In-depth reviews of classic or neglected albums, mainly from the 1960s and 70s, plus a weekly newsletter featuring all the latest news, views and music. Artists covered include Beach Boys, Beatles, Belle and Sebastian, Buffalo Springfield, Byrds, Crosby Stills and Nash, Dire Straits, Grateful Dead, Hollies, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, Kinks, Nils Lofgren, Monkees, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Searchers, Simon and Garfunkel, Small Faces, 10cc, The Who and Neil Young.
Friday, 30 September 2011
Cat Stevens "New Masters" (1968) (News, Views and Music 114)
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Cat Stevens “New Masters” (1968)
Kitty/I’m So Sleepy/Northern Wind/The Laughing Apple/Smash Your Heart/Moonstone//The First Cut Is The Deepest/I’m Gonna Be King/Ceylon City/Blackness Of the Night/Come On Baby (Shift That Log)/I Love Them All
As you may heave read above, I’ve had to spend most of my time this week filling in my latest incapacity forms or whatever stupid name they’ve given to them now (I’ve just looked it up and its employment and support allowance apparently – what, so people who can’t work through no fault of their own get employment allowances now? What a dreadful term!) Most of the questions ask me to describe at length how I feel doing a particular action and another for my general state of health. I wish I could send my entry in in musical form because there’s a track on the ‘New Masters’ CD that sums up exactly what I mean. ‘It’s A Supa (Dupa) Life’ (sadly only a B-side despite being recorded at the same sessions so I can’t talk about here except in brief) is a joyous, hyper-energetic song full of crashing cymbals, speedy tempos and an absurd vocal from Cat that goes so subtly from being in control and genuinely positive to being totally over-the-top and overwhelmed it catches you by surprise and so subtly overtakes the song that there’s no one point where you can say it’s turned ‘hyper’. The song ends not with the expected big finish but with a surprise funeral march that slowly rises in volume until it slowly walks towards you from the back of the room, silencing all the hysterics in it’s path, trampling all that nervous energy like an iron curtain. It’s as if everything you believed that was helping you move forward and overcome obstacles is actually destroying you, subtlely, by making you move faster and faster out of your comfort zone until you cannot stop unless heading for collapse. On an album essentially upbeat, witty and enthusiastic, this is a doubly sinister moment, like a shadow that’s been hovering for the past 30 minutes of the album and only making itself heard in the odd throwaway comment is finally forcing it’s way through the increasingly false laughter to be heard to dominate the sound. It’s as if Cat’s subconscious is writing the album for him, because his conscious form is too busy partying, recording, touring and doing everything that was needed to be the ‘in’ pop sensation of 1967 (he topped newcomer polls that year you know, beating the likes of Pink Floyd, Procul Harum and Jimi Hendrix starting that year to the crown).
Cat Stevens didn’t have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome thank goodness because I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, never mind on a hero (Cher is the only musician to my knowledge who does have it), but its no coincidence that Cat collapsed from tuberculosis and exhaustion shortly after this album’s release because there’s clearly a hidden message on this album about...something happening. It’s there on other parts of this album too, often in the most unexpected places, on songs about laughing apples and fun holidays, with several anaologies for the fun-loving/hard working/npo time for sleeping party lifestyle Cat was enjoying suddnely tunring sour. Actually come to think of it the song ‘I’m So Sleepy’ is a pretty good fit for CFS too, another song about pushing your body to such extremes that it suddenly seems to have a life of it’s own, controlling what you do instead of the other way around. (Only those who have been truly ill will know what I mean by that last sentence and the fact the frighteneing part of the whole experience isn’t the pain or the loss of energy but the fact that the body you have been benignly controlling fopr the greater part of your life suddenly exists as a seperate entity with its own warning signs and sudden shut downs you don’t even consciously think about).
In fact so soon after this record’s release did Catty suffer his collapse that the star was no longer around to promote his own record,leaving ‘New Masters’ a huge flop of such massive proportions that Deram actually dropped the singer from their label despite having five top 20 hit singles and a top 10 album, cruelly telling him at his hospital bed (well, at least they didn’t force him to work when he was unfit to, unliike some Governments I could name). We’ve covered Cat’s triumphant rejuvenation as a bearded folk singer thinking mystical thoughts elsewhere on this site (see review no 35 and 41), but it’s worth filling you in a bit more about his sudden collapse and the impact this had on his career.
