Friday 4 July 2008

Cat Stevens "Tea For The Tillerman" (1970) ('Core' Reviews #41, Revised Edition 2014)

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Cat Stevens "Tea For The Tillerman" (1970)

Track Listing: Where Do The Children Play?/ Hard-Headed Woman/ Wild World/ Sad Lisa/ Miles From Nowhere/ But I Might Die Tonight!//Longer Boats/ Into White/ On The Road To Find Out/ Father And Son/ Tea For The Tillerman (UK and US tracklisting)

'Drink tea for the tillerdog, eat lots of bones, take wine for the wombat who found his way home, seagulls shut up I can't hear my Cat Stevens CD, because while sinners sin the music is always free, a perfect album that sounds just right, I'm glad I reviewed it when I did 'cause I might die tonight!'

His creative batteries re-charged during the making of 'Mona Bone Jakon', Cat Stevens released 'Tea For The Tillerman' hot on its heels just four months later with all the tracks recorded before ‘Mona’ had even made it into the shops yet. When a record is released that close to its predecessor it suggests record company pressure, recycling or a need for money. For once though it was none of these problems: it was simply that after so long away and a near-death experience from TB Cat had a lot to say and felt, like many people who come close to death, that he couldn't wait any longer to write it all down in case something happened to him again. 'Tillerman' is so much more than just 'Mona' part two though; if ‘Mona’ was a personal crusade, an introspective musing about what Cat ought to do to make his mark in the world then ‘Tillerman’ is the perfect follow up, mostly written during the end of convalescence rather than the beginning, taking those themes and seeing how these practices might work in the real world. However while it was all very well Cat thinking deep thoughts it would be another matter turning them into reality and once the shock of not dying had subsided this worry was clearly on cat’s mind a lot. This world, which has been entirely absent in Cat’s life during his hospital stay and enforced bed rest at home, is now something Cat is waiting to step into, desperate that the new ways of approaching life he has won’t be forgotten or overturned once he steps out of the door. After so long away the world now has new significance with turned-on eyes, an imperfect world full of imperfect people that could be so much better if people were kinder, more patient, more tolerant.

It's surely not giving the game away too much to say that after over a year of being denied entry to the outer world Stevens doesn't like what he sees when he gets there and senses that all the sunny hippie utopia ringing in his ears when he took to his bed is long gone: children's playgrounds are torn down to make way for industrial sabotage; two-faced friends who've all come out of the woodwork again now Cat is popular again; a 9-5 society that dulls and restricts human kind from their true spiritual purpose in life; a 'wild world' where the real life is out to get you and you should always be on your guard. Oddly he doesn’t mention the chimpanzee in the White House, but then this album is a treatise about being nice to everybody, even Nixon. While 'Mona' was naturally a little self-possessed, what with nearly dying during the writing of it and all, 'Tillerman' is a more social creature, concerned with audience rather than written for the self full of gorgeous sparkling melodies and inventive arrangements from a writer whose been longing to hear how his work might sound with a full and 'proper' band playing them. Several of the cast of characters famous from the back sleeves of LPs make their debut appearances here (including regular right hand man Alun Davies whose guitar-picking fingerprints all over this album, double-bass player John Ryan on sadly his last Cat album – he seriously never gets enough credit – and new drummer Harvey Burns) and at the fourth time of trying Cat has now found his signature sound. The next few records will be more about how to escape from this sound that suits him so well it's in danger of typecasting him, but that's in the future: for now 'Tillerman' is an album brimming with confidence, Cat firmly back on track, with something to tell a world that badly needs to hear it.

The reason this album did so well, I think, is that people needed it at the end of 1970. As much as Cat will go on to protest on future albums that he doesn’t have any of the answers – that he is just asking the questions the same as us – this is the record where he sounds most like a grand old sage. The brush with death has made Cat think more deeply than ever before, but unlike the rawer ‘Mona’ this album is more contemplative, with more beauty and a greater sense that it’s all going to be alright in the end. In a troubled 1970, full of riots Nixon and the escalation of fighting in Vietnam, people wanted someone who would ‘lead’ them, albeit in a humbler, quieter way than the 1960s youthful revolution. By now the radicals of the 1960s, who had turned on and dropped out but had still been overcome by the oldies hanging on in power, had seen action give way to contemplative thought. Even in an era full of figures like these Cat was special – he was eloquent, had the ability to put into words things people talked about all the time and to wrap them up in pretty melodies that didn’t sound childish or churlish. In time Cat will come to hate the extra attention this gives him and people assuming that he can lead them anywhere when what he really wanted to do with these records is express his inner soul, not lead a revolution and Cat will quite deliberately break the aura of this record with ‘Catch-Bull’ (an often grumpy record), ‘Foreigner’ (a very grumpy record) and ‘Numbers’ (a very weird grumpy record). For now though one of the lessons cat has learnt is to count his blessings and if nothing else ‘Tillerman’ is Cat’s happiest record. If ‘Mona’ is him bracing himself for death then ‘Tillerman’ is the point where cat realises that he might get to live after all and he’s determined to make the very most of it. 

There is much to recommend about Tillerman. Carving out a whole new niche in the music business that no one had tackled before is always a tricky business, but Cat’s mixture of off-beat subject matters and his mixture of sparse acoustics and thrilling string arrangements isn’t just wacky or off-the-wall, it’s honest and heartfelt throughout. Cat gives far more interviews nowadays than he ever did in the 1970s, yet even now he never really talks about his work, like many of the artists on this list preferring to let the music speak for itself. Yet knowing what we do about Cat’s personal journey from teen-swooning pop idol to dedicated Islamic convert and intelligent spokesperson, it's hard not to see the songs on ‘Tillerman’ and other albums of the period as some sort of crusade, a logical extension of the self-doubt raised on ‘Mona’ but with the ideas now underlined by a bit more confidence that Cat is on the right path. These are also songs addressed to us more, the warm aural hug of a big brother wanting to pass on knowledge he's learnt the hard way so that we don't have to go through so much pain (this will change by the time of 'Foreigner' when even Cat's teachings aren't enough - we need to experience life for ourselves, but for now it’s enough that we seem to be listening again unlike in 1968).

