Monday, 26 June 2017

Cat Stevens: Compilations/Live LPs Part One, plus Alun Davies Recordings 1963-1990



Jon & Alun Davies "Relax Your Mind"

(Decca, '1963')

Relax Your Mind Walk To The Gallows/I'm My Own Grandpa/The Poor Fool's Blues/Black Is The Colour/Easy Rambler/I Will Not Marry//Alberta/John B/The Song Of The Salvation Army/Lone Green Valley/The Way Of Life/Sinking Of The Reuben James

"I'll give you more gold than your apron can hold if you'll just let your hang low!"


Our first entry comes not from Cat but from his long-time collaborator and guitarist Alun Davies. At the time this album came out it was 1963, Beatles were still misspelt insects, folk albums outsold rock and pop and Alun had no idea that he was about to find fame with a feline-named singer who in 1963 was a fifteen year old schoolboy (Alun is five years older). Alun was, however, already happier working as a second guitarist and had teamed up with Jon Mark (though his writing credit here is the pseudonym 'Birchall' in true folk tradition), a fellow folk singer-songwriter who has a similar voice and style (to the point where it's hard to tell the two of them apart). The duo only made one album together (though they'll return in the electric band 'Sweet Thursday' in five years' time), which sadly got lost in the sudden rise of Merseybeat and 'Please Please Me' although it's a mystery how the pair got an album out on such a high-profile label as Decca (working with big star producer Shel Talmy, no less!) at all given that both men had no experience and they didn't even release so much as a try-out single before this. Understandably, given the pair's low profile (and their short haircuts, so un 1963!), the album died a death and is ridiculously scarce today - less understandably, given Alun's relatively high profile status across the 1970s it was never re-issued and as far as I know has never appeared on CD (warning to new collectors reading this book in order: don't blow all your money on this LP, there's lots more to come although they're not all quite this rare, I promise!) Is it worth its current ridiculous eye-watering price on E-bay and the like? Well, yes and no. It's pleasant and well made and deserved to become a much bigger hit if only the timing and publicity budget had been right. 

'Relax Your Mind' is not that cutting edge, though it's a likeable if introverted set, high on moody atmospherics and more like a Peter Paul and Mary or a Bert Jansch album than a Bob Dylan, with lots of acoustic guitar and hummed vocals but not much in the way of protest lyrics or cutting edge pyrotechnics. There's a certain lullaby quality to this recording which becomes quite hypnotic when heard in one go, with little variation between the songs. 'Alberta' is perhaps the best, a pretty song about falling in love with a girl which does all sorts of crazy things with folk-guitar tunings. The Appalachian Mountain song 'Black Is The Colour' is another highlight with some lovely playing, although you'd have to be a monkey with a taste for Spice Girls CDs to mess this lovely song up (I still say The King's Singers do it best though).  I'm less sure about the 'comedy' songs like 'I'm My Own Grandpa' with it's dodgy generation-defying incestuous lyrics ('My daughter was my mother because she was my father's wife!') Clearly Alun took note  from this record and made sure he would spend more time on the spiritual side of this album after this! To be honest it doesn't sound much like Alun's future style with Cat though or anything he will record himself on his 'Daydo' record, but if you like folk and you love Alun (He had quite a following too back in the day) then the steep price might just be worth it: who needs a car or a house to live in if you can buy a record?!. 

"Sweet Thursday" (Alun Davies Band)

(Tettragrammatron, August 1969)

Dealer/Jenny/Laughed At Him/Cobwebs/Rescued Me//Molly/Sweet Francesca/Side Of The Road/Gilbert Street

"How well my eyes do not see, how well my ears do not hear, how well my tears do not fall"