TB wasn’t a killer in the sense it had been in the Victorian era and it’s all but gone today thabnk goodness, but 50 years ago it was still serious and back then not many pop stars came back from suffering such a serious illness back in the 1960s. An infection of the lungs, often caused when the sufferer is feeling unwell and has been pushing himself too hard, it drew a line across Cat’s career just at the point when he may have been looking for a way out of it anyway. In 1967 Cat was seventeen and cool and he knew it. He was singing cute songs about all sorts of mad subjects, with an ear for catchy orchestral arrangements and was one of the perfedct poster boys for the lighter side of the summer of love, even with a few surprising songs about workaholics and guns in the mixture that didn’t really fit the mood of the times but still sold well thanks to their dazzling pop hooks and perfect sonic quality that made them stand out from the crowd even amongst such hallowed surroundings. In 1968 the world was darker, Vietnam and Korea were in full swing and the hip youngsters knew that the world that had seemed to offer them so much was actually a drak and angry world, full of wrongs that needed righting but with such towering figuresd in power that change seemed even more unlikely than it had pre-1967. Whether because Cat sensed this too or whether it really was the illness already growing inside him, ‘New Masters’ is a much darker world than ‘Matthew and Son’ had been. On that record, things do spring out of the closet door to scare us, but they can be cured by those that we love, the beauty in life or simply the act of dancing. Here you can search all your life for the meaning of life only to find the answer you’ve out for hypnotising you into submission (‘Moonstone’), find your higher purpose overtaken by luxury and every possible nindulgence you could imagine (‘I love Them All’, on the surface a very hippie song about loving everyone – until you find its a song about the narrator regretting being repeatedly unfaithful to his girlfriend) and love that used to be flowing everywhere is in short supply (most famously ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’ but also on ‘Smash Your Heart’ and ‘The Blackness Of The Night’. Suddenly, Cat’s cute quirky subjects and the parping distinctive orchestral arrangements don’t sound as cute and innocent anymore.
‘New Masters’ isn’t as innocent as first album ‘Matthew and Son’ and it isn’t as deep and meaningful as the albums to come which, together with it’s poor sales, means this poor album often gets overlooked by Cat’s fans. It was in fact his worst-selling album until right near the end, when 1978’s ‘Back To Earth’ unfairly disappeared from shops almost as soon as it arrived, and if anyone ever writes about it now it’s in the context of how different it is compared to what’s to come.That’s cruel returns for an album that, more than any other, sees Cat growing up before our ears and offers a higher than usual return of strong songs, moody atmopshere and real insight into what’s going on inside the head of one of our most under-rated writers. Last issue we listed the difference between this album and successor ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ as one of the biggest 10 stylistic leaps in the AAA canon and its true: this album is epic, orchestral, grand, glossy and confident while its successor is deep, quiet, brooding and anxious; the perfect aural depiction of what an illness can change in a person’s outlook. In truth we could also have listed the gap between this album and it’s sweet and innocent if catchy predecessor ‘Matthew and Son’, one where there’s nothing bad lurking inthe shadows and where everything is fab and groovy, a fact which rather leaves this album a unique listening experience, lost in a world of it’s own making. It’s also worth remembering that Cat was only 18 when this album came out: if there was a singer around with that much talent today (and no, I don’t mean Jutsin Bieber) we’d be endlessly hearing bright things said about their future; Cat was unlucky to be born in the middle of the biggest explosion of talented young things the world has ever seen and for his age these songs are so overwhelmingly impressive (the only AAA member younger than Cat is Lulu, two years younger still, although she didn’t write her own material until she was in her 40s).
