song extending that theme in various different ways. 'Music' is full of anger - how dare people ask Cat to do such frivolous things when time is ticking and there is so much of importance to do. 'Oh Very Young' - one of Cat's greatest achievements and deservedly the album's best known song - drips with great big wet tears over how goodbyes are always hard and even though we try to 'patch up' up the goodbyes by eking out our lives the same way we stick patches on our jeans, we're all doomed to die before we're quite ready for it. 'Sun/C79' is my favourite Cat song of them all, trying to answer that age-old question 'why are we here' with a tale of a night of love that seemed so powerfully alive and wonderful that the narrator has been searching for a time like it ever since, sadly cut short by a relentless schedule that took him away and meant he only truly appreciated it in retrospect. 'Ghost Town' pretends that there is another chance on another plain sometime when we all die, full of all the stars we always wanted to meet running riot in a town literally filled with ghosts, but is secretly making the point that the afterlife won’t quite be like this, that our chance of happiness is in this life. 'Jesus' calls all to prayer with the lives of both Jesus and Buddha re-told, lifetimes that still have an impact thousands of years on but were really very short. 'Ready' is the most lustful song of Cat's career, urging his girlfriend to go all the way because time is too shorting for courting. 'King Of Trees' is Cat's sole ecological protest song about not seeing the wood for the trees, comparing the short life and fleeting needs of the short-lived human population compared to the great centuries-old tree pulled down for their comfort. 'A Bad Penny' suggests that life is too short for fake friendships and fake belief systems. And finally 'Home In The Sky' reflects on the day that inevitably waits for us all, with Cat crying 'world, goodbye' as he takes his final resting place in the 'ghost town'.

I've always been fascinated by the portrayal of afterlifes in art and it's arguably the biggest concept you can have on any record because it puts everything else in perspective. Is this life it, with all of us free to do whatever we want in all ways but legally, or is there some form of karma or retribution for it? Are we made to go round and round in circles until we get it right? Does paradise await us if we work out how to conduct ourselves properly in this life? At the heart of this album is the question that has been gnawing away at Cat for some time: do we indulge ourselves and make the most of enjoyment in our short lives or do we use it to prepare for what comes next? Oddly, perhaps, ‘Buddha’ is the only AAA album I can think of that does this (Paul Simon’s ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’, another brilliant LP, is a close competitor but even that one breaks away to talk about other things). Where Cat cleverly succeeds across this album is painting himself as a similar searcher to all of us, with the same questions rolling around his head but still not the answers, not yet: only twice does he agree definitely to the idea of there being an afterlife and the two very different descriptions offered in 'Ghost Town' and 'Home In the Sky' suggest that he isn't sure whether it's really there yet either. When the day comes for me and Cat finally joins us too (hopefully not for many a long decade to come yet) I'll be sure to tell him whether he was right or not; if he is right (and he tends to be right about most of the earthly realm - there are few writers I trust to tell me the 'truth' of living in this world than Cat) then most likely I shall be there with a copy of 'Buddha' in cloud-form clutched under my now non-existent arms: my spiritual guide to the next life if it happens to be there, home in the sky in the morning, wondering what this life - and especially the Spice Girls - were really all about.

Along with the last truly meaningful collection of lyrics on a Cat Stevens LP this all adds up to one hell of a powerful album and a very special one it has to be said. ‘Buddha’ has its problems sure – Buddha all but comes to a full stop partway through side two and when a record only lasts for thirty-two minutes in total it’s a brave performer who takes up a good ten of those with obvious filler material like 'Ready' (a less inspired [68] 'Sitting' with different lyrics), the weirdo slow number ‘A Bad Penny’ and the closer 'Home In The Sky (which is lovely but awfully insubstantial as a song). I would still edge towards the naked honesty of ‘Mona Bone’ over this album too where life and death is, well, more of a life and death struggle somehow, with death imminent rather than a cerebral conundrum to solve. There's so much to recommend about it though: the melodies are almost uniformly great, correcting the downward trend of ‘Foreigner’ and the running order makes the most out of this album’s diverse styles – rocky, poppy, gospelly, traditional, adventurous; this album covers a ridiculous array of styles, perhaps more than any other of Cats records. Cat’s regular team of musicians, including guitarist Alun Davies, Keyboardist Jean Roussel and future Jethro Tull drummer Gerry Conway, are also at their best here, now some four years after first playing with Cat and all enjoying that sort of sixth sense peculiar to musicians who know each other inside out. Though the sound is bigger and the production style more elaborate, this is one of those rare records that manages to convey some of the raw feel and exciting energy of the songs as they were first being recorded into the finished product. All of this allows Cat to get away with even more switches of tempo, key and song structure than usual – indeed the only thing Cat Stevens was missing to make this album a true landmark release was timing; completely the wrong sort of album for the rather empty glam-filled world of 1974, this album sounds mighty fine today.