My guess is that a lot of these songs are an extension of the rule-breaking that Cat has been doing since his schooldays. A lot of the ‘rules’ he broke turned out to be ‘wrong’ – partying too hard too often made him sick and left him chasing illusions and ghosts rather than real friendships and relationships. However he was also ‘right’ – why was he working so hard for a mere job when his near-death experience has proved how pointless that way of life is when he could snuff it at any minute. ‘. Each of these songs is questioning something, whether it’s the narrator’s own beliefs or society’s accepted ideas as a whole and is clearly still very much brimming over with the thousands of questions that must have been whizzing through Cat's head while in the hospital. Notably 'Mona Bone' makes only a single reference to 'death' - the 'shadow hanging over me' on 'Trouble' - but now  restored to full health Cat has let his mind wander a bit more about what might have come next. But I Might Die Tonight’ is the culmination of this whole period, Cat knowing that after facing death in the face he wants to become a better person and there is nothing more important he can be doing than passing that wisdom he learns to us along the way. 'But I Might Die Tonight' is if you like the core of both of these two albums, the self-kicking song that Cat might have slipped away without realising just what the 'truth' of life was.

Elsewhere other songs touch on this, on the importance of following new rules rather than ones that make no sense blindly. 'Miles From Nowhere' is Cat’s imaginary journey into the next world, one that differs from this one because there's no rules or structure and nothing to interrupt us from our true spiritual journey. ‘Where Do The Children play?’ is the great question that adults should never answer, taught as we are in adult society to put away childish things and concentrate on progress and money. Back in 1970 (and to some extent now) it was considered normal in society for men to look for a girl who was easily led, who would worship them and be a commodity alongside the car and the house. Cat rejects all of this: what he wants is a ‘hard-headed Woman’ who will keep on the ‘right’ path and keep him truthful (a song so far away from the last time Cat considered marriage on the scaredy-Cat [33] ‘Here Comes My Wife’ it’s laughable).We aren’t meant to sympathise with fathers and sons simultaneously but Cat, famously, does – this is a world where both points of view are valid and both are right (the son has to make his own mistakes, but it’s the father’s duties to warn him against making them). ‘Into White’ breaks all song convention in a good way, a song forming out of nothing to become the purest element, with sound colour and everything pared down until we too see the ‘light’ that Cat once saw (see [41]). Oh and ‘Longer Boats’ breaks convention in a bad way, I guess. This is an album where everything is upside-down to the way we’ve been taught yet makes much more sense like this by and large. It is a world where even the people ‘in charge’ of where they are going deserve tea-breaks and where children are given the space to play because it is so important to their development. It is a world, in Cat’s most famous of all his illustrated covers, where the lightning strikes are in the distance and the sun has come out to play.     

One other theme is of being on a 'journey'. While we never fully find out who the 'Tillerman' of the title is from the scrap of a song that ends the album or fully why he's enjoying a tea-break, an awful lot of people are steering vehicles across this album - with mixed results. This is, surely, born out of Cat’s desire to see the world after being copped up in his house and hospital for so long; the Belle and Sebastian equivalent of the sheer delight of hopping on a bus and going anywhere. Cat has found himself and now needs to explore the world. Cat himself is 'On  The Road To Find Out', virtually his signature tune as he leaves his 'happy home' to find out more about the world inhabits and yet in a twist on his illness discovers that he needn't have left home at all because 'the answer lies within'. 'Longer Boats' is a life journey being used for the 'wrong' means, an invasion of other's personal private space with a flock of baddies ready to rape and pillage while Cat's omnipotent narrator looks on, horrified, unable to stop it. Even 'Wild World' is a song about waving goodbye to someone (Patti D’arbanville) whose decided to brave the big bad world and is leaving a comforting home - perhaps this song and home is even the one heard at the start of 'On The Road To Find Out' from a different perspective (although my guess is that this is Cat, still in hospital and waiting for the day he can go home, addressing himself not to make the same mistakes as before and end up a wild party animal with no real friends). Then there’s ‘Miles From Nowhere’ as Cat dies, his destination over, as he has nowhere to travel to anymore and has to live with who he is and what he has become. Across the entire album there Cat waits stalking his prey, challenging the status quo and on nearly all of the songs on this album telling the listener that there is more to life than what we think or see or feel, that there is a pattern of human existence that has not been recognised by the wider society at large.

Another linked theme is that, as a species, we keep going down the wrong paths. Cat thinks it's 'fine' how technology has made life easier for so many people but is angered that progress has got in the way of shaping imagination and creativity. Like most people, he'd rather see a children's playground than a jumbo jet and a 'cosmic train' (whatever that might be!), with the mournful 'Where Do The Children Play?' one of Cat's most three-dimensional songs about what it is to be human and the people who get trampled on whenever we forget our humanity. Elsewhere the 9-5 ticking clock, the invading army and the conmen who inhabit a 'wild world' also come in for a tongue-lashing as Cat’s latest hippie-ish manifesto is ‘hey, let’s not be mean to each other’. 'Father and Son' is an interesting case, looking at how each generation faces the same questions and the same dilemmas - that each son is doomed to end up like his father, growing up too fast before finding that life was better taken slow. The brilliance of this song in particular though is how both sides are 'right' in their own way - this song has rightly become one of the most celebrated Cat Stevens songs because both Fathers and Sons can hear it and convince themselves that both halves are 'right'. On a more personal level 'Hard-Headed Woman' is Cat rejecting the blonde bimbos he used to have on his arm - now he's looking for someone as tough and brittle as he's learnt to be and will be there for him in sickness and in health. In between he launches perhaps his most stinging volley of his whole career against 'fancy dancers' who 'move so smooth but have no answers', 'fine feathered friends' who are there for the limelight. The result is an album with plenty to say and a lot of fine targets to aim at, the well brought up and polite singer-songwriter who so charmed everybody at the age of eighteen determined to use his creativity for 'good' rather than simply showing off his precocious talents.