If you've been reading these books in order, dear reader, then a) I'm sorry you're nearly there and you can have your life back again soon, I promise and b) you'll probably know the name Nicky Hopkins rather well. The session keyboard player did, after all, appear on more AAA albums than anyone who wasn't an AAA member, with appearances with The Beatles ('Revolution'), The Kinks (almost everything 1966-1968),The Who ('Love Reign O'er Me'), Jefferson Airplane ('Vounteers' and their Woodstock set) and The Rolling Stones (most of the good stuff). As far as I know, Cat Stevens is almost the only AAA performer he didn't play with somewhere, although he played a major part in the life of Cat's right-hand man Alun Davies.  The pair formed a band, Sweet Thursday, along with Alun's old folk pal Jon Mark and a couple of new friends Harvey Burns and Brian Ogders. For a time it looked as if the band were going to be big: radio previews of some of the album songs had gone down a storm and the record label were so confident of success that they even took out a page advertisement in Rolling Stone Magazine - unheard of for a band making their first record back then. Unfortunately, it all went wrong in spectacular form: record label Tettragrammatron went bust soon after release (the very day, some people say, though there are a few copies out there - more than for the 'Jon and Alun' album at least, suggesting if it was only on sale for one day it was a very successful one day). Sweet Thursday were effectively dead by Friday and the band, frustrated at all that lost time, broke up. Things could have been very difficult in the Cat Stevens story if this album had been a hit, but as it turns out Alun was free when producer Paul Samwell-Smith was looking for a second guitarist to flesh out 'Mona Bone Jakon' during the first half of 1970.

The 'Sweet Thursday' album, meanwhile, gradually grew into a cult hit though the few copies that survived saw great battles between Nicky Hopkins and Cat Stevens fans desperate to see what their heroes were once up to (plus a few Jon Mark fans after his stint in the duo Mark Almond, no not the Soft Cell guy). The album was re-released on CD briefly in 1998 on the MIL Multimedia label, though it's surprisingly easier to find on vinyl than it is on compact disc (near where I live anyway!) It clearly deserves to be heard by a wider audience: though not as consistent or as original as a Cat Stevens record, there's clearly a lot of talent on display here and given a couple more records to gel Sweet Thursday could well have become a major force to contend with. Like many a late 1960s record it's rather ponderous and leisurely at times (the opening track features nearly a full minute of a bass riff and a dum-dum-thwack drum part), but it is also quite a beautiful and moving record, with several excellent love songs. What works particularly well is the tension and build-up across the record: there are only nine songs and most of them are long, criss-crossing between pretty melodies played on pretty instruments and ugly snarling guitar lines that make this more than just another floaty sixties album. Though Alun is clearly a star to watch, with some excellent guitar work (you can see why Samwell-Smith considered him such a good fit) and one intriguing song in 'Side Of The Road', actually it's two other band members who shine the brightest - and no, it's not Nicky Hopkins either (who arguably gets less to do as a fully paid up band member than he does as a guest on other bands' material) . Most of the songs are John Mark's including a real gem in the pastoral 'Jenny'  (a happy-go-lucky 'Lady D'arbanville') and he also sings lead more often than not, including navigating his way around the ten minute prog rock epic 'Gilbert Street' written by band pal Pat Gunning (generally agreed as the album's standout moment). Bassist Brian Ogders also comes up trumps with the psychedelic folk of 'Cobwebs' (harpsichords a go-go!) and the singalong pop of 'Molly' - sadly Oders is the one group member we never heard of again after this, which is poor reward for the sharpest writer in the band. All in all 'Sweet Thursday' is a sweet little album, more substantial than the 'Jon and Alun' record and better arguably than the 'Daydo' record Alun will go on to make in 1972 and far more worth your time seeking out if you're a Davies fan, even if he's not on it an awful lot. Fans of late periods psychedelia (caught right at the nexus point where it's beginning to merge into prog rock) will also enjoy this record, which might not be the best album in this book but will please fans of the genre a lot and more than deserves another re-issue (a proper one this time, that we actually have a chance to buy before it disappears). 

"Harold and Maude" (Film Soundtrack)

(Vinyl Films, Recorded 1971 Released December 2007)

Morning Has Broken/Wild World/I Think I See The Light*/I Wish I Wish*/Trouble*/Father and Son//Miles From Nowhere*/Lilywhite/Where Do The Children Play?*/On The Road To Find Out*/Lady D'arbanville/Tea For The Tillerman*

* = Song used in the film

"You know love is better than a song..."

