Monday, 26 May 2014
"Up at eight, you can't be late, for Matthew and Son - he won't wait! Watch them run down to platform one and the 8.30 train to Matthew and Son" "Matthew and Son, the work's never done, there's always something new, the files in your head you take them to bed, you're never ever through" "He's got people who've been working for 50 years, no one asks for more money 'cause nobody dares, even though they're pretty low and the rent's in arrears!" "I love my dog as much as I love you, though you may fade my dog will always come through" "Here comes my baby, here she comes now, and it comes as no surprise to me, with another guy, here comes my baby, here she comes now, walking with a love that's oh so fine, never to be mine no matter how I try" "Better bring another bottle with you baby, because I really want to make this party swing, ding dong ding!" "Getting hung up all day on smiles, walking down Portobello Road for miles, greeting strangers in Indian boots, yellow ties and old brown suits, growing old is my only danger" "Baby I've never had a single thing in my life that I could call my own, there you were holding a love so true, now I've got a home!" "I see a road and I want to go home, my baby will be getting old!" "You were so neat, ever so sweet, and overnight you seemed to change, since you kissed your psychiatrist, baby, you've never been the same!" "You always were so nice when it came to problems you knew, I never did think twice about ever coming to you, so granny what on earth can I do? 'Cause this little girl she's a-driving me wild, so wild!" "No companion to take him home, his only friends are the kind that just leave him alone, no one knows just how lonely his life has been, in a world that lives in a dream" "I take you out all over town but you're always sitting down, you never move - baby what's wrong with me? When we go dancing you're like a tree!" "There's the hat you made, the clothes you wore, lying down on the cold dirty floor, the colours are fading, they'll never shine again" "Now the road it's turning gray, there's a shadow where you once lay, they'll find it tomorrow and think you went alone" "I was cold and alone, and I couldn't help but moan, when the life that I was shown started crumbling then this crazy world I live in started giving more to me"
Matthew and Son/I Love My Dog/Here Comes My Baby/Bring Another Bottle Baby/Portobello Road/I've Found A Love/I See A Road//Baby Get Your Head Screwed On/Granny/When I Speak To The Flowers/The Tramp/Come On And Dance/Hummingbird/Lady
'Matthew and Son' is very much Cat Stevens back when he was still just a kitten, before the acoustic vibe, the deep mystical thoughts, the even deeper gravelly voice and the distinctive beard. In its own way having this album out on general release must be deeply embarrassing in the same way that the surviving Beatles cringe slightly at hearing the Tony Sheridan or early Quarrymen tapes, that the Beach Boys feel about their 1961 rehearsals being on public release or the lengths and court cases that Simon and Garfunkel have gone to to keep their 15-year-old selves off the shelf at HMV. So if you've come to this album straight after hearing 'Tea For The Tillerman' and 'Teaser and The Firecat' then I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed: instead of themes about the ravaging of the planet and the difficulties of living a spiritual existence in a material world you get the twin themes of, erm, parties and dancing. 'Matthew and Son', then, is your typical teenage LP. But already Cat Stevens is far from your typical teenage writer: he's already testing himself, trying to make his songs deeper and more meaningful, trying to tackle a range of subjects no one would expect a 17-year-old to be thinking about never mind writing about and trying to come up with a sound he can grow into. While 'Matthew and Son' is probably song for song the poorest album in Cat's back catalogue, it's an essential part of his development as a songwriter and actually a lot less embarrassing that it really has a right to be after being made at such a young age. Listening to this record you just know that Cat was destined to be a jewel in the crown of the music business, even if that jewel still needs a fair bit of polishing.