One thing you won't find any mention of here is religion (except for a single line about 'picking up 'a good book now' in ''On The Road To Find Out' and that could mean anything - even Alan's Album Archives!) This is despite the often silly way Cat is now often portrayed now by those who know nothing of his music - raving religious lunatic or impenetrable philosophiser; Cat makes it clear from the first that he's as lost as anybody, still looking for answers from some direction somewhere - the difference being is that unlike his first career he now realises that what he should be doing is informing us rather than charming us. Yet the listener is still not surprised at how Cat’s journey worked out in later life because the singer has clearly had enough of human beings and already has enough of an interest to conjure up his own 'afterlife'. Religion will filter in slower across Cat's albums, starting with the Christian hymn [70] 'Morning Has Broken' on 'Teaser and the Firecat' and the theme of Buddhism on 'Catch-Bull At Four' (the Muslim songs don't come along until Cat's retirement from the music business in 1978). This is, like ‘Mona’, decidedly a spiritual album and not a religious one.   

So what is Cat searching for across this album - and indeed the bulk of the record to come? Both a 'peaceful' life where people can express themselves how they want (and where children are free to play, not study extra subjects for umpteen hours after school so that they end up doing more hours work per day than their parents!) and a 'true' life where friends really are friends and people who want to do you a favour aren't trying to make a quick buck on the side. Cat doesn’t glorify his search for meaning amongst the confused and battered world he travels in - indeed, it’s painted as a lonely struggle, a personal sacrifice that sounds like it took a great deal of courage to make. Cat says ‘goodbye’ a lot on this album, whether it’s the ecological goodbye to Earth’s country spaces, the wife leaving the husband, the son leaving home to escape the ideals of the father or even the soul leaving the body on its journey to the afterlife when Cat will finally have all the answers (on a song that’s admirably universal and free from religious imagery considering the subject matter!) On ‘Mona Bone’ the ‘goodbyes’ came because of the ‘troubles’ leaning over the narrator’s shoulder and trying to trick him into going back on the ways that were slowly killing him. On ‘Tillerman’ those ‘goodbyes’ are now largely of the narrator’s choosing, a conscious decision to reject everything he has been taught up until that time in order to find the real and often hidden and obscure answers to life. Sailing against the tide on his own personal journey, avoiding the highways and byways of most stars’ well-travelled paths, this album is the high tide of Cat’s amazing career, the point where his vision was at its strongest and the music at its most faultless and commercial. Only a slight sense of ‘tidying up’ in the arrangements prevents it from being as great as ‘Mona’ (and ‘Longer Boats’, Cat’s ugliest song from the first half of the 1970s) and yet ‘Tillerman’ is one of those rare AAA albums that really is as good as it says on the Tillerman, err wait, tin, there we go.

Most of the songs on this album are well known now, almost all of them appearing on at least one of the various Cat best-ofs over the years, which is extraordinary considering the speed with which this record was made (and it will only be another four months before the next one, with three classic albums in a year to make up for the lengthy spell away). Even casual fans will be able to name a good half of the songs from it and as an album of such golden consistency it sounds like a best-of compilation in itself. What's more even the slightly lesser known songs like the gorgeous 'Into White', the powerful 'Miles From Nowhere' and the restless 'But I Might Die Tonight!' are all impressive songs other writers would go and get themselves a gun for - not just the songs everyone skips to get to the 'hits'. Like many an artist on this list, fame and fortune were Cat’s worst enemies, sucking him into a downward spiral of energy-sapping tours, harmful critical backlashes and unwanted distractions. Cat is at his best and purest on this album and its predecessor because he is free to come to his own conclusions more or less without worry about whether his records will sell or people will listen to his new ideas – but listening to the staggering range of styles, the intelligent lyrics, the impressive arrangements and the moving tunes, it's no wonder that so many people latched on to this album nor that so many people now accept the ideas raised on Tillerman which for the time were daring and new.

'Tillerman' was the album that made Cat a superstar, but in the years since it came out Tillerman is nearly always beaten by Teaser And The Firecat in polls as the singer’s best album. Fair enough, ‘Teaser’ has some great material too and came out at just the right time when people were beginning to get just a little bit sick of the all-out rock of the early 1970s, but it clearly lacks this album's breadth of vision, originality and consistency. As a suite of songs working together this album is exemplary, full of passive-aggressive songs about how having the right mindset can change the world if we try hard enough. Cat sings his passionate heartfelt lyrics about social change quietly, but his angry commitment to his cause is evident even in his most beautiful songs. Because despite the lengths we've gone to in drawing attention to this album's cleverness, poeticness and emotional wisdom, it should be remembered that Tillerman's greatest claim to fame is that it is such a beautiful album. Practically every track (except the peculiar 'Longer Boats') is devastatingly gorgeous, ten perfectly formed hummable songs that sound as if they've been around forever, not just (gulp!) forty odd years. To have both brains and beauty as a record is a rare thing - nearly all the great AAA albums we've covered tend to have one or the other, but 'Tillerman' is special. There are many great stop-off points and signposts in Cat’s career, but for any listener with an open mind and a pair of discerning ears, Tillerman might well be the loveliest journey of them all. Sounds like a good port of call to me - 'Tillerman' is one of those rare albums where everything just fell into place so naturally with an album that finds that rare golden middle ground: adventurous enough to impress musical anoraks like me and musical enough to impress the general public. Sadly the rest of Cat's career won't be quite so plain sailing...

