Monday, 4 September 2017
Cat Stevens "Teaser and the Firecat" (1971)
Cat Stevens “Teaser and the Firecat” (1971)
The Wind/Rubylove/If I Laugh/Changes IV/How Can I Tell You?//Tuesday’s Dead/Morning Has Broken/Bitterblue/ Moonshadow/Peace Train
‘I let my music take me where my heart wants to go…’
Like a ‘teaser’ for the rest of his work to come, this fifth Cat Stevens album sits at the heart out of his eleven-album ‘first’ career and summed his breezy yet troubled personality so well that to some extent everyone assumes every Cat Stevens album will sound – and look – like ‘Teaser and the Firecat’. From the quirky hand-drawn cover on the front to the quirky song titles on the back (who else would write a title like ‘Tuesday’s Dead’ or as soppy as ‘Peace Train’?) to the quirky music inside, this is the sort of album no other singer-songwriter would ever have tried to make and yet which is cat to a tee, even more than ‘Tillerman’. It’s the sound of a young man struggling to become an older and wiser one, convinced that there is something deeper out there that he hasn’t discovered yet and which is just out of reach, but that journey is still largely a happy one, finding him bouncing on the breeze between possible destinations and indulging in earthly hang-ups along the way. More than anything else it’s a happy and positive album, the sound of someone who just three years before had nearly died from TB but is now not only healthy again but popular again – and on his own terms this time, not the whims of the pop Gods. The Cat Stevens who made this record probably had a pretty good idea it would sell in the wake of ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ and the soundtrack for ‘Harold and Maude’ but would probably still have made this album this way anyway, because that’s who he is – and for the first time in a long time Cat feels very comfortable in his skin.
No wonder: few AAA albums contain top ten singles but this one contains three, with ‘Peace Train’ ‘Moonshadow’ and ‘Morning Has Broken’ all big hits around the world. If Cat or record label Island had been greedier they could potentially have released more: ‘The Wind’ is maybe a bit short but the other six songs are all equally commercial, each track a pop nugget of commercial gold that just happens to come with some deep and wistful lyric over the top. There’s everything here that you’d want to find from your period singer-songwriter album: love, life, religion, hope and prettiness, along with the perfect shading between the joy and exuberance in the singer’s voice and the slight sense of nagging worry and doubt that’s there in every Cat release and prevents him from getting too big-headed (both ‘The Wind’ and ‘How Can I Tell You?’ are, you sense, the even more authentic Stevens hiding behind the friendly deep-thinking popstar mask, secretly terrified of the world and even more the world’s girls). Cat is enjoying a rare peaceful and happy time before the doubts heard in those songs and the surprisingly bitter ‘Bitterblue’ consume him and what strikes you compared to both earlier, crazier records and later, more troubled albums is how content he feels. This is an album where the sun shines on every song, morning breaking over more than just the album’s most famous moment and where the moonshadows are brief, blocking out harsh memories of the ‘cat in the dark’ (as a 1980s compilation of the later years puts it). As early as the next record the following year ‘Catch-Bull At Four’ Cat will get bored with this persona, breaking it down and tearing it away in favour of more esoteric and even deeper songs full of worry and doubt and struggle, but for now it’s his rare moment in the sun and you feel it, in every joyous written note, in every exuberant vocal, in every carefree arrangement that makes the world seem a better place – even on the uglier, sadder songs there’s a peace and a poise and a purpose behind these works.
That makes my life difficult, dear reader. I have a particular soft spot for the darker, edgier Cat Stevens records from later in the discography that not as many fans know. These are the albums like ‘Foreigner’ and ‘Buddha and the Chocolate Box’ where the world is a scary place and joy is fleeting, where Cat is suffering a crisis of confidence that gives me something to really get my reviewer’s teeth into and while frequently scatterbrained and incredibly inconsistent, they are always interesting. I know exactly why this album sold the best out of Stevens’ discography: it’s the one album where, rather than being a cat on a hot tin roof, the singer sounds as if he’s enjoying himself and has every reason to with talent pouring out of his every pore (paw?) and if I need a pick-me-up it will be this record I reach out for too, rather than the forgotten gems from later years. But that’s not very interesting is it? Telling you that a record turned out happy because the writer was happy isn’t quite the same as telling you of Cat’s desperate search for enlightenment or his painful struggles to get better from TB. All you really need to take away from this record is that Cat is happy and that fact makes listeners happy too, with the happy songs to back that up.
