Sunday, 15 April 2012

Cat Stevens "Izitso?" (1977) (News, Views and Music 140)



Cat Stevens “Izitso?” (1977)

(Remember The Days Of The) Old Schoolyard/Life/Killin’ Time/Kypros/Bonfire//(I Never Wanted) To Be A Star/Crazy/Sweet Jamaica/Was Dog A Doughnut?/Child For The Day


‘It ain’t never too late to learn about love!’

Like the yo-yo Cat Stevens plays with on the cover of ‘Izitso?’, the contents of this album are awfully up-and-down. Most fans write Cat Stevens off somewhere around 1972 or even earlier, but there’s a lot of good to be found on his later albums – along with an awful lot of blandness that isn’t worthy of the name. Many Cat Stevens albums are a curious mix of the great and the ghastly, but ‘Izitso?’ is probably the most extreme example of his career, containing three of the outright best songs he ever made – and three of the very worst. Is that good enough odds to make this album worth your while? Well, this album made with a glossier sound at the request of record label Island ended up achieving such different aims as kick-starting the electronica revolution of the 1980s (or some people say), summing up a career shortly before it ended (on one of Cat’s greatest songs ‘I Never Wanted To Be A Star’) and containing perhaps the world’s first anti-gun song (and no, John Lennon didn’t write one, despite what most lazy music journalists think). That list is pretty darn impressive for a ten-track album recorded, so it seems, simply to fulfil a few recording contracts and buried as quietly as possible by its creator who was thinking about bigger things than pop singles. So, a lesser Cat Stevens album, ‘Izitso?’ Well, yes – and no. This is album is better than it could have been, but not as good as it might have been without interference.

Continuing with the ‘gravity’ theme, Cat was rather heading to Earth with a bump in this period. The summer of 1976, in the gap between the release of ‘Numbers’ and the ‘Majikat Earth Tour’ is the moment when it all finally changes and Cat gets the answer to what he’s been searching for his whole life. Ever since feeling God’s presence in around 1972 he has been looking for a direction and finds it in the scariest yet most life-affirming way. Cat being the wanderer he was he liked to take off for holiday destinations alone. In 1976 he took a holiday to Malibu and headed to the beach for what was literally a sea-change in his life. Not many people were around but the sea was tranquil and warm and it was a sunny day so he didn’t think too much of paddling off shore. Before too long though he found the current was stronger than he realised and he began to panic about where he was being taken, while his body felt weak and numb. The longer it went on the more scared Cat became, imagining rock and roll magazine headlines about how ‘cats don’t mix with water’ and wondering what his obituaries might read like. Getting increasingly desperate Cat did the only thing he could think of to do and prayed with his mind. ‘God, if you save me’ he pleaded, ‘I will work for you’. And suddenly, in a flash, he realised not that God was there – something he’d felt for a while now – but which God he meant. It wasn’t the God of his Catholic Primary School or the Christian hymn [70] ‘Morning Has Broken’ or a Buddha and his chocolate box, it was the Muslim definition of God. Sometime before, perhaps a year earlier on his birthday, Cat had been given a copy of the Qu’ran by his elder brother David who had just been on holiday to Jerusalem with the note ‘I thought this would interest you’ and it had – the passages had struck a chord with Cat and stayed filtering through his mind at night, though for all that time only one of many edicts he followed with interest. However now that he was in grave peril and had to choose, he felt there was no choice at all. In that instant a giant wave came out of nowhere and physically threw cat on the shore. He had been looking for a sign and now he had one, plus he had made a promise. Cat’s life would never be the same. The first thing he did on checking back to London was to book an appointment at his local Mosque in London’s Regent Park. He felt deeply self-conscious and out of place, feeling every staring at him and nearly called it off, but the first person he met was a lady named Fauzia Muburak Ali. Cat felt himself falling in love as she showed him around and realised to his great relief that his instinct when drowning had been right – this was his new home now.

You’d expect, having read that last paragraph, for this to be an album along the lines of George Harrison’s ‘Living In The Material World’ album, an I’ve-found-the-answer-and-want-to-share-it-with-you set of recordings. But not a bit of it – Cat surprised everyone not so much by walking away from recordings after 1978 but by pouring scorn on all he’d made and done in that time and seeing music as a poor substitute for his new life, apparently not picking up a guitar even bat home for another 30 years. Indeed, it isn’t until Cat’s conversion into ‘Yusuf’ and his first ‘new’ album ‘An Other Cup’ in 2006 that we get any reference to Islam at all in his work. Cat figures that his fanbase really aren’t going to follow him up this particular hill – and that’s ok, this was a path he is surely meant to climb alone. If Cat had been given the chance he might well have upped and run from his career and commitments right that moment as he was always falling out of love with being a ‘pop star’ for the past few years. However he still had two albums to go on his contract with Island Records and Cat already had a half-baked plan about funding a Muslim school so wasn’t going to buy himself out of a contract if he could help it. Cat was rescued to some extent by Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, the man who had signed him back into 1970, sitting him down and asking if he could possibly write something more commercial for his next album following declining sales. Cat would under normal circumstances have been annoyed, but this time he felt relieved. He had been dreading going back to writing the old Cat Stevens style of song about ‘how the answers are out there’ when he already knew what they were now. In a neat twist all he had to do was go back to where his career started ten years earlier, writing catchy accessible pop singles that were cute but empty and if anyone ever called him out on it he could ‘blame’ it all on his record company. At the same time though he was also getting genuinely excited by the new developments in synthesiser technology which were moving on apace in 1977. Cat had been using synths as early as the first models back in 1971 and the explosion of the electronica scene really intrigued him. For their part Island were more than happy to have something ‘modern’ to sell, including pressing up the deranged instrumental ‘Was Dog A Dougnnut?’ and sending it in to clubs without mention of cat’s name on the label in the hope it would take off and be an underground hit (sadly it wasn’t, but it was a nice idea). Both of these thirds of the album sound almost nothing like the Cat Stevens music of the past, but the other third is thankfully exactly what fans were after: Cat relied too much on music as a form of audio diary to simply stop using it and on this album he comes up with two of his deepest, most revealing songs in ‘Life’ and ‘I Never Wanted To Be A Star’, cries from the heart that hinted at the great change going on within his soul.