The Songs:

Where ‘Mona’ was impatient to say all the things that need saying, most of ‘Tillerman’ is very leisurely indeed. The opening of [49] Where Do The Children Play? For instance takes an age and yet so lovely is the tune that it holds your ear through a full pass of the melody before the song finally arrives. This is very fitting for a song that’s an extension of [2] ‘Matthew and Son’ from someone who nearly fell into the same trap himself, now desperate to take life slower and not be such a workaholic. More than that, though, it’s about mankind’s demand for speed and Cat’s worry that things are being lost in the name of industrial progress, not least playground areas for children. Put simply, the song says yes, mankind has to progress and yes, technology makes things easier for us in some ways now, but what’s the point of pursuing both of these things if we let them take over our own gorgeous countryside and leave our children with no space where they can be children? The lyrics show how distant we have become from our true ‘source’, with control of the weather and enjoyment from a ‘slot machine’, an artificial substitute for the very wonderful world that is out there waiting for us to enjoy it if only we look away from our need to get money and get ahead. Back in 1970 when this album came out the first concrete buildings and apartments blocks were just a decade or two old and were being set up so fast that it seemed at one point as if they were about to take over every city and town and modern living seemed forever linked with ugliness, so it’s no wonder that pretty cottages that had been standing for hundreds of years suddenly looked like a better alternative for people, even if they were smaller and with less home comforts. Secondarily, ‘old’ style houses were different, whereas modern buildings frequently looked the same, as if they’d been made by some town planner who only had access to certain-coloured lego bricks. The late 1960s/ early 1970s were also a key time for people to start questioning the belief that evolution and progress for progresses’ sake was automatically a good thing. As Cat argues on this song what’s the point in straining for a better life when modern life is responsible for distracting us from what we already have? This moving song is becoming more pertinent every year, with more and more school playing fields and communal playgrounds sold off to developers to help struggling schools, but it was really quite rare back in 1970. Cat has never said what inspired it but my guess is that this is him on an early walkabout round his home after being so long confined indoors and noticing with fresh eyes how every building seemed to be for industry and adults with nothing there for nature or children. Building on the template already created on [45] Katmandu from his last album, Cat expands his own personal bolt-hole of gorgeous scenery as an escape from all this unnecessary industrialisation and creates a utopian industrial-free country space that is open to everyone. A stern warning, but one sung with compassion and hope before building to a peak of emotional desperation on the last verse, this song is full of classic lines, such as the metaphor for mankind’s visionless building of roads whether we need them or not (‘They just go on and on and it seems that you can’t get off’) and skyscrapers (‘Will you keep on building higher until there’s no more room up there?’), which portrays the architects as being as ‘lost’ as we are. Listen out for the string arrangement too – it’s very subtle and only in parts of the song, in contrast to Cat’s 1960s material which are generally chock-a-block full of orchestral sounds competing for our attention, sounding like a film score for an expensive movie.

[50] Hard Headed Woman is Cat thinking about who he wants to share his world with. He’s done with the sycophants and groupies who are after the fame not him and the trophy wives who are there merely to make their boyfriends feel good about who they can pull. What cat now knows he wants is someone who will keep him on the straight and narrow, a hard-headed soulmate who will help make him a better person. Now interested in breaking stupid rules, even the ingrained ones that teach us what we should look for in a mate, Cat breaks song structure too with a very uneven song. There’s a reason you never hear of any other song with this title for instance – it’s not a very common phrase and it’s really not a sequence of words built for easy rhymes. Similarly rather than having a verse-chorus-middle eight structure this is really two tracks stuck together. The first is thoughtful, tranquil, Cat realising what he needs to look for in the future and how good it will be when he finds someone ‘who will take me for myself’. Cat then bemoans everyone who ‘fooled’ Cat in the past, ‘fancy dancers’ who ‘look so smooth but have no answers’ and who don’t know why they’re with Cat once the fame and money dry up.  It’s the second half though that suddenly kicks the stabilisers off this song and goes for the jugular, Cat’s anger rising as he recalls not just the loves but the friends who stopped calling once he got ill. ‘I know’ he spits ‘many fine-feathered friends’. We then switch immediately back to the second half of the first part with new lyrics. . Although the song’s main tune is itself very pretty, it’s also crowded out by a very eerie, melancholy sounding string section and an unusually loud creeping bass that doesn’t follow the tune so much as hover round it, ready to pounce on the song’s narrator when he lets his guard down. The result is a song that, like the mystical soulmate cat seeks, is designed to keep him on his toes and wants him to be true to himself. This is perhaps one of the most cat Stevens of all his songs. On paper it shouldn’t work at all: the lyrics are a slap in the face to so many of his male fans and many of the female ones who thought he was cute, while the music is deliberately ugly, a buckaroo of a song that throws us off if we are only prepared to ‘surface listen’ to it all. However, in true Cat Stevens style, somehow this brave song also manages to be utterly devastatingly beautiful. Cat doesn’t know it yet, but future wife Fauzia will sum up exactly the sort of person he was looking for in this song. Their marriage will take place just shy of the tenth anniversary of this song being written too.