The Songs:

[94] Music is a terrific opener, the angriest Cat ever gets as puts his ranting hat on,  juxtaposing the happiness that music can bring when it is deep and powerful and the shallow idiots who always seem to find their way into the business for their own fame-grabbing ends. Interestingly, though, what really frustrated Cat is not being able to ‘doing the work of God trying to make things better for him’ as he gets impatient waiting for further signs that he is on the right spiritual track – after all, how much easier it would be if he had something concrete he could point at to shut up all the listeners who still spend their time ‘trying to make our lives richer’. Interestingly, given Cat’s thirty-year break from music because he interpreted making money from music as being ‘barred’ or at least frowned on for work purposes in Muslim circles, Cat also makes it clear that music is his rescuer, his only way of communicating how the world really works for people uninterested in learning about it fully. It could be that this is Cat finding solace in music form again after feeling adrift from it on the oddly tuneless ‘Foreigner’, aware that he can paint his pictures in music as well as words. Inspiring himself now, Cat switches to a bright and jazzy major key as he tells us how music can brighten and enlighten people and is the best career for him to be in – until he has an argument with a fellow musician boasting about how much money he is making, setting Cat’s anger off once again as he slides back into a minor key. The dilemma of making huge piles of money from an art form that allows Cat to denounce the hold money has on people is one that has bothered many artists apart from Cat. Really though, as Cat argues to himself in this song which is almost a practice run for what he will be saying after becoming a Muslim in 1976, music is for the most part a noble art form, one that creates and embellishes rather than destroys and ultimately does more good than it does wrong. The dilemma of it all still gave Cat plenty of sleepless nights though by the sound of this song: lurching from one idea to the next, this argument in song cleverly mimics the narrator’s confusion, twisting this way and that before finally bursting out with the message that music can ‘brighten us…can save us’. After two verses with smoke beginning to blow from his ears and a passionate vocal verging on hysterical, Cat cleverly stops the song and lets it double back on itself mid-note without even pausing for breath. Even as a master of the art form this middle eight is quite something, staying at a height of tension throughout with no colour throughout as the lines keep coming an coming. Cat orders us all to take a look at the world: is this really the way we want to live? Released in the middle of the Cold War as this album is, is this really the way we want to die? Cat urges us to see a [41] ‘Light in our eyes’ and tells us about how if everyone played together in harmony, like his band, there would be no problems in the world. A cliché then, now and always, Cat still manages to sing this line with so much sincerity you’re tempted to agree with him. Cat still isn’t happy, however, and unusually fires straight back into a repeat of the song’s first verse, deliberating his role in the music business all over again before the song’s end. His point made, the song staggers back onto its first verse and a cycle of its rather grumpy piano riff while Gerry Conway gets in on and bangs not a gong but what sounds in all honesty like a hot water bottle or a radiator or maybe even a ‘Mona Bone’ style dustbin. The song then suddenly falls down a black hole, its energies spent. Many Cat fans find this song uncomfortable, so far away from Cat’s normal style does this song stray, but simply by showing how ‘human’ and how determined he is to make sure what he is doing is right this song is actually very catty, in both senses of the word. Ragged around the edges and filled with an anger and rage heard only twice more in this peace-loving artist’s work ([117] ‘Killin’ Time’ and [133] ‘New York Times’) this song still rings completely true, the words of truth (at least as cat sees it) fighting an uphill battle against a world of fakery with music the perfect medium to convey the power of his words. This is my favourite 'angry mood walk song' - its saved me many a time when the going got too tough: a kind of empathetic anger about the madness of the world that doesn't 'see' what you and I see so clearly, dear reader, the power of music to save us all from the worst of ourselves.

