Monday, 26 August 2013

Cat Stevens "Catch-Bull At Four" (1972) (Album Review)




Cat Stevens “Catch-Bull At Four” (1972)


Sitting/The Boy With A Moon And Star On His Head/Angelsea/Silent Sunlight/Can’t Keep It In//18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)/Freezing Steel/O’Caritas/Sweet Scarlet/Ruins




‘I gotta show the world, world’s got to see, see all the love, love that’s in me’

Three hugely successful albums within two years, the best-selling UK single of 1971 ([70] ‘Morning Has Broken’) and critical plaudits galore just three years after Catty nearly died from TB and thought at the least that his career is over if not his life. Surely he’s feeling happy? Vindicated for taking such a career change? Hopeful for the future? Content with life? Well, not exactly. Even though Cat’s albums have become bigger and bigger with every passing release to date, the first time Cat sat down to write songs as a big established star left him feeling under pressure. How do you follow up a hit album sequence that only came out that way because you nearly died? What are you going to do, die all over again? The euphoria of surviving also seems to have worn off a little, with Cat all too aware that while the public believed in his songs enough to buy them the world in general wasn’t going to change paths in a hurry. The era of Watergate wasn’t one for hope but one for trouble and confusion and Cat delivers an album that doubles back a little on what he’s delivered before. The dreams are still here but they’re interrupted by nightmares, the need to keep moving is tempered by reflective moments of mere sitting and Cat is all too aware that breaking down everything and starting again means you have to come to terms with the ruins you leave behind.

 Cat’s clearly feeling fragile and isolated, hemmed in by public expectation and a world that seems to judge success by chart sales rather than artistic growth. ‘Catch-Bull At Four’ isn’t quite as eccentric and audience-shunning as the follow-up ‘Foreigner’ but it straddles a foot in that world alongside the sunnier world of ‘Teaser’ being an album that covers the good and the bad in life with a slightly less commercial sound. ‘Catch-Bull’ also possesses a much bigger band sound than the one on best-sellers ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ and ‘Teaser and the Firecat’ and material that’s a little more (how can we put this politely?) eccentric. Some would claim that this album is more of the ‘real’ Cat, that he simply got lucky with the feel and texture of ‘Tillerman’ and kept as close to that sound as he could for the follow-up, but no – like most artists but more so, Cat was a restless, evolving creature who simply didn’t like going in the same place twice. He is more than ever desperate to stick to the truth orf life as he sees it across this album, even if it means giving us long passages in Greek we can’t readily translate, an obscure repetitive metaphorical song that at six minutes is two longer than his previous longest song, performances that come barely in a whisper and some tracks like ‘Freezing Steel’ that are deliberately ugly, like life. This is, if you will ‘Catch No Bull-Shit’.  

This is an album that finds the paths on the ‘road to find out’ are not all pretty. The LP starts with a narrator being forced to ‘sit still’, confined to a chair against his will when all he wants is to break out and find something ‘new’, but secretly afraid that he’ll ‘wind up where I started from’. It also ends with the narrator walking through the ruins of a desecrated city, one ostensibly hit by a cold war bomb but also seemingly destroyed by its inhabitants’ inability to embrace change and the new. In between relationships end, sunlight pouring through a window signals change, Cat has nightmares about being trapped in Kansas City that only end when he flees to the airport, he waits for a religious sign that doesn’t come on ‘Freezing Steel’ (Cat’s about four years early for the religious symbol he will get in 1976, setting him out on the Muslim path, not yet as enlightened as he wants to be) and ‘O’Caritas’ ends with the discomforting line that ‘we who will perish salute death, while life goes on alone’. All the time this album screams ‘new, new, new’, utterly refusing to go near the warmer sounds of ‘Tillerman’ and ‘Teaser’ (much to the horror of period critics, if not fans who always seem to have embraced this album against expectation), with ten experimental variations on what we’ve had before, roughly half of which work quite well and half of which don’t really work at all. Still, unlike some albums that are simply the same as last time, but worse (a common problem in 1972 especially, the year of AAA nearly-albums like ‘Harvest’ ‘Wildlife’ ‘Sometime In New York City’ and ‘Everybody’s In Showbiz’) at least Cat is bravely trying to go somewhere new and the listener often ends up praising this work, even if they slink off quietly to play ‘Tillerman’ or ‘Teaser’ again while this album gets quietly shelved. The times they are a changing, as they say, and Cat for one can’t wait for them to get a move on.

Even the album title, greeted as a bit of classic Cat gobbledegook at the time until the singer admitted decades later it was based on the Buddhist work ‘The Ten Bulls Of Zen’, is all about welcoming change. In this text there are ten stages towards enlightenment, represented by ‘capturing’ ten elusive invisible ‘bulls’ representing the spiritual world – the first three are variations on seeing the ‘bull’ and realising that there is another spiritual world beyond ours, the fourth about ‘catching’ it and and the last six stages about taming it and integrating it as part of everyday life; traditionally the fourth stage is the ‘longest’ one as the bull forever escapes and the believer has to completely change the way they think about life with many giving up at this stage and going back to their material worlds. Cat claimed later that he regretted choosing the fourth stage (‘I’m not sure I was out of the first back then’), but it’s a very fitting title for an album that’s all about being in the process of changing the way that we understand how life works. Cat’s front cover drawing, of a small boy staring down an angry-looking bull, is also a good fit for an album about facing up to challenges and mishaps, more austere and cold than his usual front covers but powerful in its simplicity and looking like a still from ‘Avatar’ (not the awful film with blue meanies but the animated series with cabbage merchants). To go back to the ‘Ten Bulls Of Zen’, though, is it just me or is there quite a neat analogy for the ten post-TB Stevens albums here too, all representing a different stage of discovery? (‘Mona Bone Jakon’, in 1970, is very much ‘in search of a bull’ while Cat’s happiest album – ‘Buddha and the Chocolate Box’ in 1974 – is surely ‘The Great Joy Of Riding The Bull Home’ represented by stage number six and what is album no 10 ‘Back To Earth’ if not ‘A Return To Society’?) Could Cat have had this ten-album list in mind from the first (or near-first, perhaps discovering the ‘Zen’ paper on his sick-bed aged eighteen? It might not have been a coincidence that his contract with Island records – signed shortly after in 1970 – was for the very round figure of ten albums). Or is it just a mystical coincidence? Cat, of course, never fully embraced Buddhism, but he’s still toying with different religions as late as his final ‘Cat’ album in 1978 and it’s ethos of peace and wisdom is very in keeping with Cat’s lyrics in the first half of the 1970s especially.