Not bad for the son of a Greek restaurant owner, who half-heartedly waited on tables while listening to the music that floated past where he worked and live in Shaftesbury Avenue (Cat did in fact try on many occasions to put together a musical - a 'Western' in late 1967 and again with the barely seen 'Moonshadow' in 2012, which makes sense given that he often told reporters in the early days that his biggest musical influence was Leonard Bernstein). For me, even more astonishing than the fact that Cat is writing masterpieces in his bedroom is the fact that he knows exactly what to do with them: while almost every other AAA musical genius is either born into a musical family or meets like-minded souls at school, Cat had no one really to guide him and yet he still did all the right things like meeting with publishers in snatched holidays from Art College and playing to empty seats in coffee houses, slowly building up a reputation as the talented youngster everyone ought to see (full kudos to Cat's elder brother David, who was the one who actually got in touch with Decca). Legend has it Cat tried to get a group started - but no one around him at his age wanted to play, which seems odd for swinging London in the swinging sixties (if only Cat had gone to the Hornsey College of Art to learn a trade as a cartoonist instead of the Hammersmith School Of Art he might have met Ray Davies and formed The Kinks with him - now that's a band I'd love to have seen!) Cat also lands on his feet, meeting close ally Mike Hurst who helps get Cat a record contract at Decca, who at 26 and with memories of his own success as a teenager in the Springfields was exactly the sort of person Cat needed (what would have happened if Dick Rowe - the man who turned down the Beatles - had been in on the Decca audition instead? Although to be fair to him he did sign the Rolling Stones...) Cat's intention had been to record his first album in a solo acoustic setting, the way he played his songs in coffee houses, but in the end only 'Portobello Road' was recorded in this way. Instead Cat's songs became a canvas for Hurst to use for his elaborate orchestral arrangements, making these small and intimate songs sound like some big abstract paintings made out of bright bold colours. Cat will end up turning his back on this sound as early as his third album when a bout of life-threatening tuberculosis makes him change his opinion on all sorts of things including his music and that was clearly the right thing to do: 'Wild World' and 'Morning Has Broken' would never have worked half as well with a booming orchestra on the tracks. But in a way it's a shame that Cat didn't keep at least a little of the quirkiness of the arrangements on offer here as perhaps the greatest thing about this record is that it sounds like nothing else ever made (well, apart from the follow-up 'New Masters' anyway), as summer of love in its own sweet daft way as 'Sgt Peppers' or 'Surrealistic Pillow' but with orchestras rather than sitars making the weird textures and ear-catching howls of colour. Hurst deserves great praise for his inventive arrangements here, which provide a neat halfway house from Bernstein and 'A Day In The Life'. Cat is clearly going for the cute teenybopper market on this album (you can't get more 'aaah!' than an artist named after a Cat singing about loving his dog), but the orchestral arrangements put this record in a whole deeper, sometimes darker place. It's the equivalent today of Justin Bieber hiring an orchestra and then doing weird things with it, even though he could arguably sell more copies simply by looking cute (arguably he couldn't pull off a frilly shirt quite as well, though).
It's often ignored in studies of Cat's work, passed over for the moment when Cat walks down the road to see his first musical in Shaftesbury Avenue, but those years spent waiting on tables and dreaming up stories for the people who came into eat or were spotted out the window seem to have played a huge part in Cat's early writing. In time, post-illness, Cat's songs will come to be much more about himself, his fears and his spiritual quests but here he's not writing about himself at all, really (except perhaps for 'I Love My Dog' 'Here Comes By Baby' and possibly 'Lady', the three songs that sound heartfelt or based on real events). That's a notable difference for such a young writer who generally speaking love writing about themselves rather than the world around them; the only parallel really is with Brian Wilson (a slightly different case as he was cashing in on the surfing scene) and Paul Simon. I rarely hear him spoken as an influence but to me the obvious parallels are between Cat and Paul Simon. Both have a natural gift for melody and a quick eye for misery in the world around them. Indeed the one song here that turned out the way Cat first envisaged it - the acoustic 'Portobello Road' - sounds like a missing page from the 'Paul Simon Songbook', so close is it to Paul's guitar style and mood (while the timing is wrong for the pair to meet, Cat would inevitably have ended up playing a lot of the same London coffee houses Paul had played in during his 'English' days of 1965 and 1966; who knows, he might have gone to the Cat Stevens family restaurant?) Does that make the singer Copycat Stevens? Well, there are no 'Richard Cory's or 'Most Peculiar Men' on this record but there is the very early Simon and Garfunkel sense of a bleak monochromatic world running just out of view from most people, a world filled with lonely ignored tramps, harassed commuters and relationships in various degrees of collapse. However, already these events are being viewed through a 'cat's eyes' as it were and already sound quite different to anyone else's work in the main. Paul Simon, for instance, would have had 'The Tramp' commit suicide and go un-noticed in an un-caring world or had the head of the 'Matthew and Son' corporation shoot himself out of guilt and overwork). Cat, however, is still loosely optimistic about life here, drawing on a series of characters who though 'down' are not quite out yet. Cat is too exuberant about life to end it for his characters so cruelly just yet, and the energy is this album's other noticeable quality compared to later, quieter LPs. You could even say that Cat is playing 'cat and mouse' with us across this album, telling us lyrically how sad people's lives can be without being able to suppress musically the buzzing energy and excitement for life he clearly has.
Which brings us on to that choice of name. In another flash of insight that few other 17-year-olds would have had, Cat figured that even his wild imagination could never come up with the idea of a besotted fan walking into a record shop and asking for a record by an artist with his real name (Steven Demetre Georgiou) and after a short spell as 'Steven Adams' Cat looked around for a new name. He figured that animals were popular the world over and looked for one that might become his emblem - luckily for his career Cat's then girlfriend happened to mention that 'he had the eyes of a Cat' and the idea stuck. Whether by chance or design cats were in during 1967 thanks to a more 'feline' feminine set of values during the psychedelia years and the idea of the cat as the nomadic wandering adventurer, answering to nobody (is it any coincidence that one of the biggest hits of the year is Tom Jones' 'What's New Pussycat? Interestingly Syd Barrett, Jerry Garcia and Ray Davies will all write songs about cats within the next two years, although all do so after Cat changed his name). I still like the ring of 'Cat Georgiou' though if Cat ever fancies changing his name for a third time?!