[95] Oh Very Young is proof that Cat’s decision to continue in music, for a few years at least, was the right one—at least it was the right one if Cat felt his mission in life was to teach and inspire, as this song does both fluently. Cat’s later, maturer style is at its very best here on an aching ballad that asks us why we sentimentally hold on to things past their best when it makes things so much harder for people to part with them in the end. Using an old faded pair of jeans as a simile, Cat debates whether it is best to patch them up over and over again or simply get a new pair – this rather odd metaphor is then used in the second verse to ask why we hold on to life so preciously past our best when death is approaching and we always knew that our time would come sooner or later. We should have been using our lives to prepare for death, Cat thinks, and yet the end when it comes is always a shock to us. Cat conjures up some of his best imagery for this track (his view of us ‘dancing’ on the earth before our dreams turn into dust is particularly memorable) although ‘the great white bird’ that flies into heaven is unclear, a vague image and promise of better days in death that Cat only half-heartedly believes in himself it seems. The idea of the title, it seems, is that we are all so very young when we die with so much of the universe still to know. The melody to this oh so sad track is beautiful too, crying sad tears as it rises and falls but also has the sing-songy feel or a parable or a nursery rhyme. The production on this song is perfect, one of the few post-1970 songs where Cat’s over-polished arrangement makes rather than breaks a song, with sighing keyboard riffs meeting jolly little piano runs head-on, a chirpy guitar part meeting a bass part that wonders all over the song waiting to pounce on its victim and finally a heavenly choir that do their best to lure the narrator away from his earthly bonds and into the afterlife. Something of a flop as a single, this song desperately needs a third verse to make its point clear but is deservedly one of the best known of Cat’s later-era songs, full of the woozy melancholy and gentle advice-giving that nobody else could do anywhere near as well as him. Devastatingly sad yet utterly beautiful, this exquisite poetic song deserved to do better.

Talking of special, next track [96] Sun/C79 is a strong candidate for my favourite Cat Stevens track of them all, teasing us by going in one archetypal direction only to branch out and tease us with another. Like many of Cat’s best and most revealing songs, its really a medley – starting with a gorgeously innocent mock-philosophical opening verse about the sun representing enlightenment and helping the trees to grow. Cat addresses this to the ‘sun’. As a choir hum along though suddenly a gorgeous synth part that really shimmers quite beautifully surges forth and the song cat doesn’t want to write bursts forth. He wasn’t really writing to a ‘sun’ at all but to his ‘son’, whether imaginary or real and answering their question about ‘why am I here?’ Cat can’t bring himself to talk any more about the planets and galaxies and fate and God because he doesn’t fully know for sure about any of that. So instead he tells his son how he was born, from a one-night stand with a groupie on a perfect night full of love. Taking us backstage after a concert and on to a seedy hotel, Cat doesn’t give us the glamorous portrayal of love we are expecting (‘she was a junkie then’) or the romantic meeting we assume took place (‘I was having a good time, back on the road again’), but the night is still truly special. We don’t know when this incident happened or whether it happened at all – there has certainly never been a paternity test against Cat as far as I know. However he’s always been quite open about being a single teenage pop star out on the road and this sounds to me like an incident that could have happened in his Decca years, so special that he still remembers it in great detail all these years on even though at the time he was too young to realise just how special it was. Instead of some fakery wishy-washy philosophy he tells his ‘son’ that he is here because his mum was gorgeous and he fell for her hard, backstage at a gig, as she had ‘the best figure by far. Remembering a time he’ll never forget he chants her hotel room number ‘C79’ like a lucky talisman, the one place in the world where he felt truly happy, with Cat so convinced of the importance of this meeting that the numbers have become something of a mantra to find enlightenment, as if it’s is a code that the narrator can crack to find happiness again. The relationship was doomed to failure and couldn’t last – she was a drug addict and ‘I was a pop star then’, one with commitments that saw him back on the road the next morning.