The change that hits you first, if you’re listening to these albums in order, is the sound of this record. ‘Tillerman’ and ‘Teaser’ are ‘warm’ and ‘happy’ records for all of their occasional troubles and tribulations; the sparse ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ is less so, but it’s more out of a toughness and brittleness and Cat’s determination that illness and illusion will not get the better of him, full of very human fighting spirit. ‘Catch-Bull’ is equally sparse and isolated for the most part, but it’s an isolation born of sadness and mourning, a world where Cat feels distant from us as if he’s left his audience behind somewhere and is calling to us from back down a mountain-top, less interested in whether we will join him there. Traditionally this record is seen as having an ‘up’ side (the first) and a ‘down’ side (the second), not unlike ‘Teaser’ in fact, Cat grouping his more despondent songs together at the end. However even the supposedly ‘happy’ songs on part one seem ‘down’ compared to [72] ‘Peace Train’ [71] ‘Moonshadow’ et al; ‘Sitting’ is as loud and commercial as any of Cat’s past songs, but the sound of it (with a piano sounding like it’s being whalloped over the head by drums and Cat at his lowest and most snarling vocally yet) is far from upbeat. ‘Angelsea’ is catchier still, but it’s cast from a backing that includes a swirling, out-of-control synthesiser (the first on a Cat Stevens record, but far from the last) that sounds like a black hole sucking all the usual Cat-style ‘bounciness’ from the heart of the song. ‘Silent Sunlight’ is a faintly optimistic piano-ballad, which should be the most ‘Teaser’ like on the record – only instead of being loud and in-your-face, it’s muted and desperate, as if it’s been recorded down the end of the corridor. The only traditional sounds come from ‘The Boy With The Moon And Star On His Head’ which lyrically is still quite different for Cat, a parable that’s the most impersonal thing he’d written since his ‘teenage’ years as a ‘pop’ singer and ‘Can’t Keep It In’ the one great unambiguously happy moment on the record, neatly placed in the middle to make everything around it feel lifted up. As for side two, well, only the side-long title track of ‘Foreigner’ comes close to this one for Cat at his most upset and emotional. Nightmares, feeling lost, waiting for Armageddon,  saying goodbye to Carly Simon and walking through the ruins: this is not the sound of [70] ‘Morning Has Broken’ and [71] ‘Moonshadow’ anymore. 

So what could have caused this? Well, Cat was back to being the most eligible bachelor in town. His break-up with Patti D’arbanville was receding into the difference. Since then he had had two girlfriends, neither of them that serious yet. Linda Lewis, two years Cat’s junior, had befriended him and even sang back-up vocals on ‘Teaser’, by this time a twenty-two-year old veteran of the music business who’d had hits with such songs as ‘Rock-A-Doodle-Doo’. On this album she sings on ‘Angelsea’, the one track I think its safe to say is almost definitely written for her. However it’s notable just how ephemeral she is on this track in contrast to the very earthy songs for Patti – she’s talked about in terms of astrology and imagination, a mysterious unknowable creature with rainbows in her hair, a million miles away from the usual ‘truth’ and ‘honesty’ with which cat approached his love songs. And then there’s American singer-songwriter Carly Simon who had befriended Cat during his first shows in public in years in 1970 as he made his comeback, helping him backstage at The Troubadour Club in Hollywood where she was a veteran. The pair got on so well they didn’t want to part ways after the weeks of shows so set up a date. Cat, unusually, was running late as he rushed to see her with a box of chocolates under his arm. Carly wrote ‘Anticipation’ while waiting for him, a song that became one of her biggest hits, full of longing and pondering how their lives turned out. Cat was embarrassed that he had only thought to bring chocolates and offered to write her a song in return. Unfortunately their romance fizzled out as they both went back to their separate lives and by the time Cat kept that promise on ‘Sweet Scarlet’ they knew it was over (my favourite ever Carly song is also for Cat, ‘Legend In Your Own Time’, her tearful goodbye song where she captures Cat well: ‘A legend in your own time, a hero in the footlights, whose a lonely boy who goes home alone’ a single released alongside ‘Catch-Bull’ in 1972). There’s also the feel-good love song of ‘Can’t Keep It In’, a track which could have been about either girl (or maybe a third?!?)  On the other seven songs, though, it’s strange just how alone Cat sounds on his first release since urging the world to ride a ‘Peace Train’ with him. He sits alone on the opening track, he alone can see that the world ‘will never last’ on ‘O’Caritas’ and he ends the album as the only survivor on ‘Ruins’. This is not the vision of his life Cat had imagined from his hospital bedside as he dreamed of re-entering the world and even though he’s back amongst humanity he still feels alone, marking time until his life moves forward again.     

I think Cat’s unhappiness came partly from a growing realisation that his ‘second’ career was as ‘pointless’ and ‘empty’ as his first, even with all the happiness it brought other people. Cat had prided himself on staying true to his music and his beliefs, re-creating his image as a singer of believable, impassioned, bearded songwriter who cared little for appearance (in contrast to the clever but often empty songs of a talented teenager year old with a taste for hip shirts). Cat must have been thrilled when Island offered him a ten-album deal and when the first three albums did much better than he’d ever dreamt of. On this album though Cat must have really felt it that he wasn’t anywhere near halfway through that load yet. To his horror too Cat’s spiritual quest had brought him further and further away from anything he could write down in words and melodies and from this point on the freedom of music becomes more of a restriction, limiting him to what he can say even to his now-bigger and more open-minded audience. Cat’s never quite revealed when it took place, but he’s meant to have started thinking ‘deeper thoughts’ after taking a holiday in Morrocco and hearing the Islamic call to prayer for the first time. After asking what the awe-inspiring music was, Cat was told it was – in the closest English translation – ‘music for God’. Having written music for money and girls for two years, and for his audience for the next three, Cat suddenly felt very ashamed not to have ‘written music for God’ even though he wasn’t yet sure what his definition of God was and which religion’s interpretation of God he meant. Most commentators put this story as happening later, when Cat is already started down the ‘road’ to becoming a Muslim, but I think that sudden decision after nearly drowning on another holiday in 1975 is too late, the moment that forced Cat’s hand after years of pondering these deep questions. This first story fits better here – the moment when Cat not only realises that there is a spiritual side to life but seeks to ‘catch’ that power for himself, the moment he goes back to being a seeker again rather than an answerer. That would explain the interesting change in direction for the sound and style of this album, too, where Cat’s characters are often ‘imprisoned’ against their will, desperate to break free and where he often sounds almost ashamed of what he is singing, ducking the music and especially his vocal in the mix as if he only half-wants us to hear what he says any more (the mix has been cleaned up greatly for CD compared to my old vinyl copy, but it still doesn’t have the ‘shine’ of the other ‘Island’ albums). Cat even sings one song in Greek until the last verse (thankfully providing a translation on the lyric sheet), perhaps because of this uncertainty over what he is doing and whether he wants us to hear it. If ‘Tillerman’ was an album of sunshine and ‘Teaser’ a record of ‘moonshadows’ then much of ‘Catch-Bull’ feels as if Cat knows he is still really in the dark, stumbling blindly with less certainty than he had in 1970-1971.