Anyway, back to the music. Few writers today of any age would have the sensitivity to write a song like 'Matthew and Son', a composition that tackled the Western world's dependence on a capitalist structure that clearly isn't working, with just about enough charm to lighten the load, a song of righteous indignation at hardworking long-term employees getting thrown onto the scrapheap. Hardly the sort of trivial 'pop' song that clogging up the charts, then, but such is the song's bouncy appeal and ear-grabbing hooklines that it's an obvious hit, psychedelic social commentary on a par with 'Eleanor Rigby'. Few 17-year-olds, too, would have thought of writing songs that spend so much time praising other rather 'unpopular' song subjects, from grannies to tramps and handling them with real emotion and integrity rather than mocking laughter (just take the Spice Girls and their kung-fu kicks at the homeless - we've come a long way since 1967 and not always taken the right roads!)'Here Comes My Baby', while clearly more poppy and less emotive, still packs quite a punch for such a youngster, the love of his life and now his ex callously having fun with her new boyfriend while the narrator crawls away to hide in the corner (again, this is a well known song but as a hit for another - in case The Tremeloes, who really go to town recreating a 'party' atmosphere for this song missing from Cat's version). Curiosity may have killed the 'Cat' but it does a great deal for Cat's career, with this interest in other people the saving grace of the album, stopping it from being as 'empty' as a lot of those other early recordings we mentioned earlier. Had these two songs been released as the single from this album after the title track Cat would surely have been such a big name there's no way anyone would have ever let him fade away the way he did in 1968...
At other times, however, Cat isn't a mature and responsible teenager at all. At times he's just a brat in need a good slap. 'Bring Another Bottle, Baby' is the sound of a drunken Cat trying to chat up the listener and not one of his better ideas. Indeed, most people being on the receiving end of so many double entendres and knowing winks would probably have moved to another party. 'Baby Get Your Head Screwed On' isn't much better either, being the sound of a smug know-it-all trying to tell a heartbroken girl that she's better off without the love of her life anyway and isn't he a better catch anyway? Even a seemingly sweet song like 'I've Found A Love' who finally makes the narrator's heart sing with joy seems to be less than joyous - the narrator keeps her 'hidden' from view, down a dirty backstreet and seems not to have done anything practical to help her. Admittedly all three of these songs sound like 'character' songs - and Cat can write a good 'character' song from another person's point of view as well as he can his own (see the mis-understood 'Numbers' album from 1976). Other songs like 'When I Speak To The Flowers' and 'I See A Road' don't leave such a nasty taste in the mouth, but they're such mindless, generic songs written to such a formula it's hard to accept that they were written by such a clearly talented songwriter hitting such a rich vein of material. While a much better song all round, 'Come On And Dance' is from its title and relating subject matter alone clearly not a good match for 'Matthew and Son', with the narrator's neurotic insistence that his girlfriend can only have a good time by dancing (she's probably born with two left feet like me, poor thing, and would rather listen to the music without all that fuss and energy). It's as if, freed from the supervision of art college Cat has gone a bit wild - well, when the cat's away the cat will, err, play I suppose.
On first listen this Cat Stevens world is one where life is a run of parties and chances to have fun. One song finds him asking a friend to bring a bottle round to his place, the next he's at a discotheque frugging the night away. In a neat mirror of what will happen during his dark years of 1968 (when the TB hits) Cat is partying too hard, trying too desperately to keep up appearances, because that's what people are telling him to do and he thinks, wrongly, that they have his best interests at heart (these are presumably the same people who drop like him a hot brick when the records stop selling). But you don't have to scratch too far under the surface to find a 'Graduate' style feeling that this is all slightly seedy and wrong and Cat might have been better off not trying so hard to map out his life and fill it with fame and fortune (if Simon and Garfunkel had refused to make the soundtrack for that film then Cat Stevens would have been a great substitute). Lots of later Cat Stevens songs have 'home' as the one true place of happiness, if only you can work out where it is you're meant to end up in life - this album is slightly more literal with its use of the word 'home' but note how often it crops up in these songs, shining like a beacon where Cat's narrators can be themselves without the whole 'party' act. It makes sense, too, when you realise just how 'rootless' the young Cat felt he was, with his elder brothers leaving home and his parents talking about going back to their original home in Greece or emigrate to Sweden (the family actually did move there briefly when Cat was 15 but couldn't settle). 'I See A Road' ('and I want to go home') already sounds autobiographical and this song of stepping 'on' the rock and roll circus is neatly mirrored musically by (I Never Wanted) To Be A Star' from 12977's 'Izitso?', the moment Cat steps off it. 'I've Found A Love' starts by celebrating the fact the narrator has found a girl who loves him - but note the subtle shift at the end of the first verse ('Now I've got a home!') - it's clearly 'roots' that this youngster is longing for, a home away from home as it were. 'Lady' yearns to settle down and start a family that you half-begin to wonder whether Cat lied about his age (what 17-year-olds do you know who talk of giving up their wayward lifestyle and settling down with a life partner?) 'Hummingbird' is less about the title feathered friend than the empty space in Cat's home when his love walks away from him, from his curtains to the cold stone floor he'd never noticed before. Even 'When I Speak To The Flowers' has Cat taking advice on is love life not from his Granny for once but his back garden, his calm refuge from the topsy-turvy world outside his door. None of these songs are quite as explicit as the song 'Home' yet (see 'Numbers') but it's clearly a subject playing on his mind as Cat already finds himself badly uprooted during his search for fame. Home is clearly where the heart - and the dog - and the flowers - and the lady - and yes even the hummingbird - lives, all the things that give Cat's life meaning, no matter how much fun he pretends to be having at all those parties.
