Monday, 14 January 2013
Dear all, there’s not much to add to last week’s lengthy introduction except to say a big thankyou to Dave Emlen and his excellent site ‘Kinda Kinks’ which has brought us a record amount of traffic in the past seven days. In fact last Tuesday is the record for our site(s) - 600 visitors in a single day! – and January is already by far our most successful month in the four and a half years this site has been running, even though we’re not halfway through it yet! A big ‘hello’ to all of you who have joined our site in the past week and for all of you who have kindly taken the time to post comments on our site. I look forward to chatting with you all again soon! We are due to past 42,000 hits before our next post by the way – an astonishing figure considering our small budget and the fact that 3/4s of those hits came in 2012 alone!
Meantime, if you like our work then please nominate us for a ‘social media’ Shorty Award! We posted a longer article about this last week if you want to read more (including our interviews from last year) – but if you want to vote for us then please click here: http://shortyawards.com/alansarchives?category=blogger
I also have two book reviews to add, both of them entirely different (and both of which will also be copied onto our ‘AAA Book special’ for future reference): Pete Townshend’s autobiography ‘Who I Am’ and Neil Young’s book ‘Raging Heavy Peace’.
Pete’s book should have been titled ‘Who Am I?’ rather than ‘Who I Am’ because even after reading the whole of it and knowing his Who and solo work backwards I still don’t know. All of Pete Townshend’s songs have been about identity, each of them extensions of the very first Who single ‘I Can’t Explain’ and it speaks volumes that this book was several decades in the making (Pete starting the work during his years as an editor at book publishers Faber in the early 80s) because you get the sense that there’s still more Pete wanted to tell us. Contemporary reviews have slammed the book for being too self-absorbed and empty, but I actually dispute that: Pete is always honest, at least in his dealings with himself if not always other people and if you’re a fan you’ll want to know all the details about everything in Pete’s life – chances are there’s more extra-curricular projects going on (from bookshops, recording studios and music that never saw the light of the day) than you’d think. Pete is also a very good companion, writing from the heart and admitting his mistakes while also trying to put his side of events in Who life across – the book really skips along from chapter to chapter as you’d expect such an erudite lyricist to do. The problems for me are that Pete doesn’t spend enough time talking about his songs; taking its cue from Keith Richards this book is more a list of the drug abuse and rehab visits than it is a detailed take on when, how and why Pete wrote what he did. Despite being quite a large book there also isn’t as much detail as I’d like – and a curse on the editors for asking Pete to trim the manuscript down to size (as if a generation brought up on double disc Who rock operas want to see their hero cut down to size!) Sadly, too, there’s not as many untold stories in this book as in some others – The Who wore their hearts on their sleeves so often that there’s less to find in this book than in, say, Dave Davies’ or Brian Wilson’s (as much as the latter book can be believed anyway). However, I enjoyed Pete’s book a lot more than all the nagging reviewers seemed to and there are some excellent passages on the band’s early years (when an anxious Pete reveals that he was far more immature than his school friends, John Entwistle included) and on the deaths of Keith and John. Pete is open too about the ‘paedophile’ story that broke a few years back; true fans like me have always said that Pete was only doing ‘research’ for his art and to help come to terms with his own confused childhood, but it’s nice to hear Pete break his silence on the matter when he could so easily just have skipped what must have been a hard chapter to write. If you’re a fan you won’t learn much you didn’t already know, but this is still one of the better Who books around and I for one would love to see a second volume one day with a more detailed look at Pete’s music and early career. Overall rating – 7/10
Neil’s book is as curious and mercurial as the artist himself. The singer admits early on that he’s writing this book not in some big outpouring of emotion but in-scattered half hours between other events in his life and admits too that this book was only written because for the first time in about 50 years there was no great wealth of music trying to push through his sub-conscious (something thankfully healed by the double CD set ‘Psychedelic Pill’ last year, although to be honest that album – like this book – needs a good editor). The chapters come in scattershot form depending on whatever is on Neil’s mind that day, switching quickly from his early years to career highlights to the present day in the same way that his music veers from electric to acoustic seemingly overnight. This actually isn’t as irritating as that might sound (as long as you’re not actually trying to look anything up!) and Neil is a likeable reading companion, much warmer and open than you’d probably expect from the years of no-media and being ‘cushioned’ by his close business pals. In fact there’s more about Neil’s family, friends and colleagues than there this about himself, which is a lovely touch but slightly grating as all Neil can add about his friends are potted biographies or interviews fans will already know inside-out. If nothing else it’s nice to hear Neil being open about his son Ben, born with cerebral palsy and proudly referred to as ‘Ben Young’ throughout, as if Neil can’t believe he’s related to such a strong and courageous fighter. Neil, infamously, didn’t even let his record company or band know how poorly his son was when he was born or how many hours of therapy Neil and wife Peggy spent with him, so its nice to hear Neil talking properly about his very special bond with his son. Elsewhere like so many AAA stars Neil also spends comparatively little time talking about his music: the only song that’s discussed in any detail is the legendary curio ‘Will To Love’ and the story of how that song was born seemingly in one go (when, typically, Neil should have been doing something else) is the highlight of the entire book. Had the other chapters been as good as this one then the curiously titled ‘Waging Heavy Peace’ (‘Broken Arrow’ might perhaps have been a better name as it all means the same thing) then it would have been the book of the decade – as it is Neil’s autobiography feels a little lightweight, exactly something done to fill in the time (and while Neil, sacred of inheriting dementia from his father, can still remember everything) but not definitive. My advice is to read this book alongside the ‘Shakey’ biography if you want a full-blooded and detailed account of Neil’s life and frankly the OTT ‘best music book ever’ reviews of the day are wrong, but for all its rambling nature and non-linear order this book is still of much interest to fans. Overall rating 6/10.
Right that’s enough from Jackanory – now its back to music! Meanwhile, please press the link below for our AAA news stories of the week via official AAA news feeds:
CAT STEVENS “FOREIGNER” (1973)
Foreigner Suite//The Hurt/How Many Times?/Later/100 I Dream
‘Come on now it’s the taxman calling, come on over and find yourself…’
When Cat Stevens left the music business behind to become Yusuf Islam I remember reading an interview with him that asked how someone could possibly give up an and just walk away from not just a career but art form that had been such a major part of their lives for so many decades just like that. We know now, thanks to Yusuf re-starting his career in the mid 00s that Cat found it hard and for a long time wondered whether his music was compatible with his new life (the Qur'an doesn’t forbid music as some suppose say, only making money from it or singing ‘immoral’ songs, something you could never accuse Cat Stevens of – well apart from  ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’ in 1967 anyway). However I found his answer at the time fascinating: Cat was giving up music because he thought that an obsession with a simple art form merely filled the gap until something more deeper and meaningful came along in someone’s life – and in his case it was his gradual conversion to becoming a Muslim. Ask him now and he’ll tell you that music is integral to life – that it can help us to teach without preaching, that it helps us understand how the lives of others differ from ourselves and can fill our hearts with hope and love (or hopefully something less pretentious than the way I’ve just put it).
‘Foreigner’ though is when music changed from being the saving of Cat to the obstacle that was getting in the way of his spiritual quest. It’s not that the songs weren’t flowing or that the ideas weren’t there, more that Cat was struggling to put his new discoveries in terms that his audience would understand when they were just looking for another  ‘Morning has Broken’ and  ‘Peace Train’. Cat has, in private, discovered religion. He isn’t yet sure which religion but he knows that someone is calling him to a higher power and he wants to find out more. He is also aware that his audience don’t all want to go on this particular road to find out with him, that he is better off for now keeping his songs ambiguous until he becomes sure of what this path is. This is, however, a problem. Cat has, till now, made a career out of writing from his heart and connecting with people, but now after that great sequence of songs released between 1970 and 1971 about re-entering the world Cat is finding humanity ugly and unfeeling. He no longer feels that connection with his audience he once had or the optimism that things will get better. Just to make him feel even more removed he is an actual exile from everyone – less glamorously and morally as a tax exile in Brazil as it happens, because his accountants have pointed out how much money he will lose to the Government, but it amounts to the same thing: the Cat Stevens of 1972/1973 wasn’t spending a lot of time around people. Suddenly he’s the foreigner in a land of locals, feeling left out, abandoned, lost.
The reason Cat feels so removed from the world as that this is the first categorical moment when he knows that there is a deeper world out there. Ever since he nearly died in 1968 and arguably before that Cat has been searching for something to make his life complete. So far Cat has dabbled in lots of things – astrology, Buddhism, Christianity, romance – without ever really finding something big enough to fill the hole he is looking for. And then his brother David sends him for his birthday a copy of the Qu’ran. This is not yet, however, the life-changing moment it would seem: the Muslim text is merely one of many spiritual and religious hats Cat tries on for size in this period and it won’t be for another couple of years yet that Stevens truly makes the religion his life. However there’s evidence, from interviews and song lyrics, that he starts to hear something calling to him in this period, something bigger than he is, something he wants to explore further even if he isn’t quite sure what direction it will take him yet. Cat feels the tug of what he believes is God talking to him, but he isn’t yet speaking the same language or convinced that he is hearing anything at all. Even so, it’s a game-changer, the moment that making music becomes a distraction from his ‘true’ path rather than a duty to fulfil.
While every Cat Stevens album finds the singer ‘on the road to find out’ to some extent, its ‘Foreigner’ where that spiritual search becomes a crusade. Of all Cat Stevens’ record ‘Foreigner’ is the one that finds Cat at his most confused and the album that is most clearly crying out for some form of deliverance, a guide to help him overcome everything in his life and one where even the music that he used to use to define him has significantly altered. Cat found other sources in which to pour his spiritual soul once he discovered Islam and arguably needed music less and less as he became more and more sure of himself and the decision he made; ‘Foreigner’ however finds him dipping a first toe into these religious waters and trying to work out the direction to take while lost in a new, bold, daring adventure of his own making. ‘Foreigner’ is in essence an album that, from its title down, is the start of Cat’s journey away from superstardom and ‘spokesperson for a generation’ acoustic feel in search for something more spiritually fulfilling, sitting on the sidelines and on the outside looking in.