 [51] Wild World, meanwhile, is a fond farewell to girlfriend Patti, a much kinder and less dramatic farewell than [38] ‘Lady D’arbanville’. Written for her when she chose a modelling job in new York for a month over staying home in London to play house Cat acts more like an elder brother than an ex on this song as he bids her farewell and good luck, warning her to be careful. The result is another song that’s very Cat Stevens in its theme of leaving home and braving danger to find something better outside, but at the same time is unique in having it be about another person leaving and Cat trying in vain to get them to stay. In his heart he knows there is no talking them out of it (which isn’t how Patti felt according to her interviews, more that she was being pushed out that door, but still!)    Cat is often angry but hides his anger more convincingly than usual on what is one of his more melodic, catchy songs. So pretty is the tune and so catchy is the hook, indeed, that it’s easy to miss just what a deep little song this is under the surface: this is for instance a very paranoid lyric, full of certainty that things are out to get his beloved at every turn. It is also, when you dig under the surface, less than flattering (‘It’s hard to get by just upon a smile’ ‘I’ll always remember you like a child’). The rhyme of ‘grieving’ and ‘leaving’ is clever though and Cat’s pleas for her to take care of herself because nobody else will (or, so it’s hinted, love her the way Cat does) balances the anger in the song. ‘Tillerman’ is in many ways Cat’s greatest album of contrasts – ‘Father and Son’s multiple viewpoints for instance or the industry versus innocence of ‘Children Play’. Here, though, Cat offers us two viewpoints simultaneously: while Cat sings his dark adult warnings the playful melody dances round his vocal phrase without a care in the world, while a sad shrugging acoustic guitar part plays as far down the ‘low’ notes as it can, offering up an ominous rumble. This isn’t a monologue warning but a dialogue, with cat’s partner merrily dancing her way through life, unaware – the way Cat is – of how suddenly it can change and catch you unawares. There’s even a moment in the riff when the piano merrily goes la-la-la-la-la-la-la and then *boom* we get silence, interrupted by John Ryan’s brilliant bass moving in just before the next cymbal hit to catch her and save her from ruin. This idea Cat says he got from listening to a lot of Spanish music, by which he probably means the crescendo of consecutive notes. However what he does with them here is highly original, adding a layer of protectiveness to what could otherwise be another purely nasty kiss-off song. The result is a clever song that does everything all at once: it’s a ridiculously catchy commercial tune perfect for re-launching his career on the back of ‘D’arbanville’, but it’s also a dark and edgy song about how innocence and gullibility is so easily taken advantage of. 

 [52] Sad Lisa continues the theme but in a slightly nicer way, with Cat now trying to offer comfort rather than just warnings. Interestingly, on the recently released live recording Majikat Earth Tour (recorded 1976 but released 2004) Cat prefaces this song by telling us that he realised after writing it ‘that I was actually talking about myself again’. Unless you were there at the concert or others where Cat made this statement, chances are you’ve spent decades like me thinking this song was a statement of solidarity on behalf of a friend or another loved one, a desperate attempt to make them cling on to life and overcome obstacles despite the hopeless way things are looking. Understandably, given the context, many fans have long assumed this to be another track for Patti (whose name even fits the two syllables of ‘Li-Sa’). Since this news came to light, Sad Lisa takes on a whole new meaning, mirroring the more downbeat songs on Mona Bone and sounding as if Cat’s philosophical reasoning is trying to comfort his emotional self, allowing it to catch up on the painful journey of the last year or so of his life. This track is, you see, melancholia personified – a simple tinkling piano riff that ebbs and flows but whose default range is played on the lowest possible octave on standard pianos. This is matched by lyrical images of eyes ‘trickling rain’ and warnings not to ‘hide in the dark’ and a mournful heart-tugging violin solo, all of which taken together is enough to make the listener’s own eyes water with tears. However the song is not saccharine: somehow Cat shapes his phrases so that every crash to the bottom sounds like a pause and only after rising back to the starting point does each phrase sound like it’s found it’s true ending, in stability. The last few lines of this song are particularly notable – Cat says that maybe one day he will ‘free’ his own mournful self/friend and adds the rejoinder ‘I know no one can see her’. A brave statement for such a public record, making it clear that Cat keeps himself well hidden from public view where he can, it’s intriguing that Cat’s melody-line seem to be doing the same as this character in song – waltzing across the keyboard in a desperate attempt to keep our eyes away from the terrible sadness at the heart of the song, yet failing badly to distract us because the misery at the core of the song seems so all-consuming. Long seen as yet another Cat Stevens song about mis-communication (try as he might, the narrator is no nearer to comforting Lisa than he was at the start of the song and indeed she sounds even more miserable by the end), ‘Sad Lisa’ might well be one of Cat’s most autobiographical songs about how when gripped by depression no one can get through to him at all. It is certainly one of his most moving songs that only true fans know, a moment of darkness that’s otherwise consumed by sunshine.