That causes a huge problem though it has to be said. No wonder Cat balances yo-yos in the ‘red room’ of his London home on the cover (painted that way by hand after cat read that red was the most ‘creatively stimulating colour’ – it’s the room, more often than not, where he gave interviews to the press). This is a schizophrenic album that doesn’t know what it wants any more. The pop songs feel false after ten years of deeper cat Stevens fare. The then-modern sounds now sound more dated than Cat’s normal timeless music. Even the philosophical songs take a bit of getting into - we’re so used to hearing Cat as a fellow pupil that the few times we hear him as a ‘teacher’ it just sounds wrong. ‘Izitso?’, named for a line in ‘I Never Wanted To Be A Star’, leans away from his usual philosophical musings about how to live our lives and writes instead about social comment (for the most part good), autobiography (brilliant), weird instrumental stylings (OK if you like that sort of thing) and love songs (truly pityingly awful). Cat’s also so out of touch with his ‘old’ self of the early 70s that the one track that could have been recorded by the Cat of ‘Tillerman’ or ‘Teaser’ (‘A Child For The Day’) is written by someone else. This really isn’t a Cat Stevens record, in other words, and there’s a gaping hole where the morality of another [41] ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ and [72] ‘Peace Train’ would have fitted, but then Cat’s no longer the same person who wrote those pieces so I guess its churlish to expect him to be still be writing the same songs.

There’s another break away from Cat’s old sound too, because the production values on this album are huge and glossy – a mile away from the pleasing shambolicness of ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ and a step forward even from the surface shine of ‘Buddha and the Chocolate Box’. I used to think that this production was what was wrong with this album, covering up the ‘holes’ at the centre of these songs with so many dazzling touches the listener isn’t meant to notice, perhaps as a ‘comment’ on how surface-deep the converted Cat now thinks music is. But listening to it again I think the production technique is more than that. Synthesisers had been around for a while now (ever since Pete Townshend used one on ‘Baba O’Riley’ in 1971 – and note that I’m discounting the Moog and the Mellotron which are keyboard-based but are analogue not digital) and Cat had pioneered their use on previous albums ‘Foreigner’ and ‘Buddha and the Chocolate Box’ where they have a brilliantly warm sound. However only around 1977-78 did they begin to sound properly interesting and musical, to be used as a proper instrument as opposed to just an interesting noise. They’re all over this album, making for some of the worst moments (the bland bleeting of ‘Crazy’ is one of the worst uses of a keyboard ever) but also many of the best, such as the bank of (count them!) six keyboards knitting together during ‘Life’, making this tale of how curious and mysterious life is sound just that way. Cat uses them the way his younger colleagues like Kraftwerk and the first most interesting incarnation of The Human League did too, as a cold and alien sound across which very human emotions could be draped, humanity trapped in a cold unfeeling world (a very Cat Stevens idea if only he had been paying more attention to music in this part of his life but which he only really does on the angry ‘Killin Time’, a song about everything that’s wrong with the modern violent world). On the two instrumentals on the album Cat even does away with words so that we can hear just these synths unadulterated (Cat’s the only player on these two songs too, apparently) – perhaps a comment on how throwaway music now seems to be or, perhaps more likely, an artist getting carried away with the brightness of a new sound. Either way, Cat gets marks here for being well ahead of the pack, creating a sound pioneers The Human League would get lauded for a full year before their debut album (and arguably they don’t get synths sounding this good until ‘Dare’ in 1981, by which time Cat is three-years retired). The problem with reviewing any album 35 years after the event is that these sounds no longer sound as pioneering to us after 20 years of everyone sounding like this for a time, but if you were there in 1977 then this was an alien sound and something only heard before when dabbled in by youngsters, not by singer-songwriters written off by the press. At the time though this was the sort of sound that impressed people, not depressed them.