It’s an album so different in style and substance to the albums that came before it that it’s split fans right down the middle ever since its release in 1973, arguably throwing out triplets along with the bath water in its desire to be always going somewhere new and unknown. To some ‘Foreigner’ is a hard album to take, a very mid 1970s self-indulgent record full of prog-rock suites, r and b posing and hardly anything in common with the Cat Stevens sound of the past (until the last gorgeous song ‘100 I Dream’ at least). To others its one of the bravest records ever made, with the chance to hear a seemingly never-ending song where Cat really bears his soul and for the most part shies away from trying to educate his audience about how to live their lives and to talk more about himself. Certainly ‘Foreigner’ is not an album built for easy listening, despite having even more of a crystal clear sheen than normal, but an inner conversation that it feels like we fans have accidentally overheard and certainly wouldn’t be my recommendation for a first purchase if you’re new to the man’s work. The biggest difference musically is that Cat’s growing realisation that religion is his way forward means that he struggles to contain everything in a three minute pop song. Instead Cat changes how he works, delivering tense lengthy epics, brief snippets that barely get going and complex but compact wordy songs. My view, as ever, is straight down the middle: I applaud this album greatly for taking Cat out of his comfort zone and for the occasional development that really sounds as if Cat is going somewhere exciting and new; but for the most part this is a ‘teasing’ album, a stepping stone towards new directions because Cat knows he has to change – but one where he doesn’t yet know what he’s changed to. In these pre-specific-religion days music is still the closest thing Cat had found to a spiritual balm, even if he’s already begun to doubt the worth of his own muse and is desperate to find something if not better than at least new. Often this album is biting off more than it can chew, without the bite-sized nuggets of previous LPs, but then that’s also the point: Cat has just stared into the abyss and knows a bit more now about the generals if not the specifics of where his life is heading – by showing that he too is maybe biting off more than he can chew he can carry on being honest in his music, even if it ends up overwhelming us as much as his new situation is overwhelming him. At times, as on the title suite, it’s just too much. On others, such as ‘Later’, Cat is barely trying. On songs like ‘The Hurt’ and ‘How Many Times?’ Cat is just being grumpy but without the inherent musicality to make even his bad moods interesting. And then there’s ‘100 I Dream’, the moment when this album finally comes together and Cat delivers one of his true masterpieces that no one else could possibly have written just at the point when you are thinking of giving up on him.
This album will have big repercussions for the rest of Cat’s career, scaring so many people away. ‘Tillerman’ and ‘Teaser’ were albums that perfectly encapsulated the hopes and fears of their time and generation, with this album’s predecessor ‘Catch-Bull At Four’ making the first small moves away from this lucrative formula, but ‘Foreigner’ is arguably the first Cat album that feels out of time with the period and sadly cat will never again regain the audience he loses here. The sad fact is that Cat has written himself out on the subjects of peace and kindness, he’s a while out of hospital bed now with the thrill of simply being alive again wearing off and he is quickly realising that if he doesn’t forcibly end repeating himself straight away he’ll simply end up in a musical straight-jacket for the rest of this life. Even Cat himself looks different, with a more subdued forked beard on the album cover instead of the full-beard look he’d sported since 1970 (it doesn’t last long as his ‘new look’ but it’s significant that it made the front cover). The other key feature of the packaging which I love is the contrast between the back cover (an exotic tropical beach, marked by a hammock and drinks table, everything you would imagine) and the insert (a polar bear, sketched by Cat himself, and clearly the opposite of everything else the record is trying to tell us). Cat isn’t in exile so much as he’s lost, searching for a direction and the polar bear’s difficulty in adjusting to tropical heat is surely a metaphor for his Western, London-via-Greece upbringing and musical superstardom that couldn’t have been more of a contrast with the life he wanted to swap it for: a dedicated scholarly religious follower.
The biggest change from a fan’s point of view, however, is the overall sound of the album, which swaps the traditional acoustic guitar duets of Cat and Alun Davies for a more R and B soul sound, all rattling power drums, female choirs and synthesisers instead of pianos. In contrast to ‘Mona’ ‘Tillerman’ and ‘teaser’, which are made to sound big by doing very little, ‘Foreigner’ somehow manages to sound small despite doing lots and filling every available note with sound. Cat admitted in interviews of the time that his first musical ‘love’ (away from Leonard Bernstein) had been this sort of soul sound but that somehow he’d found his writing going down a different path in order to please pop fans of the mid 1960s; looking for a new direction after becoming bored with the old one Cat raided his record collection and realised that he’d never really had a go at soul. To be honest he still hasn’t, as by the time this album made into the record ing studio it has been diluted to an odd gospel-blues hybrid only no one has told Cat this as he tries to have a go at soul hollering anyway. This is sa shame because Cat’s always been an emotional performer and arguably he could have gotten away with this had his even bigger batch of session musicians been alongside him. Had Cat continued with the genre he might well have become a soul singer of some note (he even looks like one on the front cover of the record, where his face is in black and white and taken in the shadows), but you can’t learn a new skill overnight and for the most part Cat is trying to sound like, say, Stevie Wonder rather than becoming a Stevie Wonder-influenced Cat Stevens. Sometimes it works though: parts of ‘Foreigner’ are genuinely exciting if you come to it with no prior knowledge of what a ‘Cat Stevens’ album should sound like and there are fleeting moments in the title suite where it sounds as if it has all come together. However like the ‘foreigner’ of the album title Cat hasn’t been in this ‘world’ long enough to let the genre infiltrate his writing and so he ends up sounding like a skilled copyCat rather than an inventive pioneer. Perhaps most curiously (given how similar much of the sound is to his old records after all) Cat also dispenses with the services of producer Paul Samwell-Smith for the first time since moving to Island and records the album himself (Paul clearly didn’t take this personally as he rejoins Cat for every other album until the end in 1978, making this the only ‘classic’ studio Cat album he didn’t have a hand in). Perhaps it’s simply that Cat feels so much on his mind that he doesn’t want a middle man to interpret for him – or perhaps he’s afraid that a middle man would simply point out what we’ve just expressed in the paragraph above? Or maybe Cat really was striving for a whole new sound and lost out by the end. ‘Foreigner’, if nothing else, shows what a steady hand Samwell-Smith had at the tiller: this album sounds as if it needs someone certain to get that extra 10% out of it, whether in the editing suite or the control booth as the performances aren’t quite as sharp as before. Maybe, though, Cat might have been better getting a genuine soul producer to take part?
It is easy to laugh at Cat calling himself an exile when by and large that was self-made through money – what we would nowadays refer to as being ‘so offshore’ and asave a few quid is hardly the most spiritual thing to do. This isn’t your average tax exile though: Cat’s really big point with the British Government was that he was being taxed even on money that he had donated to charity and that had done a lot of good around the world. Cat figured that rather than ‘waste’ money on the taxman going into the pockets of such ‘important’ things as the upkeep of Queen Elizabeth II’s forty-two palaces and fuelling the borderline legal antics of her dodgy offspring he may as well live out in the world and spend his money more wisely that way. He centred on Brazil for reasons of sunshine and because it had a really cooking music scene, with Ginger Baker down the road from his adopted house and a load of other musical tax exiles dotted around. However Cat perhaps didn’t count on feeling quite as isolated as he became, cut off from what he was used to for the first time since 1969. Home is a big deal on Cat’s albums: his next two albums both have wistful songs with ‘Home’ in the title ( ‘Home In The Sky’ and  ‘Home’ itself) and past songs have made it clear that homes are more than bricks-and-mortar: it is where Cat feels safe, able to be himself, a place to think away from the glare of the spotlight. This I think is why he feels quite so cut-off during this album: once the ‘holiday’ feel of the move wore off it must have hit him hard and it won’t be long till he comes back home (celebrated with a return to his old London pad with its ‘red bedroom’ seen on the cover of ‘Izitso?’) For now though Cat is an outcast, an outsider, a foreigner if you will and he’s to some extent ‘homeless’ and at the time it must have seemed like the real end of a chapter for Cat. That is a real problem – not just for Cat feeling lonely in 1972/73 but because, perhaps more than any other writer, Cat needs to see people to write about them, to live amongst them and see the world through their eyes. All he has for this album are his own and for now he’s lost his confidence about telling us about his own life, unable to work out quite what to make of it yet.
You’d expect that Cat would have recorded his album in Brazil, absorbing the climate and capturing it on tape the same way that Paul Simon did with ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ in 1990, but this was in the days before there was a studio in every country and instead Cat chose the nearest one, which in 1973 was located as far away as Jamaica. Actually, in an interesting twist, Cat took over the studios directly after the Rolling Stones recorded ‘Goat’s Head Soup’ there and like that album the move seems odd to us now: there’s almost no link between these two records and the music being recorded there on a daily basis by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and co. Reggae wasn’t that well known to the Western world in 1973 but you’d still expect to see some sign of it somewhere in these grooves after travelling all that way and being surrounded by the people who worked on those albums for a living: instead this album sounds like it was recorded in Motown-era America, with a very English brass section overdubbed later for good measure. Equally the Stones record an even more archetypically swamp rock Anglicised American record there than normal – perhaps absence from a country makes the heart grow fonder for it?
Cat also had to leave girlfriend Linda Lewis at home. The singer had by now become more of a steady item with Cat after a brief dalliance with Carly Simon and though she’s been in Cat’s periphery since 1970 this is, I think, the first album properly written for her. ‘Foreigner Suite’ is one of the oddest AAA love songs of them all though, without the passion of  ‘Lady D’arbanville’ or  ‘Angelsea’. Cat keeps changing his mind for one thing, wrestling with his conscience as to whether he can morally leave his new girlfriend halfway across the world and alternating between missing her and getting used to life without her. If Cat’s career is, as we’ve had fun putting together in our essay, a series of paths and ‘roads to find out’ then this is the track that finds Cat changing his mind about which one to drive down, committing and then removing himself. Though he ends the eighteen minute opus with an outpouring of love, notably recycled in 2006 as a full-on love song  ‘Heaven/Where True Love Goes’), he takes the long way round getting there and doesn’t sound entirely sure even then (there’s an alternative reading that Cat isn’t singing about a girl at all but God – more on that later). ‘The Hurt’ is a worry too: whether inspired by leaving Linda behind, still hurt by losing Patti D’arbanville (or both) it is the most aggrieved we’ve heard Cat outside  ‘Bitterblue’, only realising too late how much a person meant to him. ‘Later’ meanwhile is an oddly lusty track, Cat dreaming of his lover’s body in her absence and winking at us at home about what he’s going to do as soon as he gets off-mike (though not quite as naughty as  ‘Mona Bone Jakon’, the fact we’re meant to be in on the joke this time makes it so different to Cat’s usual style it feels it comes out of left-field, like so much of this album). This isn’t, then, an album about God – not yet – but an album about love in all its different facets, from someone so far away from home that they are just waiting for a postcard or the phone to ring, desperate for any crumb of affection in their lonely life.
Overall, then, ‘Foreigner’ is an album for fans who want to understand what makes Cat Stevens tick and are particularly intrigued about the life changes he went through circa 1972-73. It’s not an album for casual fans or those who want to hear hit songs and empty repetitive rockers and ballads and it’s not even particularly high on the list of ‘greatest Cat Stevens albums’, although ‘Foreigner’ is not without its good points. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect about this album is that Cat won’t make good on the promises made on this album (especially on ‘Later’) to tell us about his new life and the changes going on inside him; instead it’ll be kept a secret as Cat distances himself from his music and quietly retires in 1978. Although Cat’s albums after this all have their moments (and the next, ‘Buddha and the Chocolate Box’ returns to his very best) you somehow get the impression that this musical career is no longer the be all and end all of Cat’s life it once was and only in 2006 (when Cat came out of retirement as ‘Yusuf’ on ‘An Other Cup’) do we get the ‘end’ part of the story posed on ‘Foreigner’. Alas by then it’s almost too late: by now the religious conversion is no longer an exciting bold spiritual journey but a life that’s been lived for nearly thirty years and is definitely the sound of an older man looking back alarmed on the folly of his youth rather than an artist really getting to grips with the changes going on inside him. Ultimately, perhaps, the demands made by this album weren’t worth the struggle in the end; the fans got scared away, critics began to sneer and the momentum built up over the past few years where Cat seemed to be the perfect writer for his times began to fade away. By the next year (and ‘Buddha’) Cat is back with his old producer, his old backing band, his old English studios and his ‘old’ style and it’s as if ‘Foreigner’ never happened; which is a tragedy because for all its faults ‘Foreigner’ is clearly an album from the heart and one that does a pretty good job at getting across the feeling of major changes in Cat’s life, even if it doesn’t quite pin itself down as to what changes those are. ‘Foreigner’ should have been the start of a whole new lifestyle, Cat emigrating finally to a new land and embracing all of the nuances of a new culture – in the end it turned out to be just an extended holiday. But you know what they say, a change is as good as a rest and perhaps its ‘Foreigner’ that we owe the next great run of albums to, for without this album Cat might simply have repeated his successful formula to extinction. And in the long run that would have been a far worse crime that releasing one eccentric, genre-moulding, patchy album like ‘Foreigner’.