The story behind the making of 'Harold and Maude' is not unlike the story of Simon and Garfunkel in 'The Graduate', with a film director in Hal Ashby who loved Cat's music and used old recordings as a sort of rehearsal stand-in before falling in love with the songs so much he set about using as much of the old Cat as he could in the film (the first choice was Elton John, who accepted but then had to drop out of the project when other things came up - it was him who suggested his old friend Cat for the film in fact). Cat was even coerced into writing two new songs for the film and while the jaunty 'If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out!' and the sweet 'Don't Be Shy' didn't quite match 'Mrs Robinson' for impact and sales, they're both incredibly popular songs amongst fans and the quiet heart of the film. Even the plot is a little 'Graduate' like, though darker in tone: teenage Harold hates the idea that his family have mapped his life already out for him and - trapped - becomes fascinated by death as a means of escape. He befriends the 79-year-old Maude, through the pair's mutual love of funerals (for very different reasons!) though, who though ill and close to death herself is full of life and bursting with ideas for doing new things. The pair strike up an unlikely relationship and yo-yo between experiencing each other's moods before falling in love in the unlikeliest pairing in film before Kevin Costner and his CGI dancing wolves. Maude, with some inevitability dies and is deeply mourned by her new friend and you think Harold (who attempts suicide seven times across the course of the movie) is going to follow her, but in the end he pays the best tribute to her he can, by vowing to life on and see the world through her eyes. Though a cult and beloved film now, people weren't sure what to make of this film's low budget or dark humour when it was released and the film famously sank without trace at first, before finally becoming accepted as a legend that got away (finally making a profit twelve years after release when the first video of it came out in 1983 and proved highly popular!)

Most of the film takes place in Harold's head, which is a tricky thing for a film to pull off; by and large the only way directors can do this is by finding the right music to go with the emotional tug-of-war in the character's minds. Though Cat isn't really associated with dark humour, his songs fit teenage angst very well and his songs range from the uplifting and world-embracing to the depths of despair anyway, though oddly enough the perfect balance of 'Morning Has Broken' set against 'Miles From Nowhere' only takes place on the record, which is in effect an 'extended' best-of featuring no less than five old recordings that don't appear in the film at all. The ones that do really make an impact though: 'Trouble' sets the early scenes up well, 'Miles From Nowhere' is one of the few songs about death that treats the thing not as a sob story or a big joke (the film isn't really either) and 'On The Road To Find Out' is a good fit for Harold's self-discovery.  Oddly neither of the songs newly written for the film appears on the original soundtrack, but they are added to the 2007 CD edition (now sadly somewhat impossible to find - it was a limited edition - and lacking the non-film songs) and multiple Cat Stevens best-ofs, alongside demo and instrumental versions of the same songs and a 'banjo' take of 'Sing Out' that works rather well. The 30 page 'making of' booklet is rather good too, featuring the first time most of the people involved in the film have spoken about their work on it. 

Alun Davies "Daydo"

(**, November 1972)

Market Place/Old Bourbon/Portobello Road/Poor Street/Abram Bown Continued//Waste Of Time/I'm A Gonna Love You Too/Vale Of Tears/I'm Late/Young Warrior

"There's things he won't ever tell to his wife - so he tells me instead"

With Cat's second adrenalin rush of creativity finally slowing down, his friend and collaborator Alun Davies took the time to record his own album, one that Cat was eager to help out on, providing some distinctive piano parts (although sadly he doesn't sing much except one single 'aaaah' on 'Old Bourbon, perhaps wanting to make sure his friend got the limelight this time). Hearing Alun on his own properly for the first time, you can see why Paul Samwell Smith thought he'd be such a good fit with Cat: this record is just a higher, blonder version of one of Cat's albums and while it lacks the catchy it-feels-like-it's-been-around-centuries melody of Stevens at his best, he shares the same musical curiosity, intelligence and perfectionism (even Cat, long considered a perfectionist, got fed up of his friend spending ages getting soundchecks just right and re-testing studio equipment!) 'Daydo' (named after Davies' school nickname!) has a distinct 'Jethro Tull' feel at times too, especially that band's Medieval period with its flutes and baroque still guitar playing. The production is this album's strongest suit in fact, with several perfectly judged arrangements that feature a Brian Wilson-style touch in the combinations of weird instruments and the way that songs are made up in 'chunks', each leading naturally to another. What it lacks is a voice as pretty or distinctive as Cat's and his old partner's energy and drive, with several songs ending up stuck firmly into place tempo-wise once they start without the variety of choruses and middle eights, the changes (IV?) all coming from the instrumentation. Cat fans will want to own it though, if only to hear Alun's sadder, slower take on Stevens' 'Portobello Road', a song written and released long before the pair met. Sadly not many people bought this album, despite a sizeable publicity drive and an eye-catching sleeve featuring a big-handed Alun playing marbles, the perspective in the image all wrong (because this is the sideman's first album as a frontman?)

'Market Place' is pretty, but pretty basic too. The opening flurry of criss-crossing guitars is lovely and the 'Portobello Road' style lyrics as Alun relates an old love with a rummage through the jumble are strong, but there isn't much of a tune and everything is awfully slow.