Perhaps that’s why, when it first came out, ‘Izitso?’ was heralded as something of a return to form. That sounds really odd now because we know this album and ‘Back To Earth’ are cul-de-sacs, Cat playing the waiting game before he could leave music behind (seemingly) forever and I personally don’t rate it anywhere near close to the poorly received ‘Buddha’ (a late period masterpiece) and ‘Numbers’ (heavy-going in places but perhaps the most under-rated Cat Stevens album of all). ‘Izitso?’ is ultimately just a collection of pop songs, some deeper than others but ultimately just a collection of randomly collected tunes unlike the cleverly targeted themes of past works. Now, usually when I talk about albums from this 1976-78 period I end up talking about the punk and new wave movements and how the thought of the young person’s genre of rock and roll being taken over by, gulp, young people put the wind up all the 60s and 70s stars still going. But Cat sounds immune to it all, perhaps because with his new-found faith he genuinely doesn’t notice or care (he gave up reading music charts in this period to spend more time with the Qur'an after all, perhaps the moment when those around him knew he was serious) or more intellectually because he disagrees with music being a ‘youth’ movement anyway ([58] ‘Father and Son’ is one of the most grown-up songs ever written and both agrees with and answers the punks’ rallying call anyway by pointing out inter-generational difficulties). And yet, mainly because of those synthesisers, Cat does sound ahead of the pack on this album, given that he reached the terribly old (for rock and roll) age of twenty-nine whilst making this album. Some of the youngsters even noticed in a way they never would have done a prog rock mini masterpiece like ‘Numbers’; in fact some electro musicians from the early 1980s quoted Cat’s songs from this album as a big influence on their work.

One other point about this album to make is the sheer amount of love songs on here. Cat had an interesting lovelife by this time. He and Linda Lewis had been dating on and off since 1970 and the pair are still close enough for her to appear in the haphazard music video for lead single ‘Old Schoolyard’. However it was not Linda whom Cat got engaged to in this period (the first time he had) but exotic dancer Louise Wightman (who used the stage name Princess Cheyenne). Theirs had been a brief but intense fling, Cat sensing in her someone equally caught between the spiritual and material worlds (her nickname back home in Boston was that she was ‘the thinking man’s stripper’). Many of this album’s love songs are for her – however they are vacuous and bland compared to the true love songs of old like [38] ‘Lady D’arbanville’ and [50] ‘Hard-Headed Woman’, disco songs about bonfires and feeling crazy that suggest cat wasn’t quite thinking straight. It is, I would suggest, one last gasp of the earthy side of Cat’s personality coming to the fore, the bad ways he kept falling into that had previously landed him in hospital dying from TB. Cat has, after all, also just met his future wife. That’s three important girlfriends juggled across this album then – and you can arguably add in two more, as Cat recalls a first love we don’t know much about on ‘Old School Yard’ and falls in love with ‘Sweet Jamaica’, who with her ‘brown skin’ doesn’t like a description of any of his other girlfriends. Notably all the love songs on ‘Izitso?’are strings-attached compositions that actually end with both sides happy – a first for Cat but one that crops up in no less than three songs on this album. The only trouble is, without tension Cat has nothing really to write about and these three songs all end up being perhaps the worst songs ever to grace a Cat album (along with his slightly sped-up or at any rate uncomfortably high vocals and the occasionally awful string accompaniments he sounds not unlike Leo Sayer) and are a real drag for any long-term Cat followers. Cat’s head, then, is a mess, but only one of these relationships is going to last – what perfect timing, then, that it all takes place during the making of Cat’s blandest, most shallow album as he can write all the cheesy love songs he likes and island will back him up all the way.  

Cat’s simply too good and too involved to completely throw this album away, however tempting that must have been for him. There are three must-have songs on this album, all of which pull cat in a new direction. ‘Life’ is a marvellous update on an old theme common to many Cat songs about how each of us have the power to shape our destiny and which sees him bouncing like a yo-yo between the spiritual world and bad ways (if you look carefully at the front cover he’s actually juggling two yo-yos, with one on top of his hand that is hard to see ). All inter-crossing synths and the album’s lecturing spirit turned against the self, it’s one of cat’s most satisfying, rounded songs of any era. ‘Killin’ Time’ is perhaps the greatest rocker of Cat’s long career and his first really damning piece of social protest, attacking everyone whose ever held a gun in fun and seemingly overlooking the fact that he himself sang a song called [28] ‘I’m Going To Get Me A Gun’ back in 1967 (actually a song about frustration, but always wheeled out whenever any journalist wants to use the ‘Muslim fundamentalist’ angle and can’t remember the song [72] ‘Peace Train’, a song much closer to Cat’s heart). It kicks like no other Cat song before, with Cat’s vocal wonderfully out of control as he gets angry that no one else seems to want peace and gives us a bit of belated emotion to enjoy. Best of all, though, is career goodbye ‘I Never Wanted To Be A Star’, complete with references to every single song that was a turning point in Cat’s career as he knows in his heart this chapter of his life is over. [2] ‘Matthew and Son’ [30] ‘A Bad Night’ and [41] ‘I Think I See The Light’ all get name checks as Cat paints a picture of hos the last decade has really been for him: often lost and confused, less sure than his public profile suggests and living out his life more with hope than with a plan. Cat’s prematurely final message to us is that he really didn’t lead this life to be rich and famous – he did it to put smiles on a few people’s faces and to make a small connection with the hearts of his fans. Awwww! Sure Cat still has an album to go on his contract and seems to have recorded this song early on in the ‘Izitso?’ sessions, but this is him waving goodbye to all his fans, hoping he’s done enough to justify our faith in him down the years. It could have been awfully clichéd and or in-jokey, but instead its one of the most moving three-minutes in Cat’s great canon, summing up a career in just a few short verses and bringing the story up to the (then) present day. Frankly, he should write some more songs like it now that he’s out of retirement, as the best moments of both the bitty ‘An Other Cup’ and promising ‘Roadsinger’ were the honest, heartfelt, autobiographical ones.