This might explain away some parts of the album, then, but the big question as ever on this site is whether the music is any good. And the answer as ever on this site is yes, but for the first time since ‘New Masters’ only in parts. Critics at the time complained that there was nothing on this album as ‘immediate’ as [72] ‘Peace Train’ and [71] ‘Moonshadow’, perhaps forgetting that just a year earlier they’d been praising ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ for being a ‘mood piece’ unbroken by need for commercial singles. ‘Catch-Bull’ has the best of both worlds; ‘Can’t Keep It In’ might not be the deepest single Cat ever wrote and didn’t sell quite as many copies or move as many minds but it’s still one of his best, music and words perfectly going together on a song about joy that’s impossible to dislike and never sits still for a minute. It also sounds even better on album, brightening up the rest of an often downbeat record like the sun coming out. Oddly it was only ever released in Britain, Cat splitting his sales between the Atlantic. ‘Sitting’, the American choice, too deserved to do better in the singles chart, a bleak and angry record that still successfully conveys frustration and material chains in the context of a catchy song with a hummable riff. ‘Angelsea’, too, is the single that never was from this album, a churning hypnotic spacey rocker about a mystical lady that’s the crazy-paving lyrics of ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ combined with the earthy music of a ‘Helter Skelter’. Elsewhere the quieter, humbler songs are a mixed bag: ‘Silent Sunlight’ and ‘Ruins’ are clever sparse songs about endings in two different ways, sensitively played and sung on backing tracks that don’t need anything more to make them sparkle. However the rest is seemingly deliberately wilfully strange. ‘18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)’, is a largely interesting experiment, a nightmare in sound as well as well as words, with an unsettled centre that keeps twists and turns and simply refuses to go back in the box of the main key, resolving onto the last key you’d expect several times over. The rest though are less successful. ‘The Boy With The Moon And Star On His Head’ is the closest Cat ever came to being boring without even a chorus or instrumental to enlighten it’s three long verses. ‘Freezing Steel’ isn’t a bad song, but it suffers from coming straight after ‘18th Avenue’ (a song it closely resembles) and possessing a curious short, stuttering riff that keeps sticking on the handbrake every time it ought to be soaring away into the distance. ‘O’Caritas’ ought to be a fascinating glimpse into Cat’s Greek heritage (both his parents are from Greece, although Cat himself was born in London), but instead it’s a rather severe and humourless piece about the end of the world that would have worked just as well in English. Finally ‘Sweet Scarlet’ is clearly from the heart – and I must confess has a much more interesting lyrics than I thought before studying it for this review – but the mutedness of the mix and the rather awkward melody don’t place it among Cat’s most interesting work.

An album of transition, then, with cat aware of the enlightenment that lies in front of him but not yet sure how to get there and feeling lost and frustrated again so soon. For my money Cat’s later, lesser known albums are still more interesting (‘Buddha’ and ‘Numbers’ especially) and his earlier work has a power and punch that isn’t always there in this ‘middle’ period (‘Mona’ and ‘Tillerman’ being his greatest work to my ears). But Cat always releases something special on every record he makes – even his much-maligned pop year of 1967-68 and his past-caring heading-into-retirement years a decade later have several strong and impressive songs amongst the ranks. The end result is that ‘Catch-Bull At Four’ is somewhere in the middle – a sometimes accessible, sometimes-mad, sometimes-great, sometimes-bad, sometimes-happy-but-more-often-sad album from a singer-songwriter who always something to say and more than a little knowledge about the best ways to say it. If there’s a slight awkwardness creeping in here, a boredom with the sound of the hit albums and a restless urge to try something new that stops it being as well loved and well regarded as ‘Tillerman’ and ‘Teaser’, there’s also a real sense of excitement at times over what’s to come and what will fill that gaping spiritual hole gnawing away inside Cat. The fact that the answer to what that hole was becomes even more dramatic, unexpected and life-changing across the years to come than Cat expected and put into song here shouldn’t get in the way of what an at-times brave and uncompromising record this is, from a time when Cat was no longer the ‘New Master’ but not yet the ‘Foreigner’ of his album titles. Would that other songwriters of the day had reached even the first stage of the ‘Ten Bulls Of Zen...’ (I would say the Spice Girls are still at stage one - 'the search for the bull' – only I think the bull ran away and is now wearing ear-muffs!)

The Songs:

[78] ‘Sitting’ sounds from the title as if it’s going to be a nice, quiet, gentle, contemplative sort of a song, but not a bit of it: this is the sound of a toddler forced to sit still against his will, desperate to immerse himself in everything the world has to offer but feeling held back. Impatience has long been shown to be Cat’s Achilles heel: it’s why he got sick in the first place instead of seeking rest and he paid the price for being unable to burn the candle at both ends by being confined to bed for a year. Cat is by now up and about, but still troubled: what if it happens again when he sleeps? Will he ‘sleep too long’ and miss something important? Will he even wake up at all? He feels as if he should be doing something important and has just spent three albums telling us he’ll do just that, but by the time he gets here he feels himself just going round and round in circles and that each exploration ends up merely a dead-end and he may as well have stayed at home thinking. In a neat return of the previous year’s song ‘On The Road To Find Out’ Cat opens the album with the lyric ‘I’m on my way, I know I am’, but his voyage sounds less likely to succeed this time around and Cat’s insistence is sung through gritted teeth not certainty. A turbulent middle eight is so sudden it seems to drop out from the ceiling, crashing into the song mid-note (i.e. not on the natural beat you’d expect) and what a middle eight it is: ‘I keep on wondering if I sleep too long will I even wake up again?’ This is the sound of a writer afraid to slow down or loosen up in case he misses some vital clue top life and it makes for a very interesting comparison with the much more patient patient of the ‘Mona Bone’ years (when Cat was of course felled by physical rather than spiritual malaise). Adding that there’ll be time to sleep when he’d dead and buried, Cat’s narrator is busying himself with spiritual books and ideas the same way his younger self used to drown out his fears of inadequacy with endless parties and drinking. The song ends with a curious repeat of the middle eight with new lyrics that’s almost incomprehensible (‘If I make it to the waterside, I’ll be sure to write you a note or something’) which sounds dismissive about his audience more than anything. The very end, too, is unexpected and downbeat, Cat finally addressing the audience rather than himself and warning us that everything he’s told us so far might turn out to be a lie after all (‘Keep pushing hard, boy, but try as you may you’re gonna wind up where you started from’). In fact, a silly throwaway reference to ‘the power growing in my hair’ aside (Cat must have been reading the Bible and the ‘Samson and Delilah’ passage along with all his Buddhist and Islamic texts) this is one of Cat’s better lyrics, as spiritual as any in his canon but much more earthy and ‘real’. The accompaniment to all this turbulence and frustration is suitably dramatic, less a melody than a string of phrases stuck together with only the vaguest and fragile of glues that often threatens to break apart. ‘Sitting’ is difficult to listen to, perhaps, and doesn’t have the cosy glow of his better known work, being a brave if not suicidal choice as a single, but ‘Sitting’ is arguably closer to the real, uncertain, slightly guilty, reluctant millionaire Cat Stevens of the first half of the 1970s than [72] ‘Peace Train’ [71] ‘Moonshadow’ or [70] ‘Morning Has Broken’. As a footnote, Cat will return to this song’s central phrase for [155] ‘Be What You Must’, a track from the 2009 work ‘Roadsinger’ which takes quite a different tack, deciding that everyone works at their own spiritual speed and shouldn’t be coerced into going faster just because of some feeling that enlightenment is at hand, offering up a kind of ‘Father and Son’ monologue to his younger self to be more patient and to let wisdom come through experience over knowledge.