'Old Bourbon' features much 'Miles From Nowhere' style piano from Cat and this is perhaps the song here closest to Cat's own style as Alun looks after a 'black dog' from the black night (depression?), though the twist is he drinks to keep his new 'friend' company, which would never happen on a Cat Stevens record (well not in the Island era anyway!)

The cover of 'Portobello Road' is a good one, slowing the original's giddy gait into a sad and mournful tone that brings out more of the words ('Growing old is my only danger!') There's a quirky banjo part that keeps interrupting the action, rushing off at double-speed, which is quite effective: the narrator has nothing else to do and the hint is he's older than everyone else here anyway. Clever - not better than the original perhaps, but equal and certainly different.

'Poor Street' is oddly Alan Hull-like, a shouty R and B song played on folk instruments about a literal place called 'Poor Street' where the people are 'pulled down' with the buildings. Unfortunately there's a bit too much chugging 12 bar blues about this song and Alun's not a natural fit for the aggressive vocals, but you can tell the band are having fun with this one at least (and is that Cat I hear singing the one word 'baaaaack' in the, err, baaaaackground?!)

'Abram Brown Continued' is the weirdest song, an old folk tune that opens like a Madrigal and turns into a silly but elaborate pop song complete with orchestra. The title character is a loveable drunk (not unlike our own AAA canine mascot Bingo), looking for someone to tell stories to and to prop him up. The recording all sounds a little too sober, though, if anything and a little bit detached.

'Waste Of Time' sounds not unlike 'Portobello Road' too, a slow and mournful piano ballad with Cat the only one keeping busy on a slow meandering melody about wanting to 'lay me down in countries that I know'. This is another of the album's most Cat Stevens-like record (especially the slow burning epics of the 'Catch-Bull' era), but you spend a full four minutes waiting for something to arrive that never quite does. Not quite a waste of time, but worryingly close.

'I'm Gonna Love You Too' is one of the weirdest Buddy Holly covers I've ever heard, with Alun's complete polar opposite of Buddy's pop vocal (deep, gritty, unusual) still singing in his trademarks, while a Victorian brass band and some very 70s synth sounds compete for attention. Alun's meddled with the original melody too, while Gerry Conway's heavy-handed drumming is slightly distracting. Cat may well be one of the many voices in the background, which certainly has a 'Cat chorus' feel about it, but there are so many it's hard to tell.

'Vale Of Tears' is my favourite song on the album, a sweet and poignant solo track that's closest in feel in Cat's catalogue to 'How Can I Tell You?' and 'Lady D'arbanville'. The narrator's feeling depressed but escapes by dreaming of fantasies of falling in love ('We know each other very well, mademoiselle'), while fully aware that it can never happen in real life. Davies' lead vocal is impressive.

'I'm Late' is this album's 'Sitting', with a lyric taken from The White Rabbit in Alice In Wonderland (Teaser and the Firerabbit?!) and the album's rockiest, heaviest feel. It's quick-stepping silly rhymes feel more like Gilbert O'Sullivan than the folk vibe of the rest of the record and you can't help feeling that if the narrator spent less time yakking and more time getting on with things he might not be so late after all.

The album ends with 'Young Warrior', another album highlight with some impressive guitar and a spooky 'Foreigner' vibe with crashing piano chords and a trippy production. The warrior is only a warrior on the battlefield - at home he's broken several hearts, with a three-dimensional intelligent lyric and an unusual, quirky riff adding up to the album's most memorable recording.

Overall, though, 'Daydo' is a patchy record with a great single on it, with Davies showing promise that deserved to be more fully explored (sadly this is his last album as anything more than guitarist and backing singer), without quite making some long lost classic or an album equal to his 'day job'. Still, the few fans who bought this record really cherish it and there was a lot of pushing to have this album finally come out on CD in 2010 - by which time it sadly sank without trace a second time. If an album can be measured in terms of the love and affection fans hold for it, though, this would be a #1 as equal as any of Cat's biggest sellers and though in a different league you can see why: intelligently made, with several excellent ideas and a couple of classy vocals when the material is right, the world should have been playing this record all the Day-do long.  