 ‘The Foreigner Suite’ is undoubtedly a song close to its author’s heart. The passion Cat puts into his vocal and the length he went to record and re-record it in several complex edited sections shows how badly he wanted to get it right and to boot Cat also personally asked that a section of it (around 12-15 minutes in) was added to his first post-career ‘best of’ CD (not to mention Cat recycling one of the melodies for a song on his 2006 comeback). However, the trouble with this epic rock suite is that this song is so personal we listeners feel like ‘foreigners’ in this land, unable to translate all the little messages in the work and unsure about the final destination. On first glance it’s a love song: Cat is pouring his heart out to someone (Linda Lewis?) that its taken him a long time to be sure but he is ready now to pursue them after a series of nightmares and living through their absence. This is bigger than just a love song though: there’s a whole middle about what it means to be ‘free’ and how easy it is for man to get distracted off his true path thanks to wealth. My guess is that this song is also Cat the spiritual seeker finally realising that God is knocking on his door and wondering whether to ignore it and hide the curtains or to embrace it and let him in. This is why this song has to be so long and so epic: because it matters so much, the decision on which the rest of cat’s life will depend. He awakens from a nightmare and realises that his mind reaches out to someone ‘over to that sunnyside road’ which is surely a metaphor for Heaven (a point made much clearer on the re-make  actually called ‘heaven’). He is worried to ‘face up to the light’ but has really turned in this direction, embracing the ‘freedom calling’ that allows him to ‘find myself’ while there’s ‘only one freedom for you’. By the end of the song Cat has lost his doubts and gort his gospel shouting out of his system: he doesn’t need to tell the world of his conversion and he’s not even sure what that is yet; he just needs someone to take his hand and lead him there. By the end the two strands of the song have become one, Cat reaching out to a girl because ‘heaven must have programmed you’ – he at last feels after much soul-searching that this was a path he was fated to take. Even so, the genius of ‘Foreigner Suite’ and simultaneously the most frustrating thing about it is that it is a song we’re not meant to understand, something that makes it not just open to even more interpretation than usual but is also about a discovery that cannot be put into words just yet. On paper the idea of cat bearing his soul across an entire side of vinyl without restriction should be brilliant, but somehow the end result is cold and distant for all the free-form shouting and passion.
All that said, there’s some lovely scenery here in the moments between the realisations: despite the lengthy running time this is the closest we get to hearing Cat at his most basic and raw, aping the r and b sounds of his childhood. The way the music builds up layer by layer is classic Cat too, the singer unsure of his journey ands the song unsure of its chords or melody as it keeps switching gears before gradually getting to grips with where he’s headed and why. The best part of this song are the points where cat shuts up and lets his band play: the groovy jazz shuffle around the two minute mark where Cat’s synth playing, Jean Roussel’s boogie piano and Gerry Conway’s cymbal-heavy rocking hit each other head on; the moment 3:45 in when Cat has built up to an emotional climax and the musicians all keep going, rattling into an impressive improvised jam session is especially thrilling, the tempo building up to a real climax before it slides sideways, the horns and strings superbly arranged by Jean join in and fight the dark minor key piano chords that try to drag them down while Phil Upchurch digs out a wah-wah pedal for his guitar; the surprisingly funky six minute mark that features a riff being thrown between synths and piano like a pass-the-parcel that’s radioactive; finally the rocking groove across the lengthy fadeout that plays the main tune with a real groove and which actually sounds better without the lyrics Throughout Gerry Conway (later part of both Jethro Tull and Fairport Convention) is a heavy presence in the mix and ‘sneezes’ his way all through the song, with a tricky hi-hat shuffle that sounds more like jazz than rock and roll. Goodness only knows why Cat replaces him for the second half of the song, where the drumming by Bernard Purdie isn’t quite as alive or in-the-moment. Cat’s regular sideman Jean Roussel is along for the ride too, adding some distinctive synthesised chirping to go alongside Cat’s piano playing although intriguingly he also plays a bass part. I’m less keen on the female choir who crop up near the end (turning this song slightly too far into ‘gospel’, when it should be ‘soul’) and it’s sad Alun davies couldn’t make the trip to Jamaica as the album badly misses him. Overall, though, you only have to glance at the sheer amount of changes in personnel in the vinyl or CD booklet to realise just how much effort has gone into making this track – and how impressively joined together musically it all is, each quarter of the track segueing effortlessly into the next. . If the suite works at all – and it sort of does, without being the masterpiece it tries to be – then it is because of this tight band who all play out of their skins here on a track that must have been hell to record (and edit – let’s hear it for the engineer John Middleton!)
The musician credits suggest that this is an eight part suite but in reality it’s more like four: we start off with the narrator struggling to work out what’s going on in his life and trying to translate his ‘dreams’ before finally bursting forth with joy at the realisation that he’s on the right path (‘over to that sunnyside road’; I could write a whole essay on the metaphors inherent in that sentence (Heaven? Facing North where the sun is?) but I’m willing to bet its something more simple, like the name of Cat’s new address in Brazil taken as a lucky metaphor. The second (approximately 5 minutes in) is more universal, a surprise return to the ‘hippie dream’ that we can all be ‘free’ if we choose to and the state of our health, bank balances and occupations can’t divide us if we all come to spiritual enlightenment in our own way. The third (about nine minutes in) is back to the personal and sounds more doubtful, the narrator describing how beautiful the new ‘love’ in his life is although it’s interesting that its sung not with conviction but with awe mixed with concern (does the narrator deserve this good change in his life?) The fourth (which starts around twelve minutes in) is probably the weakest and sounds a little forced to me, as if Cat realised his epic song needed a better ending, so he simply tacks on a slow torch ballad procession about how sure he is that this is the right part. A sudden swirling musical flourish (‘Heaven must have programmed you!’) then rounds things off, though too late for my taste (I’d rather have had this brief finale as the complete last quarter of the song).
Alas the same can’t be said for the lyrics, which do sound like four separate songs stapled together without that much to link them really. The ‘foreigner’ idea of the title isn’t really explored – it comes and goes as the narrator feels pulled towards or away from the new life opening up in front of him. The first section is a little clumsy by Cat’s standards, the words falling over themselves and struggling to develop any further than the opening ‘there are no words I can use...’, an idea already used to better effect on  ‘How Can I Tell You?’ Some of the rhymes are quite clumsy too: ‘choose’ and ‘you’, ‘night’ and ‘fright’ and ‘met’ and ‘respect’ aren’t as inspired as Cat clearly wants to sound. He has just woken up from a nightmare though so I guess he’s allowed to be a bit below par – I wonder if this is a repeat of the nightmare heard on  ‘18th Avenue’ and whether Cat has fallen back into his wild partying ways.
The second section is more intriguing, if only because it’s so different compared to Cat’s ‘usual’ work. The song pauses too often for my liking, raising and dropping the tempo before finally going full throttle but when this part of the song finally kicks in (‘You can live in the largest house...’) it’s probably the most satisfying part of the song as a whole. It starts the way you’d expect, Cat mocking those who live their lives greedily, reaching out for money and status symbols when they haven’t even started their spiritual journey. ‘well you can live in the largest house, and eleven apartments too!’ cackles Cat, but you can be more lost than, say,  ‘The Tramp’ if his spiritual house is in order. Cat is then playing hard-to-get with either his new love or his new God, telling us ‘I love you and I think about you sometimes’, but suddenly the song goes into overdrive when cat is with them again and realises how powerful the feeling is, that ‘when you’re with me boy it chokes my mind!’ Suddenly we’re moving off the personal into the universal and into a call-to-arms is a dead ringer for John Lennon circa 1971 (with the feel of ‘Give Peace A Chance’ ‘Instant Karma’ and especially ‘Power To The People’), sounding like a marching band driving forward into ‘freedom’. It all sounds so good that you half believe that freedom really is calling and cat cuts this part short far too soon as his doubts creep back in again. This is a different meaning of ‘freedom’ to overthrowing Government though, this is Cat calling on the world to be free to be themselves, before re-thinking what this means. People will always need someone to lead them, he supposes, but what gives one person the right to think they need freedom more than anyone else? He sees too many false leaders ready to lead people ‘away’ from the true path and so has second thoughts about driving us on to be with them. So instead he goes back to the standard Cat Stevens message that nobody can save us but ourselves, reflecting  ‘But I Might Die Tonight’ as he argues, perhaps more to his younger self than us, ‘why wait until it’s your time to die before you learn what you were born to do?’ There’s only one freedom he realises, but instead of confirming that it is to be true to ourselves he leaves us hanging with the words ‘I can’t wait to be with you tomorrow night’. So man can’t save himself them but needs other people?
Cat is desperate to break away from the rest of humanity, living his life for a purpose rather than to fill in time before he dies and he’s adamant that we should follow him – although he doesn’t actually know which direction he’s turning to yet. That comes (sort-of) in the third section which is pretty much a standalone ballad. Cat sings alone to his own lovely piano accompaniment, with a real tension that runs round and round in bursts of emotion before finally landing flat and leaving us (briefly) in silence. A worried Cat is having doubts about his spiritual quest and begs the listener ‘Won’t you give me your word that you won’t laugh?’ as he bears his soul and admits that he is now fully committed. Without his love or perhaps his God his life would be empty and ‘my life would be without sound’ (a very scary thought for us AAA fans) before adding that this love he feels is so wonderful that ‘heaven must have made you on a Sunday’. In a sweet passage he feels the sky ‘glitter with Gold when you’re talking to me’, an image that recalls cat’s last love song  ‘Angelsea’ (given the idea that this girl came from Heaven its interesting how similar the two songs are). Cat gradually builds up both musical steam and certainty in his quest, however, returning to the opening gambit that ‘there are no words I can use’, but this time to describe the wonders of devotion rather than confusion. He’s left us behind, unable to tell us in a simple song what it means to have stepped into the world of being a believer – or singing about the depths of real true love. Indeed he steps away and refuses to write more, knowing that his worse would be an ‘abuse’ of what he feels now. Somehow though cat keeps going, telling us that while he looks the same as he always did the changes aren’t in his face but in his heart. ‘Will you?’ this section ends over and over, a plea to both God/love to take him up on his offer of commitment and to us for not laughing. As per the music, this is lyrically the weakest part of the song, slowed down to a crawl and the section is just that tiny bit too long.