[79] ‘The Boy With The Moon and Star On His Head’ is a bit of an oddball in the Cat Stevens canon. On first hearing the largely acoustic arrangement makes it the most traditional of the ‘Catch-Bull’ songs, but the whole structure is more like a medieval ballad than a pop song and there are none of Cat’s classic middle eights here, or even a chorus. Lyrically, too, this is a parable clearly not told by Cat or a stand-in version of Cat but a character who seems to have walked out of a fairy-tale, a place with names like ‘The Whisper Woods’ and where babies are left in baskets on doorways. We’ve reflected before how Cat tends to use ‘I’ and ‘you’ in his songs much more than other writers (Paul Simon and John Lennon being the two exceptions) and like those writers Cat rarely if ever uses another ‘voice’ to speak to us, as it were (Lennon does so only when writing about ‘social’ matters and Simon only in his ‘Capeman’ musical about a teenage murderer from Puerto Rico – both are widely held up as their creator’s weakest works at least in part for this very reason). And yet, given the lyrics that Cat will go on to write, it sounds as if there might be a ring of truth in the lyrics after all. The boy of the title is the son of the narrator, a father who doesn’t know of his son’s existence until the lad turns up on his doorstep after a brief liaison with a ‘gardener’s daughter’, who makes good on her promise to give birth to a boy ‘with the moon and star on his head’. Compare this lyric to the much more realistic one on [98] ‘Sun/C79’ (from 1974’s ‘Buddha and the Chocolate Box’) where Cat’s child asks him ‘why are we here?’ and instead of the expected spiritual speech gets a history lesson on his daddy meeting his groupie mum backstage at a gig, her hotel room number still ringing in his head with a sort of spiritual glow. Officially Cat only has his first child in the 1980s and we stress that we don’t know any better – but the proximity of the two songs (recorded two albums apart) does make you wonder. Is this Cat writing a fairy-story for the child he can never see, first denying and then recognising him as his? He proudly imagines a future when his boy will make him proud, travelling the world to deliver the message of peace (actually Yusuf’s son Muhammed travels the world in a grunge band, but the two aren’t as far apart as you might think). Unfortunately this kind of speculation is all there is to enliven up what is, by Cat’s high standards, a very dull song indeed. The tempo is slow, the rhyming scheme apparently deliberately simple and long-winded (to better fit the ideas of an Elizabethan sonnet) and the whole song is rigidly unchanging. Cat and backing band (including the ever-excellent Alun Davies) liven the track up as best they can – adding sudden brief bursts of period chamber music as fits with the words occasionally – but you know a song is doomed when a songwriter is trying to distract from the drabness of his own work with breakaway moments like this. Thankfully Cat never tried anything like this again, the track appearing to last for much longer than its six minute running mark (almost a sixth of the running time of the album as a whole) as it’s lyric of symbols and allusions is no substitute for his usual honesty.

Thankfully [80] Angelsea’ is much better, a song with more of the customary Cat Stevens easy breeziness than either of the album’s first two tracks. This song deserved to become the album’s first single, in fact, a catchy breathless singalong about some mysterious ethereal creature that sounds a little like [38] ‘Lady D’arbanville’ sped up. Few songwriters ever got quite as carried away when in love as Cat did and this song, surely for Linda Lewis, features her charming harmony soaring over the top. This song excels through the clever trick of merging airy-fairy ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ lyrics with a wonderfully earthy, tough melody and performance. The creature of the title might be an angel, with unlikely things surrounding her golden ochre hair as she lives in the clouds, a ‘mistress to magicians’, but the punchiest performance on the album by far reveals just how lustfully Cat feels towards her, all cluttering drums on Gerry Conway’s greatest performance and a whacking great choir of voices. For all this song’s brazen sounding confidence, though, the lyrics tell a slightly different story: Cat feels the tug of love but he doesn’t feel it was ‘fated’ in quite the way it was on ‘Lady D’arbanville’. He spends the song looking for a sign that this is meant to be, constantly checking her horoscope and ‘universal house’ against his and my impression is that he ends the song having told us everything wonderful about her and why everyone loves her, without the punchline ‘so why don’t I quite feel it the way I should?’ A full band, including a five-person backing choir, kick up a great deal of noise but it’s Cat’s own synthesiser playing (just a few months on from its first use, on ‘Who’s Next’) that’s the most memorable part of the song, conjuring up the idea that ‘Angelsea’ has wondered out of a whole new dimension. Had Cat recorded this song just an album earlier then he’d have probably been forced to use the still-analogue mellotron, which has a much softer and psychedelic sound. Having this much tougher digital feel (associated now with futuristic images, machinery and robots thanks to the likes of Kraftwerk, The Human League and Neil Young) really suits the song, keeping us at arms’ length as the cold steely heart in the centre of what is otherwise the warmest song on the album. Above this sound Cat doesn’t so much sing this song as shout it, overwhelmed throughout by the visions around him as if his ears are filled with sound as much as his eyes are filled with colour. The result is a hugely striking song made even better thanks to easily the best performance on the album.

[81] ‘Silent Sunlight’ is a much quieter, reflective ballad about change. Like ‘Sitting’ Cat’s narrator is impatient for change and wants to get on with a new chapter in his life, echoing [70] ‘Morning Has Broken’ by embracing the morning light when it floods through his room as a sign that he can get up and go back into the world. There are hints that this song is not as hopeful and upbeat as it sounds – ‘All my dreams have blown away’ is the song’s third line, in fact – and for all his talk of looking only forwards Cat can’t resist getting nostalgic in the song’s third verse, reflecting on a past when ‘all things were tall, our friends were small, and the world was new’. As an adult, though, everything is repetitive and Cat yearns to greet life with the same enthusiasm he did when he was able to go out to play. The melody, however, is stately and grand – maybe even a little pompous – adding a regal rigidness and artificial smile onto proceedings which together with the genuinely happy opening couplet makes it sound a lot more upbeat than it actually is. The real story in the song comes in the final verse, where Cat returns to the theme of ‘Sitting’ and tells us ‘don’t ever look behind at the work you’ve done, for your work has just begun’, suggesting that this is another treaty about embracing spiritual changes and learning without resting on your laurels. Cat tries hard with this song, including his own playing of a tin whistle part that must have been quite tricky to learn, but there’s something rather uninvolving about this song. The curious mix doesn’t help much either: even more than the rest of the album it’s almost as if Cat was deliberately hiding what he had to say by mixing it this low and quietly, so that fans can only really get to know this song by reading the lyric sheet or turning this recording up extra-loud (sorry neighbours!) In the end, ‘Silent Sunlight’ is both pretty and pretty revealing – it’s just that, like the sunlight that inspired it, the effect is only fleeting and this song gets rather lost in between the two noisiest songs on the record either side of it. It’s also not a patch on even the weakest ballads from the first three post-TB albums, although that it is to be fair more a sign of how brilliant they are.