You can tell, though, that Cat wonders what his life might have been like if he had abandoned it all for the love he felt then and whether it would have lasted and whether he would have ended up with a family. Cat makes it clear that this meeting really was love though, all but hanging his head in shame at the way he ran back to work instead of treating his new love as the most important thing in his life, channelling his guilt into one of his most gut-wrenching dramatic vocals and an aching synthesiser lick that is one of the most mournful sounds ever placed on record. This song fair drips regret, guilt and longing, with a chord sequence that feels as if it is forever crashing down and falling apart, this song’s many sections tied solely by that beautiful synthesiser lick that keeps on playing in Cat’s head, like a memory he can’t move on from. The narrator knows that this was only one of the random happy incidents that happen unplanned in people’s lives all the time  - which is why he’s so cross with himself for not treating the liaison as anything special, even though its haunted his thoughts ever since the day it happened. The swiftness of the encounter is in stark contrast to the many hours Cat has obviously spent re-living that moment, as reflected in this song’s sudden sharp moves from slow-motion longing to fast-paced fireball, best summed up by the line about Cat not even remembering the colour of his lover’s eyes at the time, despite staring at them in his mind’s eye for many many hours since. ‘I was a pop star then and I’m still having a good time’ Cat ends the song, but with such pathos and sorrow you wonder whether this is actually the moment he gave up music in his head after all. The very end though gives us new hope – cat’s sighing synthesiser is joined by a second synth part in the other speaker channel that dances around it, offering companionship and love, even if it’s only in his head after the two were so roughly pulled apart thirty seconds into the song. A truly gorgeous song whether real or imaginary, juxtaposing reality and romance and urging the listener to make the most of life’s great fleeting moments when they come, Sun/C79 stands as one of the most breathtaking and moving moments of Cat’s whole canon. The result might not be the answer we were expecting from the age-old question ‘why are we here?’ but it’s a truly hauntingly beautiful answer all the same.   

 [97] Ghost Town lets the album simmer down a little bit after such an intense one-two-three emotional punch, with some ghostly sound effects signalling the listener’s move into the afterlife lurking behind many of the songs on this first side. Far from the spiritual haven you might be imagining, however, this ghost town is a bustling and uncomfortably bizarre place, populated by all of our heroes and celebrities who have died over the years. Cat chooses some very odd people to fill his ‘Ghost Town’ with and some of the lines are odd in the extreme (Why is Disney ‘not gonna make it’ his way? Sure the capitalist American Dreamy empire built in his name is a joke now – but it wasn’t really in Disney’s lifetime and most of the classic early Disney films are morally a close fit to Cat’s own work, give or take a violent Donald Duck cartoon or two; this just about goes for 1974 eight years after the animator’s death when his studios were still creating beautiful films like the first wonderful ‘Pete’s Dragon’ movie or ‘The Rescuers’, which is Mission Impossible with two mice). Cat didn’t often do comedies – [108] ‘Banapple Gas’ is the only other one, which might also be the song that led him not doing them anymore – but Cat has a real flair for quick-snapping lyrics as he writes in celebrities to colour in his first ‘Western’ style backing track since [18] ‘Northern Wind’. Some of the lines are very funny - yes we’ve all heard that joke about the Marx Brothers several times since but possibly not before 1974 when Cat might well have started it (Harpo, Chico and – ho ho ho – their missing Communist brother Karl. Groucho died three years after this album’s release in 1977 which is why he’s not mentioned with his brothers by the way (A long diversion now where I can bore you with my Marx Brothers trivia: Groucho’s links to the other artists on this site include commissioning a huge round four-poster bed made as a joke in his old age (‘in protest in having to spend most of my time there’) and leaving it to his unlikely friend and heavy rock icon Alice Cooper in his will as another joke (the note to Alice read ‘I hope you have more luck with this than I did’). Unsure of where to put it, Alice passed it onto Paul McCartney as a present and last I heard it was still in Macca’s round ‘meditation dome’ in the grounds of his London home built during his days with the Maharishi and the home of several Beatles Book photo-shoots). Other characters in this ‘Ghost Town’ include Anne Boleyn admiring Houdini’s conjuring tricks (did she laugh so much her head fell off?), Bill Bailey not coming home because he’s in a fight with Mr G Robinson (is fighting allowed in this after life then?) while Buster Keaton and King Tut are trying to wake up Walt. The CD lyric booklet has one line as ‘O Redding’ by the way, which could well be right given Cat’s soul connections, but I’ve always heard the line as ‘old Lenin’, a figure whose probably more likely to be chatting to George Washington it has to be said. Fun but inconsequential, this song is ultimately perhaps just a little too eccentric for its own good, although the real message behind this song (making us think again about what really is lurking round the corner when we die) is hinted at in Cat’s latest mournful keyboard lick, hovering quietly out of view until the song’s long fade before suddenly dancing its merry way down our right-hand speaker and into silence, just like the comic figures on show. My guess too is that Cat came up with this song after flicking Tv channels and maybe falling asleep, watching the chaos of the characters interact with each other as he went to sleep (and we know from [80] ‘18th Avenue’ just how intense his dreams can be). Either that or he has a very weird imagination!