The last section then rounds off the song with a seemingly straightforward declaration of earthly love, adding that ‘I’ve seen many girls before’ but only this one comes direct from ‘heaven’. After eighteen minutes Cat finally feels certain and the song, which has been trying to find its way to this central theme for so long but kept being interrupted, is now free to play out on a rocky jazzy version of the tune that lasts for quite a few minutes. Alas after such a build-up this simplest part of the song is not enough to be the pay-off such a lengthy song needs and even after eighteen minutes the ending seems premature, Cat fading off without having really convinced us of his true emphatic joy, however many soul hollers he adds over the fade-out.
However even Cat couldn’t escape the ‘material world’ altogether. In 2009 Cat’s music publishers sued Coldplay (along with Joe Satriani) over claims that they had ‘borrowed’ the melody line from the final section of their song for their hit single ‘Viva La Vida’, one of many legal wranglings Cat has been involved with down the years. To be fair Cat claimed to keep his distance from the whole affair and claimed he’d like to meet the band ‘over lunch’ to discuss the claim rather than sue them, but he rather pointedly re-used the melody himself for the song ‘Heaven/Where True Love Goes’ on ‘An Other Cup’ as if to stake his claim to the track. That all seems a bit of a petty come down for a song that really does sound as if it has the ability to fix lives and offer ‘answers’. Unfortunately ‘Foreigner Suite’ inevitably ends up trying to pull off more than it can and the end result is a mixed bag, with a strong opening and middle section that simply goes on too long and runs out of ideas by the third and fourth parts. However, you sense it’s a song that Cat had to get out of his system: that there was simply so big a change in his life at the time he couldn’t possibly contain it in a regular three minute pop song and it’s for its sheer depth and complexity that many fans love this track. I love the opening, with its darting soul and r and b dances and its sudden drive forward at the five minute mark after building up to a climax (only Pink Floyd’s superb ‘Echoes’ matches ‘Foreigner’ in the respect of a long tense build-up), but the ending arguably needs more work or a good editor. Or at least it does so here on the record – live versions of the song (in all its 18 minute glory!) are a little subtler and livelier I’ve found. There’s also something slightly cold and unwelcoming about this song if you sit through it to the end, a sense that we’ve gone through all the emotional weight of the start for little return and that in this journey only Cat himself can progress – we ‘foreigners’ are left to find our own way through the spiritual maze...
Side two is at least a little more accessible than side one, even if only one song is truly up to Cat’s highest standards.  ‘The Hurt’, sadly, isn’t it despite being probably the best known song from the album (and a minor hit single). The song is really just an extension of a less exciting part (the third) of ‘Foreigner Suite’, dismissing those who sit at home expecting spiritual enlightenment to come to them without effort or those who turn to false prophets who don’t demand the same effort. Cat is at his most sarcastic here as he paints a picture of someone who thinks they can learn the true ways of the world alone without any help and then turn to ‘false prophets’ without any ability to see through them, sipping wine at home and ‘waiting for a miracle to come along’. A nasty song in many ways this feels like cat turning on ‘us’ for not following him through the door that opened for him on the last track – although it also sounds a little like cat laughing at his old agnostic and atheist self (what’s the difference? I don’t know and I don’t care. That’s not me being rude, that really is the difference between the two viewpoints). However Cat doesn’t really tell us why we should listen to him any more than these other ‘spiritual peddlers’ and the whole atmosphere is rather uncomfortable – as if our favourite teacher is turning on ‘us’ simply because we haven’t had his experience or a chance to prove ourselves yet. I liken this song to many of George Harrison’s from the ‘Living In The Material World’ album – it would be fair enough if a spiritually enlightened soul turned on ‘us’ for not even trying, but turning on your audience (who by and large have proved their interest in spiritual matters by listening to your records) for not ‘getting’ the answers to life as fast as you when they’ve only just got ‘it’ themselves seems churlish and uncharitable. What are we meant to do? So many of Cat’s songs tell us to work out the answers for ourselves that it seems doubly unfair to be attacked for not taking ‘this’ journey with Cat (who for all know is another ‘phoney mouth selling pace and religion in between karma chewing gum’). What’s weirder is that this lyric feels stapled onto a chorus out of another song entirely, one where Cat tells us that he only knew the meaning of love after he got hurt and lost it. That’s a shame because the wistful melody on this track is one of Cat’s best with a lovely use of minor chords that are still too angry to become full-on sad just yet and this is also probably the best performance on the album to boot, with a superb use of pedal steel (you can even hear one of the musicians let out a ‘whoop’ some three minutes in he’s enjoying it so much). A rather lacklustre and patronising middle eight aside (‘Don’t let me down, young son’) ‘The Hurt’ is at least rather ear-catching and is slightly less demanding than the songs around it on this album, but the lyrics of this song do hurt more than a little if you care enough about Cat to follow him to here on his most heavy-going album.
Well done, you made it to the latest ‘halfway song in the book’ moment – and on this of all albums you need an excuse to celebrate something in all the misery, so well done!  ‘How Many Times’ is another strangely grumpy song that’s close in spirit to Ray Davies’ songs about boredom and mundanity. Slowed to a crawl, this ballad sports a really lovely melody line again but is swamped by a lyric and vocal that are both stretched to breaking point (and repeat the title line too many times for comfort). The narrator doesn’t sound spiritually enlightened here: instead he sounds fed up, turning to spirituality only for something to do in between eating, drinking, sleeping and ‘shining my shoes’. My guess is that this is Cat, following his first religious awakenings, getting impatient that after offering himself up to God nothing has happened yet. He tells that every day he walks past ‘your place’ but that he doesn’t have an invitation to enter yet; this will come. The chorus sounds downright peculiar, the song finally breaking into a trot on the line ‘nothing could ever ease the pain’ – even a belief in a greater power isn’t enough to overcome the daily grind of routine and boredom. The result is a song that deliberately sounds apathetic, with Cat becoming passive in his quest for answers, which may be clever but doesn’t make for very exciting listening. The old days of Cat investing so much effort into his songs, of giving them all strong hooks and middle eights that other writers would have made into whole songs if not entire concept albums, seems to be long gone. You think this song is at least getting somewhere by the end, as Cat sings of how he will do anything because ‘I want your loving again’ but alas the recording just ends up fading onto a tinkly piano solo and one of the longest fade-outs in AAA history (some forty seconds or so). The song has a distinctive soul flavour and might have sounded powerful in the hands of a Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye, but Cat isn’t that type of a singer and doesn’t have the power to sustain a song that revolves so much around his voice. The result is one of his weakest pieces of the 1970s, disinterested and boring. Had the lovely melody been sped up a little and given a sort of ‘then and now’ between the two worlds it might have been a winner; as it is the listener is left asking ‘how many times am I going to have to sit through this song every time I play the album?’
 ‘Later’ is much better, with a catchy vibrant feel that’s easily the best of the three ‘soul’ songs on the record even if this a song where again the words never come close to matching the melody. The song has a strut the equal of Mick Jagger and for once on this album the massive production really suits the song, giving the ominous riff dark shadows that fleet across its skies, thanks to a backing gospel choir that appear and disappear in clouds of production magic and a swirling orchestra dubbed low in the mix. One of the greatest grooves Cat ever wrote, it’s just a shame that he didn’t come up with a song to match this initial idea. The whole song revolves around the title phrase, which is a sort of double-edged joke, promising both spiritual enlightenment and more earthly sexual needs ‘later’, mixing the heady sexual urges and desire for change until they’ve become one indistinguishable whole. My guess, though, is that this started off as a more spiritual song pleading again for revelations before Cat changed into something his audience would relate to more (I’m surprised it wasn’t the single actually, performing a similar role to  ‘Sitting’ from the last album). Cat wants to talk, to get his message to someone who isn’t listening before, erm, ripping all their clothes off (bearing souls?) but knows he has to wait. The sound is an unusual one for Cat and loser in style to the sort of funk style of a George Clinton or Isaac Hayes and some fans dislike it for being so basic in both theme and lyric. Actually it’s a logical step from  ‘Can’t Keep It In’s manic energy even if the song is saying quite the opposite. The re-write though means that it is as if the more spiritual Cat’s interests get the more he’s trying to work out why he should have had to endure the earthly plain at all and thus pays more attention to his bodily needs. ‘Later’ is a mixed bag then; it sounds great and certainly livens up an occasionally sluggish album (especially this second side) but would have been better still with more developed ideas and lyrics to match.
The album then closes with  ‘100 I Dream’, the highlight of the album and a last return to Cat’s traditional style, as if to prove to his fans that he was still capable of sounding like he’s old self, he simply had bigger fish to fry. The warmth and humanity absent from the rest of the record is back in spades, with Cat back to the role of a kindly elder brother, putting his arm round our shoulder and telling us the best course to take through life as he has found it. The opening even sounds like a Biblical text (‘They brang us up with horns...’ , truly one of the strangest opening lines for a song on this whole site even if its just an archaic word for ‘brung’ and mentions of ‘ ‘old leader’s bones’ and a land formed by a ‘bluebird on a rock’), as if the whole song is a discovery passed down through epochs of time. The title, indeed, may be a ‘mock homage’, as if it’s an extract from Cat’s bible (but instead of ‘Deuteronomy Chapter I’ its ‘I Dream Chapter C’). Cat seems to be addressing the 1960s/1970s generation as a whole, teaching them that what came before them was based on ‘lives built before us’ that ‘we had no choice’ in changing – and yet ‘when they’re gone we’ll be the voice’, able to determine the next chapter in human living and (hopefully) one more cut out for spiritual beliefs. It’s as if everything mankind has been through in the past was to prepare us for the ‘now’ (or the 1973 version of ‘now’ at any rate), with the creators of the universe whispering to one and all to ‘rise up and be free – and in this way you will awake!’ Cat adds that the path is open to all if we can throw off manmade shackles, embrace nature and can ‘silently soak up the day’, seeing the world as it was meant to be seen before capitalism and class and the like got in the way. By the end of this fourth verse Cat has been sounding like a wise old scholar, passing on wisdom with the fumes of library dust and studies still in his voice and he indeed sounds a lot older than he does on his comeback albums as Yusuf. However, hard as Cat tries to be a distant omnipotent narrator, he fails – his real discoveries didn’t come through books but from the pain of living and suffering and struggling. Suddenly the tune which has been gently rolling along runs off a cliff, the song turns sharply on a chord change and Cat drops his scholarly voice to scream. The result is one of his greatest verses as he tells us that even in ‘exile’ and as a ‘foreigner’ we are still responsible for our actions and have to treat each other with care. ‘Pick up the pieces you see before you, don’t let your weaknesses destroy you, you know wherever you go the world will follow, so let your reasons be true to you’. Cat then urges us to be kind to our friends, to keep them close and nurture them. Only then, after passing on the wisdom we’ve received from life and helping other people is our mission truly accomplished and we can die ‘happily’, without the need to be re-incarnated for work we did not do in this life. This is the central idea Cat’s been trying to pass on since starting his writing career and it comes out in one unexpected rush of energy and passion that turns the whole song on its head and brings out of the classroom and into real life. Cat then brings things to a close with a last angry snap of ‘come on, come on and awake!’, the song now turned into a chugging funky riff-based number as he urges us out of our slumber, not to follow him down his religious path but to pass on kindness wherever we go. The brilliance of this song for me is that it starts like a Biblical text and ends up like a hippie manifesto, the lines between the two blurred as if mankind was always building to this point of freedom in the mid-1970s, but that Cat still needs his audience to grow for the song to work, leaving it in our hands for a change instead of telling us what to do. There’s also no one point where we fail (well, until we elect a baboon called Donald Trump and follow Brexit anyway); if cat gets to a hundred he can still dream that it will happen because the urge to be better is there and has always been. Only then, after dwelling on his funky tune a little while, does the song ends suddenly, the last paving slab of our spiritual journey stretching out ahead of us like a question mark, waiting for us to walk on it and follow. So ends one of the greatest Cat Stevens songs of them all on one of the strangest albums of them all, one last great message of wisdom and power.