[82] ‘Can’t Keep It In’ is like a warm bath after all that reflectiveness on the first four tracks. An over-exuberant puppy of a song, this one is all over the place and out of control but all the more pleasing for that; Cat’s refusal to put a wrap on his feelings for public consumption all the more unexpected and enticing after the last few songs. Lyrically there’s not much going on here on what is, by Cat’s standards, quite an empty pop song about how he feels so much love he can’t help but let it spill over into his work, singing it as if he’s having a sugar rush after a week long fast. He could of course be singing about both or any other part of his love life, but I do wonder given the sea-change on the next few albums if this is Cat opening his heart to God, desperate to tell us that he has sensed someone out there, wanting to let us know without being comfortable with letting on what for the world just yet. The words ‘why walk alone?’ and passages about being ‘warmer’ with this knowledge do sound like more of a spiritual conversion (unless of course his lover is clutching a hot water bottle), while his pleas to ‘do anything if you let me know’ could be for either. There are some interesting ideas, though, even if some of these are sadly only brief: in one of the best couplets on the album Cat tells us ‘You’ve got so much to say, say what you mean, mean what you’re thinking – and think anything!’, summing up the lack of restrictions he longed for on this song’s polar opposite ‘Sitting’. This time around Cat is free to move around and is loving his freedom . Musically this song is like a merger of ‘Sitting’ and [71] ‘Moonshadow’ – it possesses the first song’s restless energy and the second’s nursery-rhyme-like string of interlocking repetitions (‘And if I lose my teeth/hands/eyes...’, compare the way this song too has the meaning of one line leading directly to the next). Performance-wise, too, this is another of the best recordings on the album, the players clearly much more at home with Cat’s more commercial instincts and Cat himself is on great form, navigating this song’s sudden violent key changes (perfect for a song about sudden unexpected discovery) with consummate ease and an audible twinkle in his voice. There’s even the last of Cat’s band’s final ‘comical’ write-offs (heard most frequently on ‘Teaser’) when the band suddenly end up walking down the song’s spiralling chord structure, only instead of flicking back upwards they simply fall down a musical hole-in-the-floor, finally relinquishing control with a funny cymbal crash. The hint is that Cat’s narrator is so blinded by love that he’s inevitably heading for a fall and that he probably knows this himself but at the moment doesn’t care. Again, it’s interesting that Cat – never really known for his love songs – seems to have so many on this album. Clever, catchy and confident, ‘Can’t Keep It In’ has a swagger that makes it stand out a mile on this album and it deserved to do better when released as a single – indeed, it’s the best of Cat’s singles not released later after becoming popular album tracks. Why why why not indeed?

[83] ‘18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)’ starts off the much edgier second side of the record as it means to go on: the song is timid and vulnerable, all the confidence and hope of the past song having evaporated (in fact whoever mastered this album for CD got this badly wrong – there should be a chasm of silence between the two sides, not a millisecond pause which throws us far too awkwardly from one to another; remember any album before about 1985 was written with the certain knowledge that under normal circumstances listeners would take at least thirty seconds to get off their chair and turn their vinyl records over). A deeply unsettling and uncomfortable track, it’s hard to tell if this song is about a real incident or only an imagined one. In truth, nothing really happens in this song, which is coy about what exactly causes the narrator to ‘struggle inside’ so badly and wake up in a cold sweat. It’s tempting to see this song as Cat rejecting the attention given to his life (he was on the verge of becoming a ‘superstar’ in this period, after three big albums on the trot), with ‘people I knew who all came there to take a view’ (it speaks volumes that the next Cat record is ‘Foreigner’, the one Cat made after leaving Britain supposedly for good). Cat too is a long way from home, temporarily ensconced in America for a tour and as so often happens in his work he is always happiest when at home discovering something than feeling lost in an alien world. This is to some extent another one of those AAA songs about feeling isolated and depressed in a character-less hotel a million miles away from where you grew up, wondering how you got there, only it sounds petrified rather than merely depressed. My guess is that this is Cat, suddenly celebrated and in fashion again, being invited to lots of parties again and risking the life he once had back in 1968. This path is ‘dark and borderless’, stretching out before him with empty wasted boozy days and Cat knows he has to resist their temptation or risk getting sick again. Something is making Cat’s narrator tongue-tied and nervous anyway, where ‘repeating my words’ (at a concert or press conference maybe?) causes the words to have ‘stung my tongue’ as he hates the attention and regrets explaining his songs when he could be discovering something to go along with them. There’s yet another return to the confinement of ‘Sitting’ as Cat finds his hands ‘tied’ and bitterly mourns ‘the empty waste of another day’ where he isn’t free to do what he wants, a pop star puppet again. Only a sudden turn of the car he’s driving back onto the ‘right’ path and the sign for an airport bring the matter to a close, Cat sounding on the verge of tears, madness or both as he screams that he is at last going home and that ‘boy, you’ve made it just in time!’ We’re used to hearing Cat cover a variety of emotions by now if you’re listening to these albums in order (he gets cross a lot more often than you might expect) but he’s always been in charge before now – even when singing to a metaphorical demon on [42] ‘Trouble’ Cat never sounded this hopeless and out of control. This song clearly means something then and it’s interesting that it’s at the ‘heart’ of this record (track six out of ten) even though it doesn’t sound at all like a side-opener, with its timid start and lack of any real hooks (and Cat is a songwriter who knew about such things – ‘Tillerman’ is so successful in part because it’s a record that’s so cleverly programmed, with every song in the perfect order in relation to each other; of the other Cat Stevens albums only ‘Foreigner’ is this out-of-kilter and that’s probably just a problem that resulted from having merely five songs to juggle with).  Is it this moment when Cat really symbolically turns his back on ‘us’ and the fame and career and concentrates on religion as his main goal, not later in 1976 as so many people have assumed? Either way, ‘18th Avenue’ is an admirable but uncomfortable song that stretches out into quite new directions we’ve never gone to with Cat before and the middle instrumental (the musical equivalent of a panic attack) is particularly striking, with its pounding piano riff and haunting strings. I’m glad this sort of song didn’t become a mainstay of Cat’s writing but I’m also glad it’s there as a one-off, a highly revealing slab of nerves and hopelessness that adds a few more dimensions to the other, more confident sounding songs around it.