The side-closer [98] Jesus finally finds Cat addressing religion head on - but even this song is not quite what most fans are probably expecting to hear. Still unsure of his relationship with religion, Cat tries to unite the whole bang lot of them and show us that Christianity and Buddhism are, in his mind at least, one and the same thing (surprisingly Cat’s future religion of choice – Islam – is missing from the list). Jesus and Buddha have more similarities than differences anyway, argues Cat, telling virtually the same story about each in two separate verses. Both are talked about many thousands of years after their death, both were misunderstood in their own lifetimes and both suffered – Jesus from dying (a scene that oddly takes place ‘in the woods’ in Cat’s version), Buddha by sitting and thinking about ‘us’ for many days in a row even though we ignored him. The idea of the song, which fits our assumption that Cat felt his calling from some religious spirit somewhere around the 1972-1974 period, is that both figures live on inside all of us, sleeping in our memories perhaps from our previous lives and waiting to be re-discovered in this one. That’s enough for a full double album concept LP, but alas the one downfall with this song is that ‘Jesus’ isn’t even much of a song. Alas two minutes and two verses is all you get, without even a chorus for good measure, but its tale of people ‘misunderstanding’ great men with real messages of peace and their going their own merry way oblivious what people say because they believe what they are doing is still fleshed out enough to make this another deeply powerful composition. It’s nicely rendered here too, played for quiet brooding rather than gospel shouting and led by another gorgeously warm synthesiser part that rises out of nowhere at the end even though it has clearly been playing, largely unheard except subconsciously, all the way through. ‘Jesus’ is beautiful – I just wish that after waiting two thousand years for the message cat could have spent just a little more time on it (but then I guess the names ‘Muhammad’ and ‘Vishnu’ didn’t fit the song’s scansion quite so well).

Onto side two and Cat has turned his attention back to romance, at least for the time being. [99] Ready isn’t one of the singer’s better songs though and it’s lightness and triviality makes it sound terribly out of place on this generally deep album, but the clever restless riff and passionate vocals at least make for a welcome change in pace. Like the rest of the album, the record’s strong production means there’s so much going in the mix that the listener is never bored despite the repetitive verses and choruses, although the lyrics have nothing to say to us despite telling us that the narrator is ready to love again. The opening verse returns to [48] ‘lilywhite’ which is now the description of a lover’s smile – possibly the ghost of Patti D’arbanville, though Cat never fleshes this out and it could just be a lover who reminds him of her (or, perhaps, that this is a re-write of an earlier, abandoned song?) Then again, this song surely can’t be as dumb as it is trying to be (if it were it would be Cat’s stupidest and emptiest song since at least [11] ‘When I Speak To The Flowers’) and my guess is that this is really Cat venting about his spiritual stagnation and hoping the God who made contact with him will do so again. Though sung with a lustful sneer for ‘our’ benefit, this is surely Cat preparing himself for more spiritual love. The very fact that he is making this claim while singing ‘I love I love I’m ready to love yeah I love I love I’m ready to love yes’ would suggest that actually Cat’s not quite as ready as he thinks he is.  Catchy as this song is, however, Cat’s debate about the worth of his art and the importance of music in general surely suffers something of a hammer blow with this track.