Having finally given his message to the world, Cat Stevens’ musical career wound down after 1973 as his own religious beliefs took over (mind you, Cat still wasn’t entirely sure about Islam in this period – hence the fact that the next album is named after Buddhism and has a Christian-themed song named  ‘Jesus’ as one of its songs). That leaves ‘Foreigner’ out on a limb – it’s the last place where we ‘travelled’ with Cat on his journey with him ‘on the road to find out’ that properly got started in 1970 with ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ and hereafter Cat will spend his songs looking over his shoulder from the heavens, trying to see he can get us to follow him there. This road is often painful, full of traps and snares and maya (illusions) and none of its stretches are more treacherous than this last road in a ‘foreign’ climate, but the journey is all the more reading when you are there. To be honest ‘Foreigner’ is a step too far for most fans – me included – and arguably changes one too many things in the traditional Cat Stevens sound (the r and b flavour together with the harsher, more distant lyrics, the longer running times and the bigger production values makes for an uneasy, uncomfortable ride into the unknown). The eighteen minute opening suite is all but designed to put off fans who aren’t committed and I know several casual Cat Stevens fans who don’t understand this record at all – and even if you pass that first hurdle many of the side two songs are equally harsh and uncompromising in their world view. However, this album is far from the ‘failure’ it is often pointed out to be. The truth is this album is hard to judge compared to another record – the whole point is that Cat is both more sure of his spiritual path and less sure about his musical one compared to his past albums and on those terms it is a success at reflecting his confused mindset. It’s as a listening experience the album falls down, but if any artist’s work was about being more than a mere listening experience then it’s Cat’s. If you are a fan interested and invested in his work as a whole then you need this album to hear when so much changed for him; it won’t however be the album you play to your new neighbour to show how much you like Cat Stevens (well, not unless you want them to never come round for tea again). There is much to love about ‘Foreigner’ (‘100 I Dream’ especially) and even more to admire, with points on for ambition if points off for musicality. There are people out there who love this album for its slightly edgier feel, its more soulful tones and its cold detached air (it’s certainly less schmaltzy than other Cat Stevens records about peace and love) and who knows you might be one of them; for me, though, this record is a fine place to visit, a trip to foreign lands that broadens the mind and reveals the sights (and sounds) of an entirely new culture; I just wouldn’t want to live there and I’m rather thankful ‘Foreigner’ proved to be a one-off experiment rather than the start of a whole new sound.
Other Cat Stevens reviews from this website you might be interested in:
'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
'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
'Catch-Bull At Four' (1972) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/cat-stevens-catch-bull-at-four-1972.html
‘Foreigner’ (1973) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/cat-stevens-foreigner-1973.html
'Buddha And The Chocolate Box' (1974) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-62-cat-stevens-buddha-and.html
'Numbers' (1975) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/news-views-and-music-issue-46-cat.html
'Izitso?' (1977) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/news-views-and-music-issue-140-cat.html
‘Foreigner’ (1973) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/cat-stevens-foreigner-1973.html
'Buddha And The Chocolate Box' (1974) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-62-cat-stevens-buddha-and.html
'Numbers' (1975) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/news-views-and-music-issue-46-cat.html
'Izitso?' (1977) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/news-views-and-music-issue-140-cat.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
'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
Compilations, Box Sets and Religious Works Part Two 1995-2012 https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/07/cat-stevens-compilationsbox-sets-and.html
Writing this website so long after many of the AAA bands were around is a plus in many respects – it really helps to get to the crux of a direction an artist was heading in when we know the final destination – but there are downsides as well. For instance, we’ve lost so many AAA stars, heroes and heroines all and the attrition rates for the under-30s are particularly poor, meaning that a fair percentage of the people I write about died before I was even born. No matter, their legends live on in their music as long as have ears to hear with and souls to empathise with – but it does mean that I lost the chance to pay tribute to some our leading lights at the time of their death. So here, for this week’s top 10, is a guide to the 10 AAA stars who died the youngest and whose musical journeys were cut the shortest, complete with mini-biographies and perhaps an attempt to work out where the next destination might have been. Notice that three of these are from the famous ’27 club’ , the age at which so many musicians die (at the time of writing Amy Winehouse’s death at that age has started the speculation over why all over again). Some of these legends are household names who’d already become stars by the time they died, others have grown in stature since their untimely deaths to eclipse any standing they had in life while others are known only to the diehard faithful.
All of them are missed, as are those who didn’t make this list and whose stories we might come back to at some later date (Brent Mydland, Grateful Dead keyboard player, who died aged 37; Beach Boy Dennis Wilson who drowned at the age of 39; John Lennon who was shot at the age of 40; Steve Marriott of The Small Faces who died in a house fire at the age of 44; Byrd Gene Clark who died aged 46; Byrd Michael Clarke who died aged 47; Alan Hull of Lindisfarne who died aged 50; Small Face Ronnie Lane who died aged 51, Beach Boy Carl Wilson who died aged 51; Jerry Garcia of the Dead who died aged 53; ‘The Ox’ and Who bassist John Entwistle who died aged 57; George Harrison who died aged 58; Buffalo Springfield Bruce Palmer who died aged 58; Pink Floyd guitarist and so much more Syd Barrett who died aged 60; Moody Blues bassist Clint Warwick who died aged 63; Searchers drummer Chris Curtis who died aged 64; Pink Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright who died aged 65 (see the obituary elsewhere on this site); Searchers bassist Tony Jackson who died aged 65; Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden who died aged 66; Monkee Davy Jones who died aged 66 (see the obituary elsewhere on our site); Pentangle guitarist Bert Jansch who died aged 67 (see the obituary elsewhere on our site); Buffalo Springfield drummer Dewey Martin who died aged 68 (see the obituary elsewhere on our site); Kinks bassist Pete Quaife who died age 68 (see the obituary elsewhere on our site); Byrd Skip Battin who died age 69 and Jefferson Airplane violinist Papa John Creach who died aged 76).
Otis Redding (26 years, 3 months, 1 day)
“I’ve had nothin’ to live for, and it looks like nothin’s comin’ my way”
Many of the stars on this week’s list died of their own hand, either by design or drink or drugs, and many of them were at the stage in their careers when the first flush of fame seemed to be over. Not gentle giant Otis, though, whose death in a plane crash just six months after his ‘big’ break through at the Monterey Pop Festival came at a time when his profile had never been higher and many stars hadn’t found fame at all by such a tender age. Actually Otis seemed to do everything early on in his life, marrying at age 19 and becoming a dad at 20, not to mention releasing five records in his lifetime despite having had a recording contract for just a little over two years at the time. Otis was already making a name for himself when he appeared at Monterey in June 1967, six months before his death, but became an overnight star thanks to his fine performance. Alas his fame led Otis to buy his ‘own’ aeroplane, a Beechcraft H18, to allow him to cover the sheer demand for venues that wanted a piece of him. Otis’ last concert ended up being a small nightclub called Leo’s Casino in Nashville (eerily Otis’ band were supported that night by a band called ‘The Grim Reapers’) and Otis’ plane crash-landed just four miles from their next destination in Winconsin. The weather that night was dreadful and the pilot had been advised not to fly; no one is quite sure why Otis decided to go ahead after all (he had flown in worse weather before). The plane ended up crashing into Lake Mahona where Otis and members of his Bar-Keys backing band all died in the crash, apart from Ben Cauley who was asleep at the time of the accident and was never too sure what happened. The sadness for fans wasn’t that they’d just lost a legend but that Otis had recorded perhaps his greatest song ‘Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay’ just three days before the plane crash. A signpost towardsa towards a whole new era, with a new sound and a new persona to fit, who knows where Otis might have travelled next although his love of the Beatles’ ‘Sgt Peppers’ album and other concept works of the era hint that perhaps Otis might have gone on to make soul music’s first concept work. Hopefully Otis would have worked on his songwriting, too, having written many of his best songs late on in his career although at the time of his death most of these had only been hits for other people. Otis, having overcome his own poverty-stricken background, had also talked for a long time about setting up a ‘summer camp’ for disadvantaged kids from the same sort of slums he grew up in. Some 4500 people flocked to Otis’ funeral and his body was later buried at his ‘Round Oak’ ranch just outside the American town of Macon. Classic moment: ‘Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay’
Jimmy McCulloch (26 years, 3 months, 23 days)
“Keep on your feet, you won’t go far if you keep sticking your hand in a medicine jar”
The youngest member of Wings by some margin was already a show business veteran after having played as a teenager in Thunderclap Newman, the motley assortment of musicians whose only thing in common was that they were all friends of producer Pete Townshend. After stints in other bands like ‘One In A Million’ and the under-rated ill-fated ‘Stone Crows’ (where Jimmy replaced guitarist Les Harvey who’d died during a shocking freak accident on stage when his microphone was wrongly ‘earthed’), Jimmy probably came to McCartney’s attention after working with Beatles friend Klaus Voormann on a few studio sessions. Jimmy’s first work with Wings was on the single ‘Junior’s Farm’ (where Macca introduced his solo with the words ‘take it away Jimmy!’) and he ended up working on the studio albums ‘Venus and Mars’ and ‘Wings At The Speed Of Sound’ and the live album ‘Wings Over America’ before leaving the band partway through the making of ‘London Town’ (which features one last brilliant solo on ‘Cafe On The Left Bank’). Wings personnel came and went quite quickly although most fans agreed that this middle era (with Joe English on drums) was the best of the three long-lasting line ups. The younger Jimmy often butted heads with the older, more experienced McCartney and was often accused of being ‘unprofessional’ after nights of drinking and drug taking (even though Paul had done the same and worse with The Beatles). The final straw came when Steve Marriot of the Small Faces rang him up and asked if he was available for the band’s 1977/78 reunion tour – pleased to be playing on only harder, rockier material (Wings’ setlist was ridiculously varied back in 1976) McCulloch decided to leave the band altogether, Marriott reportedly sending McCartney a telegram that read ‘Sorry mate, Jimmy’s decided to work with me now!’) Alas the Small Faces reunion promised more than it delivered (with founding member Ronnie Lane pulling out at the last minute) and, adrift, Jimmy ended up forming his own band ‘White Line’ with his brother Jack on drums and then joined a band called ‘The Dukes’ , whose only album was released posthumously in 1979 and features Jimmy’s last work. Whilst in the band Jimmy wrote two songs with his friend Colin Allen (the drummer in ‘Stone The Crows’) which both deal with drugs: the pill-popping ‘Medicine Jar’ and the pain-of-an-addict lament ‘Wino Junko’, each of them possessing a ‘warning’ to the listener about how drugs are only a quick-fix solution for something deeper and darker in the soul. Alas that darkness caught up with Jimmy and he died of heart failure caused by a heroin overdose in his Maida Vale flat, an awful waste of a talent that had already done so much and seen so much at the age of just 26. Had he lived Jimmy might well have got back together with Stone The Crows and having stayed friends with Pete Townshend (and played on John Entwistle’s first solo album) might well have become The Who’s ‘second guitarist’ in their post-Moon tours of the 80s and 90s. Maybe there’d even have been a solo album, similar to the ones Denny Laine released during the last few years with Wings; whatever he’d have gone on to do one thing is sure though – Jimmy was one of the best guitarists in the business and had been getting better with every passing year. Surely his reputation would only have grown had he lived to an older age. Classic moment: the half-scary, half lovely ‘Wino Junko’ from ‘Wings At The Speed Of Sound’