"Saturnight - Live In Tokyo"

(A&M, November 1974)

Wild World/Oh Very Young/Sitting/Where Do The Children Play?/Lady D'arbanville/Another Saturday Night//Hard Headed Woman/Peace Train/Father And Son/King Of Trees/A Bad Penny/Bitterblue

"Beneath the shade he gave shelter from the rain"

Cat's first official live album came at a time when the singer was at the start of his 'religious' phase and struggling to work out how to balance his music commitments with his higher calling. Making music for charity was the perfect balance, with Cat using his talents to do good for other people and this concert is one of his first charity gigs, a concert for Unicef that he played in Japan. In time Cat would forge ever stronger ties with the children's charity, becoming heavily involved in their 'year of the child' in 1978 and several other charitable events, while Cat will - in his guise as Yusuf - become a teacher (well, a headmaster who gives a few guest lectures on the side). This record was the only live Cat album available right up until the 21st century and as it was only ever released in Japan (it's still never appeared on CD!) has become one of Car's most sought after records. In all honesty, if you can't find it you're not missing much - this tour is the one before 'Majikat' so there aren't too many differences in arrangements or set listings (every single song performed here is also performed on that longer album) and - perhaps because this concert is a one-off and the other a compilation of multiple shows - this one sounds more rushed and under-rehearsed, with Cat performing so fast that his backing band struggles to keep up with him, while Cat himself often sounds puffed. There are also seven songs from the original concert that were sadly cut from this set (which would have made an even stronger double set) such as an excellent 'Wild World' 'On The Road To Find Out' and a growly 'Miles From Nowhere'. Still there are some nice moments here: a lovely 'King Of Trees' that's gorgeously brittle and rough round the edges compared to the version on 'Buddha', a heartfelt 'Lady D'arbanville' that's so fragile and humble against the other often heavier songs and a jaunty version of then-brand new single 'Another Saturday Night' from which this album gets it's rather weird title. If Cat ever re-issues this album on CD on behalf of Unicef it's well worth getting - however till then you're best off saving your money than buying this now rare vinyl and investing in 'Majikat' instead, perhaps with a bit extra to Unicef too. 

"Greatest Hits"

(A&M, June 1975)

Wild World/Oh Very Young/Can't Keep It In/Hard Headed Woman/Moonshadow/Two Fine People//Peace Train/Ready/Father and Son/Sitting/Morning Has Broken/Another Saturday Night

"Though the stars may fade and mountains turn into sand, I'll love you"

With 'Numbers' the first real flop in the Cat Stevens catalogue, it was with a certain inevitability that Island would license out his best tracks to partners A&M to release. This couldn't have come at a worse time for Cat, who was struggling to come to terms with his religious values versus his money and fame as a musician and he did as little publicity for the album as he could get away with, leaving all decisions up to the record company. That shows, in both the pretty obvious track selection (featuring every single released in any country to date along with fan favourites like 'Hard Headed Woman' and 'Father and Son') and the rather ugly cover where a poor drawing of Cat's face flies on a white flag pictures against a blue sky. Typical standard record company best-of fare then - and yet this album feels more substantial than a mere cash-in somehow. Perhaps because it was the first Cat compilation, this album has become beloved by an awful lot of people and is still a strong seller in the CD age, despite being outclassed by a lot of longer and more thorough compilations on the market. It does, after all, reflect well what Cat is all about, featuring a nice balance of uptempo rockers and sad ballads, while even though it's restricted to Cat's most melodic and hummable songs his daring selection of singles down the years mean this set also feels stronger and deeper than it perhaps should. Collectors still like it too, as the easiest way of tracking down the rare and then just-released single 'Two Fine People' and it's predecessor 'Another Saturday Night'. 

"Majikat"

(Eagle Vision, Recorded February 1976, Released September 2004)

Wild World/The Wind/Moonshadow/Where Do The Children Play?/Another Saturday Night/Hard Headed Woman/King Of Trees/Sun-C79/Lady D'arbanville/Banapple Gas/Majik Of Majiks/Tuesday's Dead/Oh Very Young/How Can I Tell You?/The Hurt/Sad Lisa/Two Fine People/Fill My Eyes/Father and Son/Peace Train

"In any event the perfect illusion has to be the result of a definite reality..." (From The Original Tour Booklet)