[100] King Of Trees is much more like it, a gentle ecological epic that’s generally regarded by fans as the last classic Cat Stevens song to be released (not so actually; there’s plenty of gems lurking amongst the contract-fillers on Cat’s last three albums Numbers, Izitso? and Down To Earth - with songs like [110] ‘Home’, [116] ‘Life’ and [134] ‘Never’ respectively each representing career-highs). Trees is a very Cat-like song, harking back to the ecological messages of [41] ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ and [70] ‘Morning Has Broken’ in its tale of human romance passing by in the blink of an eye compared to the long long life of the tree. A focal point for the courtships of many humans, the tree which means so much to so many people is ultimately sacrificed in the name of profit and greed, by one of the very people who loved the tree while growing up. It is all as if the humans who cut her down in the name of ‘progress’ are sacrificing their ‘roots’ so to speak, the natural world that they first came from (even though mankind really comes from a planet called Zigorous Three as everyone knows. Sorry did I say that thought out loud? I’ve seen too many Dr Who episodes recently, I think I need a lie down...) A clever, circular song that talks about how nature gives to mankind but how mankind is taking advantage of her gifts and refuses to help her back, King Of Trees is ultimately more a gentle apology than an angry rant like ‘Music’ and like the rest of the album is made doubly haunting by the presence of a mournful synthesiser lick. With no one else there to save the tree, Cat does so belatedly, giving it a significant weight thanks to an epic production with the single best use of a choir on a Cat Stevens album, all angelic voices mourning. There might well be a secondary sub-plot at work in this song too, but it’s not really developed: Cat hints that mankind is trying to forget about his past as a primate living in trees by tearing them down in the name of ‘civilisation’ – a silly thing to do because if mankind ‘progresses’ into warfare again with bigger and more ‘advanced’ weaponry, mankind could soon be back to living in them. The luddite anti-progressivism of ‘Where Do the Children Play?’ reaches a new high on this track when Cat pleads with his race not to ‘lay the road’ but to enjoy the wonders of nature unadorned instead. There are some truly lovely lines here, such as the depiction of the tree as a ‘deep green God of young love stained memories’ for all the lovers who ever courted underneath it. The melody too is lovely, see-sawing its way across the song like a tree being chopped in two without ever giving up its green beauty. However, the middle eight has always puzzled me and for once prevents this from becoming a top-tier Stevens track: ‘And if my mind falls inside an early grave, I’ll know the meanings of the words I love you’. Is Cat trying paganism on now and falling in love with the shrubbery? Even so, I can see why so many fans love this song as much as they do; penance perhaps for Cat having written [26] ‘Come On Baby Shift That Log!’

Not so [101] A Bad Penny however, which is, erm, small change by comparison with the rest of the album. An overly dramatic and surprisingly bitter note to an unnamed person who has let the singer down one too many times, ‘Penny’ is uncharacteristically skinflint and short-changing in its emotional blackmail. The old idea behind the title is that a bad penny will keep turning up and that seems to be true, cat falling into disreputable ways (this could, then, be more about a lifestyle than a person, returning to the themes of ‘Catch-Bull’ and ‘Foreigner’ about being afraid to go back to the party ways that nearly killed him in 1967). Complaining about ‘sneaky bars, smart parties, friends and lovers’ Cat appears to be laughing at someone who fell for all the monetary traps that he fell into himself in his early career – perhaps, more charitably, this song is really another message to self? One interesting alternate view, in connection with the spiritual themes running through this album, is that Cat is singing about organised religion here - acts committed in God’s name that were never part of his teachings as evidenced by the ‘idol/idle lies’ pun and the ‘fool’ who has finally woken up to the fact that any true religion would not be making money and profits their top priority. Ultimately, however, this song is just a little too obscure to work properly, either as warning or as protest and unlike the rest of the album it is self-indulgent and personal, rather than uplifting and universal. It does feature another classic tune, however, and some interesting harpsichord work, so even as this album’s second weakest song after ‘Ready’ it shows just how strong this neglected little album is.  