Gram Parsons (26 years, 10 months, 14 days)
“It’s a hard way to find out that trouble is real”
The lack of tributes from the music press at the time of Gram’s death was shameful: despite ‘founding’ country rock, stints with The Byrds and The Flkying Burrito Brothers alongside ‘soul brother’ Chris Hillman, co-writing (uncredited) the Stones song ‘Wild Horses’ and releasing two well received albums with Gram’s discovery’ Emmylou Harris the world didn’t seem to ‘get’ Gram Parsons until decades after his death. Arguably his reputation has never been as strong as it is today, with even a hit film (‘Grand Theft Parsons’) made about his life and (mostly) his death. Unlike most rock and roll stars Gram was actually a rich kid with lots of money, something that used to infuriate his bandmates who’d struggled all their lived to make the money Gram would blow in one go. However, his dream was of updating country music with rock the same way other bands had updated the blues and r and b styles of the 1950s and a well received but short-lived group ‘The International Submarine Band’ had got him the attention of The Byrds. Hired in 1968, at the age of just 21, the plan was that Gram would be a versatile guitarist-come-keyboard player, equally able to play the traditional and futuristic numbers in the Byrds setlist around that time. Instead, Gram’s natural leadership and the band’s internal crisis (which had seen them become a duo after the fractuous sessions for ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’) meant that instead the Byrds got pulled much further in the country direction than they ever expected. Despite being a comparative unknown, Parsons gets more songs onto his sole Byrds album ‘Sweethearts Of The Rodeo’ than either of his employers Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman and should have ended up with more vocals too until the small matter of a contract he signed in his teenage years meant that McGuinn had to overdub his own vocals on many of Parsons’ choices for the record. The album was a poor seller but hailed as a masterpiece by many and was influential on so many of the 1970s country-rock bands that I could spend this whole article listing them all. Parsons left the band when the Byrds naively agreed to play a tour in South Africa (not realising that audiences would be segregated), although most people around at the time say he was just looking for an ‘excuse’ to leave the band. Hillman left the Byrds after his own row with the band’s direction and the duo formed ‘The Flying Burrito Brothers’, the first fully fledged country-rock band who never really found full flight but did at least pave the way for their successors. The band had to start from scratch as unknowns but the rich kid Parsons found the going too tough and was becoming more and more disheartened with the band by the time he left in 1971 to record his first solo album (with help from an unknown singer Emmylou Harris, who was all but ready to retire from the music business when she was discovered by Gram’s management playing in a club). He was also much more interested in hanging out with his new pal Keith Richards, who was himself a secret fan of country music and wanted Gram’s help in pushing the Stones sound in that direction (the pair wrote ‘Wild Horses’ together, although as ever the Stones were stingy about having another person’s name in the credits, and Gram reputedly plays on many of the songs on ‘Exile In main Street’). Things looked good when Gram’s first solo album sold respectably and a follow-up, waiting in the wings when Gram died, was acknowledged to be even better by those who’d heard previews of it. However, things had got a bit out of hand for Gram during the last year of his life. He was devastated to learn of the death of friend and fellow Byrd Clarence White (see below), had split up with his long-term girlfriend and had accidentally burnt his own house down with a cigarette and only just escaped with his life. Gram had always been infatuated with the ‘Joshua Tree’ desert (long before U2 made it famous) and would often shut himself away there to think. On one day in 1973, in mysterious circumstances still not fully explained, Gram died with morphine and alcohol found in his body. However things got stranger still when after Gram’s dead his body was ‘stolen’ from a aeroplane under the eyes of Gram’s authoritarian and distanced family by Parsons’ faithful roadie Phil Kaufman. Gram had reputedly told his friend that if he ever died he wanted to be buried in the desert, so that’s exactly what his Kaufman did, breaking the law in the process. This unexpected development became the basis for the ‘GT Parsons’ film, pitting Gram’s rich background against the friends he made as a rockstar. Had he lived Gram’s stock would undoubtedly have risen anyway thanks to the debts many country-rock stars owed him and his friendship with the Stones might well have led to greater career opportunities. A reunion with the Flying Burrito Brothers might also have been on the cards (Hillman has never been quite the same since the death of his friend in the final days of his ‘Manassas’ band with Stephen Stills) and Emmylou Harris’ gradual rise to fame would undoubtedly have had its own rewards. Classic moment: ‘100 Years From Now’ on Byrds album ‘Sweethearts Of The Rodeo’, a perfect blend of country and rock music with a catchy chorus and poignant lyrics.
Brian Jones (27 years, 4 months, 5 days)
“It’s so very lonely when you’re 2000 light years from home”
Like Gram, Brian Jones should have been the last person to become a ‘rock star’ and the least person likely to learn to play the blues. Born to rich parents, in an affluent area of Surrey, Brian’s upbringing was even richer than John Lennon’s, but he threw security and certain jobs away to join and indeed found the rock and roll travelling circus. To be fair, Brian’s life had already taken a strange turn before he tried being a musician having fathered six children by the time he reached 20 (many of them with underage girls) and being suspended from school several times for ‘disobeying authority’. Brian, styling himself ‘Elmo Lewis’ (‘Elmo’ after slide guitarist Elmo James and ‘Lewis’ which was his ‘real’ first name), left home for London and fell in with Alexis Korner’s crowd of blues musicians, vainly trying for years to put together a blues-rock hybrid sound that only clicked when he met Mick and Keith. Despite being the founding member and the powerhouse behind the Rolling Stones in the early days (Jones sought out most of the gigs and took a bigger share of the money!) Jones always felt himself to be something of an outsider in the band. You only have to look at the footage recently broadcast for the first time of the band on tour in 1965 (as part of ‘Charlie Is My Darling’) where Mick and Keith are rehearsing their songs and giggling while Brian stares past them or the band stuck on a train with Jones completely cut off from the others (as five people can’t sit on a four seat train). Brian’s lack of ability as a songwriter is cited by many as holding him back and his fierce temper another reason (Keith was so upset at seeing Brian beat up his girlfriend Anita that he ‘rescued’ her according to his autobiography, causing yet more friction between the former friends). Brian also handled the drugs of the period badly compared to his fellow Stones and was in such a bad condition by 1967 that the band reluctantly stopped touring to accommodate his poor condition. However, Brian was hardly the troublemaker so many books paint him as today: other bands, especially the Beatles, loved hanging round with him (the 1969 B-side ‘You Know My name, Look Up My Number’ features a posthumous performance by Brian on saxophone) and you only need to see a smiling Brian surrounded by fellow celebrities in the Monterey Pop Festival Film to see what a reputation he had amongst his peers. Out of all the AAA musicians we’ve covered only Paul McCartney can rival Brian in terms of being a multi-instrumentalist, able to coax a sound out of any instrument without even seemingly trying (Brian is in addition arguably the best bottleneck guitar and sitar player of the Western world, while his mellotron solo at the end of Stones single ‘We Love You’ is quite possibly the best ever use of this complex instrument). Even distanced from the rest of the band, Brian was always able to add a dash of colour or exoticism to what the band were working on and was a major talent right up until he fell apart in 1968. For years legend has it that Brian drowned himself in his own swimming pool (in ‘Christopher Robin’s House’ formerly owned by AA Milne) in a drunken stupor because he couldn’t bear the thought that the Stones had ‘sacked him’. Actually that’s nonsense: Brain had really found his mojo again the month before his death and was bursting with musical ideas, he was an expert swimmer (who’d won several medals in his youth) and there was no sign of drink or drugs in his body according to the autopsy report. The truth seems to be either that Brain had a bad asthma attack in the pool and was caught by surprise, unable to swim to safety or that his ‘builder’ and helper Frank Thorogood - present at the time - murdered him over money Brian hadn’t paid. Frank even made an alleged ‘deathbed confession’ and the story has become accepted as fact even without an official verdict on the case (the ‘Stoned’ biopic of Brian’s life even accepts it as gospel truth), but I’m not so sure (surely murdering your client is a sure way of not getting any money ever – and only one person ever heard the ‘confession’). Either way, Brian was on the up when he died and the tragedy of his death was that it came at a time when he seemed on the verge of making some of the greatest music of his life. Had he lived Brian would surely have become seen as the godfather of ‘world music’, beating Paul Simon by some 18 years in his quest to record the ‘Pipes Of Pan At Joujouku’ tribe (released posthumously in 1971) and might well have been at the ‘heart’ of the blues revival that took place in 1969 and 1970 (which even his fellow Stones got involved in). In my head at least Brian would have recovered himself sufficiently to have replaced Mick Taylor when he left the Stones in 1974 and taken his old job back, kick-starting another decade’s worth of great music with the band he founded. Classic moment: the ending of ‘We Love You’; never has a piece of electronic noise sounded more melodic, more threatening or more beautiful
Pigpen (27 years, 6 months, 0 days)
“Did I take a wrong turn on life’s winding road?”