Though Cat never announced it as such at the time, the massive 'Majikat' tour feels in retrospect a final goodbye to the rock star trappings before Cat took off for more serious issues and turned his back on music. Though Cat had been a regular performer down the years in all eras, he tended to be a short-tour, six-bookings kind of performer, playing gigs here and there. This tour, though, was on a massive scale and took up much of the first half of 1976 (with no new album out this year for the first time since 1969). Though may fans prefer the 'acoustic' years with good reason it's great to hear Cat backed by a full band for perhaps the only time on record. This band – who by and large are the same men who worked on all cat’s albums of the 70s – are also a wonderful bunch, especially guitarist and unsung hero Alun Davies, and it’s fascinating being able to watch the band making their distinctive sound up close.  Though billed as an 'Earth Tour', it basically consisted of American shows plus one-off gigs in Canada, Slovenia, Germany Croatia and Austria played in much bigger arenas than before though everything was glossy, even the booklet (re-created in full for the DVD, complete with Alun Davies' mock insults at the rest of the band - though not Cat, notably). The tour was a big success, being well received by fans and this gig seemingly picked at random towards the end of the tour (Williamsberg, Virginia on February 22nd 1976 - not the last show of the tour as is sometimes said but the17th out of 26) was professionally recorded on both film and audio so it was clearly being considered for release at one point. It may well be that, along with Cat's recent conversion and the recent 'Greatest Hits' compilation the singer was trying to get through the rest of the time on his contract quicker to get on with 'other things'.  However something seems to have happened to change people's minds: maybe Cat got cold feet about short-changing his audiences with a live album or dreaded sitting through the tapes so soon after making them. Anyway, whatever the cause this fine set was left in the vaults for a full twenty-eight years before being lovingly restored for CD and DVD

Not many performances are all that different to the original records ('Sad Lisa' is perhaps a bit huskier and 'Banapple Gas' more manic), but unlike some live albums where this is a problem you can still tell that this is a concert recording and the tight band do a good job of adding extra power and grunt to the songs originally performed near-solo or acoustic without getting in the way. The track selection is pretty much spot on, concentrating on songs from the 'classic' 1970-1972 eras but featuring many album tracks rather than just the hit singles (while 'Morning Has Broken' is the one obvious track conspicuous by its absence). While most of the track selection could be heard on tours before and since, there's also just enough to keep this tour feeling 'special' too: unique live recordings of a slightly sloppy 'The Hurt' (from 'Foreigner'), a particular mournful 'King Of Trees' and a spine-tingling 'Sun/C79' (both from 'Buddha and the Chocolate Box') and two period singles long ago relegated to 'greatest hits' sets, 'Another Saturday Night' and 'Two Fine People'). Not to mention a unique 'tour theme song' in the instrumental 'Doves' which was played over the tannoy as the band warmed up and which was later recycled as a B-side in 1977. Oddly Cat seems to have played two songs from the 'Numbers' album he was meant to be promoting (a slightly rushed 'Majik Of Majiks' and a bonkers 'Banapple Gas') and in fact has still never played any other track from that record live ('Jzero', surely, was born for the stage?)

As for Cat he's on good if occasionally OTT form throughout, performing a little breathlessly for most of the set as if he's been running a marathon at the same time, although he always manages to connect with his songs and bring out a feeling of reality about them. Take for instance, the highlight of the set 'Lady D'arbanville', a beautiful acoustic track that suffered a little through Cat's nerves at returning to music after such a long gap and worrying perhaps a bit too much about getting the vocal spot-on. Here, after so many nights on the road and so many years singing that song, Cat knows it inside out and wrings out every last emotion from his Medieval lover with this humble and simple song keeping the audience spell-bound. A faster 'Where Do The Children Play?' also adds much gravelly humour to the original and an impressively intense 'Hard Headed Woman' manages to be both tough and gentle all at the same time. Cat is in a slightly nervy form during the early set, but gets sharper as the gig goes on and by the end of the show is treating the audience like old friends, revealing some strange and rambling stories about three of the last four songs. 'Sad Lisa' was, apparently, written 'about a real friend but sometimes when I write songs I think I'm talking about myself - quite a lot, maybe, what you read in other people's faces you maybe read into yourself!' A defensive Cat admits he 'stole' part of 'Two Fine People' from the earlier 'Wild World' but adds, 'well, hey, it is mine!' Cat also says that he wrote 'Peace Train' was written on a train while thinking about Alfred Hitchcock's chin and how the world would be a better place if everyone came to love it - which is either a revelation of how weirdly Cat's creative mind works or evidence of how well the booze was flowing by the end of the tour! (The reviewer at Allmusic wonders whether Cat had the Hitchcock film 'Strangers On A Train' in mind at the time, although that murder-filled railway line couldn't have been less like 'Peace Train'). The end result is a good set welcomed with open arms by many fans who still remembered the gigs vividly and found they stood up remarkably well. Of course 'Majikat' is no substitute for the original records and is only really a curious extra rather than an essential purchase for those who already own them all, but this is a good band playing some excellent songs and it's all far too good to have sat in a vault for over a quarter of a century and is pretty Majikatikal all round. If you have a choice, though, I'd go for the DVD set which contains the spectacle of what was going on around the music as well as the performances themselves (the most recent issue of the DVD includes the CD as well anyway).