[84] Freezing Steel’ is a more muscly, confident take on a similar subject that suffers badly for coming straight after such an experimental song. Had this one come first, I might well have been admiring its own courageous decisions to show frustration and emptiness like never before – as it is, it sounds like Cat chickening out on going all the way (as per ‘18th Avenue’) and writing his very real and tragic feelings of confusion and panic as a comedy song. Like his younger self after one too many parties Cat has fallen ill, his eyes ‘weak from the light of the morning’ after another night without any proper sleep, but this time Cat seems to be suffering from insomnia that leaves him awake remembering how bad it was before when he did this. Another ambiguous song, the most realistic reading seems to be that Cat’s narrator is in a mental asylum (‘The House Of Freezing Steel’), where yet again he’s being restrained (‘they tied my body up’) and seemingly fed against his will (just listen to the shock and disdain with which Cat sings perhaps the oddest line of his career – ‘A cold plate of lamb and cold potatoes too, now what’s soul to do?!’) My take is that he’s accidentally wondered off the path of enlightenment and like many a former addict is struggling with the idea that he might have to fight his demons all over again, afraid of how insane it might drive him this time. For instance, this adventure seems to be happening all in the narrator’s head – he hasn’t walked or been carried to the ‘Freezing Steel’ House, he’s ‘flown’ there and his body’s ‘back’ safely home before his brain is – his brain is still in this world of drinks and parties. The last verse is even odder, a ‘freak without a face’ from ‘Venus’ trying to abduct him before the narrator speaks up and pleads to be taken home (unless, of course Cat means that this world feels alien to him now even though he used to spend all his time there). Could it be that this song is all a hallucination – and if it is, could it be a leftover from the days when the drugs Cat was taking for TB did give him some kind of hallucinatory experiences? (or, if a new song, is this a memory of some past frightening experience or a lapse back into old drug ways?) In that case the ‘House of Freezing Steel’ is – what else? – a hospital (it would also explain the lines about food – anyone whose ever stayed in a UK hospital will tell you that, no matter how awful or life-threatening an illness you have, the hospital food will always make you feel worse). Cat was, of course, wary of hospitals after spending so much of his life in one – this track sounds like his commitment to himself and us that he won’t ever go back there again as he cries ‘please take me home!’ Musically this is very much one of ‘Catch-Bull’s turbulent songs, one which goes through more keys than a careless caretaker but it also has a stronger, more hummable melody line over the top than any of the album’s other, similar restless songs – if not quite as memorable as ‘18th Avenue’ or the more traditional songs on this LP.

[85] ‘O’Caritas’ is a traditional sounding Greek song – or ‘Laiko’ as it should properly be called (translated as ‘A song of the people’ as opposed to one for religious or political causes). It’s the second and last time Cat ever tried to address his Greek ancestry in music following [65] ‘Rubylove’ (born in London to the son of a Greek restaurateur, Cat probably heard a great deal of traditional Greek music in his youth, although with the West End on his doorstep he’s admitted that his biggest pre-Beatles influence was actually musicals). As a more serious song than its predecessor, one that studies the form rather than just the instrumentation, the result is fascinating and of huge historical importance, even if sticks out in Cat’s catalogue like the Spice Girls at an awards ceremony. Naturally Cat sings in Greek almost throughout (changing to English for the last verse), but interestingly he uses this foreign language to talk not about something personal or something particularly suitable to his Greek heritage as, say, Stephen Stills would do but uses this chance to ‘hide’ from us by offering up one of his most universal songs. A ‘cold war’ song about the threat of annihilation at a moment’s notice and how mankind is not the best or most caring caretaker for the planet he lives on, it’s as if Cat is trying to show how the threat affects us all, not just the countries at the heart of the conflict. The song would be translated into English as ‘Oh, Love’, but the song addresses love as a universal concept rather than an individual, Cat pleading ‘love...be with us always!’, while painting a vivid portrait of the end of the world (‘I see all things burning, I hear men shouting, now is the light of the world and the stars going out...’; thankfully there’s a full translation of the lyric in the booklet for both vinyl and CD; very interesting reading it makes too!) Curiously, too, you could claim that this Greek, foreign-language song is the closest we ever get to hearing Cat sing a ‘Christian’ song in the same way he sings ‘Buddhist’ and ‘Islamist’ ones elsewhere, a holdover perhaps of his youth at a Greek Orthodox Primary School full of assemblies about vengeful Gods and burning worlds. Cat plays the Spanish guitar himself but rather than making long-suffering Alun Davies learn something else new he brings in expert session musician Andreas Toumazis in to play the bouzouki, while what’s credited as the ‘Cat Stevens Choir’ (in reality lots of Cats overdubbed on top of each other) provide the vocals. It’s great to hear Cat trying something so different and the band do a great job of coming up with a performance worthy of a Nana Mouskouri record, but despite it’s worth it’s hard for non-Greek listeners to get inside this song; the end result is a little like watching a Eurovision song in the days before subtitles allowed us to laugh at all the daft translations and get to grips with each entry. Still, the lyric alone is fascinating and worth a read.

[86] ‘Sweet Scarlet’ is Cat alone at his piano and back to singing from personal experience again, not quite sure whether to be pleased or embarrassed at being ‘so unguarded’ with a girl he fancies. For years I assumed ‘Sweet Scarlet’ was the name of the person (this is another of Catch-Bull’s songs that seem deliberately mixed to be muffled and hard to hear, especially on vinyl), but no – now that I’ve belatedly studied the song properly the ‘sweet scarlet’ turns out to be the drops of wine in the narrator’s glass. Cat revealed after the album came out that he was thinking of Carly Simon when he wrote this – the giveaway line is the one about her walking into the room in her trademark ‘feathered hat’ - and I’m not sure whether she should be flattered or not (on the one hand there’s the line ‘A gypsy with a grin from an old country far away’ which isn’t altogether flattering– on the other ‘deep beneath her curls...there was so much more to see’). Cat’s singing the song in the past tense and the partnership is clearly over by the third verse (‘All those days are frozen now and all those scars are gone’) but Cat makes it clear that, being songwriters, the two of them will be drawing from this well of memories for some time to come and admits to how touched he was by this romance while it lasted (‘Ah but the song carries on...so holy’). By the end the date is over, the bottle empty and ‘all those dreams are gone’, with both lovers admitting that they can’t sustain this relationship for any longer. Cat sounds sad, watching her return to a life he knows ‘she never really wanted’ but feeling powerless to stop her because he can’t offer her anything more substantial. Listen out for the album’s upteempth astrological reference (the pair are ‘looking for a way, Moons in an endless day’ – both Cat and Carly are Cancerians). It’s interesting too that yet again Cat should stick in a religious reference in a song where it doesn’t seem it should belong, using the phrase ‘so holy’ as if the meeting and parting was meant to be, as if his search for human companionship and his spiritual quest have become inextricably linked. Lyrically, in fact, ‘Sweet Scarlet’ has enough material for writers like me to keep them going a long, long time full of symbols and allusions to what sound like real events whilst being ambiguous enough to hide the truth behind a smokescreen. As a song its one of cat’s best quiet ballads; it’s musically (and production-wise) this song suffers: the piano melody isn’t anywhere near as strong as the accompaniments Cat played throughout ‘Tillerman’ and ‘Teaser’ and seems to be more to give the vocal something to sing along to than exist in its own right. The curious mix, which puts everything into the background once again, is also particular damaging here, making the song cold and uninviting when it should be invested with more emotional warmth than pretty much anything else on the album. A bit of variety wouldn’t have gone amiss again, too, with three straight verses, a one-line, two-word chorus and a frustratingly brief instrumental solo in the middle. Even so, it’s ever so nearly a great track.