That much makes sense - 'home' crops up on almost every Cat Stevens record somewhere, in some fashion. But one curious aspect of these early songs is how much they worry about old age - ridiculously so, given how pre-pubescent Cat looks on the cover (he still doesn't look aged 66 now it has to be said, it must be in the genes). Interestingly Cat doesn't mention age once during the rest of his career (well, except 'Time' from 'Mona Bone Jakon' maybe, but only in the existential sense), yet here when he's at his youngest it borders on obsession. 'I See A Road' finds the narrator impatiently trying to get home in fear that if he doesn't get there this minute she'll be sat at home 'growing old'. 'Portobello Road' sounds like a casual trip down a market and is clearly meant to be a fun day out - but what's that line lurking in there somewhere? 'Growing old is my only danger': it's as if even at rest the narrator can't shut off the feeling that he has to get on with his life and achieve something (to be fair these lyrics seem to have been written by Kim Fowley but clearly made an impact on Cat, judging by the other times the phrase is mirrored across this album). What makes this doubly weird is that, along with the tramp, the one honourable character on the whole of this album is 'Granny' , someone the narrator clearly admires and looks up to and although her age is never given (that would be impolite and Cat is far too polite to ask) presumably she's getting on a bit in years herself. You'd think, from this one song, that Cat wouldn't wait to get old and have all that wisdom at his fingertips (later albums will discover that age doesn't really matter and simply record how many times you've been around the sun - it's experience and your ability to learn from it that counts but Cat might not have learnt this just yet). What's even odder is that an interview of the period - which was given the wonderful headline 'What a drag it is to be young' from the Disc and Music Echo - has Cat insisting on how hard life is as a youngster in 1967 and how much he is looking forward to growing old. Overall, then, the real theme of this album - taken by joining the two half-themes together - is to live your life fully, doing what really matters rather than what you have to do ('Matthew and Son') with the people that matter (the two very different songs 'Lady' and 'I Love My Dog'), don't look down on others who have spiritual rather than material wealth ('The Tramp') or age instead of beauty ('Granny') - which is in fact the sort of message that could easily grace any of Cat's later, deeper albums (although only can you hear him getting into a tizz over not being able to dance!)
Now that Cat is on his 'third life' (going by the name Yusuf Islam and using his real name only in private) and has been a pillar of the Muslim community for 35-odd years it's strange to think of the 17-year-old Cat as the same person (that goes double for the weapon-wielding anarchist of 'I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun', released as single number four shortly after this album!) Indeed, in many ways he isn't the same person at all: this is Cat before his eyes were opened to the sadness and harshness of the world and before he was in a position to at least try to put things right, although you can already feel elements of his famous empathy in songs like 'The Tramp' and the title track. He heads down quite a few cul-de-sacs on this journey, does our Cat, but on balance he comes out right in the end, with 'Matthew and Son' ending up a patchy but promising record that occasionally succumbs to the common traps of the writer's tender years but more often overcomes them, with Cat wise way above his years. After all what other album by a 17-year-old can you name that contain four top thirty singles? (Albeit only two of them as recorded by Cat himself). Like 'New Masters' the new settings are sometimes a little OTT, the songwriting occasionally a little too quirky and the music too jerky for its own good and heard back to back with 'Mona Bone Jakon' a good third of the material here is empty-headed and lightweight. But goodness me, those other two-thirds - where on earth did they come from? 'Matthew and Son' already has a lot of the pieces of the puzzle in place and proves what a deep thinker Cat was by nature, even before his illness and loss of his career at the tender age of 20 made him think ever deeper thoughts. For now, though he's the 'Cat' that got the cream, the cat's pyjamas, the cat's meow, the talented youngster living the life he thought he always wanted. But as all the later Cat Stevens albums make clear to some extent, this wasn't actually the life he wanted after all and the teenager already half-knows it...