Just have a look at that cover and that title. The name ‘New Masters’ sounds like it could have been either a sracastic take on the record bsuiness a la ‘Beatles For Sale’ or a record company completely non-plussed over how to market it. That cover too is unusual: Cat looks like the dapper young teenager about town that he always looked before this album came out, looking quite the dandy in a floral shirt and sporting rings and cuff-links (there haven’t been too many cases of cuff-links on AAA Album covers, after all!) But his expression is so moody, staring out towards the distance with a pensive look in his eyes and the lighting too is moody, espia-tinged to make him look older and wiser (‘Matthew and Son’ had tried the same tactic, actually, what with its Vicftorian-style lettering, but the very teenage smirk on Cat’s face gives the game away). This is a young man made to grow up very suddenly, a year older chronologically but so much more mentally thanks to endless tours, endless recording sessions, endless parties, endless groupies, more money in one go than his family had ever earned in their lives, etc (let’s not forget, two years before Cat was a school drop-out doing music for laughs as he worked part-time as a waiter at his parent’s restaurant – the journey between that and Top Of The Pops is about the biggest you can travel). A lesser artist than Cat would have stuck grimly to a winning formula, whatever was happening in his life and to those around him, but Cat is clever, Cat is observant and he knows that to keep his audience he has to be honest, about himself and the world around him. We will reach the zenith of that with ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ and ‘Tea For The Tillerman’, both 1970, two of the most nakedly autobiographical and honest albukms ever made , but even here at age 18 Cat is willing to change both himself and his musical style.
Sure, ‘New Masters’ doesn’t quite connect. The wacky themes of the first album are there but spread thinner, so that they sound like competing parts of Cat’s quirky psyche rather than pieces of a jigsaw that all fit together to tell a bigger story as before. ‘New Masters’ is also less consistent an enjoyable listening experience than it’s predecessor: ‘Matthew and Son’ is a fun record for the most part and the fun never stops, whether Cat’s singing about dancing, dogs, hummingbirds, workaholics or even guns. By contrast there are a few weaker tracks than usual on this album: ‘Come on Baby Shift That Log’ may have a cracking instrumental interlude and would have made for a terrific instrumental but it’s lyrics are naive, quaint and an experiment too far; ‘The Blackness of The Night’ is also an early songwriter’s mistake that appears on almost everybody’s first few albums when they are learning their craft – a promising song that repeats itself so often the listener has alrerady worked out the ending from the opening line; ‘I love Them All’ is also an uncomfortable ride into Cat’s darker psyche, at odds with every song on this album – and of this era. For one of the few times in my life I’m annoyed that the unwritten rule for the 1960s meant that artists never included their (in this case superior) singles on an album because with the addition of songs like ‘A Bad Night’ ‘It’s A Supa (Dupa) Life’ ‘Lovely City (When Do You Laugh?)’ and ‘Where Are You?’ instead of the above songs this could have been one of Cat’s strongest LPs (the B-sides aren’t bad either). Cat’s singing too is a struggle on some of the recordings here (especially period B-side ‘Image Of Hell’), a far cry from the effortless breeze of ‘Matthew and Son’ (both album and single).
But there’s plenty to love too. As wacky as Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, but every bit as deep and revealing as the crazy Diamond’s songs, this is the lighter side of the flower power era stuffed into a mixer and with the fairy-tale aspects turned on their head, to sound sinister and dark even while we laugh at them. Cat’s always been one of the more creative artsist on our list, stuffing songs with so many changes in direction they become a whirlwind ride of sound(especially in this early era), making it all the more surprising when he abandoned music altogether in the late 70s because here the art of creating is everything: middle eights in abundance, instrumental sections coming out of nowhere, clever links between choruses and verses, it’s hard to listen to anything immediately after Cat’s works because everything else sounds so, well, bare and monotonous. The string arrangements, first with long standing musical director Alan Tew and later with a slew of others, are quite unlike any other orchestral arrangements of the day (edxcepting that first album anyway), ones that really seem to understand that these are deep ‘pop’ records and that grandiose Wagnerian-style epic accompnaiments would drown the fun out of the songs. And the songs themselves can reach such heights of playfulness laced with power that it’s hard to believe Cat still really is only 18 and yet has already learnt the lessons of life at a very early age.