Even so, there were a few things gnawing away at Cat that perhaps provide the ‘hidden’ agenda of the album: that happiness won’t last forever and that Cat is in the limelight more by luck than skill. While his seventeen-year-old self loved all the attention and parties back in 1967, twenty-one-year old Cat is much shyer and aware that while he loves his music being successful and popular, that really isn’t his career goal anymore. Those years of being poorly and without a voice, watching his career and his money disappear as he bided his time in hospital, have left a lasting mark: this is an opportunity not just to sell records but to talk about things that matter. Cat’s brief but bright and dazzling relationship with model Patti D’arbanville is now over (partly because of Cat’s kinks making her dress up as a schoolgirl if groupie and friend Pamela Des Barres’ account of their time together can be believed) and Cat is on his own again, aware that however big a star you might be that won’t wave a magic wand for your love life. Judging by some of his later songs (‘Sun-C79’ especially) Cat met a few other loves in his life in his period, but struggled to commit to any of them as his career and fame took off – you can already hear his nervous struggle to know what to say to them on this album’s song ‘How Can I Tell You?’ (And if someone as erudite as Cat can’t say it, then what chance have the rest of us?) While Cat’s life has been getting better across 1970-1971, in the ‘outer world’ it’s been getting worse and a humanitarian, heavy reader and charity supporter like Cat would have been all too aware that his audience want to hear solutions to problems, not joy at being alive. You can throw in here too Cat’s growing belief in this period that he’s been taught a lesson by…somebody and has been given a second chance for a reason as a key influence behind his recent songs. The search to find out who that person is (and what religion is the best way of communicating with ‘Him’) will take up much of the rest of his catalogue and this book and Cat had already been ‘On The Road To Find Out’, but it starts off here on this album.
An older, wiser, humbler, Muslim-adopted Cat Stevens commented in one of his recent comments that he was amazed that he had the insight to write about his life as openly as he does on ‘The Wind’, the opening track to this album which sets out pretty much the first half of the Cat Stevens story. He’s still young, he doesn’t have the answers only questions and he feels them stirring in his soul. He doesn’t know where the answer lies yet, though his answer that ‘God only knows’ is perhaps more prescient than he would have guessed when he wrote those lines and his time swimming in ‘the devil’s lake’ partaking in too many showbiz parties is now over; from now on he is ready to be buffeted by the winds of life, to be carried anywhere it takes him. While the 1971 model Cat would no doubt have been shocked at a lot of the journey still to come (dropping out of music altogether, the Islam conversion and the Salman Rushdie controversy, not to mention founding an Islamic school and becoming a headmaster), you sense a part of him too would have been satisfied and maybe a little bit proud. The one thing these very different set of songs have in common is how much they want that change at any cost, that Cat has been given a vital opportunity to ask questions and is impatient for the answers, the theme that life is short and precious cropping up a lot on this album (far more so than ypou’d expect for the average twenty-one-year old which, admittedly, Cat never was: ‘Changes IV’ feels ‘change a coming’, ‘Tuesday’s Dead’ worries about getting the chance to ‘make a mark in time’, ‘Bitterblue’ is frustrated than someone the narrator trusted to be true and beneficial to him has been wasted when life is so short. ‘How Can I Tell You?’ wishes it could say the words ‘I love you’ and stop wasting time, but fails, while ‘If I Laugh’ has regrets over past behaviour when the narrator didn’t know any better – and his decision to hide his feelings, laughing to keep from crying as he does the very teenager thing of ‘yeah, sure, go if you want, it doesn’t bother me!’ This era Cat knows that life is too short for regrets, lost opportunities and empty days of pointless living and that too much of life has already been wasted even at his tender age. ‘I’ve been living a long time, looking on and on…’ runs one of the lines in ‘Bitterblue’ and that’s the real album motto, not that ‘Morning has broken’ or that the ‘Peace Train is sounding louder’ or that ‘If I ever lose my mouth I won’t have to talk no mo’.
Interestingly Teaser – the first and most loved Cat Stevens ‘invented character’ and in many ways his alter ego – has no such qualms. In what you suspect may be a bit of wish-fulfilment top-hatted Teaser is happy-go-lucky, content to live in the present and follow his nose without recourse to regrets or worries. Well, only one very main one – that the moon has fallen out of the sky (you wonder if Teaser is a friend of Happiness Stan, from The Small Faces’ ‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’, who worries about the same thing; that plotline though was a parody – Teaser’s quest is, you sense, partly serious). The cartoon film, featuring Spike Milligan’s narration and the song ‘Moonshadow’, was begun here with some of the proceeds from the album but won’t be completed by 1977, by which time Cat’s re-action is interesting. Back in 1971 Stevens was determined to have full control over everything including his quirky hand-drawn album covers (impressively re-created by the team of animators hired to copy his style) and it goes with the songs well: a sense of low budget epicness, as Teaser and his Firecat (what is a firecat?) sit at the gutter, fishbone in hand, but with the moon blinking happily and hopefully behind them in the night sky. The characters are down but certainly not out and the fact that Teaser sports a top hat as well as rags suggest that he is at this point in his life partly through choice. The storyline, such as it is, reveals a worry not for Teaser’s own safety but mankind’s: the world needs saving and Teaser is straight there trying to save it, along with his furry feline friend. By the time the animation came out in 1977 though Cat always seemed rather ambivalent about it: the animated short was quickly buried until re-appearing on video, even though it was highly popular with fans and Cat’s few cryptic comments suggested that he considered it a folly from his younger days. By 1977 Cat was all about people helping themselves – or letting God help them help themselves. The idea of someone out to rescue the universe single-handed was brave bordering on foolish: how can one person do so much?