Note that unfortunately the set runs just four minutes too long for the running time of a single disc so 'Ruins' got cut though it appears on the DVD in its proper place near the end in between 'Father and Son' and 'Peace Train'. Confusingly, opening CD track 'Wild World' was actually the encore and appears separately on the DVD in the 'extras' section. 'Time', usually performed as a medley with 'Fill My Eyes', is cut from both and though we don't know for certain if it was played that night that sounds suspiciously like an edit at the start to me.

"Footsteps In The Dark: Greatest Hits Volume Two"

(A&M, '1984')

The Wind/(I Never Wanted) To Be A Star/Katmandu/I Want To Live In A Wigwam/Trouble/On The Road To Find Out/If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out!//Where Do The Children Play?/Daytime/Don't Be Shy/How Can I Tell You?/Father And Son/The Hurt/Silent Sunlight

"Wherever I am, I'm always walking with you - but I look and you're not there"

Herein starts a long period of musical silence for Cat, broken only by the occasional compilation he didn't have much to do with. Island had licensed much of their material out to A&M by the 1980s and they could by rights simply have started again from scratch a full nine years after 'Greatest Hits' which remained at the time the only Cat Stevens compilation out there. Impressively, A&M decided to assemble a 'second volume' rather than simply replicate what had come out before and they managed to include an interesting collection of album tracks, non album B sides (such as the charming 'I Want To Live In A Wigwam') and the first appearance on record of two much-discussed songs from the cult film 'Harold and Maude' (a work that was growing in reputation year on year). Most of the other selections here are sensible fan favourites that will feature heavily in most future compilations - tracks like 'Where Do The Children Play?' 'Father and Son' 'How Can I Tell You?' and 'The Wind'. Others are rarely featured on compilations but deserve to be: 'I Never Wanted To Be A Star' from 1977 sums up Cat's conversion better than any other track could, 'Trouble' and 'Katmandu' are welcome picks from the under-rated 'Mona Bone Jakon' and Catch-Bull's 'Silent Sunlight' makes for a fine finale. Oddly four legitimate charting singles released since 'Greatest Hits' were passed over for older songs: 'Two Fine People' 'The Days Of The Old Schoolyard' 'Was Dog A Doughnut?' and 'Banapple Gas' (although 'The Hurt' is here, a top forty single that even more oddly didn't make it onto 'Volume One'). Interestingly there's a particularly haunting and melancholy air about this collection, which is unusual for a best-of and is perhaps referred to in the unusual album title 'Footsteps In The Dark' (which was, reportedly, Cat's own idea and his comment about his years of musical 'ignorance' pre-conversion - he released his own companion of Muslim songs 'Footsteps In The Light' in 2006). Cat also drew the rather weird cover (his last drawing on a release to date) which features a waxing (or waning?) moon on a stark dark background above what appears to be the wall of a Mosque. The overall result is depressing but really stood out amongst the colourful commercial best-ofs of the mid-1980s and the record sold pretty respectably considering Yusuf gave it no promotion whatsoever. He had, after all, moved on to much 'higher' things by 1984 and his musical career probably seemed like a bad distant dream by then. For fans starved of product, though, this set was welcome and only added to Cat's reputation with a chance for collectors to get their hands on lesser known gems that shone every bit as bright as the more famous works. So far this compilation has only been released on CD in America, although you can find everything on it on a wide range of other compilations in the digital age. 

"Classics Volume 24"

(A&M, '1987')

On The Road To Find Out/Moonshadow/Sitting/Silent Sunlight/The Wind/Trouble/Peace Train/(Do You Remember) The Days Of The Old Schoolyard?/18th Avenue/Where Do The Children Play?/Father And Son/If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out!/Ghost Town/Tuesday's Dead/Morning Has Broken/Katmandu/Oh Very Young/Novim's Nightmare/Ruins/New York Times

"So nice to see you coming back in this town again..."