The album ends on a highpoint with [87] ‘Ruins’ though – if the destruction of the world can be called a ‘highpoint!’ At first, Cat’s revelation that he’s walking through the ‘ruins’ of a ‘quiet town’ suggests some grand Roman excavation or some WW2-hit monument before it gradually dawns on you that the time is the near-present and that the destruction could take place at any moment without warning, although Cat is ambiguous whether the destruction is natural or man-made (‘Winter turned on man when no one was looking’). Cat once again mourns not for the loss of people in the quiet, secluded neighbourhood but the sound, energy and hope that used to ring out and give him hope for humanity (referring back to his lyrical favourite of a place where [41] ‘children played’). Cat is at his poetic best in the song’s lyric, which must be one of the bleakest he ever wrote and takes in ‘shadows of falling sand’ ‘buildings standing like empty shells’ and ‘people always running scared’. The melody, though, is one of Cat’s warmest and most beautiful, taking a nervy rhythm guitar part that rocks back and forth between two notes and soothing it, helping it resolve into the warm glow of where the chords naturally want to go, as if cat is cooing a baby to sleep. Again the mix puts Cat in the background, but this time the effect is a positive one, making Cat sound as if he’s afraid of breaking the aching silence all around him, a lone voice in the darkness who can see what’s going wrong with the world. The song only really gets ‘loud’ for two sections – a curious repetitive chorus (‘So nice to see you coming into this town again’) that doesn’t work too well (it sounds like it belongs in a different song altogether and is never referred to in the verse’s lyrics) and a much better middle eight, that builds and builds across nine torturous lines, screamed at full volume (starting ‘You’d better know what you’re going through now...’) Cat has been whispering so often throughout this album that the moment is magical: you expect him to fall back into a whisper again but he doesn’t, picking up power and speed thanks to another great Gerry Conway drum lick as he mocks us for ignoring what’s happening down the street. ‘Well just keep on walking, just keep on talking, and you’d better close your eyes to the people you meet!’ There’s a twist, though, like so many of the best Cat Stevens songs: he means it kindly, warning us to keep away from the destruction and to keep the stinging smoke out of our eyes. He’s also shouting because it sounds as if another attack is taking place and it’s the only way to be heard. By the end Cat is left regretting the change on an album that finds him less sure about embracing it than usual. His wail ‘I want back!’ sums up this album’s frazzled soul in a nutshell – only Cat Stevens has learnt too much to ever go back. Cat then turns to us for a final reflective verse, returning to the quiet opening of [41] ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ with his plea that technological progression isn’t really progression if it sends the spiritual course of man backwards resulting in one of the album’s best lyrics (‘Where’s it leading to? Freedom at what cost? People are needing more and more and it’s all getting lost’). Cat’s final plea for ecological sense and a return to the days ‘when the Earth was green’ isn’t the first or last time he’s used this tack, but it is one of his most effective, an environmental song that far from being namby-pamby or a cosy singalong (like so many charity-driven environmental protest songs) tells it like it is and the ghostly ghastliness of what will happen if things don’t change. The fact that some of what Cat sang about forty years ago has come true now only makes this gentle preach of a song all the more powerful. Easily the best song on the album you can’t find on a ‘greatest hits’ LP, ‘Ruins’ is a song that too often gets overlooked in Cat’s oeuvre, but is one of his most effective and by far his best attempt at working on a song of two halves, with a noisy middle and quiet beginning and end effectively controlled (this in itself may be a response to Rolling Stone Magazine, who said ‘Tillerman’ and ‘teaser’ were great in every way except this dynamic control, with every track starting with the same level of noise and ending there – whether by coincidence or defence this one certainly doesn’t!)

Overall, then, ‘Catch-Bull At Four’ is an intriguing album. Sometimes the toreador wins, sometimes the bull, with Cat clearly at a crossroads point in his life wondering if everything he’s ever told us is right and worried that he won’t live up to the demands he sings of, with two nightmare songs about falling into old habits. Unlike a dog, though, you can teach a Cat new tricks and Stevens finds a new way to embellish his usual songwriting techniques with this extra level of doubt and worry. He does this musically as well as lyrically for the first real time too: one reason this record sounds less satisfying and rounded than its Island records predecessors is how so many songs are ‘homeless’, dodging keys this way and that and seemingly lost in the emptiness of space, unsure which way to turn. Cat does have the secret though, if our reading of ‘Can’t Keep It In’ is to be believed – he knows that religion is his destiny, but sounds as if he isn’t sure yet which religion to pick, sticking to Buddhism for now on an album of karma but one with many Christian songs on it and ideas from elsewhere. The Cat Stevens records get stranger and stranger from this point on in and Cat is clearly casting around for a new direction here, with a colder less welcoming sound than we’ve had before. However this is also the last great Cat album of truly consistent songs before writing becomes more of a chore and a career than a source of discovery, Cat’s mind now on higher things. ‘Catch-Bull’, then, is a stepping-stone of a record from the Cat whose finally sussed out how to talk directly to his audience and the Cat who realises that he doesn’t really need an audience anyway, the bull now spotted but not yet caught.

Other Cat Stevens album reviews you might be interested in reading from this site:




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

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

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

'Tea For The Tillerman' (1970)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-41-cat-stevens-tea-for-tillerman.html

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Five AAA Outcast Characters Who Know More Than They Let On




Every so often some mystical being gets it together and finally works out the mysteries behind life, the universe and everything. Their trouble is, the secrets they discover are usually secrets that no one else really wants to hear. We’ve already spoken about one in this week’s review (‘The Boy With The Moon And Star On His Head’). Here, then, are five AAA outcasts who could have promised the world so much – but the world turned their back on them, discussing them as mad eccentrics.