And yet, that’s why many fans love this album as opposed to, say, ‘Izitso?’ (the album out that year). This is an album that, whilst realistic, still comes with a lot of hope and love and zealousness that it is not too late to save the world and that together we have the power to make things happen. ‘Morning Has Broken’, already an overheard school hymn using a different tune for most people when this album came out, takes on a new meaning multiple classroom assemblies had knocked out of us: any morning can be like ‘the first morning’ and find humanity back where we once were in the Garden of Eden. Why not this morning? ‘Moonshadow’ takes great delight in being alive at any cost; perhaps with memories of those TB years gone Cat sings about how anything is now a positive in his life: if his legs stop working, he just won’t have to walk; if he loses his mouth and all his teeth he won’t have to talk; if he ever loses his eyes he won’t ever have to cry ever again. ‘Changes IV’ sounds from the performances as if the changes are vaguely threatening, but not the lyrics which believes wholeheartedly that the world’s then-‘children’ will see more than their parents ever did and ‘there will be no more rain’. ‘Rubylove’ is one of the most upbeat love songs in the Cat Stevens songbook, even if – I suspect – it’s really a love song to Cat’s Greek ancestry rather than any one person. ‘Tuesday’s Dead’ sounds as if it should be another ‘evil’ song, but it isn’t – it’s about the narrator taking a day off during the week to do what really matters to him spiritually and forget the nonsense about making a living; it’s a small step that all of us can do to make the world a better place. And then there’s ‘Peace Train’, one of the hippiest, dippiest, happiest, most hopeful AAA songs of them all: to the 1971 model Cat there is no question that the Peace Train is going to come because that’s just common sense; it’s only a question of when and how often that train might be de-railed before it gets here. As dark as this album sometimes gets (‘Bitterblue’ sticking out like The Spice Girls at a feminist party), it’s a glass-full kind of an album where hope and peace and love will always prevail. As far as Cat is concerned, that’s the message his public wants to hear and it’s one he’s happy to give them, for now. In future albums Cat will get snappy, annoyed that his audience are leaving the idea of pursuing peace up to him like a ‘leader’ and later albums (particularly ‘Foreigner’) will try to snap his few remaining listeners out of their complacency and remind them how much work there is still to be done. On this album though there is no work that needs doing – all we and Cat need to do is stay true to ourselves and allow ourselves to be drifted by God only knows on the breeze of life.
One other reason this album sold so well is more down-to-earth though: the sound. Yes ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ sounds pretty amazing to (and has by far the better songs I have to say), ‘Teaser’ is the best-sounding, rosiest and most commercial Cat album of them all. Producer Paul Samwell-Smith has believed in Cat ever since receiving a demo of songs in 1969 and has slowly grown into working out what to do with his talent. His method of using small, sparse, muted sounds to sound big is genius and something Cat will struggle to replicate when he leaves Paul to make his own records in the future (bar a reunion in 1974). The backing here (Cat and the ever wonderful Alun Davies on guitar, Larry Steele on bass, Gerry Conway on drums and Rick Wakeman on piano) are exactly what this album needs: the musicians by now know each other well and believe in the material, which they [play with joy and a lightness of touch. And yet there only a few of them playing live making all this noise, offering us the sense that we can maybe achieve these things too if we really try. Later Cat albums will try and dilute this sound with synths, orchestras and more backing singers than the entire line-ups of the Surpremes, but this era of Cat Stevens backing sounds remarkably good and ridiculously suitable for the songs Cat is writing about small overcoming big, peace overcoming hate and little old us overcoming big age-old questions.