'Matthew and Son' is easily the best of Cat's early songs for me, Stevens putting his usual bubbling energy to good use on a song that's meant to be relentless and insistent. Anyone whose ever worked for a company so big that the CEO can't name all his employees will know exactly what this song is about: a fatcat establishment who simply don't understand the sacrifice they demand of their employees. cat's quickstepping lyrics are remarkable for someone too young to have experienced this kind of a life, picturing commuters flooding into their trains spot on time (at 8.31 precisely, a neat detail that really enhances the song) before turning on the ripples of this way of living, with employees too scared of their growing 'rent arrears' to ask for a raise or a holiday. Mike Hurst's thrilling staccato arrangement conjures up a swirl of deadlines, snatched lunch breaks and the sense that you're trapped with no way out, with a single mournful brass phrase hinting at the misery this causes. This song is A similar to two other recordings of the period: Simon and Garfunkel's 'Richard Cory' from 1966 and The Monkees' 'Mr Webster' from 1967. 'Matthew and Son' features even more repeats of the company bosses' name than either repetitive song and yet we never get to meet them: they're a silent, faceless figure who probably don't even realise the suffering their task-master deadlines cause ('Richard Cory' has a miserable boss envious of his workforce's camaraderie living in parallel, while 'Mr Webster' has a lowly paid employee running off with his bosses' money in revenge for his low wages). Notably there's no ending to 'Matthew and Son' like the other two songs (which end in suicide in the former and justice in the latter) - just a squealing of the brakes before the main hook of the song kicks in again, spiralling off into another endless sequence of deadlines and hard work. The song was inspired by, of all people, the tailor Cat went to for his very snazzy suits and frilly shirts, Henry Matthews who commented that an overworked employee would be a good 'character' for a song. There was in fact a 'real' delicatessen shop named 'Mathew and Son' in Cambridge in 1967, though Cat doesn't seem to have known about its existence (the name was probably made up simply because it was the closest he could get from singing 'dum de dum dum' to fill in for the song's main riff). However the main influence seems to have been an un-named big faceless company that Cat's girlfriend of the time was working for - and Cat was no doubt impatient for her to get some time off to see him back in 1967 (she's presumably the girl that features in a few songs on this album but we don't know what her name was - is it an early reference to the first of Cat's girlfriends we do know about, Patti D'arbanville? Or someone from much earlier in his life?) Whatever the inspiration that created it, 'Matthew and Son' is a cracking little song that everyone can relate to, with the Stevens-Hurst partnership at its height, the older arranger revelling in the strong texture and sheer busyness he can fill the song with. Reaching an impressive #2 in the magic year of 1967 was no mean feat (The Monkees' 'I'm A Believer' was the single at #1) and it's rather a shame that 'Matthew and Son' has become comparatively forgotten in the 45-odd years since its release; even with all the delights to come later it's Cat near to his very best.
'I Love My Dog' dates back even further, just about becoming a top 30 hit in 1966 when it was released as Cat's first single. Without the bite or meaning of 'Matthew and Son' it's simply a very good pop song and too-cute-by-half in the sense that a singer named 'Cat' is talking about his 'dog'. The clever bit, though, is that this song is secretly about something else entirely: 'Though your love may fade my dog will always be true' cat sings, hinting at the heartache that's inspired the song but his upbeat personality has chosen to side-step. Cat's lucky he didn't get sued actually because the melody is stolen wholesale from jazz musician Yusef Lateef's song 'The Plum Blossom', which even features that characteristic breath-in after every few words like the Cat Stevens version; note too the fact that Cat will 'borrow' the name Yusuf when he changes his name again in 1977). 'I Love My Dog' is pure pop, however, with a strong hook (whoever write it!) and another strong arrangement from Hurst which manages to be both big and bold but on the right side of 'funky' rather than being simply cloying. The bit that Cat most definitely wrote - the sudden embracing set of 'na na na na nahs!' is a gorgeous moment, a bubbling over of warmth and love for the narrator's canine that, like much of the album, hints at Cat's extra energy that simply can't be contained. Given that this is his first professional vocal ever recorded Cat sounds impressively natural, delivering a vocal that's both confident and believable (even better are his backing vocals, which mould around his lead voice so snugly it sounds like he's been cloned - a hard trick to pull off as a listen to early albums by the Beach Boys, Beatles and Kinks will attest). Not as deep as other songs on the album and with a, err, 'borrowed' melody line 'I Love My Dog' is nevertheless a highly likeable song.
'Here Comes My Baby' is a third straight hit single in a row - although in a shortened cover by the Tremeloes who turn the song into a party complete with a whistling competition rather than a ballad and skip the final verse ('I'm still waiting for your heart 'cause I'm sure one day it's going to start...') In either version it's a fine pop song with an identifiable narrator whose heartbroken at not being with the girl of his dreams anymore and resentful of the fun she seems to be having in his presence. Cat's version is heavily influenced by the singer-songwriter feel and points ahead more than most songs on this album to his future style. There's even the first really noticeable guitar part on a Cat Stevens record, playing a wah-wah part discreetly in the left channel, presumably played by Cat although there are no musician credits for this album (though music fans may be more interested in the bassist for this session, John Paul Jones still two years away from co-founding Led Zeppelin). Cat's vocal is another of his best, dripping with sadness and resignation, which sits in stark contrast to the Tremeloes' wild, shrieking version of the song. At one with other sad Cat Stevens songs of the period, this one sounds like it was written along with 'The First Cut Is The Deepest' after a 'real' incident although it could of course be Cat 'play-acting' again. Another superior pop song, it's odd that Cat's version of 'Baby' wasn't released as a single too - The Tremeloes' less subtle version powered it's way to #4 in the UK charts.