There’s no other explanation for ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’, the album’s most famous song about good times coming after bad, even if it had to be given away to P P Arnold to become a hit (Miss Arnold crops up a lot on this website – see various Small Faces reviews and Roger Waters’ ‘Amused To Death’). A powerful song about being hurt and yet still wanting to love, it’s perfectly arranged, growing from quiet defensive hurt to swinging love song in the blink of an eye. It may be the most perfectly realised song here about looking forward to happier times, but it’s far from the only good one: ‘Kitty’ is a swirling love song not to a person so much as a way of life when our work is done and it’s time to give your emotions release (Oasis tried the same trick with their stomping ‘Lyla’, another two-syllabled heroine with a murky past given redemption); ‘I’m Gonna Be King’ is a song about being pushed around and looking for escapism to a time when that won’t happen; ‘Ceylon City’ is a dreamy song about wondering what your old loves are up to while you’re busy slaving away (the sort of thing the Moody Blues will make their own in the 1980s).
There’s also an underlying theme of things ending and the realisation that the ‘old’ life is over. Cat may have only been 18 but he’s already realised that you can’t live your life as one endless party (well, actually, if you’re Keith Moon you can but that’s a special case). Even if he hadn’t fallen ill and had managed to promote this record enough to keep his record contract, Cat would have gone in an entirely new direction with his music from here. Time and again we hear songs about how a journey that was meant to bring joy and excitement has only brought pain and emptiness, whether that’s disguised by tales of a groupie-loving singer, an archerologist whose spent his life searching for a jewel or a kid waitingt for an apple to fall of a tree, mouth-wtering at the porspect of what it will deliver, only to find it disappointing when he finally bites into it. Cat has wanted success all his life and it came in a lightning flash, quite unlike the way he’d plotted and planned it in his bedroom – and yet, when it arrives it’s hollow and empty, full of ‘yes’ men telling you where to go and what to think but never really understanding you or your art. That’s an uncomfortable realisation for any artist – to go back to Oasis again, Noel Gallagher’s still trying to come to terms with that now in song – but for an 18 year old it must have sounded like the sky falling on your head. After all, what’s left to aspire to now, when a heaving bank account and your pictures in the paper make you guilty and nervous rather than inspired and happy.
The changes Cat makes in his music and his life – adapting a new style, becoming a Muslim, goriwng a beard – are always assumed by fansd and critics to stem from his illness and an extended stay in a hospital where the record company men have moved onto the ‘next big thing’ and all Cat has left around him are the friends and family he hasn’t seen in years. Of course that was a defining moment in his life and so it should be – Cat had the intelligence and empathy enough to realise that the success he’d craved wasn’t the only impoirtasnt thing in his life, even all of his ‘new’ friends probably told him it should be. But I think the defining moment comes earlier, right here on this second album, where all that glitters is not gold and the workload – andc even the parties – come with a pricve no one should have to pay. If you love Cat’s later works, the Teasers, Tillerman, Firecats and Catch-Bulls then the elaborate orchestral arrangements, jumpy tempos and quirky subject matters on these songs may well leave you puzzled. But if you want to know why Cat suddenly ‘got’ what was happening in thw world when others around him were getting into glam jumpsuits and building whole albums around one riff, why Cat should suddenly have changed his lifestryle and his audience in a barve move of immense proportions, why suddenly the lyrics and atmosphere became everything, then you need to listen to this album. And Decca desperately need to re-issue it, because today ‘New Masters’ is one of the hardest Cat CDs to track down and fans (perhaps even those who’ve joined the movement since Cat returned to the music world as Yusuf in 2004) need to know about this missing piece of the masterplan. Whether you also like an album that’s so important in the great man’s canon is almsot irrelevent; but I do think that, for the most part, you will.