[53] Miles From Nowhere is the album’s masterpiece. The 1960s were all about being youthful, of dying being something that happened to other people to make room for you. here, though, his recent brush with death has made cat think not just about the art of not being on this Earth anymore but where he might be next. Like many Cat songs it’s about a journey, but one he has no way of knowing what it will be like. The only thing cat knows is that after searching for ‘it’ for so long he will still have further to go when he passes to the other side, death giving him more hills to climb and woods to grope through. By the time he gets there Cat has adjusted to his new life, shrugged off the body that has ‘been a good friend’ but is no longer important and realises that at last this is what true freedom is, being truly alone and making ‘my own rules’. This is what he’s always dreamed of – maybe death won’t be so bad after all? This is still a song that’s haunted though, mostly because at the time it was written cat didn’t sound like he had much of a choice. The crushing piano chords of [41] ‘I Think I See The Light’ are back but this is not a song of manic joy but paranoid fear. Cat needs to get there, wherever there may be, but he has no idea how to get to it. This is signified by a piano lick that alternates between soaring up to the heavens and knock knock kncokin’ loudly on heaven’s door. By the middle he is driven on so intensely and passionately the whole song seems to fall off a cliff and end up on roller-skates. Suddenly, after a verse of intense pressure, we’re off and the fast-rolling piano chords are frantic and desperate, leaping this way and that as if trying to throw off the pursuing acoustic guitar and drums. By the end Cat is as far away as where he started but somehow ‘it’s alright’. Death is natural and he has learnt to stop fighting it and accept it along with the idea that his life is over. This is the one song from ‘Tillerman’ I wish had been swapped for one on ‘Mona’ (maybe ‘Lilywhite’) – it shares that album’s pained misery and raw uncertainty and doesn’t quite belong here in the middle of this fairly cosy utopia of an album. On any record though it’s a career highlight, a passionate song that deals with the sort of thing no other writer would be brave enough to do, cat having stared death triumphantly in the face and won through (if only by a ‘whisker’). Even here, two and a half years on from the point when Cat was quite that seriously ill, the whole thing is still so real and intense that it pushes Cat to one of his career best vocals, lost and desperate, trapped in a world he really doesn’t understand.  A fantastic song that appears at first to be about accepting death peacefully, it’s actually a marvellous celebration of being alive, although we never actually get to follow Cat to the end of his destination.

Now having recovered cat gives us a brief encore from the point of view of the living. Suddenly, after having the risk of everything being taken from him, everything seems petty and every rule Cat is expected to follow insane. The brief unfinished snippet [54] But I Might Die Tonight is the closest Cat ever got to writing a sermon, but it’s a good one. he spent his life being told to ‘work hard’ and he’ll end up with ‘a job like mine’. But cat knows there is more to life than money and social standing and that ‘nobody should have to be that poor’ because life is fleeting and precious. He’s told repeatedly to prepare for the future – but the thing that nobody tells you is that life is one great long gamble without second chances; every time you pay into a pension plan or work your way up a corporate ladder you are assuming that you won’t get sick or die partway through. Cat nearly had the greatest dream he ever had, of being a pop star, taken away from him and he realised that it was really being alive that was his precious gift. He isn’t about to waste it on pleasing other people given a second chance. Made up of only one long verse, this song gradually builds in power line by line, as if Cat starts off nervously introducing these ideas only to believe in them passionately by the song’s end. ‘Tonight’ would surely be another well-loved well-respected song in the Cat Stevens canon, had its creator not decided so soon that he’s said all he wants to say already, wrapping the song up with an unexpected major chord coming out of nowhere to round things off. Along the way the main riff is one of cat’s very finest and sounds as if it has been hammered into place, a dsquare peg in a round hole, desperately trying to jerk it’s way out of confinement. I must admit I much prefer the original version of the song (still unavailable on CD) which was written for the film ‘Deep End’, an unfunny comedy about an age-gap relationship that falls apart. The younger teen, abandoned by his mid-twenties soul-mate, is crushed when she leaves him for someone older. What does age matter? He asks ‘when I might die tonight?’ The song probably wasn’t what the film-makers expected (it’s a song about how easy it is to snuff it rather than what I think they wanted, a song about how age is no guarantee of living a long and happy life in a world full of random accidents) and suggests to me it just happened to be the first song Cat had ready when the film-makers came knocking on his manager’s door during his bed years. This mix of the song has no extra words compared to the album version but it is very different, beginning at the end with a passionate scream before quietening down and with a ghostly set of Cat vocals linking two straight repeats of the single verse that suggest he has already died.  The result is an impressive reflective song though in any form, with a double-tracked Cat at the top and bottom of his range perhaps hinting that this song is true for everybody, whatever their age, sex, race or vocal pitch (he sounds like two completely different people on this song).

Side two begins with a huge mistake called [55] Longer Boats (best to get this album as a good-condition vinyl, because as the opening track of the second side you can skip it a bit easier!)  Cat isn’t one of those writers like Paul McCartney or the guys in 10cc who can write about ‘other’ people and conjure up believable stories with ease – he’s a born personal confessional writer who is tailor-made for moving people with insights into his own life. As a result, his few attempts to write in this different style are pretty embarrassing all round. I don’t know what Cat was trying to do with this song, which is apparently about a Viking invasion, but its half-hearted cryptic words and tale of a parson doing sexual things to a young girl he probably shouldn’t be doing has no proper resolution or any character history that might make us feel any concern for either party. We don’t find out much from the repetitive chorus either: are the longer boats invaders from another land, another world, another religion (‘I don’t want no God on my lawn’), from the future (alien invaders?), from the past (Viking invaders?), or just people who haven’t got Cat’s sense of peace and humanity? Is everyone who isn’t living life to cat’s rules a barbarian now? And why are they coming to ‘win us’ (a rather uncharacteristic lapse of grammar there) – to rule us? To enslave us? To save us? To make us progress like the settlers of Where Do The Children Play? To save us from the Wild World? Is the parson - notably the first religious figure on any Cat Stevens song - a settler not to be trusted or Mary’s saviour? Cat’s comments down the years don’t flipping help much either: when asked about the song on release he said it was about ufos, only to retract that idea years later because he admitted ‘I thought that made the song sound more interesting!’ I have to come some opinion as your reviewer though, dear readers, so my take on the song is this: it’s about invasion and other people imposing their principles on you when you were perfectly happy as you are. The parson, for instance, is doing the same as the Vikings: when she drops her knickers one pillages her body and the other her soul. She was perfectly happy before people came, with cat offering up the imagery that we should protect our ‘shores’ to invaders. My guess too is that we are meant to be confused by this song – it is after all the sound of someone from outside telling us how to think. Even so, this still feels like a weak song written in a hurry. A locked door without a key, Longer Boats is a frustrating mess, made all the worse because the long, flowing, circular melody that accompanies the lyrics is one of Cat’s most memorable and intriguing. It’s an ugly blot on an otherwise beautiful album and the one track here that feels forced, with nothing to say (that we can understand, anyway).