All too often, though, this album isn’t grown-up at all but childlike, what with its chirpy instrumentals and teenager love songs. Whoever designed the packaging for this album clearly had the same idea too (Cat gets a co-credit interestingly), what with featuring Cat playing with a ‘yo-yo’ in his famous ‘red’ room on the front and the bunch of childish and very John Lennon-like squiggles inside (a far cry from Cat’s drawn covers for ‘Buddha’, the last time any of his artwork was used on an album packaging, albeit not on the sleeve).  Many of these drawings look like ‘caveman artwork’ (or at least the general idea of what ‘caveman art’ looks like – most of the genuine drawings are actually complex and three-dimensional, easily up to what ‘modern’ man was drawing right up to the Renaissance period) and perhaps signify Cat’s mutual feelings of both pop getting back to basics and his own beginnings on his religious conversion, when he must have felt like a child again learning what every Muslim child already knew in their first year of schooling. Perhaps hustling for a place at the school he was trying to organise, there’s even a sweet credit for the ‘sons’ of Cat’s many engineers who worked on this album, on the basis that they never seemed to get any credits of their own. Cat was always concerned with helping children of course (most of his early charity work was for Unicef and other youth charities and after ‘retirement’ he goes on to open a Muslim school in his home city of London, one that still regularly tops Offsted league tables), but when they appear in his songs its usually Cat being concerned for their ‘welfare’. Notably the last song on the album – the cover song mentioned earlier – finds Cat becoming a ‘a child for the day’ and discovering that, in Brian Wilson’s words, ‘their song is love and the children know the way’. Perhaps on second thoughts ‘pure’ would be a better allegory for this album than childlike – everything is ‘pure’ about this album, from the production to the shining synths and instrumentals to the packaging and unusually one-dimensional songs. The only parts that don’t fit are the songs relating to adulthood, both general (‘Life’) and personal (‘I Never Wanted To Be A Star’) – that makes for an intriguing album ‘theme’, but ultimately it says much about this album that the most interesting songs are the complex and multi-layered ones. No wonder Cat called his next album ‘Back To Earth’ as ‘Izitso?’ is the sound of the rocket ship crashing towards where he began. But that’s another story...

The Songs:

Talking of childhood, never has there been a more nostalgic Cat Stevens song than [115] ‘(Remember The Days Of The) Old Schoolyard, the lead-off single for the album. The fact that Cat was re-thinking the faith he had grown up with as a child at the local catholic Primary School and his nostalgia for the end of one chapter of his life and perhaps his thoughts about forming a school all combine in this urgent song which recalls playground antics and general cosiness. However in a typical yo-yo trick of the album this song full of aching longing and nostalgia is treated to what would in 1977 have been a ridiculously contemporary production sound that came as quite a shock at the time, intensely modern despite its nostalgic tone. For the only time in his career Cat only sings part of the lead voxal and shares the song as a duet with singer Elkie Brooks (you might not know the name but you’ll own several of her records as a backing vocalist and maybe a few of her solo hits too, which usually have something to do with ‘blues’. A critical favourite more than a public one, she was affectionately nicknamed by the press ‘the British Queen Of The Blues’). The song was originally written for girlfriend Linda Lewis, who’d sung on ‘Catch-Bull At Four’ and toured with Cat’s band during his one big tour in 1976, but for unknown reasons this was changed at the last minute (Did they have a tiff? She does at least appear in the video for the song). Most nostalgic pieces are laidback, relaxed, reflective affairs as are most Cat Stevens songs, but what we get here is an unexpected return to pure pop, with a shrill staccato riff and a rhythm track full of youthful energy that can’t sit still long enough to follow a typical chord progression. It’s this energy that recalls Cat’s younger songs, though the point of the arrangement may well be the extra groan it places on cat’s voice, making him sound much older than his real age. This is the memory not so much of a point in time but the hustle bustle and energy of youth, with so many interests and so little time to devote to them all before life got restricted to whatever you chose for your career. Many fans love this song for its quirky melody, reminiscing lyrics and sound effects of children playing (very similar to the ones taped for Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ a couple of years later) and its certainly a memorable song, designed to stay in your head for weeks on end. But ultimately the usual Cat Stevens craft is missing on this song, which loses its way after an ear-catching beginning and can only repeat its way to the song end with no more interesting details than ‘warm toast for tea’ as a neat rhyme for ‘simplicity’, without any twists or turns or any sense of resolution. There are some strong lyrics here, with Cat remembering not the freedom or innocence of childhood but the fact that we ‘laughed a lot’ and ‘cried a lot’ in equal measure as everything hurt or seemed hilarious for the first time, a much truer sentiment than most ‘childhood’ songs that only remember the best parts (The Beatles’ ‘Cry Baby Cry’ and most of Syd Barrett’s songs are the only songs that truly recapture childhood in all its many forms as far as I’m concerned). But this is not cat’s childhood or a lyric that is in any way autobiography (if it was it would contain mention of nights on rooftops thinking, watching Leonard Bernstein musicals or serving dishes in the family restaurant) and too many of the lines here are generic to the point of banality (‘you were my first sweet love, sweet love lovey dove’), not something you could say even about Cat Stevens’ actual teenage lyrics. There’s also the sense of everything being a bit rushed, with Cat struggling to find his way round the vocal maze he’s built for himself and his unusually gruff vocal sounding completely wrong for the soulful tones of Elkie Brooks (perhaps because it was meant to go alongside Linda’s). That said, though, this is a catchy song and one about a subject that clearly appealed to lots of people who hadn’t bothered buying Cat Stevens singles in a while – it just falls a bit flat on LP (or CD). It’s also just too darn fast, with the listener struggling to keep up until the end. Better is to come.