The album kick-starts with ‘Kitty’ , a bouncy song about a workaholic narrator who gets glared at by his colleagues and peers for working as hard as he does – and yet gets glared at even more when he parties hard too. One of Cat’s early songwriting experiments in contrasts, this song is almost a battle in sound with work-filled verses battling the release of the choruses, Cat singing in both his higher and lower registers and a musical ‘argument’ between traditional rock instruments, an orchestra and an accordian. It’s a bit like ‘Father and Son’ but Cat isn’t singing about the generation gap as much as he’s singing about the sniping tendencies of people to look down on those around him – whether he’s working or pl,aying, the narrator still can’t win people over to his way of thinking. Like the Small Faces’ ‘All Or Nothing’, this narrator isn’t going to stand for half-measures. This is a man built for doing everything to extremes and that’s shown by the bouncy tempo which drives the song forward much like ‘Matthew and Son’ – only in this case the hard work comes from an inner drive, not a constutional dermand to keep punching the clock. The parties are meant to be a release – the build up between the verses and the choruses, with a bubbling bass and a tapping tambourine steam-rollered by the orchestra playing on one note, as if forcing the rest of the band into submission illustrates this superbly. Whoever Kitty is, she’s all the narrator lives for, what he dreams about when working hard and consuming his everything in his nights off, overhwleming both his and our senses with a crescendo of noise where all hell breaks loose. It should be a happy, jolly track – and Cat sings it as if it is – but already there’s a mood of caution. By the second verse the passing ‘men’ are looking down their noses because the narrator is ‘on the brink’ (of collapse, perhaps), pushing his body much further than it was ever meant to go. The ending too, where the orchestra builds up to an extreme conclusion instead of simply passing back to the quiter sound of the work-filled verse, sounds very final, like an enforced full stop rather than a pause for breath. It’s tempting to see this as Cat’s sub-conscious telling him to stop; whether you see it on those terms or simply as a fine rock song about contrasts its a pleasure to spend time in ‘Kitty’s company, a delightful sounding lady who deserved better than to have only made #20 on the hit parade.
The programming of the album that puts ‘I’m So Sleepy’ next sounds deliberate, as if this is the only future the narrator can look forward to if he keeps pushing his body too far. Cat sings this simple song about being so tired he could fall asleep anywhere in a dreamy, satisfied voice but the lyrics suggest something nastier happening. ‘In the night I can feel it creeping...creeping’ sounds to me like a man half-aware that he’s falling ill, while the lines about something in his ‘dreams...calling, soon I’m going to slip away’ sounds less like a good night’s sleep than it does a nightmare out of a horror film. ‘I won’t fight it, I’ll just write it’ sings Cat at one point –for the sake of his health, if only he had fought it. But then again from our point of view we wouldn’t have had such sweet, lovely songs as this one: tranquil one moment and terrifdying the next, the arrangement makes a good job of juggling all the swicthes in mood and David Whittaker’s orchestral accompaniment is one of the best on the album, fairy-tale like with just enough edge not to set your teeth on edge. Eevn the ending of the song can be read as either cute or scary, with the narrator ending in mid yea-e-e’ on a song that has no resoltuion: has the narrator fallen asleep mid-song or fallen prey to his demons? Another very clever song, this could easily have been annoying but Cat sings it with just the right amount of edge, his voice in a dream-world state where nothing is as it seems.
‘Northern Wind’ is one of my favourites on the album, a faux-Western song that appears to bethe narrator offering a man called Billy a word of advice about a coming storm. The song does descend into arch nonsernse by the end, with a cluttering orchestral score and backing singers that sound more like an army from the American Civil War than a pop song, it’s true, but for the first minute or so it’s a beautiful sparkling pop song pitched just right. It’s also fascinating for Cat scholars like me looking for insight into one of the most troubled times of his life. The unknown warning sounds to me like Cat’s subconscious telling him to ‘look out’ – the coming wind that’s ‘awful strong’ that’s ‘come for you and anyone whose ever helped you on’ sounds like a tired body that already knows it’s unable to fight the germs within it. Cat’s curious reply ‘I want to live, live, live and make the stars shine bright’ only makes sense if you consider this asong like ‘Kitty’ about someone who only lives for their ‘days off’ which aren’t really days off at all andthe line ‘I don’t want to fight it, Billy, because I want to go’ sounds like a final realisation of submission to an unseen force that makes those dreams sound unlikely. It’s notable too that, far from causing death and destruction, this wind simply makes it’s narrator ‘feel kind of strange’. Whether you believe that Cat was only really ill after this album’s release (when he collapsed and was diagnosed with TB) or whether he was really poorly long before that, from a lifestyle that just wouldn’t let his mind and body take rest and slow down, this is still an impressive song. Cod-Westerns are surprisngly common among AAA artists (there’s three in the CSN/Y canon alone) but ‘Northern Wind’ is one of the best, with a mood-setting harmonica giving way to an epic orchestral arrangement that really does sound as if we’ve gone on a ‘journey’. Even though we never quite get to the plot of the song (does the Northern Wind ever actually arrive? The music suggests it does, the lyrics suggest it doesn’t) and even though Cat’s strained vocal gets hammered into submission by an unsensitive mix that all but drowns him out, this is still an impressive song and especially recording, one that’s been forgotten by Cat sollowers for far too long.