Thank goodness then for the peace of [56] Into White, even if this too is a song that isn’t meant to make much sense, being a song full of surreal imagery and what is basically a list of images that aren’t given any meaning. This song feels like one I instinctively understand better though. It is a sequel, of sorts to [41] ‘I Think I See The Light’. If you have ever heard about somebody dying and coming back to life when they didn’t expect to the old cliché they say is how bright everything suddenly seems to them and how they see the world through fresh eyes (this is, in fact, not unlike the tale some drug taking psychedelic rock musicians give too; there’s no reason why this song can’t be both after all). Cat is now alive, awake and everything is touched by the light – not a religious light yet still but a new understanding of what it means to be alive. Everything is from source, pure, unadulterated, as that’s the only way of getting close to the ‘truth’. When Cat says that he is building a ‘house’ out of these objects he doesn’t mean a literal one (it would fall down before he could build a mantlepiece!) Houses mean a lot to Cat – see our mid-book essay for more – and they mean a place where he has the security to be himself. This goes double for the songs in this period when his home suddenly seemed so far away from his hospital bed. Here Cat is building up a metaphorical house he can take with him, to protect himself. The second verse is a dafter version of the first but even that makes the point that everything (blue-eyed drummer, black-spider, red-legged chicken) are ‘natural’ objects created from source. The real greatness of this song, though, lies not in the words but the tune, with a beautiful rolling sea shanty of a melody gently chuckling to itself and - as if to make up for the last track - Cat is at his most peaceful and melodic here. This gentle, delicate acoustic song sports a particularly thrilling string arrangement that works in nice counterpoint to the song’s main tune, as if wrapping the fragile tune in warm cotton wool, again so different to the manic days on Decca. As a meditative mood piece, gentle songs don’t come any better than this one, even if by its very nature this is one of Cat’s less involved, complex or emotional songs.

In contrast, [57] On The Road To Find Out is a return to Cat’s lyrical epics, picking up all the ideas scattered across Tillerman’s first half and telling us again that technological progress, outside expectations and wasting time with mindless trivia are red herrings for our human instincts, things that look good but ultimately lead us nowhere. Having left home to discover an ‘inner secret’ to life, against the advice of his family and friends, we find Cat still searching for his personal nirvana. This song’s narrator might not be happy on his new spiritual road, he might be lonely, misunderstood and uncomfortable, but he never considers going back to where he started or settling for a more ordinary life because he feels that spiritually he is doing the right thing and would rather be wasting his time looking for something important than spending another day doing something that doesn’t have any purpose for anyone. Cat never says what he found out – the closest he gets is the line ‘pick up a good book now’ at the end sounds like a religious reference, but it pre-dates Cat’s Muslim conversion and is probably more of a reference to learning rather than accepting the world at face value as opposed to the Bible or the Qur'an as some fans naturally assume (reading was his link to the outside world when he was poorly and he read anything and everything). It is the wanting to learn that is the important thing on this song, to empty your mind to ideas you had not considered before, not the source of that learning. So enchanting is Cat’s breathless, always-restless melody and so charming and universal his tale that I can’t have been the only listener to have wanted to up sticks and take the journey with him. One negative point though – Cat tried to deflect the pomposity of his journey with a few jokey lyrics and a rather gauche verse melody (‘Sometimes you have to moan when nothing really suits yer, but nevertheless you know you’re locked towards the future’) and rhymes like this one just make the whole song seem a bit silly, a poor attempt to lighten the mood of a serious song. I’m not all that taken with the munchkin choir who keep rasping ‘ah ah aaaaah’ like a goose with asthma either. For all that, though, this is another brave important song from a writer who means every single word he sings.