The Byrds “Old John Robertson” (‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ 1968)

Legend has it Old John Robertson was a real person that Byrds bassist Chris Hillman knew in his childhood, when he was part of a gang of teenage hoodlums who used to laugh at the doddery old man walking down the street dressed from a different age. His mind opened by psychedelia, this is the sound of Hillman at 25, realising that the people who are a little bit different should be revered not reviled and wishing he’d got to know his teenage victim a bit better and listened to his ‘magic words’. In other worlds, in 1967, it was better to love people than hate them: although that didn’t stop the Byrds from firing two members of the band during the making of this troubled album. No wonder, too, that Old John Robertson used to keep himself to himself and the secrets of life he gained from his unusual way of life In the Byrds’ words: ‘No one would take any time to find out what he was all about, he kept them out!” By the last verse, too, the crowds’ ignorance (and Hillman’s own in his youth) is put down to one thing: ‘fear’ kept them out, the people afraid of what old John might have to say and how small it would make them look, aimlessly trying to fill their empty lives with pointless busyness. Retro-rock with a curious rhythm as humped as the lump on Old John’s back, ‘Roberston’ is a neat song about childhood regret and angst that’s sadly a bit short even by Byrds standards, only one extra verse away from greatness.

The Small Faces “Mad John” (‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’ 1968)

Similarly, The Small Faces’ mystic seer is also called John (perhaps named after Lennon, perhaps not) who is so shunned by the rest of the world that he lives by himself, a hermit thinking mystical thoughts while everyone around him goes through their small, petty lives. Or so it seemed to Steve Marriott in 1968, who clearly sees links between the 1967 flower power generation’s quest for love and the mystic seers of the past. Mad John is a ‘wise one’ who ‘loves all the haters’ – even those who’ve spurned him and turned him away – but he ‘loved them so much that their hate turned to fear’, the narrow minded inhabitants of this un-named village twitching behind their curtains and whispering to their loved ones that ‘he’s not quite right’. Mad John may be physically suffering, his bed may be ‘the cold and the damp’, but the ‘sun was his friend’ – not a band of artificial man-made lights and spiritually ‘he was free’, something a record contract-tied band is clearly longing for in this period (‘Ogden’s’ ends up being the last completed record the foursome will ever make). As with ‘Old John’ above, Marriott and co-writer Ronnie Lane clearly regret believing the stories that their parent’s told them (‘beware of Mad John!’) – heightened by drugs and hippie philosophy, they no longer fear things that are ‘new’ and ‘different’; instead they praise them. Ian Mclagan’s harpsichord and a few Elizabethans ‘I-diddly-I-dis’ are fooling no one; this is a very 1967 song, even if it wasn’t released till the year after. For my money ‘Mad John’ is one of the very best Small Faces songs and the highlight of their most famous album.

The Hollies “Mad Professor Blyth” (B-Side of single ‘I Can’t Tell The Bottom From The Top” 1969)

The Hollies’ eccentric misfit isn’t a philosopher, but an inventor. If Allan Clarke’s lyrics are to be believed, a very great inventor, who actually manages to ‘dematerialise himself into the fourth dimension’. In his eyes the professor is a genius working day and night to make the world a better place for mankind, but the more ‘earth-bound’ inhabitants of the planet clearly don’t agree: ‘Silly old bat’ ‘freaky four eyes’ are two of the nicer things they shout at him and even now, lost in the heart of time and space, he can still hear their chants taunting him. The Hollies’ take on the outsider is more of a comedy than the first two songs on our list (sample couplet: ‘Tried it on his cat one grey night when it was foggy, never got it back – what ever happened to his moggy?’ but they’re clearly on the mad professor’s side with their funeralic oohs and ahhs and a spectacular guitar solo from Tony Hicks that grows from casual I-don’t-care-gruffness to heightened panic as the insults get under the professor’s skin. By the end of the song, the professor himself has ‘disappeared’, turning the experiment non himself – most of the people he’s left behind don’t notice or don’t care, but if only they’d helped they might too have learned ‘the secrets of diffusion and illusion’. A much under-rated Hollies B-side, every bit as good as the more traditional A-side.

Jefferson Starship “St Charles” (‘Spitfire’ 1976)

Who exactly is ‘St Charles?’ He’s not a Christian saint or a pagan saint or even a Greek or Roman God! He clearly means something to chief writer Marty Balin, however, who sees the figure in a ‘dream’, a mystical outsider telling the narrator where he’s been going wrong in love all these years and what he ought to do to put things right. His true soulmate isn’t one of those traditional blonde bombshell figures the Western world reveres so much but a much more unusual, mystical creature ‘moving like a lady but looking like a dragon princess’. What St Charles knows – and what most humans don’t seem to know – is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that the narrator would be much happier following his heart and not his eyes. By the end bandmate Paul Kantner is happily dreaming of ‘another place, another time, another world of people, dancing in rhyme’, where people are more ‘in tune’ with their inner vibrations. The vision is interrupted by a storm, the sheer magnitude of the changes the narrator will have to make when he awakes, but he sounds up for the fight. We never do find out who St Charles is, but this anti-cupid clearly knows his stuff, choosing to keep his special bows and arrows of romance only for the chosen few pairs who are actually made for each other. Quite a twist on Balin’s usual romantic affairs, this breezy, blissful, prog rock masterpiece is their last great song during Marty’s shortlived time with the band.

10cc “Old Mister Time” (‘Bloody Tourists’ 1978)

Finally, 10cc – knowingly or not – re-write the words to The Hollies’ ‘Mad Professor Blyth’ but turn it into a melodrama. If The Hollies’ take on the subject if very 10cc (flippant and funny, with undertones of tragedy behind the mask) then this song is very Hollies (a poppy singalong song that actually cuts very deep and sad). This professor also perfects the secrets behind time travel and is also teased, called ‘the scarecrow’ for his unconventional clothes and even seems to own the same cat (‘the only one who replied when he talked to the walls’). Much more defensive than Prof Blyth, however, Old Mr Time rounds on his persecutors, telling them in a quickstepping outpouring of rage, ‘you’re never going to realise, when all you do is criticise...I’m telling you there’ll come a day, you’re going to blow yourselves away, it’s wrong that I should interfere but you just get in the way!” The narrator then reveals that this is all a flashback, that the professor’s machine worked but he took it with him, leaving the people who could have been part of something evolutional and fantastic ashamed that they couldn’t spot the possibilities (‘We were human then...the future was old Mr Time!’) Eric Stewart’s at his best when he’s got something deeply emotional to sing and ‘Old Mr Time’ is one of his most under-rated songs, from a period fans should rate better (shockingly the new ‘Tenology’ box set relegates everything post Godley and Creme to a paragraph, despite the fact it’s 10cc’s best work in my opinion).
So, be careful who you’re rude to – they might have just worked out the secrets of the universe and/or time travel (although in our eyes Coalition MPs and the Spice Girls are still fair game!) See you next week for more news, views and music!