Such as second track [116] Life’, a song that ranks as one of Cat’s all-time best and deserves to be far better known than it is. Taking his cue from the nostalgia of the first track, this is Cat filling in the gaps of ‘what’s happened since’ and embarking on a multi-layered epic about ‘life’ and especially the fact that none of us know our destinies. It is, you could say, his last song in his ‘old’ questioning style and is the end of a career-long yo-yo between embracing indulgence as life is too short and rising above it because death is long. The song sounds quite epic anyway, with its six banks of ice-cold synthesisers (played by both Cat and long-term keyboardist Jean Roussel) conjuring up an alien landscape that could easily have come from a science fiction film soundtrack by the time the song hits the ghostly instrumental ‘round’ in the middle’, with all the parts chasing each other’s tails. Cat realises that he can’t blame anyone else for his lapses, that the secret of life is that ultimately ‘you make it what it is’, though other people can change your direction for you if they care enough. Cat kicks himself though for still ‘wanting to have it all’, keen to have another hit album and be talked about, his subconscious eating away at him ‘I thought you’d had enough?’ Turning your back on your past successes is never easy, even when your future seems to be certain and it’s this doubt at the heart of this fragile song that makes it work so well despite the rigid no-second-chances certainty of the rest of the backing track. Despite everyone playing (and singing) with complete disassociation from the song, the effect is of a cold mysterious landscape where warm-hearted people are doomed to fail, one where every being has a purpose and a journey and Cat still isn’t quite certain about his destiny. After all this umming and aahing we then get a stunning instrumental section that runs for several minutes, which sounds to me like a last chance to use all those Cat signature sounds he’s used down the years and sounds not unlike his catalogue on fast-forward. Weget the blaring horns of the Decca days, a harpsichord part that recalls the tune of [2] ‘Matthew and Son’, the balalaikas of [65] ‘Rubylove’, the lost-in-the-wilderness sad landscape of ‘Foreigner’, the slightly fuller warm synthesiser sound of ‘Buddha’ with a tune not unlike [96] ‘Sun//C79’ and finally the chirping modern synths of this album. A word of praise for the backing band who pull out all the stops on what is probably the most difficult-to-play song of Cat’s final few years, especially Bruce Lynch’s exotic bass rolls that really do mimic a boat bobbing on a mysterious sea. The production techniques, strong across the whole of this album, are also at their best here, enabling us to hear every note with real clarity. In fact, the sound of the synthesisers all playing together still sounds pretty remarkable and modern today – it must have sounded like it came from another universe in 1977! The only downside to this song is that, yet again, it runs out of steam long before the end and fades on a quite boring repeat of the instrumental from the middle of the song, which seems out of place given that Cat has already moved on from this part of his life. Another couple of verses and ‘Life’ would have been a masterpiece; even like this though it is still a song that I am inordinately fond of and one of Cat’s very best.

[117] ‘Killin’ Time’ is another strong song as cat celebrates his change of religion to one named after the word ‘peace’ with…an angry ranting song (another yo-yo!) Here, some three years before John Lennon’s death made anti-arms campaigns fashionable, Cat Stevens condemns every single person whose ever held a gun for enjoyment, including perhaps his younger Westerns-obsessed self. The sharp, angular guitar-work of guest Pete Carr really sets the scene for a snazzy, jazzy song that’s at once louder and tougher than anything Cat’s come up with before. The lyrics don’t disappoint either: Cat says people like this are just ‘living to die’, unwilling or unable to let love into their lives and pictures gun-slingers as boring wannabe adrenalin junkies, sat at home ‘waiting for the milk to come’ rather than the glamorous macho killers they think they are. There’s a fabulous chorus of ‘you missed the point, you really missed the point!’, which may not be Cat’s deepest words on the subject of peace but do fit the track well, as a peace-lover shows the world of violence that he understands the thrill with his music but that he still refuses it – that the answer to life is to love and be kind, not risk taking another person’s life. Finally, after dabbling with this theme in his early years, Cat ends with a decisive answer that this way of living is ‘wrong’, a final return of the [72] ‘Peace Train’ side of Cat’s writing with the sermon: For the second time in a row the cold synthesisers really do their work here too, as Cat sings warmly and with passion against a cold-hearted landscape where the new modern sound feels like a modern world that has stopped caring The end result is a fabulous song, one full of so many crashing bleeping synthesisers and conjoining guitar riffs that the ear doesn’t know where to look next. The only thing that lets this down as a recording is Cat’s uncharacteristically weedy vocal, which sounds disappointingly puny against such an epic sounding backing. Interestingly Cat co-wrote the synth-brass arrangement for the song instead of just leaving it up to the arranger as in days of old and even recently and there are soul/Motown/R and B vibes hinting all the way forward to ‘Tell ‘Em I’m Gone’ over thirty years later the way the song is played here, though in truth the synths sound better when they’re just being allowed to sound like themselves.