No wonder so many people loved this album so: it reflected the madness of the world while allowing us to think about a time in the future without such obstacles, something sung with conviction and certainty for the most part. Even so, this is also the first Cat record that, to these ears at least, doesn’t quite improve on its predecessor. Admittedly that’s mostly because ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ is near-perfect (with one awful track amongst ten delightful career highs), but even so song-on-song this album is maybe not quite so spectacular. Whenever I hear ‘Tillerman’ I marvel, as I so often do, at a writer being able to put my quirky individual way of seeing the world down in song. I don’t quite feel the same with this album, which is one I admire more than I ‘live’. The likes of ‘Moonshadow’ and ‘Peace Train’ are great songs but they don’t get me the way ‘But I Might Die Tonight!’ or ‘Where Do The Children Play’ always do. ‘Morning Has Broken’ is incredibly beautiful – but I can’t hear it too many times on repeat or it becomes mawkish and unlikely, in comparison to the very real charge and surge of tracks like ‘I Think I See The Light’ and ‘Trouble’, which (unfortunately) better reflect where my head tends to be at most of the time. ‘Changes IV’ is this album’s unsung hero, a clever quirky inventive song that takes the melody’s endless need to ‘resolve’ itself into a note we can recognise and adds a lyric about needing ‘resolution’ in life too, a very clever piece of engineering that still ‘works’ as a real song. ‘How Can I Tell You?’ too may well beat even ‘Broken’ as Cat’s most beautiful track as even this clued-up with-it charismatic narrator struggles to say things of importance, even on this so-stark, so-simple, so haunting track. And there’s nothing here that’s bad, which is actually quite unusual for Cat, although ‘Bitterblue’ does sound as if it ‘belongs’ on the angrier, messier ‘Catch-Bull’ than at the three-quarters point of this record and the short ‘The Wind’ and ‘Rubylove’ is a few verses short of being a classic (this album is, too, just thirty-two minutes long and perhaps three classic songs too short). There is, perhaps, too much here to stop this being an AAA classic of the highest order, to mark alongside ‘Tillerman’ and the ever-under-rated ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ (a tale of illness and overcoming adversity) and ‘Buddha and the Chocolate Box’ (a tale of regret and overcoming adversity) with less to really get into and adore. But ‘Teaser and the Firecat’ sold by the bucketload for lots of very good and sensible reasons (that voice, that confidence, that band sound, even that cover art all at their peak) and it remains a strong, valued and admired addition to the AAA catalogue for all its slight weaknesses.
‘The Wind’ starts off sounding much like ‘Moonshadow’ to come but it ends up being a much sadder, more wistful sort of a song. Though the title threatens to make it sound like a weather report or a song about having too many beans on toast, the winds are of course not physical but spiritual and Cat introduced the other songs on the album with this caveat: that he doesn’t have any answers but like us he wants them and is merely passing on his glimpses into what life seems to be really about as he finds them. In a career-defining line, Cat tells us that ‘I let my music take me where my heart wants to go’, before warning us against swimming in the ‘devil’s lake’, presumably the false showbizzy sect he fell in with when he was an impressionable teenager. Cat starts this album still ‘on the road to find out’ and like a postcard this song promises to get back to us when Cat has something more to say, destination still unknown. Few listening to this album would have guessed just where that journey is going to take him, as Cat tries out Buddhism on his next three albums, dabbles briefly in Christianity and ends up converting to Islam before the end of the decade. Here Cat sounds like a man whose just walked into a spiritual clothes shop, eager to try on every piece of clothing in turn and waiting to make his final judgement for what suits him best. This sweet little song would like many a period song have been even better had it been longer, as with only two verses there’s not very much to go on, but it’s a very sweet prelude and has much of the acoustic ear-catching loveliness of ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ and ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ as Cat and Alun Davies’ twin guitars prop each other up and goad each other on.
‘Rubylove’ is the first of a brief run of songs celebrating Cat’s Greek ancestry (though he was born and raised in London, both his parents are Greek). Catchier than ‘O Caritas’, this song is perhaps Cat’s first love song (depending on whether you count ‘Lady D’arbanville’ as a real person, a ghost, a muse or all three) but one that seems to have been inspired by the Greek folk songs he would have been brought up on in his youth. It’s all very different for Cat’s usual style and features him and Alun doing a good job of playing guitars like Greek Balalaikas, all strumming flamenco flourishes and ‘cha cha cha’. Interestingly the song ends up sounding like something Nana Mouskouri would sing (when she’s taking a break from ‘Moonshadow’) which makes me wonder if Cat wrote this song for her rather than himself, a possible sequel perhaps to her big hit ‘Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town?’ (Is this even a song he wrote from his hospital bedside figuring if he couldn’t perform then at least he could write for other artists?) The result is one of Cat’s simplest songs, one where Cat promises a lover named Ruby that he will be her lover always, ‘day and night’, which is even shorter in terms of words than ‘The Wind’, consisting of just one verse repeated twice (the ‘middle’ verse being sung in Greek). It sounds good for what it is and makes you wish Cat had utilised his clear understanding of how his family’s songs work more, but this song comes so far out of left-field compared to the rest of his catalogue that it doesn’t seem ‘right’ here at all. The ore political ‘O Caritas’ from ‘Catch-Bull At Four’ sounds far more in keeping with Cat’s natural grumpy style than this oddly joyful piece.