[58] Father And Son is an astonishing song that rightly became the album’s best known and most covered track, even if I have to say every cover version I’ve ever heard rather miss the point. Where most people hear childhood rebellion and parental restriction what I hear is Cat understanding two points of view at once. Cat was one of those children who wasn’t naughty by nature, who hated to upset anyone and who really wanted everyone to be proud of him. However he was confident enough to flout authority when he thought it was wrong and he thought it was wrong a lot. In other words he’s that pupil you went to school with or taught who would rather die than be considered a bully and would try their hardest to get straight As, but would also question a teacher long past sufferance point and deliberately wear the wrong clothes to school. Cat always had his own belief system and would respect everything that came into line with it, but little outside it, knowing the value of rules but also the value of when to break them when they became too restrictive. All of which makes him perhaps the only songwriter, certainly the only twenty-two-year-old songwriter, to be able to write this song. Cat genuinely agrees with both sides: the son who needs to go out and explore the world, to see what lies beyond his front door, to push the boundaries, to make mistakes, to do something and find something he believes in for himself instead of simply listening to advice from other people. And yet he also totally agrees with the father: there’s no need to be so fast or impulsive, there is always a chance to learn from others and what most people realise is that, yes indeed, settling down and working hard for a living is the answer (or is for most people). An age old conundrum, one that seems to date back a long way into our past given the amount of times it crops up in folk tales and mythology and the like, Cat’s song can’t hope to find a resolution between the generations in the space of three short minutes and his characters never do come to terms with each other – the father and son even sing the last verse over the top of each other, as if they are trying to drown each other out. It’s such an obvious idea for a song it’s amazing no one had tried this trick before, but then few singer-songwriters have the tools to understand and sympathise with several points of view like Cat. The moment when two Cats disagree with each other, sung twice over with both parts switching words (‘Away away I have to make this decision alone, no!’ and ‘Stay stay stay, why must you go and make this decision alone?) is stunning, the closest thing Cat ever came to writing one of his beloved ‘musicals’ numbers (at least in his first career). This is, though, not a full album epic but a simple three minute pop song making a thorough point so well it doesn’t need any frills or extras. Cat also sounds terrific singing both parts, the young strident confined crusader who yearns to be let loose and the aged wizened battle-scared deeper-voiced figure (sounding not unlike cat’s natural voice now in his Yusuf days) who knows that the world is mad and scary and the safest place is home. This is a debate and dilemma that have been going on for as long as mankind has had children. Rarely, though, has it been as poignantly portrayed as here in one of cat’s greatest sets of lyrics. If I was to be fussy I would say that the simple tune has clearly been written to accompany the words, that the song needs something more than a brief flamenco guitar solo to shake the song up a little (as the verses and choruses sound much the same) and that the recording would have been more powerful yet had it sped up just a fraction. That, though, takes nothing away from the fact that this song is a clear masterpiece, Cat’s sudden hospital bed-side insight and visions at their peak. I mean, even the Boyzone re-make and the Ronan Keating/Yusuf duet version didn’t entirely ruin this piece, so it must be good (err, not that there’s anything wrong with modern music you understand, having just read that last passage again and realising that stirring up trouble between the generations reading this is the last thing this song is intended to do. It’s just that this more modern version is, umm, an acquired taste (gulp!), after hearing the original for so long and I’d probably like this new version lots if it was the only version of the song I’d ever heard (its...err...very interesting, especially the way the father and son sound absolutely identical), honest it would (phew just about rescued that I think!) Also, this wasn’t a problem for thirty-five odd years, but I can’t be the only fan who hears a slightly mis-hit piano chord at 0:58 and keep thinking they’ve just got a notification from Twitter (the sound is identical – I wondered why I kept getting so many messages!)

[59] Tea For The Tillerman itself then rounds the album off with a teasingly obscure one-minute coda. The song got a new lease of life when Ricky Gervais adapted it as the closing theme for his series Extras, although the two projects have no link that I can see – which is most likely the point, thinking about it, given that ‘Handbags and Gladrags’ had nothing in common with The Office except being so obviously unsuitable. Using the song as a curious coda for the album, Cat simply jumbles up lots of images from other tracks on this album and makes it sound like either a modern-day parable or a nursery rhyme (ending it with the children of the opening song free to play at last). I would love to know oif the song or the album cover came first; I suspect the latter as cat fills in the scene here of the Tillerman drinking tea, the woman in the distance creating rain while children play – although there are no seagulls that I can see and the sun isn’t eating steak as it does in the song. I can’t be alone amongst Cat’s fanbase in wishing that he’d expanded this song a little more or given it a fresh set of lyrics. It opens with the same grand piano rolls as [70] ‘Morning Hass Broken’ and conjures up a similar feeling of awe and hope, but Cat ducks that feeling and leaves it instead as a trailer for the future bouncier ‘Teaser and The Firecat’ which has tunes far more in keeping with songs like these. ‘Tillerman’, you see, is meant to be a rugged beauty and hope lies in the sky, not here amongst us, not yet. 

Impressive as individual songs are, Tea For The Tillerman is surely as popular as it is because it works so well as one long meditative mood piece, with its mood of gentle urging, long-term optimism and empathetic understanding making it seem like an old friend and the perfect balm for troubled thoughts. Gloriously new and fresh when it first came out, this album rather lost its impact when Cat repeated the formula for his remaining 1970s albums, despite trying to change the concept as best he could in the middle of his ‘second career’. Never again did he complete an album as rounded, mature and honest as Tillerman though, which loses out only to ‘Mona’ for its slightly more polished sound and its bonkers track in the middle. I can, though, see why this album captured the spirit of a generation in a way that ‘Mona’ never could. Where that album is revealing and often bleak, the dark side of nearly dying, ‘Tillerman’ is very much the light. Even with songs about death, fair-weathered friends and misery it somehow still has an uplifting quality, the idea that humanity still has a chance if only it can throw off the shackles that bind it and escape all the false things that distract us from our goal. Slightly less personal and a little more universal than ‘Mona’, there are also some cracking hummable melody lines here that nevertheless sound like the perfect accompaniment to lyrics that still cut deeper than the vast majority of albums out there. Cat will get bored trying to repeat his success. He’ll grow worried at the sheer pressure and weight of being more than a mere ‘pop star’ and most likely wished at times by the mid 1970s that he’d never released this hit album at all. However for his many legions of fans this was the perfect hopping on point, an album that heals and helps and warns and sympathises, a roadmap to a wild world that’s out to get us and a safety net that makes us feel better about the fact that sometimes we fall. Cat Stevens remains a far more important writer than he’s ever given credit for, not because he invented a musical genre or revolutionised the world but because he brought us hope, peace and the option of doing something better with our lives that we had never considered before. Classic stuff in other words and one of those magical CDs you play so often you never actually get around to filing it away in your collection because you know you’ll be playing it again very soon. Singer-songwriting at its very best.


'Matthew and Son' (1967)

'New Masters' (1968)

'Mona Bone Jakon' (1970)

'Tea For The Tillerman' (1970)

‘Teaser and the Firecat’ (1971)

'Back To Earth' (1978)

'An Other Cup' (2006)


'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' (2014)

‘The Laughing Apple’ (2017)

Surviving TV Appearances 1967-2015

The Best Unreleased Recordings 1969-2009

Non-Album Recordings 1966-2014

Compilations, Box sets and Alun Davies LPs Part One 1963-1990

Compilations, Box Sets and Religious Works Part Two 1995-2012 

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