Ron McKernan, known better by his ‘Pigpen’ nickname (allegedly after the mud-loving character in the Peanuts cartoons), was surely born in the wrong century to parents of the wrong colour. No one played the blues like Pigpen and few musicians ever had the same endless well of feeling to get out. Compared to most musicians Pig discovered his life calling early (his father was an R and B disc jockey, a rarity in itself in America at the time) and was obsessed by the blues records he bought, even though everyone else in his peer group was into lighter, whiter sounds. He was also addicted to alcohol, having discovered it as a young teenager and it haunted him throughout the rest of his life. Pigpen was a founder member of the wonderfully named Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions who eventually metamorphisised into the Grateful Dead. Originally the band’s set list was all blues songs but the other members gradually drifted away to rock and folk – however Pig stayed loyal to his first love, with his ‘cameos’ the highlights of many a Grateful Dead set. Like the others, Pig ended up writing his own songs to go alongside the originals and the last batch he made before his death in particular (many of them not collected on record until the 21st century) show a real blossoming of talent. For a while Pig’s boozing got in the way of his abilities (along with guitarist Bob Weir he was kicked out of the band for a while, but kept turning up to shows so eventually found his way back in). A compromise was sought whereby the band hired another keyboard player, Tom Constanten, who played the complex parts the more earthy Pig couldn’t play (interestingly Pig’s ‘replacement’ of sorts became great friends with him, the ‘college professor’ like Constanten as annoyed by the amount of drug use in the band as Pigpen was). Outside the band Pig struck up a close friendship with Janis Joplin – the next musician on this list – and according to some accounts may well have been closer to Pig than any other person (the pair had similar ‘outsider’ status in their youth, were teased for their love of music and their belief that they should have been black blues singers). Her death hit Pigpen hard and he developed cirrhosis of the liver that same year, slowing him down and shrinking his immense frame into a wizened, weakened state. A fighter to the end, however, Pigpen defied doctor’s orders to stay at home and rest by accompanying the rest of the Dead on their first European tour in 1971 and 1972 – several of the shows from that period have been released (at the time or later as part of the Dead’s archives) and Pig’s performances, though fewer in number, are often the highlight. The band hired Keith Godchaux as his replacement (yet another figure on this list, sadly) and after Constanten had left the band to get back to his studies, although Pig continued to play alongside whenever he could. A visibly moved Garcia, when asked about Pig’s absence on this 1972 tour replied that Pigpen had been ‘given a choice by doctors, over giving up the booze and it’s a choice between whether he lives or dies. I know Pig, he’s intelligent, he’ll choose to live’. Alas Pig probably made that choice too late in life and he died in March 1973 of a gastrointestinal haemorrhage. Pig was buried in his home state of California, at the Alta Messa Memorial Park; the rest of the Dead were devastated and put together the ‘History Of The Grateful Dead’ compilation featuring several key Pigpen performances unavailable elsewhere in his memory. To be honest the band never got over the loss and there are several songs in their canon that are at least partly inspired by Pigpen’s death (‘He’s Gone’, the most famous of these, actually debuted shortly before his death and was about their manager Larry Hart absconding with their money, but it came to mean much more after 1973). Had they both lived I’m convinced Pig and Janis would have worked together at some point (alas their schedules meant they only ever played together on stage) and Pig would no doubt have gone with the Dead, adding a bluesy earthy twist to their setlists whenever the band came down from a psychedelic high and writing more and more of his own excellent songs. Classic moment: Few fans know it but ‘Two Souls In Communion’ is a gorgeous Pig ballad, added to the Dead sets months before Pig’s death and clearly with both Janis’ death and his own impending doom on his mind (‘Please show me the right way to go!’) You can find it as a bonus track on the CD re-issue of ‘Europe ‘72’.
Janis Joplin (27 years, 9 months, 15 days)
“Every day I die a little baby, every day I lose me someone in my heart”
Never has a singer been more misunderstood than Janis Joplin. See the actual performances, read the biographies and view the interviews and you’ll probably get quite a different view of the supposedly boozy choosy singer than you’d get from her reputation. Like so many on this list of names, Janis was an outsider seemingly from birth, born to rich parents and encouraged to be an old fashioned housewife with a boyfriend her parents ‘chose’ for her. Janis rebelled from it all, especially her nasty classmates who teased her over her powerful voice and her skinny, masculine looks. (Little did they know that in years to come looking like Janis was the in-look!) Joplin left home in a huff when she was a teenager and tried to become a folk singer for years, despite idolising the blues singer Bessie Smith – however her voice was too powerful for most folk clubs and she came home, dejected, to her family and seemed to take up her old way of life again. It wasn’t long before the call of hippiedom called out to her again, however, and she left home once more on the proviso that she’d come back if nothing worked out for her this time. Luckily it did: promoter Chet Helms, who managed a band called Big Brother and the Holding Company thought her voice with their music would be perfect – and it was! A so-so first album and a few bottom of the bill gigs did enough to get the band a spot at the bottom of the bill at the Monterey Pop festival in June 1967 and Janis rose to the occasion, blowing away the crowds with her voice (not for nothing does Mama Cass mouth ‘oh wow!’ as she launches into ‘Ball and Chain’. Second album ‘Cheap Thrills’ was an absolute classic – and yet too many people were grooming Janis for stardom that she left Big Brother at the peak of their success to work with a more ‘polished’ band. Unfortunately while the material was still often superb the polished sound of the Kozmik Blues Band made Janis sound far too much like every other singer in town and lost some of her style and character; another band in 1970 (the Full Tilt Boogie Band) promised better but alas it was not to be. Janis had always had a fascination with drugs and alcohol and one night she simply pushed herself too far. She died in the middle of recording her fourth album ‘Pearl’ (with one more date to go, a vocal to record on the eerily named ‘Buried Alive In The Blues’ – the backing track was left on the record as a tribute), with her producer Paul Rothschild discovering her body in a hotel room after she failed to show up. The official verdict was misadventure, with a powerful amount of heroin found in her blood. The story doing the rounds in 1970 was that Janis was simply naive and took a purer form of the drug than she meant to; however Janis was an experienced junkie even at 27 and would have known what to expect. My view is that this was, if not quite suicide, then a cry for help: despite her fame she’d been stood up twice that week already by potential boyfriends (Janis often said that she ‘made love to thousands of people on stage and then go home alone’, unable to find the right person in her life), a high school reunion had gone disastrously wrong (swanning in as ‘the big star’ ready to take revenge on her bullies, she was devastated to find out that they couldn’t care less about what had happened to her and still treated her abominably) and perhaps doubts about her musical direction (‘Pearl’ is heralded as a grand success now but some of the tracks are a little too polished and mainstream for my tastes) all might have contributed. Whatever the cause, Janis’ death was a tragedy, robbing the world of the chance to see the intelligent, articulate, lonely singer behind the tough facade and the best tributes to Janis came not from her fellow rock and roll stars but chat show host Dick Cavett, who admitted years later she was his favourite guest because she spoke so well and knew so much about everything. Janis was cremated and her ashes scattered across the ‘Pierce Brothers Westwood Mortuary’ in Los Angeles and Stinson Beach, although her family requested a private funeral so no fans attended. Janis to the end, however, her will left $1500 for a ‘wake party’ to be held in her honour and this duly took place a month after her death in California, with several friends and bandmates attending. Had she lived I truly hope that Janis would have re-captured her muse, done a blues album (maybe with Pigpen or Brian Jones) and gradually been accepted by the general public as an intelligent, articulate spokesmen for her generation. We fans only have four albums of varying quality, but we know what a giant talent she was and how great she truly could have become; a voice a personality and a talent we will never see the likes of again. Classic moment: ‘Work Me Lord’ a less well known example of Janis’ amazing talent, weaving a remarkable amount of emotion into a simply song about wanting a better life
Clarence White (29 years, 1 month, 8 days)
“Dry your eyes and stand up straight, bugler’s got a place at those pearly gates”
Despite being surrounded by wild rock and rollers for much of his life, Clarence was a calming presence onstage famous for his poker face (White’s first love was bluegrass where musicians hardly ever let their emotions show) and its deeply ironic that he should die before almost all of his booze-swilling, drug-taking friends and not of his own hand. He didn’t look much like your typical rock star, either, with his short stature and his unusual looks (covered by the beard he grew a year after joining the Byrds) but to rock music fans he’s a legend, as great a guitarist as any the world had ever seen. His first band ‘The Kentucky Colonels’ might only be known to Byrds fans nowadays but during the early 60s they were a huge, making folk music mainstream until, ironically, enough the folk-rock boom pioneered by The Byrds killed off their sales and made them seem old hat. Clarence drifted to session work, where he played on the Byrds album ‘Younger Than Yesterday’, worked with ex-Byrds in the ‘Flying Burrito Brothers’ and performed with ex-Byrd Gene Clark on his first solo tour in 1966. When first Gram Parsons and then Chris Hillman left The Byrds in quick succession McGuinn called in every favour he knew to get the band up and running again and struck gold with the hiring of White, who blossomed as a guitar player and did much to make the post-Crosby Byrds one of America’s biggest live acts of the late 60s. His duels with McGuinn on the band’s live recordings show a fire and energy he rarely displayed on record, however, White preferring to stick with a looser, laidback feel in his choice of covers (most of which were ballads). White was also quite a talent spotter, bringing several of the later members of The Byrds into the band and championing singer-songwriter Jackson Browne before most people had heard of him (The Byrds cover of his ‘Jamaica Say You Will’ sung by White is often credited as being his big breakthrough). The Byrds battled on into 1973 before McGuinn had an offer to re-form the original Byrds and – realising he couldn’t compete with himself – ended the ‘new’ Byrds. The band had been a bit out of sorts for a time anyway, with McGuinn hiring all in the band except White by their final few months. White was in heavy demand, however, going back to session work, forming the bluegrass band Muleskinner and a surprise one-off reunion of The Kentucky Colonels. It was this last gig that resulted in his death, Clarence having been hit without warning by a pickup-truck that hadn’t seen him in the dark loading his guitar and amplifiers onto a van. His death went largely unheralded at the time (the papers were too busy discussing the original Byrds getting back together) but those in the music world were shaken by his death, not least Gram Parsons who had grown ever closer to White in his last few months and may well have spurred him on to his own needless death. Had he lived I’m convinced he’d have ended up back with McGuinn sooner or later (the Byrds reunion fell apart almost as soon as it began) and he’d have landed on hi
s feet somewhere – possibly as a respected session musician, possibly with his own band, maybe even with the other Byrds (The Flying Burrito Brothers, Roger McGuinn’s ‘Thunderbyrds’ and Gram Parsons’ band would all have loved to have had him onboard). White was also something of an inventor, creating the guitarist’s gadget ‘The B-Bender’ (along with fellow Byrd Gene Parsons) which gives a ‘normal’ guitar the sound of a pedal steel. Perhaps White might have done more in the technical line of guitar-work – he certainly had the brains and the talent for it as a playback of any of his amazing effortless guitar solos down the years will attest. Classic moment: the 20 minute live version of ‘Eight Miles High’ from ‘Untitled’, a masterclass in guitar improvisation
Danny Whitten (29 years, 6 months, 10 days)
“Pretty bad when you’re dealing with the man and the light shines in your eyes”
All these stories are sad, but none is sadder than the untimely death of Danny Whitten. After spending most of his struggling for fame despite his obvious talents he finally made the big time as part of Crazy Horse backing Neil Young and then watched it all fall away, becoming hooked to heavy drugs seemingly overnight. Largely unheralded at the time, Whitten’s death seems like a tragedy now with almost everyone who worked with him recalling how much they believed in this young guitarist’s talent and how much he still had left to give the world (in Neil Young’s words ‘you only get one guy who you can play with better than anyone else and for me it was Danny. After that there was no one’). Whitten had a rough childhood with music his one great escape and he tried everything he could to become a star. There’s a clip on Youtube of a young Whitten (the star of ‘Danny and the Memories’) updating the ‘Four Freshman’ style on a cover of ‘Land Of A 1000 Dances’ (mentioned in Neil’s new book); after that band never went anywhere Danny formed ‘The Rockets’ as a six-piece psychedelically tinged rock and roll band – again the world wasn’t interested despite their obvious promise. It was only when Danny met Neil Young that he entered the world he’d always dreamed of, backing Neil up superbly on the ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ album (containing almost all of Neil’s best loved songs from the early 70s) and adding his distinctive earthy harmonies. Meantime he was writing his best material too, a wonderful collection of songs that ended up on the first eponymous ‘Crazy Horse’ album in 1971. However the Danny who wrote them and sang them were two very different people. Whitten had longed for fame for so long that he didn’t know what to do with it when it came and fell into a perilous drug habit, one that friends say came on so quickly they didn’t take it seriously enough. Whitten, formerly one of the most trustworthy and gentle of souls, hadn’t earned enough to sustain his drug habit and ended up stealing from friends, even those who had given him lodgings out of the kindness of their own heart. The vocals he gives on the Crazy Horse album (finished with the help of Nils Lofgren) are a masterpiece, sung with a mixture of the optimism he felt when creating and the resignation that he knows he’s going to die (just listen to the scary vocal round of ‘Look At All The Things’, a song about the beauty of life sung by a man who know he won’t be around to experience it much longer). His best known song, though, is the weary ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ (finished with Lofgren’s help) which was his stock answer when people pushed him about his drug use. Neil, having halted the band to work with CSNY and not knowing how badly his friend had fallen, hired Crazy Horse to back him on the ‘After The Goldrush’ album, but Danny was too far gone to keep up with the pace. Alarmed, Neil sent Danny back home to ‘recuperate’, giving him the money for the flight home. Danny never took it – he used the money to buy one last score of heroin although it was actually a combination of valium pills (taken for a knee injury) and alcohol that killed him according to the coroner (the heroin had weakened his system, however). Neil was never quite the same again, the incident inspiring the infamous ‘doom trilogy’ of the mid 70s and Crazy Horse became a pale shadow of their former selves, even with the addition of Poncho Sampedro in 1975 (a great and gifted guitarist who suited the band’s sound remarkably well, but not to Danny’s level). Whitten left a last batch of demos for a possible follow-up album that have never been officially released but are said to be bone-chilling, the sound of a man battling against time to get his final message out to the world. Had Danny lived his songwriting would only have got better, he’d have surely gone on many more guitar battles with Neil (often coming out the better) and he’d have been praised for his own talent, not simply the talent he had to make others around him shine so brightly. Classic moment: ‘Down By The River’, an incredible 10 minutes of cat-and-mouse tension from Neil and Danny, with a sixth sense about where to go that only the Dead on a good day could match.