‘If I Laugh’ only consists of twelve lines itself and yet it feels like a much more substantial song as Cat wrestles with some very complex emotions, set to one of his most complicated, angular guitar riffs. Cat is pretending not to be hurt, that he’s fine and laughing and everything is OK, but inside his heart is breaking. In the first verse he passes up the chance to know someone he felt would be very important to him, in the second he regrets lacking the courage to reach out for someone ‘at home, alone’ and in the third he is shocked at the person he used to be ‘before you’. It’s as if Cat has been visited by the ghosts of Christmas future, present and past, all showing him the error of his ways and making him wish he did/will/is acting in a different way. What’s so clever about this song though is that it manages to remain so clearly emotional and heartfelt (Cat’s pleas to ‘live in peace…and dream at night’, conscience free) with being so very ambiguous. This is in many ways Cat’s first ‘religious’ song, which is surely talking about God in some sense or something similar: he’s living his life in denial of the presence he senses being unhappy with his progress, is embarrassed not to have reached out to the figure he’s always secretly known was there waiting for him to call out for help and he’s deeply ashamed at the way he used to live his life, for earthly pleasures and always being in the ‘present’. But this clever song works equally well as a shy man chatting up a girl he fancies: in the first verse he pretends that he never really fancied her anyway, in the second, he tries to concentrate in the present instead of being cross that his shyness got in the way of his elaborate plans to meet up with someone and make them fall in love with him and the third finds him tossing and turning, wishing that he could be the way he was before he knew heartbreak. This suggests to me that the two events perhaps happened simultaneously in Cat’s life. We know now that his relationship with Patti D’arbanville was on the kinkier side of romances and this is clearly a song of guilt – is this Cat accepting that God has closed one door on his love life and his last great link to being a trendy man about time (Patti stood by him while he was poorly but had left him by 1971), but opened it in other ways, teaching him how to ‘behave’ with the next love of his life? Whatever the inspiration, this song of denial in public and remorseful tears in private is a clever one and one of the best songs on the album, overlooked unfairly by the Cat Stevens cognoscenti.
‘Changes IV’ is better still as Cat takes an angry, turbulent, restless guitar riff and writes a whole song on top of it about how he and his generation are themselves feeling angry, turbulent and restless. The song longs for change in so many more ways than the curious little riff, which seems to jump through several keys before settling finally on the much delayed one that brings him peace and the lyric is one of Cat’s finest. In a re-write, of sorts, of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Street Fighting Man’ (it seems unlikely that Cat was a fan, but he was) Cat paints the revolution to come as inevitable because it’s so strongly in the air (the wind?) that surely no one can deny some change is going to happen now the children of the 1960s are growing up in the 1970s. In the first verse revolution is welcomed and needed: it ‘breaks down the walls of silence’, ‘lifts shadows from your mind’ and ‘fills in the emptiness that yesterday left behind’. The world is fairer, clearer and gives a voice to everyone regardless of creed, colour, religion, gender and age and the pointless ‘isms’ of the past (sexism, racism) are given the push so that every human feels respected and important. The second verse gets more scared and anxious though: what if the revolution is short-lived? Cat yearsn not just for a change for the sake of change but one that ‘will stay and remain’, that the change won’t end with Cat’s hippie generation but keep being passed down generation by generation, so that maybe one day their children will see their parents’ faults and want to keep changing them too (‘Your children see the answers that you saw the same’). The chorus, with its singalong ‘woah woah woahs’ tries to put the brakes on things literally and offers us what Cat really thinks: that he welcomes change as long as it’s ‘the one that’s going to last’. A gloriously poetic lyric makes this song sound more like the grand tradition of singalong folk tunes from ‘We Shall Overcome’ to ‘Amazing Grace’, but Cat is too clever a writer to hand this to us on a plate, so the snarling, awkward, clumsy melody keeps knocking us off our feet throughout, pulling the rug from underneath us just at the point when life seems to be working out and our future seems assured. Like ‘The Wind’ this is a writer who is too humble to think that he has the answers but too hungry to stop asking for questions and the result is one of his cleverest songs. The ‘IV’ in the title by the way refers not just to the fact that this is track four on this cleverly sequenced album but that it follows a ‘I IV V’ chord progression, where the ‘V’ is the ‘missing chord’ if you will that feels like a ‘natural’ resolution.