Talking of synthesisers, that’s about all we have for [118] ‘Kypros’, one of many instrumentals in Cat’s album career and one parts-pioneering (more electro artists claim this album and Neil Young’s later ‘Trans’ were a much bigger influence on their work than anything the over-rated Kraftwerk ever did) and one part filler, like many instrumentals. Songs without words are always the bane of an album reviewer, giving me one less factor to talk about than normal, but I’ve done some digging and found out that ‘Kypros’ is the name which Greeks call what we English language know as ‘Cyprus’ (Cat is half-Greek on his dad’s side). Notably, Islam was the chief religion of the island then and now and we know Cat was something of a traveller even without touring, dedicating other songs to places like [45] ‘Kat(h)mandu’ and [24] ‘Ceylon’ earlier in his career, so it may be the place where Cat went to in order to mull his decision over and which cemented his decision to convert his religion. The end result is a pretty song, one where old instruments like the grand piano and the bouzaki (a Greek lute, which sounds not unlike a mandolin) nestle against the still strangely modern sounding synthesisers. It’s hard to call this a ‘song’, though, it’s more of a glorified doodle with no real tension or even melody to get that excited about. Even [104] ‘Whistlestar’ (the instrumental opening track from ‘Numbers’) was ultimately more interesting than this with a tune you could, you know, whistle! Cat does play every single instrument here, though, which is impressive for a ‘baby boomer old fogey’.

[119] ‘Bonfire’ rounds out side one but it’s less of a raging inferno and more of a damp squib. Cat hadn’t written a song this simple and one-idea filled since his days as an eighteen-year-old loving his dog and there’s nothing in this song you won’t have heard done better elsewhere by people who knows what they’re doing a million times over. If any track on this album sounds like it was written in response to Chris Blackwell’s demands for catchier more commercial songs then this is it – the charts were full of this stuff back in 1976, disco songs simmered to a slow sexual beat with dumb lyrics over the top. Annoyingly, Cat seems to have come alive as a vocalist again and wastes his vocal talents on a song that repeats how the love the narrator feels is like a bonfire in a number of different ways ad infinitum. This song might have sounded better had the rest of the band sounded like they were having fun or even paying attention, but no – the whole thing falls deadly flat, as if we’re on take 853 and everyone’s waiting for the lunch bell (given tales of how difficult the musicians – all long-term partners of Cat – found these sessions, with Cat forever interrupting sessions to pray, that might not be as unlikely as it sounds). Cue other dull metaphors such as ‘please don’t let it rain’, ‘if you ever leave I would die of cold’ and the one surely unique line in the song ‘please don’t kick no dust on my bonfire’ and you have a puzzling average and uninteresting song.

Side two starts with the third and final truly great song, [120] ‘(I Never Wanted) To Be A Star’, a track with more in-jokes and song references than ‘I Am The Walrus’ ‘Glass Onion’ ‘Don’t Be Denied’ and ‘Creeque Alley’ combined. Unlike all these songs, though, the overall feeling is not anger, confusion or laughter-nostalgia but real sadness, as Cat mentally waves goodbye to the music scene that’s been his life for ten whole years, give or take a TB-induced breakdown. This song would have been amazing as the final farewell gesture of Cat’s ‘first’ career, but instead its hidden away here in the middle of what Cat must have known was his penultimate LP, which actually fits this quiet song well (equally Cat never actually make an announcement he was retiring from music, he simply stopped doing interviews and concerts and gradually shrank away from the public eye when his record contract was up). But even thrown away like this, ‘Star’ is a special song for anyone whose ever had the privilege of taking the journey with Cat, name-checking not the best known or biggest selling songs but the ones that marked a real sea-change in Cat’s life. And it is a journey, a life depicted as a path which is utterly fitting for someone who once set out [57] ‘On The Road To Find Out’ and has used this imagery in his songs a lot. Cat starts the song in 1964, aged seventeen (his life changed when ‘The Beatles met The Queen’ and their music made it into the national psyche of Britain), writing songs for his own amusement and dreaming of a future in music when everyone else he knew was ‘out working for [2] ‘Matthew and Son’ (the workaholic firm name-checked in Cat’s #2 1967 hit). The second verse is about the Cat Stevens of late 1967, eaten up and spat out by the star machine, in the back of a lorry ‘stone drunk and cold’, neglecting his health and heading into [30] ‘A Bad Night’ (a single released just weeks before Stevens collapsed from TB and exhaustion). The third verse is about Cat’s ‘comeback’ song [41] ‘I Think I See The Light’, when nature ‘found a way to pick me up from the dark side’ and Cat got both his health and his purpose back together in 1970. There are some terrific touches for long-term fans, with the titles of each of these three songs sung in exactly the same way they are on their parent records (‘Matthew and Son’ with cute sarcasm, ‘A Bad Night’ with daring psychedelia and ‘Light’ with a gospel growl). Alas the story ends there – I’d have loved to have heard a couple of more verses about how [70] ‘Morning Has Broken’ before life turned to [82] ‘Ruins’ and Cat was no longer [95] ‘Oh Very Young’, but that would have turned the song into something of a list I admit. What we do have instead is a chorus in the major key that keeps cutting in between the minor key verses, as if this is the real Cat talking to use in between ‘the wheel of the star machine’ dragging him off his true life’s path, admitting that he made songs to create a little ‘love in his heart’ and reach out to other similar beings, that he never wanted to be the star he was sometimes groomed to be. Some fans find the end result rather cloying and there is a rather unnecessary string part which does pull a little too hard on the heart-strings, but no – I love this song for its honesty, its quirkiness and its fond farewell wave to the few passionate fans who would get all the references and knew there was going to be a Cat Stevens-LP shaped hole in their lives. It’s also very Cat to justify his reasons for leaving the music business in such obtuse words several months before anyone even knew about his retirement (‘I only wanted to run my own race, so I could win a small place in your heart’). In fact, I have this song as the last track on my Cat Stevens compilation ‘Home’ (all the best bits one after the other) and it never fails to bring a tear to the eye after hearing Cat go through his tremendous journey from star-struck eighteen-year-old wannabe to worldly-wise thirty-year-old in a little over two hours.