Keith Godchaux (32 years, 0 months, 4 days)
“What fatal flowers of darkness bloom from seeds of night?”
The second of three musicians who sat in the Grateful Dead’s ill fated keyboard chair and didn’t live to see the age of 40 was Pigpen’s replacement Keith Godchaux. Fans have argued long and hard over his suitability and talent, but for me he was an integral part of the band’s renaissance in the early to mid 70s and undeniably shared the band’s amazing sixth sense of improvisation during his first few years (before drink and drugs got a hold of most of the band by 1980). Keith was a protégé of Dave Mason, once part of the 60s band Traffic, and like many on this list had married young (at 22) with a kid at 26. Wife Donna Godchaux had an even greater musical pedigree than her husband, having sung on some of the early 70s Elvis hits as a backing singer as well as some of Cher’s. It was at her urging that Keith got the job with the Dead when she met Garcia backstage at one of his solo gigs in 1971 and hearing of the band’s problems with an ailing Pipgpen announced ‘I want you to meet your next piano player’. The three met up later but at first the interview wasn’t a success – Godchaux was too shy to even speak to Garcia and only really came alive when he was invited to jam with the band soon afterwards. Donna ended up in the band by association too, adding some of her distinctive harmonies to the Dead sound. Keith only managed to get one song and one vocal on a Dead album (the under-rated ‘Let Me Sing Your Blues Away’ with lyrics by Garcia’s usual writing partner Bob Hunter) but his distinctive ‘rolling’ flowing feel can be heard on many of the band’s most famous numbers both live and in the studio. For my money Keith’s jazzy harmonic licks is a key part of the ‘Blues For Allah’ album and some of the more electronic synthesiser keyboards on later albums like ‘Terrapin Station’ and ‘Shakedown Street’ all but steal the show. Keith and Donna even joined in with the Dead’s new found freedom when they started their own record label in 1973, creating their own joint album (with Garcia playing most of the guitar) ‘Keith and Donna’ in 1975 (with a picture of their son Zion –later a member of the band ‘Boombox’ – on the sleeve). They also backed Jerry in the Garcia Band during the band’s 18 month hiatus in 1974-75. However all was not well by the end of the decade, with the Dead sound starting to get into a rut and a general feeling that the band’s on-stage jams weren’t working together so well. Keith had often felt an ‘outsider’ as the one member of the band who hadn’t been there from the very beginning and Donna’s occasionally off-key vocals were coming in for criticism from fans. The pair were simply unhappy and asked to leave the band in 1979, forming their own unit ‘The Heart Of Gold Band’ after a line from the Grateful Dead song ‘Scarlet Begonias’. Reports say that the band’ early rehearsals sounded magnificent and after years of shying away from the spotlight it finally seemed to be falling on Keith just a few short months after leaving the Dead. However whilst driving back from a second rehearsal session Keith and a friend (no one seems to know who) drove into the back of a parked pick-up truck and Keith, in the passenger seat, died of his wounds. Donna, devastated, retired for some years until she discovered Christianity and a new husband in the shape of bassist David McKay (whose name she occasionally uses onstage). She never played with the Dead again but did release a few albums under the band names of ‘The Ghosts’ ‘The Donna Jean Godchaux Band’ and ‘The Heart Of Gold Band’, often with names familiar to Dead fans from solo work with the other members. Had Keith lived the Heart Of Gold Band mark one might well have been a force to be reckoned with, thanks to tales of those who heard the band rehearsing sounding like a more modern and complex take on the duo’s sole album together. They might well have joined up forces with the Dead again too (who were notorious for keeping ties with past members and friends), perhaps playing as a warm-up act or even as part of the Dead again. Keith’s loss, before the world had properly got to know him or his music, was an awful loss to the world and his contribution to some of the best Grateful Dead records cannot be underestimated. Few people can join a band already some eight years old without the joins showing somewhere – and yet Keith filled the void well, more than playing his part in creating the band’s sound despite doing everything he could to shy away from the eyes of the audience. Classic moment: the ‘Europe ‘72’ live medley of ‘China Cat Sunflower’ > ‘I Know You Rider’ which shifts so subtlety you can’t see the join, a good part of which is down to Keith’s flowing keyboard riffs
Keith Moon (32 years, 0 months, 14 days)
“Would you drink some tea in the theatre with me? One of us gone, one of us mad, one of us me – all of us sad”
Whole books have been written about Keith Moon and even more general books on The Who or rock drummers in general invariably spend whole chapters discussing Moony’s antics on stage and off. The fact is you can’t condense a larger than life character like Keith into a few lines: dismissed by many as a lunatic, his practical jokes and tales of blowing up hotel rooms and driving limousines into swimming pools masked a more complex character, desperate for attention and love. The simple fact is that Keith wanted everyone around him to laugh and never ever knew when to stop or when the joke might have fallen on him. It surprises many people to learn that Keith hadn’t actually joined The Who until mid 1964, just a year before their debut single although years spent in a surf band called ‘The Beachcombers’ had already made him a star on the local London circuit. No one else from that band wanted to turn professional (Keith, perhaps, overshadowing everyone even back then) and hearing The Who needed a drummer sat in on drums. Keith being Keith, he’d died his hair ginger for the day and was dressed in an all ginger suit to make an impression. His propulsive style was exactly the missing link the band had been looking for and the band were so convinced he was ‘one of them’ that they never actually told Keith he was in the band (he joked up to his death that he was just ‘sitting in’ until someone else came along). The Keith Moon stories over the next decade have been much discussed and seem unbelievable – but those who are there are adamant that a good 99% of them are true and several hotel chains actually banned the group from staying there. My favourite story, however, is a more serious one. Hurt by music press comments that he was a madman who couldn’t actually play the drums Keith thought he would take up lessons and booked an appointment to see a ‘professional’. After asking Keith to play something to see how well he could play Keith absolutely demolished the set of drums and turned proudly to the open-mouthed tutor (who said that anyone who could play like that never ever needed to learn to play in any other way!) Keith’s drumming, much copied but never bettered, seemed to have a sixth sense with Pete Townshend’s crashing chords and to not only keep the beat but play several passing notes as well, turning the drums into a lead instrument (John Entwistle’s bass, more often that not, plays the ‘melody line’ between Keith and Pete). The harsh drum sound gave exactly the bravado that Pete’s frightened-kid-putting-on-a-big-pose songs needed and yet its often on Townshend’s most subtle, highbrow songs that Keith comes into his own, showing off his own subtlety and intelligence. However the gap between Who tours got longer and longer and Keith was left with nothing else to fill the gaps. On one occasion he took an injection of animal tranquilisers to keep him going through a Who gig, in which he played ridiculously fast for five minutes and then collapsed (a shaken band were left asking if there was anyone in the audience who could play the drums – luckily there was although he only had the stamina for three songs). Moon became increasingly wild and partied hard with friends, with the dark side of life catching up with him in a big way in 1970 when Keith and his driver/assistant were caught up in a crush of fans and passers by outside a club. Enjoying the attention at first, Keith gradually became scared. He urged his assistant Neil Boland to go and sort matters out but the situation got worse. Really panicked by now, Keith leapt into the driver’s seat and drove quickly out, knocking down and killing his friend in the process. Although magistrates quickly cleared Keith of any wrong doing, the matter haunted him for some time afterwards and although on the surface he remained a practical joker to the end friends and colleagues noticed that his character got substantially darker and less affable. In the meantime Keith made a great cameo playing the wicked Uncle Ernie in the Who film of Tommy and made a typically eccentric solo album ‘Both Sides Of The Moon’ in which he ‘sings’ several Beach Boy and Jan and Dean classics (surf music forever being his first love). The idea allegedly inspired John Lennon, one of his drinking buddies, to record his own rock and roll covers album. By 1978 Keith had been waiting three years for the band to get together and in the meantime had got very out of condition, putting on weight and not having the stamina of days of old. The band were worried enough about Keith to stop touring their 1978 album ‘Who Are You’, which poignantly featured a dishevelled Keith pointing away from the camera to hide his face and sat on a chair marked ‘not to be taken away’. Unfortunately he was, just weeks after the album, from an overdose of tablets he was taking to keep him off the booze (Keith was meant to take three tablets – in the end he took 32, possibly forgetting how many he’d taken earlier, although autopsy reports discovered that six had been all it had taken to stop his heart). Keith had spent the night as the guest of Paul and Linda McCartney at the premiere of ‘The Buddy Holly Story’ (Macca had purchased the rights to Holly’s songs and helped with the film) before retiring to a London flat leant to him by another drinking buddy Harry Nilsson. Remarkably, Mama Cass had died from a heart attack in the very same flat four years earlier. The shock among his bands and fans was immense – Keith, surely, was indestructible after so many years pushing his body to its limits and the thought that something so mundane could have killed him was staggering to those who knew him. Had he lived, The Who might well have been soldiering to this day (or at least up to Entwistle’s own untimely death in 2002), perhaps with a few more film roles and solo albums along the way. No doubt he would now be a cackling grand-dad, delighting in blowing up his millionaire rest-home and teaching the boy and girl bands of today how to put on a real show. We will never see his like again – something for which every Hotel chain will no doubt be breathing a sigh of relief – but for which his fans mourn every time they hear some synthetic rubbish on the radio and think ‘what could Keith Moon have done to liven up this song?’ Classic moment: So many to choose from but we’ve plumped for ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ – Keith’s delicate touch is never better than in this ‘grower’ of a song that builds every single verse and ends with a true crescendo of battering ram drumrolls and syncopated madness, with Keith finally reaching a climax by hurling his whole drumkit into a gong!
All these heroes and heroines are much missed but at least their music lives on – not least on this website. More news, views and music next week!