‘How Can I Tell You?’ is a beautiful song too. The longest thing on the album by a mile (4:27), this sounds like another ‘thankyou and goodbye’ song to Patti. Even confident Cat, with songs pouring out of him and the world at his feet, gets anxious and nervous as he tries to write a song about what somebody means to him and he spends this extra-long song (double the length of many on this album) trying to find the words to spit out. In many ways he does: these lines sound incredibly heartfelt as Cat sings about being alone, so used to being with his girl because they felt so right together that he still looks at his side and talks to his beloved, ‘sad when he realises that ‘you can’t hear’. He spends his nights praying that somehow he might end up together with her again because he craves her touch and longs to feel his lover’s skin under his fingers. Time and again his thoughts end up as ‘one thing honey’ – what that ‘thing’ is we never hear, but it’s probably along the lines that he’s lost her for good and she isn’t coming back this time. Still Cat learns his lesson too late, pouring his heart out on a sumptuous vocal whereby his voice finally breaks on the last verse as he cries ‘I love you’, too late. Early 1970s hitmaker Linda Lewis provides the uncredited ‘ooohs’ towards the end, floating along like a ghost just out of reach that Cat just can’t quite communicate with. Gorgeously warm, impressively heartfelt and deeply emotional, this is a very beautiful song that might return to an age-old subject (there are lots of other AAA songs that talk about trying to tell someone you love them) but is better than most, with Cat’s moving performance up there with his very best.
Over on side two Cat is trying to move on across ‘Tuesday’s Dead’. Returning to ‘The Wind’, Cat refuses to be the ‘answer’ people want him to be (‘Like everyone else I’m searching through what I’ve heard’) but is ambitious enough to want to be ‘the mark underline the word’ of the answers, the stepping stone towards one of his fans maybe getting the ‘answer’ and coming back to him. This is a very obtuse song by Cat’s standards though which is so desperate not to provide an ‘answer’ in any shape or form that it keeps contradicting itself or offering us such confusing language that we don’t know what to make of it (‘Where do you go when you don’t want no one to know?’) Along the way Cat paints a preacher as someone who might have all the answers (‘Won’t you paint my dream? Show me where you’ve been? Show me things I have not seen?’), before this quick-stepping melody gets too impatient and moves off. Verse number two figures that there isn’t one answer that fits all but billions unique to all of us, figuring that mankind has died out still wanting an answer to his deeper questions so he’s unlikely to find out – but that equally mankind getting ideas above his station and ignoring the question is worse and doomed to failure (the odd lyric ‘If he tries to rule the skies he must fall’. Was Cat on a plane when he wrote this song?) Verse three then ponders whether the answer isn’t actually just in reach, ‘hiding’ somewhere in the changes that have taken place across the 1960s. Cat noisily urges his audience to try to ‘shake’ the establishment to see if it is lying there, ready to fall, desperate to ‘turn the world upside down one more turn’ as we all look for the answers again. The title is perhaps the strangest thing about this song: the way Cat sings it make it’s sound as if Tuesday is an ‘evil’ day, but the context of the other lyrics make it sound more as if the narrator is dedicated every endless meaningless nothing Tuesday of his life to these very big questions and that if we all dedicate enough time in the middle of our ordinary little lives then the answer must be out there somewhere. Unfortunately a harder-to-follow than usual lyric and a more-obvious-than-normal riff don’t’ necessarily got together and the result is one of the album’s weaker songs, with cat slightly ‘off’ in his performance.