Alas the next song on the album [121] Crazy’ undoes all the good work of ‘Star’ singlehandedly and suggests that retirement was actually overdue with cat clearly running out of ideas, sounding not unlike an unwanted sequel to the god-awful ‘Bonfire’ from side one. Cat’s crazy about his new girl (‘my, my, my’), he feels the Earth move when they’re together and magic when they hold hands – what is this, a Mills and Boon novel?! Louise Whitman, my suggested focus of this song, deserved better. Sometimes Cat’s words do fall short of his lovely melodies which still make a song come alive, but sadly this time the tune is every bit as boring and generic as the words, only coming alive on a sudden upward swing of the melody on the phrase ‘making love under the stars’, successfully mimicking the couple looking upwards to the heavens. That’s the only original moment of a song that’s bland even by this album’s standards, however – ironically, for all the crazy feelings the narrator talks about in song, what ‘Crazy’ so badly needs is to be is a little crazier, to make this romance feel like a real one rather than one taken from the plot of a B-movie or Tin Pan Alley composition. I might even hurl the ultimate insult at this song: I could even imagine the Spice Girls singing it (*shudder*), but I’m not that cruel. Honest.

[122] ‘Sweet Jamaica’ is only infinitesimally better. The melody is equally aimless and the words nearly as condescending, but at least there’s a feeling that this romance is somehow ‘real’. What really bothers me, though, is the title: why is it only girls from Jamaica are sung about as metaphors for a whole country, rather than as themselves (that would be like a reggae star talking about ‘Sweet Mancunians’ or ‘Lovely Lancastrians’ or something and assuming everyone from these cities are all the same). Annoyingly The Byrds did it too with ‘Jamaica Say You Will’ from their 1971 album ‘Byrdmaniax’, but at least they had the excuse that they didn’t write that song (and in the climate of 1971 this was a smidgeon less offensive than in 1977, and seems woefully out of character for Cat, so again suggests to me that many of these songs are leftovers used up to fulfil a recording contract). It’s hard to get too worked up about some of the lyrics, though, because this song is just so bland: there’s a string section that sweeps in from nowhere and would sound more in place in a disco and despite featuring many of Cat’s usual friends and colleagues on the backing track it’s about as wooden as a forest full of puppets. Again, Cat turns in his best performance on one of his blandest songs, as if working harder to make up for the lack of effort in writing this schlock, especially on another earnest middle eight about everybody needing a friend, which briefly raises this song to a level anywhere close to Cat’s usual standards. In fact, those four lines sound out of place here, possessing urgency with their staccato string riff and the sudden quickening in tempo and it’s a shame Cat didn’t keep this bit for future use to turn it into a ‘proper’ song. To think that only two songs ago I was praising Cat to the hilt and now it’s come to this!

[123] ‘Was Dog A Doughnut?’ is another instrumental and filler by any other name, but at least it’s not offensive this time, either because of subject matter or blandness. This song is a slight improvement on ‘Kypros’ because it has a nifty riff centre-stage and features a much wider variety of noises, with Cat joined on his synths this time by usual friend Jean Roussel and newcomers Chick Corea and Ray Gomez (with bassist Bruce Lynch helping to ‘programme’ the sounds – perhaps it’s his enthusiasm for the new synthesisers that brought them to Cat’s attention?) Perhaps its Lynch’s influence or the new kids helping out but this sounds far more modern and (then) contemporary than anything else on the album – indeed, it’s startling to think how many younger bands were still doing this kind of stuff in the early 1990s and considered it trendy when it’s already been done here by a rock ‘dinosaur’ as far ago as 1977. Island even released this single as a 12” for the clubs and disco scene when they heard so many party-goers had raided their elder siblings’ albums for this track and it became a very minor hit – albeit with most people not even realising this instrumental was by Cat Stevens! The most memorable part is probably the most pioneering: the sampling of a dog’s bark, played repeatedly when the song reaches a particular beat, something which according to hip-hop and sampling fans starts here – amazing to think, really, how many genres cat has heavily influenced or kick-started down the years he never gets credit for (with this the unlikeliest!) Given the sheer amount of times Cat’s been sampled himself in the past twenty years it’s quite fun to hear the man himself having a go long before several decades before most of his contemporaries caught up. If you’re an electro fan with early 1970s folk leanings you’ll love it, but Cat purists are probably shaking their heads in confusion about now – let’s just say good on Cat for trying and this instrumental does have its moments, but I can’t say it’s a track I’ve ever gone out of my way to hear too often since buying ‘Izitso?’ Chances are you won’t either, but it's still a more worthy piece of filler than ‘Bonfire’ ‘Crazy’ ‘Kypros’ or ‘Sweet Jamaica’.