[102] Home In The Sky closes the album with another of Cat’s odes to the afterlife and our future passing to the spirit world, but rather than turning the song into another deep epic, Sky sounds rather like a jolly nursery rhyme as Cat tells us how simple the world really is: we lived and now we die. This song differs sharply from other songs on the same subject though – [53] Miles From Nowhere is a mix of excitement, awe and fulfilment, while [110] Home is full of aching regret at the wonder of the world the narrator is leaving behind when he dies and ‘Ghost Town’ is, of course, a comedy. ‘Home In the Sky’ is cold and emotionless by comparison, with the words acting more like a travelogue than personal revelation, although Cat’s last hoarse shout of ‘goodbye’ has more than a tinge of regret in it. Cat knows he will die ‘in the morning’ and as his body rises up he sees the stars ‘crying’ even while he is ‘happy’ soaring above the clouds. He is, after all, returning to his ‘real’ home from which he came and from which he will surely be sent back again on a cycle of reincarnation, remembering now that his earthly body was only temporary. The most interesting parts of this song are the opening and ending sections which bear no relation to the song proper. ‘Sky’ starts with gorgeous reflective multi-layered a capella harmonies, making the song sound like a David Crosby out-take as a choir of at least half a dozen Cat’s ‘doo doo doo’ and ‘bah bah bah’ their way up to the heavens. The ending, meanwhile, has te song furiously speeding jup as if Cat is running out of time to look back even though he has had all his life to prepare for this very moment.  The other great moment in this song is the middle eight that darts in from nowhere, with Cat finally re-affirming his believe in music in a wonderful lyric that tells us ‘music is a lady that I still love ‘cause she gives me the air that I breathe’, ending the album on a hopeful burst of optimism badly missing from this confused and questioning album, suggesting that Cat has now finally come to terms with his career. He adds also practically, though, that ‘she gives me the food that I eat’, i.e. enough money in this world to enable him to properly prepare for the next. The very ending is good too: turn up the fade up loud for some hidden doodlings on a synthesiser that act as some kind of mystical coda to the song  - a sound that is mixed far too low on the otherwise crystal-clear CD release.

Like many other Cat Stevens releases, Buddha is rather short (just 32 minutes long) and we could easily have done without a good ten minutes worth of those to be honest if you were only after perfection, but you’d still gladly accept Buddha’s shortcomings for the bursts of beautiful music and fascinating lyrics it contains. This is, I think it’s fair to say, the Cat album that works best as a whole rather than as just a collection of songs: all of them have similar messages even if they are all very different in the way they tell the story of mankind’s short existence before a long death. After losing interest and testing fan’s patience on ‘Foreigner’ this album is a real return for cat and us, taking everything that made the earlier acoustic albums work and doing the same again but with a more developed band sound for variety. Personally I rather like albums that deliver truth and honesty and morals but in a way that makes them so good to the ear that you need to hear more – though some look down on this album for either diluting the spiritual feel or letting too many deep thoughts get in the way of the catchy tunes I rather like this hybrid, a tricky thing to pull off that cat does with aplomb here. Alas, though, it is in many ways a last hurrah with only one under-rated bonkers concept album and two undeveloped pop albums-with-sumptuous-extras to go in Cat’s first career as he distracts himself all over again. There is though more care taken with this album than even the great ones of the past with lots of great ideas thrown into the mix here, some lasting for entire complex beautiful songs and other for just a couple of notes or a few bars at a time. One of the best things you can say about it is that despite Buddha’s brevity (at nine tracks and thirty-one minutes it is short even for him) when the CD finishes you still get the impression you have just heard an incredibly mature, rounded and successful work, one that isn’t just pleasing on the ear but which acts as a delicious tonic in troubled times. Beauty and education, religion and chocolates, really what more can you ask from an album than that?  


'Matthew and Son' (1967)

'New Masters' (1968)

'Mona Bone Jakon' (1970)

'Tea For The Tillerman' (1970)

‘Teaser and the Firecat’ (1971)

'Back To Earth' (1978)

'An Other Cup' (2006)


'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' (2014)

‘The Laughing Apple’ (2017)

Surviving TV Appearances 1967-2015

The Best Unreleased Recordings 1969-2009

Non-Album Recordings 1966-2014

Compilations, Box sets and Alun Davies LPs Part One 1963-1990

Compilations, Box Sets and Religious Works Part Two 1995-2012 

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