'Bring Another Bottle Baby', however, is proof that Cat couldn't yet write a whole album of classics. The earliest song recorded for the album bar the two A and B sides, it sounds as if Cat was just asked to bring in 'whatever else you've got' and without years of writing experience this kind of generic song was the best available. The song makes full use of Hurst's arranging abilities and does a good job at sounding like a cod-jazz album on a fraction of the budget, but for the first time on the record Hurst is making the song sound big to fill in for the fact that there's nothing here. Fan used to the later, deeper Cat Stevens are in for a shock: 'I feel smooth and I want to live it up, if we groove then I promise you that we won't even stop' and a chorus that runs 'Ding! Dong! Ding!' are as far removed from 'Tea For The Tillerman' as you can get. Cat sounds noticeably out of place in this carnival atmosphere, turning in his weakest vocal on a song that really doesn't suit him. That's a shame because the melody for this song isn't bad - it's actually better than a lot of the cod-jazz songs then being recorded on every film soundtrack from James Bond films to 'After The Fox' despite Cat's lack of experience. The most interesting moment comes at the end of the chorus when Cat hints at drugs being served at this party (If my ceiling isn't high enough we'll burn up the sky...'), a moment of pure singer-songwriter melancholy that sounds tagged on to the end of an empty partying song. An interesting experiment and Hurst is in his element, but it's completely the wrong setting for Cat even in the period when he was a party animal.
'Portobello Road' was the B-side of 'I Love My Dog' and another of his earliest songs. Kim Fowley - known to Byrds fans as Skip Battin's writing partner in the band between 1970 and 1972 - was another early champion of Cat's work and encouraged him to write by giving him this set of lyrics to compose music to. Funnily enough, Cat's strictly acoustic arrangement means this one collaborative song is actually closest to what fans know as his 'signature' sound and the lyrics could easily pass as early Cat Stevens too, a quirky walk down Portobello Road market (which is still held to this day), eyeing the interesting characters and odd merchandise. Sadly there's no real development from the list of objects - bar the rather curious fear of 'growing old' we mentioned earlier - but like the character in the song it's quite a fun, meandering way to spend your time. The song was a particular favourite of Cat's later right-hand man Alun Davies and is one of the few pre-TB songs to appear in Cat's later concert appearances (Davies also recorded his own cover of the song for his album 'Daydo' in 1974; even slower than Cat's version and with shades of Ralph McTell and quirky mandolin solos scattered throughout, it's a lovely cover well worth fans seeking out). Perhaps not unexpectedly, the American version of the 'Matthew and Son' record omitted this London-reference-heavy song from the track listing in favour of the single 'I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun' (this was in the days when albums were frequently re-packaged by the American market, although unusually the US version of this LP features 14 whole songs - most of the Beatles' albums got cut down to ten). Once again, Cat's delivery is impressive given that this is his first time inside a professional recording studio.
'I've Found A Love' is one of the better album songs you might not know, much more like the elaborate emotional outbursts that fill up most of follow-up LP 'New Masters'. Cat hasn't quite learnt to tie his upbeat choruses and downbeat verses together just yet, but already he's come up with some interesting quirky chord changes and the instrumental passages between the verses are already the best thing on the song, exploring some very unusual avenues for 1967. Lyrically this song is an early precursor of some of Cat's later 'groupie' songs like the sublime 'Sun-C79': he's deeply in love and really wants to tell the world, but something is stopping him so instead he's enjoying the 'forbidden' qualities of the relationship ('I've found a love hidden in a back street'). This may, in fact, be the same relationship heard in that later song, one which Cat will back on fondly but sadly, but here the only emotion is joy and the thought that finally things are working out how the always wanted them to. The contrasting trick between the verse and chorus works well at the beginning, starting when Cat has 'nothing', but the second verse is in the present and should find him happy; the result is that already this relationship sounds musically less than ideal and liable to fall apart for all of the narrator's cries of joy. Possibly inspired by the Rolling Stones' 'Backstreet Girl' (which came out in January 1967, the very month this song was recorded), this song is less tongue-in-cheek and less harsh than Mick Jagger's lyric although really it amounts to the same thing: the narrator isn't 'man' enough to help his girl out of her horrible living standards and keeps the whole affair 'secret' (well, apart from writing a song about it, obviously). Unlike Mick, however, Cat is at least human enough to implore her not to 'let me down'. Like many a 'Matthew and Son' song, Cat clearly isn't quite there yet compared to the songs that come later, but for a 17-year-old with no experience this is still riveting stuff with a lovely McCartney-esque tune that sounds as if it's been around for generations.