‘The Laughing Apple’ has a title that almost could be a Syd Barrett song but, like the early Floyd, this sweet song also has bite. It starts with a sound that’s more like a door-bell or a nursery rhyme (its very like the start of Wings’ ‘Let ‘Em In’) with Cat promising to tell usthe story ‘of a tree, an apple tree.’ Again, though, I don’t think this song is just about fruit. I think this is a song about cold hearted managers ‘growing’ their superstars like a ‘tree’, watering them when they will bear them fruit and discarding them on the compost heap of life when they don’t. Interestingly, though, the apple ‘stars’ don’t want to be picked: the sensible ones all ‘duck’ when they’re about to be picked, despite the fact that they were bred solely to give ‘enjoyment’ to other people. In this song, Cat seems to be saying that the truly happy aren’t the rich and famous but those who are happy – the best apples, the best ‘stars’, are the ones who are ‘laughing’.Alas these laughter lines are often forced, because the apples will simply be discarded if they’re ‘ever caught wearing a frown’. Like The Hollies on ‘Clown’ and various 1960-s Ray Davies songs, this is a surprisingly early piece about the downside of fame from someone who suffered from the ‘fame rollercoaster’ more than most.The song proper is another turbulent rocker, with a rasping horn that gives the song almost a soul feel and a pulsating driving tempo that rushes on even when the narrator wants to stop and think. Unfortunately, unlike ‘Kitty’ and ‘Northern Wind’ that drive doesn’t involve the listener so much as knock them backwards, making the song a gabble of words and a cacophony of noise at times. Still, as a song if not a recording this is another strong one, with the metaphor of apples perhaps stretched a bit far but then, hey, this was the 60s and most of these songwriting techniques were new back then, at least in a pop and rock context.
With such unwelcome personal changes at such a tender age, it’s perhaps no surprise that occasionally the glimpses into cat’s soul are ugly. ‘Smash Your Heart’ is a clever song that in many ways is the antithesis of ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’, with a wronged narrator swearing he’ll get revenge on the girlfriend who spurned him, whatever it takes and however long he waits. Like ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’, it’s hard to see this vengeful spirit as the same man who turned to a religion fundamentally built on peace rather than remain in a record business he saw as corrupt (and say what you will about 9/11 Islam is based on peace from the title down – terrorism or freedom fighting is the act of a few not the whole, as the recent peace movement in the Muslim community in London proves), but it’s true. Luckily for us, this is a slow-burning song of hatred in the Stephen Stills sense, attached to a tune so beautiful and so graceful and an orchestral accompaniment so haunting it hardly seems possible that the words and music came from the same man. ‘I’ll see you pay!’sings Cat, but to a flute-led backing that makes the whole thing sound sad rather than bad, pitiful and understandable rather than a madman bent on revenge. Interestingly, the really horrible-sounding part of the track isn’t Cat’s narrator’s threat to ‘smash your heart’ but the cold disdain as he vows to ‘turn and walk away’ without a second glance, as if she meant nothing to him. Of course, that isolation is just wishful thinking – just loisten to the emotion of this track where it’s clear the narrator is incapable of doing anything but return to the scene of the crime. Like Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘I Am A Rock’, this is a man so hurt by his loved one that he’s encased off his heart ad vowed never to love another soul – even though the listener can read between the lines and knows that in truth he probably feels a bit too much. Was Cat wronged in this period? Alas we’ll never know and Yusuf’ unlikely to speak about it now, but this song does make for a complement with other tortured love songs in the period like ‘Lady D’arbanville’, love matches that were always doomed to failure despite the best attempts of both parties to reconcile their differences. An intriguing song that never quite matches it’s many harmonic sections together, it’s nevertheless a moving and complex song, ably supported by a sensitive orchestral arrngement from Des Champ which seems to instinctively grasp what a subtle and fragile rather than angry song this really is.