This rather strangely titled compilation refers to the fact that Cat was the 24th act chosen to celebrate record label A&M's 25th anniversary, with a compilation related to each of their 'years'. However Cat's presence at all suggests the record label were getting a little desperate towards the end of the series - Cat had no close ties to the label, after spending his years on Decca and Island, though his tracks had been licenses out to the label for past compilations. Anyway, what you get is a rather good little entry in the series containing 20 tracks - long enough to include a few extra that don't always get an airing (it's good to see 'Novim's Nightmare'  'Ghost Town'and 'Katmandu' here for a change), but not so long it feels like A&M have just thrown everything here for the hell of it. Other compilations feature more of the 'hits' though, with the likes of 'Wild World' and  'Can't Keep It In' conspicuous by their absence. The track listing is also a bit random, with no sense of chronology or development, though even this is made with some care as 'On The Road To Find Out' is a worthy set opener and 'Ruins' a near-perfect near-ending. Released at a time when Cat's profile was its lowest, nine years into his 'retirement' and a couple of years before the Salman Rushdie debacle put him unwillingly back in the spotlight again, this was a welcome reminder of just what a talent the 'roadsinger' was.

"The Very Best Of Cat Stevens"

(Island, '1989')

Where Do The Children Play?/Wild World/Tuesday's Dead/Lady D'arbanville/The First Cut Is The Deepest/Oh Very Young/Rubylove/Morning Has Broken/Moonshadow/Matthew and Son/Father and Son/Can't Keep It In/Hard Headed Woman/(Remember The Days Of The) Old School Yard?/I Love My Dog/Another Saturday Night/Sad Lisa/Peace Train

"Hrisi san iliahtida - Gold as a sunbeam"

An important and popular compilation, this first of two sets titled 'The Very Best Of' features one of the best front covers (the back of 'Teaser and The Firecat' with the pair waving goodbye) and was the first to mix Decca and Island recordings. Though slightly superseded now by later, longer compilations this has pretty much everything a Cat Stevens beginner could wish for: no less than eight UK hit singles (effectively everything that charted in the UK except for 'A Bad Night' and 'I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun', which to be fair doesn't really fit with the rest of the 'peace train' style canon) and a further bundle of US-only top thirty hits like 'Wild World' 'Father and Son' and 'Moonshadow' (though 'Sitting', an American top twenty hit, is a curious absentee). All that plus well loved and carefully chosen album tracks such as 'Where Do The Children Play?' 'Sad Lisa' and 'Rubylove'. A shame they're not in the 'right' chronological order, mind, but actually even this varied running order is more sensibly chosen then most: 'Children' is a strong and natural opener and 'Peace Train' a similarly good fit as a closer. There is, sadly, no room for rarities such as single-only track 'Two Fine People' or a few non-album B-sides, but then this is very much a compilation for a curious newbie rather than a committed fan. If you're one of the former then you'll love it fine just the way it is; if you're one of the latter you might want it anyway for its above-average intelligent track listing and packaging. 

"The Very Best Of Cat Stevens"

(Polygram, January 1990)

Where Do The Children Play?/Wild World/Tuesday's Dead/Lady D'arbanville/The First Cut Is The Deepest/Oh Very Young/Rubylove/Morning Has Broken/Moonshadow/Matthew And Son/Father And Son/Can't Keep It In/Hard Headed Woman/(Remember The Days Of) The Old School Yard/I Love My Dog/Another Saturday Night/Sad Lisa/Peace Train

"Switch on summer from a music machine"

This set is confusingly given the exact same title as a compilation released ten years later, although this one is very different in terms of both track listing and 'feel'. This is a light and airy collection, with a front cover that recycles a still from near the end of the 'Teaser and The Firecat/Moonshadow' short, with owner and cat waving at the moon. This is a straightforward collection which features all the usual hits with a couple of unusual differences. 'Sad Lisa' and 'Rubylove' are particularly worthy additions, while this is the first Cat compilation to mix the Decca material in there too with appearances for 'I Love My Dog' and 'The First Cut Is The Dppest'. This set doesn't quite live up to later years' worth of compilations though, missing  a couple of gems such as 'Land O'Free Love and Goodbye'  and the extract from the 'Foreigner' suite for instance, so if in doubt and you have a choice I'd go for 'Remember', even though the packaging's much better on this set without the weird kid on a flying carpet!

No comments:

Post a Comment