‘Morning Has Broken’ was always my favourite school hymn out of the four or five my schoolteacher actually knew how to play, long before I heard Cat’s version. Many hymns are scary, out to make you too afraid to do any wrong in case an ‘Old Testament’ God doesn’t ‘like’ it; by contrast this is a ‘New Testament’ God who offers mankind absolution and new redemption, this lovely piece offering new beginnings. The idea is that every morning is a chance to be absolved of your sins and do good, that every blackbird still speaks ‘like the first bird’, that every rainfall is ‘like the first one’ and every morning is a promise that mankind has another ‘chance’ after the flood and can live again. While I often wondered about some of the lyrics (the line ‘Eden saw play’ always sounded like either fun in a workshop or some guy called Eden going to the Theatre) this is one of the few Christian hymns you don’t have to be a Christian to feel joy from. How typical that it’s one of the world’s best known Muslims who had a hit with it, though at the time Cat was trying on lots of spiritual hats to see what fitted and the pure joy and hope in this song appealed to him as much as Buddhist parables about peace and Muslim texts about respect. The song started life as a Scottish/Gaelic hymn known as ‘Bunessan’ (‘Child In The Manger’) about the birth of Jesus, before poet Eleanor Farjeon set these new words to the piece. Cat added his own tune, more flowery than the original and with a slower, more reverential key (interestingly many Churches and school now sing Cat’s version, probably without knowing this isn’t how the original version went). Initially all Cat had was the opening verse which he wanted to put on the album as a forty-five second snippet to close the record, ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ style. Producer Paul Samwell-Smith realised how good it sounded and dug out the full lyrics but still felt it wasn’t long enough. It was then session musician (and later Yes keyboardist) Rick Wakeman who came up with the ear-catching melody while the band were messing round in the studio, something Cat realised was the perfect ear-setting introduction to his piece, a million miles away from the gospel solemnity of the original. The result isn’t perfect: you can tell Cat isn’t ‘living’ this song the way the way he does his most personal songs and sounds as if his vocal was recorded on the thirtieth take shortly before lunch, while the backing choir near the end of the song is a ‘trap’ of these sorts of these songs that the piece has done well avoiding for two whole minutes. However this is a sweet and lovely song of hope and love that Cat and crew serve very well indeed, an obvious hit even among people who’d hated having to sing this at school or who didn’t have a clue of the song’s Christian roots.
‘Bitterblue’ wipes away all that hope with Cat’s angriest and sulkiest song so far though – one that, oddly, sounds like much more of a template for Cat’s later recordings than anything else on this album. To be fair this album needs it: the record’s second side is in danger of becoming hippie dippie and floating away on a cloud what with ‘Morning Has Broken’ and ‘Peace Train’ surrounding it, but this song offers just enough venom and bite to ‘earth’ this record again. My guess is that this is the final song for Patti, an angry acerbic ‘how dare you do this to me!’ rant by a jilted lover whose wondering what went wrong and secretly a little guilty over the part he played in a breakup too. Cat realised he was on his ‘last chance’ but didn’t think he broke it; he’s stayed faithful during endless tours and stayed in touch while half the world away, just waiting for the moment he could fall back into his lover’s arms. So where the hell is she? This song feels like more than a lover’s tiff somehow too: Cat sounds as angry and passionate as we’ll ever hear him (though ‘Music’ comes close), snapping these lines as if he’s just woken up on the wrong side of the bed and fallen into his swimming pool. He keeps singing about how she was his ‘last chance’, almost as if she’s a lucky talisman whose kept the demons away – and now they’re all circling round his head, laughing. Was Cat afraid that without someone to keep him on the safe and narrow he would end up a drug and booze addict or back in the hospital again the way he was in 1968? It’s particularly odd because over verses tell us that Cat’s experienced now, he’s ‘lived a long time’ and seen ‘summer’s gone’, so surely he should know that the heartbreak is only temporary and that he will recover? This song doesn’t feel like it’s an old and wise song though: instead it feels like what it was, a twenty-one-year-old whose just lost the very first true love of his life and is so mad with passion and loss he’s screaming his head off, afraid of feeling as bitter and as helpless as he does. A riveting tune, which takes the usual Cat Stevens angular guitar riffs but makes them sound really really nasty and twice as fact as normal, is the making of this song, much more than the lyric or Cat’s slightly messy double-tracked vocals.
‘Moonshadow’ is a very famous song and has overtaken both ‘Morning Has Broken’ and ‘Peace Train’ now to be the ‘hit’ of this album even though it stalled on release as the album’s first single, peaking at a UK high of just #22 (in contrast ‘Morning Has Brokenb’ went top ten). That’s partly because it’s arguably Cat’s most covered song (‘Broken’ being an obvious exception, but then again Cat only ‘re-wrote’ it so that doesn’t count!) That’s both this song’s strength and it’s failure: almost always Cat’s songs only sound right when sung by Cat, owing so much to his quirks of humour matched with his love of depth and spirituality. ‘Moonshadow’ though could have been written by anyone with skill: it’s a bouncy singalong optimistic tune about always looking on the bright side of life, inspired by a rare day out in the country when Cat was looking for a ‘second home’ to buy. A lifelong city boy, he was used to being squashed in endless boxes (he famously went up to his family’s roof to ‘escape’ the city below and look at the stars) and even as a ‘popstar’ had spent most of his time being stuck in cars or hotel rooms. Until this point in time, he’d never really been out in the country and certainly never at night, so it was a shock when he noticed that the moon at night cast a shadow, something he’d never thought about before. Thrilled by his discovery, he made up a childish song about being followed by his ‘moon shadow’ that somehow mutated into another song about the joy he felt at all his ambitions coming true and receiving the respect and love he’d always craved. Cat felt so happy he felt that he could never be unhappy again and figured that whatever happened in the future, for now he’d ticked off all the boxes he’d ever wanted. This song, ironically for a peace about the moon, looks on the sunnier side of life: maybe in the future he’ll lose his arms? Well ok, at least he won’t have to work. He might lose his eyes – well, he won’t have t see. He might lose his mouth and ‘all my teeth’ – hey that’s fine too, he didn’t like talking much anyway. The most striking part is the short middle eight burst in a much angrier tone (‘Did it take long to find me?’) where Cat stops leaping and hopping and approaches the moonshadow directly. In context the ‘moonshadow’ sounds more like the threat of depression, the idea that something will always go wrong just when you are at your happiest (something that seems to be true judging by the uglier, angrier songs on ‘Catch-Bull’ and ‘Foreigner’ where Cat gets very grumpy!) Cat, though, escapes it by ‘leaping and jumping’ with his mind, refusing to give way to sad thoughts because he’s just too happy. One of those songs that sounds cute and clever when in the right mood and yet twee and soppy when in the wrong one, this is a popular song for several good reasons, but not as universally as perhaps some of Cat’s other hits for several reasons more.