'I See A Road', however, is an awful song, one of those self-consciously 'wacky' novelty compositions that even the 1960s couldn't do well. Again it's deeply disturbing to hear 'our' Cat (Mr Spirituality 1970) sing lines like 'we'll make love...YEAH!' and do some yodelling cowboy impersonations in the choruses. However, the central theme of the song ('I want to go home...the love of my life is there') is so future-Cat Stevens this could easily have turned up on one of his later LPs and as we said before this song is a neat mirror of the road-weary '(I Never Wanted) To Be A Star' from exactly a decade later. However Cat sounds like he simply hasn't had the time to think about what he wants to say and has filled the song up the quickest way he knows - with dodgy lyrics about a 'girl with a ribbon in her hair'. Hurst clearly doesn't quite know what to do with this cowboy song and fills it with every corny gag in the book, although that said the surprise, sudden sour descending notes at the end of each verse is a clever idea and the single sweeping string notes and harp in the final repeat of the chorus are most effective (I'd have preferred this all the way through instead of that godawful banjo, to be honest - and I say that as one of the few people who actually likes banjos). Listen out too for Cat's finger-clicking heard buried at the bottom end of the mix.Taped in a single hurried session along with three other songs, this complex piece simply demanded more time than it was given. Not one of Cat's better ideas, although if you ever wondered what a country cowboy Cat might have sounded like, this is about the closest you can get.
Moving on to side two, 'Baby Get Your Head Screwed On' is another uncharacteristic song that surely is Cat the writer 'playing' at different characters. A complex story of a ménage a trois when an unfaithful wife falls in love with her psychiatrist, the usually patient and clearly loving husband has clearly had enough and tells her to 'get her head screwed on'. In fact it's the narrator who sounds unhinged in this song, with an epic Mike Hurst arrangement that switches gears several times and leaves Cat screaming at one stage in order to compete with the loud arrangement. The closest thing on this album to psychedelia (although check out the 1968 single 'A Bad Night'), 'Baby' sounds like a missing extract from The Beach Boys' 'Smile' - there's a string arrangement that sits not so much in parallel as competition with the vocal line, there are curiously strummed Hawaiian guitars made to sound like sitars and a feeling that the whole song is about to collapse under the strain of it all any second. Cat is having a whale of a time in the vocal and copes with the difficulties well seeing as it was taped at the end of a tiring four-song session, navigating this curious assault course well. It's the kind of song you're glad Cat tried, given that he would have sold a lot more records simply copying 'I Love My Dog', but like some of the 'New Masters' songs to come it seems too complex for difficulties' sake, a challenge for the sake of a challenge rather than the heartfelt songs that come later. The real star of this song though is Mike Hurst, whose challenging arrangement manages to sound like the Monterey Pop Festival would have sounded if it was held in Hollywood.
'Granny' is one of the album's highlights, a pretty little soft-shoe jazz number which was also released on the back of 'Matthew and Son' (making for a pretty nifty single all round then, even back in 1967). A really pretty melody, with a neat side-stepping piano riff and an almost purring orchestral arrangement make this song one of the most immediately likeable songs on the album, complete with the oh-so Cat Stevens sudden crescendo moment on the 'Granny....WHAT! on earth can I do?' hook. Lyrically, too, this song about a love-struck teenage romeo going to his Granny for advice is very sweet and like this album's better songs rings of truth, although Cat said in interviews he actually wrote it about his mother! (Perhaps 'Granny' scanned better or it was simply more hip to ask your grandparents rather than your parents for advice in the sixties!) 'Granny' is also the longest song on the whole album - at a mammoth 3:13! If you get the chance look out for the video of Cat performing this song on Germany's 'Beat Beat Beat' programme (basically the German Top Of The Pops) in which a fully-frilled and spruced up Cat does his best to look cool, only to get his microphone lead caught between the seats of the audience (luckily a German teeny-bopper helps him out!)
Alas 'When I Speak To The Flowers' is less, well, everything and sounds a little like a jam session that's got a bit out of hand (the track even fades-in, as if the start of the song is missing). A lot of songs on the 'Matthew and Son' album are rather repetitious but that goes double for this one which is basically one repeated verse and a middle eight. Lyrically this is the sound of a narrator torn in two, clearly hurt by his partner's behaviour but also unwilling to let her go, with 'the good times making me blind' to her offhand behaviour to him. With no one else to talk to Cat's solitary narrator ends up asking to the flowers in his backyard (their reply 'just get her out of your mind!') There's quirky and then there's...really quirky and sadly this song is a little too far down that road. Musically this stuttering song has less going on than other songs on the album too, although the unusually aggressive backing does give Cat the chance to try out a rockier feel than normal and the key of the song pitches his song uncomfortably high, something that really adds to the drama of the recording. Still, 'Flowers' is quite an empty one-note song compared to most of these other tracks and everyone involved sounds like they're desperately busking, waiting for inspiration to strike - in short, you might want to take a Cat-nap through this one.