Or indeed closing track [124] ‘Child For A Day’, which manages to sound close enough to the ‘old’ Cat Stevens sound to be most fans’ favourite tracks on the album, without actually coming anywhere near the quality of Cat’s past work. It’s actually a song by cat’s elder brother David (going under the name David Gordon rather than David Georgiou) with writing partner Paul Travis, the only time cat ever did this favour to the brother who shaped his life so much, giving him his first recording contract and providing him with the Qu’ran, his means of leaving it behind. The song is best known for featuring in the soundtrack of the cult film ‘First Love’, which is basically a re-make of ‘Deep End’ about an age-gap relationship (though the youngest is at least of age this time!) Thematically, it’s quite a neat bookend to an album that started with the revelry of ‘School Yard’, with the narrator returning to be a child not to wallow in the past but because he sees it as the way forward for peace in the future. It’s treading on the same toes as The Beach Boys’ wonderful ‘Father Is The Child Of The Man’ and ‘Surf’s Up’ from ‘Smile’, but more generic and trying to be more ‘worthy’. Cat strains at the vocal leash like the days of old, the musicians build up momentum verse by verse and there’s another promising guitar solo from Pete Carr near the end. But there’s something deeply hollow about this song and especially what Cat chooses to do with it here, simply letting the drama of the piece rattle on slowly without really getting behind it. That’s a shame because, while no classic, this is a song that does deserve better and there’s more than a touch of [70] ‘Morning Has Broken’ about both the tune and the depictions of laughing happy children. Cat’s last ever concert will be for Unicef, the charity he had supported his whole career through, where he will sing this track as part of the celebrations for ‘The Year Of A Child’, performing under the name ‘Yusuf Islam’ for the first time.  

Notably, the last words of the album are Cat singing about he was a ‘child of yesterday’ – he is no longer a singer of today. Somehow, without coming out and saying it, the future of what Cat plans to do in a year’s time when his recording contract is over and done with, flies through this album like a mad old ghost haunting it in retrospect with clues of how. There’s a whole heap of nostalgia at work here, with Cat looking back on his career and his childhood in the two opening songs of sides one and two and even with the filler love songs and quirky forward-looking instrumentals that make up most of the rest there’s a feeling of things ending and something new taking over that will reach its zenith on the similar final album ‘Back To Earth’ from 1978. At times on this album Cat sounds like he’s genuinely excited to be making music and at other he’s on auto-pilot, waiting for his contract to finish so he can go back to his ‘proper’ work devoting his life to a new cause, yo-yoing between matching his best and exceeding his worst. Whilst I think that finding happiness and peace with Islam is the best thing Cat could ever have done on a personal level, it’s a shame for us as fans that his conversion came along when it did, just as Cat was reaching an interesting and complex stage in his writing, with much of the last album ‘Numbers’ and the song ‘Life’ from this album among the pinnacle of his songwriting, even if they got dodgy reviews and failed to sell. Had Cat had a bit more interest this album could have been amazing – but as it is, music has no place in Cat’s new life after 1978 and you sense that as early as this album Cat’s trying to tie up loose ends and get the music out of his system rather than getting as involved with his work and his message as he used to. Some fans love this album for its upbeat, clinical, aggressively commercial sound and others hate it – but me, I’m split between the sheer brilliance of ‘Life’ ‘Killin’ Time’ and ‘To Be A Star’ and the average limpness of much of the rest. Did Cat simply not care? Did he consciously burn his bridges and his fans? Or did he simply run out of steam after the longest concert tour of his whole career? Izitso, izitso? Only Cat Stevens really knows. All you need to know is where you can download those three tracks  – for the first time on a Cat Stevens album,. you really don’t need to own the rest.
Other Cat Stevens links from this website you might enjoy 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

‘Teaser and the Firecat’ (1971) https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/cat-stevens-teaser-and-firecat-1971.html


'Back To Earth' (1978) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/cat-stevens-back-to-earth-1978.html

'An Other Cup' (2006) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/05/yusufcat-stevens-other-cup-2006.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

‘The Laughing Apple’ (2017)  https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/10/cat-stevens-laughing-apple-2017.html

Surviving TV Appearances 1967-2015 https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/cat-stevensyusuf-surviving-tv.html

The Best Unreleased Recordings 1969-2009 https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/cat-stevensyusuf-best-unreleased.html

Non-Album Recordings 1966-2014 https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/cat-stevensyusuf-non-album-recordings.html

Compilations, Box sets and Alun Davies LPs Part One 1963-1990
https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/cat-stevens-compilationslive-lps-part.html

Compilations, Box Sets and Religious Works Part Two 1995-2012 https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/07/cat-stevens-compilationsbox-sets-and.html





No comments:

Post a Comment