‘Peace Train’ starts off sounding like a simple Simon and Garfunkel tune (‘Sounds Of Silence?) and winds up sounding like an epic (The Boxer?) It’s a simple song about a complex subject, Cat reducing millennia of mankind fighting and battling each other and feeling prejudice with another of this album’s songs about how there’s a wind of change in the air and things are going to be different with ‘his’ generation that’s going to ‘win’. Cat imagines peace as a ‘train’ that’s ‘getting nearer’ and eventually we will all get on board, this song asking the question of asking us all when we will do this – now or when it’s too late? The train metaphor is an interesting one: Cat could have used a car (‘Roadsinger’ does a similar trick with a camper van) or a bus (more people get on busses together) and trains are usually treated more as remnants of the industrial revolution, dark and smoky things that caused to leave the fields and work dangerous mundane jobs for a living. However it’s a worthy metaphor: in the days before motorway trains brought people closer together and made the geographical ‘distances’ between us much shorter, so why not spiritual ones too? You can throw in, too, that Cat has no doubts in this song that peace will arrive and there are no u-turns to be had; instead this peace vehicle is on ‘rails’, always fated to end up in the land of peace and contentment one day. This song has a clever idea at its heart and seems to have ‘hit single’ written all over it, but unusually for Cat the idea seems to end there and we don’t get any variation across this song. Cat was always strong at middle eights but there is none used here and even the chorus just sounds like the verse with different lyrics. The performance of this tune is slightly clunky too: all too obviously meant to symbolise a train slowly pulling into a siding to let us on, it doesn’t have the groove of some of the other songs and is overwhelmed by the Paul Smawell Smith arrangement that comes out of nowhere during the finale only for the Peace Train to make another detour. The result is another song that actually doesn’t have the lasting power of the best of this album, but was always going to do well for the central image alone.
Overall, ‘Teaser and the Firecat’ isn’t as strong or consistent as ‘Tea For The Tillerman’. This is an album that’s definitely less brave than its predecessor and has cut out the songs about death and materialism and the generation gap for more mainstream songs about love and peace and hope. Cat will later criticise himself for this and try to get away from the weight this album’s success put on his shoulders by turning angrier, grumpier and less forgiving in his material. However, he shouldn’t: he says at the beginning that he doesn’t have any answers and spends the album criticising himself, which is a lot more palatable than him criticising ‘us’ as he will do on albums like ‘Foreigner’. He must surely have known, too, that after ‘Tillerman’ anything that was vaguely commercial would have sold like hot-cakes and that he was ticking all the boxes to make a commercial album here: one with its own distinctive side that still made every listener feel ‘included’ and which offered hope and love and catchy tunes with just enough depth and medicine to make the sugar go down. ‘Teaser’ was always going to sell in droves and that is no bad thing – to this day it features a good half of Cat’s best known songs on it and many casual fans have actually come to this one assuming it’s a compilation because they know so much of the material from the radio. The problem comes when Cat fights so hard to break away from his formula that he causes his audience to give up and stop right here, at the point where Cat’s albums have most appeal – which means that potential fans are missing out on so very many wonderful things from Stevens’ later years. That’s not this album’s fault though; it couldn’t see that coming and indeed ‘Teaser’ is very much a ‘glass half full’ kind of album where nothing can ever go wrong; the front cover character alone is more than content with his limited lot in life. Not Cat’s bravest or most brilliant album then and a million miles below his best, but a powerful album with many great moments wrapped up in such a delicious package of cover art and sound that it still remains a very wonderful album.