'The Tramp', however, is another delightful ditty and along with 'Granny' and the title track is probably my favourite on the album. The song is understated to begin with, Cat's nicely focussed vocal accompanied by a busy bassline and some inventive acoustic guitar playing before a mournful trumpet phrase finally kicks in some 90 seconds in, another neat touch from arranger Mike Hurst. Released four whole years before Jethro Tull write an entire album on the theme of homelessness (give or take a couple of songs), 'The Tramp' is about as unhip and un-grand a statement as you think could be made in 1967 and yet it's at one with certain other psychedelia songs and the idea that everything is beautiful when looked at in the right way (see The Hollies' similarly charming rag-and-bone-men tale 'Charlie and Fred'). Many a song on the subject - especially written by 17-year-old newbies - would sound patronising but this song gets the mixture of harsh reality and noble dignity about right (best line: 'His only friends are the kind that just leave him alone'). Cat often spoke about the solitude of his own childhood in interviews so it could be that he has a sneaking regard for the lonely tramp here or at least identified with him. Notably there are no solutions here - no sudden neat resolutions or bouncy hope that things are going to get better; Cat simply leaves his character the way he found him, down on his luck but not necessarily out for the count just yet. A charming song that more than any other on this album reveals what a natural instinctive songwriter the young Cat was.
'Come On And Dance' is a lot more frivolous but it's also a lot of fun. Cat's energetic bouncyness comes to the fore in this song, which simply can't sit still. Unfortunately the narrator's girlfriend can't keep up with him and Cat cajoles, chides and uses every trick in the book to make her take to the dance-floor with him. The most rock and roll performance on the record, this song is at one with period 'dance' songs (it's built to the same quickstepping but not tiring tempo as The Beach Boys' 'Dance Dance Dance' and The Monkees 'Let's Dance On') and Cat sounds nicely at home again. However this time around Mike Hurst gets the balance a bit wrong, shipping in a few too many horn parts that sound a little too 'old school' and get in the way of the proto-Led Zeppelin funk John Paul Jones is trying to build up on bass. Cat's lyrics are a little on the ungenerous side, especially coming straight after as sensitive a song as 'The Tramp' (why can't he dance on his own?!) but have a flair for this sort of teen-friendly toe tapper, using hurt teenage pride to show that it reflects badly on his street cred ('You never move, baby what's wrong with me? When we go dancin' you sit there like a tree!') Inconsequential, but fun.
'Hummingbird' tries hard to be a deep song, musing about the emptiness and the drabness of the narrator's house after his loved one leaves him, but it's a little clumsy - the sort of thing you'd expect from a beginner songwriter. There's everything you usually see in songs like these - drooping flowers, abandoned clothes, but puzzlingly 'the hat you made' hanging on a peg (how many people were still making their own hats in 1967?!) The chorus -where a hummingbird flies round the room and sings - also seems to bear no relation to the rest of the song, as if it's flown in from another track altogether (sadly cat chickens out of finding a rhyme for 'hummingbird' - 'coming third' was the best we could do!) That said, there are some neat touches here, including the 'shadow' imprint on the grass where his girl sat that now haunts the narrator like a ghost that at least shows Cat could have a poetic touch in his lyrics when he wanted. The melody is lovely, another warm and lazy ballad, but it's not a neat fit for these words: it sounds too upbeat and content to truly get the feeling of heartbreak across. A near miss, then.
The album then ends with 'Lady', which is clearly meant to be the song's mature, adult statement, going the opposite way to 'Hummingbird' by musing on all the positive changes a certain girl has made on Cat's life. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite come off - the lines aren't polished or distinctive enough to sound like the mature relationship Cat clearly was aiming for (note the fact that she's a 'lady' not just a 'girl') and while Cat can handle many genres, crooning isn't one of them (this is in fact the wobbliest vocal he records outside 'Shift That Log' from his next LP and it's clearly in a mosty unsuitable key for him - was this song perhaps written with the aim of pitching it to another singer?) Again the melody is a good one but again Hurst doesn't quite know how to handle it, throwing everything he can at it and turning what should be a simple devotion of life into a Hollywood epic that really swamps Cat's struggling vocals (only a neat repeated three-note pattern on the strings in between each verse/chorus half-rescues the song). A bit of a shame, then, that the album ends here - and that 'Lady' is the pattern for much of the second album 'New Masters' to come, even if that album handles the ballads a bit better than is done here.
Overall, then, 'Matthew and Son' is far from perfect but it ticks enough boxes to show what a natural songwriter Cat Stevens was - and a prolific one, too, given what a short time all these songs seem to have been written in. Few writers ever get to write a song as resonant as 'The First Cut Is The Deepest' or as pertinent as 'Matthew and Son', so for the two to appear on the same album, along with lesser known gems like 'Granny' and 'The Tramp' must surely make this a great album in anyone's books, all the more so given the tender age of its creator. Cat will go on to make better albums and even before he finds his 'voice' post-life threatening illness when he gets his acoustic guitar out the loft 'New Masters' is a superior sequel, managing to be both deeper and with a more unique voice. But 'Matthew and Son' has aged better than most things people were working on when they were seventeen (Simon and Garfunkel would never have blocked those 'Tom and Jerry' recordings if half of them had been up to this standard instead of one or two) and even for the golden year of 1967 this is a mighty fine LP. People often forget that Cat ever had a career as a teen-idol back in the day but, amazingly, became the 7th best selling artist of possibly rock's most famous year; hearing this album my only question is - who on earth were the other six?! Overall rating - 6/10