‘Moonstone’ ends the album’s short first side with an intriguing story-song about an archeologist who goes on the voyage of a lifetime to track down the ‘moonstone’ of the title that he’s been searching for all his life. But is it really just a stone? Or the mysteries of life, that disappear the moment you think you have them within your grasp? Closer in style to the imaginative narratives of ‘Matthew and Son’, with almsot a Tin Pan Alley patter in the opening section and a wham-bam chorus, ‘Moonstone’ is nevertheless also open to a deeper interpretation based on what we know of Cat’s life at the time. The moonstone sounds to me – and again this is only conjecture, like much of this site – like fame or drugs, with Cat the archesologist whose spent his whole life yearning for it, only to find the happiness it gives him fleeting and hypnotic (it’s no coincidence that the song ends with the dfiscomforting words ‘and it started to disappear...’) The moonstone offers a sudden pleasing but fleeting moment the narrator ‘just has to see it again’ and yet its not what we really should be searching for in life because it never offers any answers and it disappears before it can really be understood . No wonder Cat starts this song by telling us that ‘he is not insane’ – the effect this mysterious gem has both on the narrator and the music makes us giddy, what with crashing cymbals and sweeping violins and the like. Goodness knows what the ‘a-bu-ray’ chorus means, by the way, which is not one of Cat’s more inspiraing middle eights (especially given his weak double-tracked voice) but there’s something about ‘Moonstone’ that, like the gem in the title, keeps us coming back for more.
The second side begins with ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’, a song that managhes toi cut deeper and sound more honest and less metaphorical than any other track here. There’s a reason this song has so much universal appeal it’s become one of Cat’s most covered songs, full of pain and suffering but also hope and this quietly troubled and haunted original remains the best version I’ve heard. Cat might not be the world’s greatest vocalist, particularly in these early years, but his creaking fragile voice offers up far more emotion than the more famous cover versions, PP Arnold’s earnest delivery and Rod Stewart’s sleepwalking monologue. Cat sounds more doubtful than either of them, doubly sure that a new relationship will end in tears simply because, well, they always do – but also curious enough to know what will happen with a new partner to go along for the ride, half-reluctantly. The opening is gorgeous, with an uncredited guitarist (possibly cat himself, though it doesn’t sound much like his normal work) offering a simple, melancholy mood before the track proper ‘cuts’ in, plunging the narrator in a world of love much bigger than his own lonely isolated world. The perfect musical depiction of isolation flowering into real passion and interest is matched by a set of words that, while simple, are pretty good at summing up the huge chasms of emotion felt in relationships in brief, simple, compact verses. The one part of the song that falls down for me is the chorus: this is the biggest, boldest, catchiest part of the song and yet the narrator is at his most awkward and angry here, determined that ‘the first cut ois the deepest’ and he’ll never get over it and singing about his old love when he should be singing about his new one. The clumsy rhyme of ‘worst’ and ‘first’ also sounds odd here, better suited to poetry than songs where the sound of words is everything. Still, even with this fault the song is a strong one, personal enough to sound genuine and moving and universal enough to appeal to a whole new audience less interested in laughing apples and shifting logs. If only Cat had been well enough to promote his own version he might well have had the biggest hit of his career – but then again, perhaps without suffering the mixed emotions heard in this song he might never have fallen ill in the first place.
‘I’m Gonna Be King’ is more growly simmering anger matched to hopeful optimism, with Cat singing in a much deeper register than normal. He’s not quite grown into this ‘new’ voice yet, which will suit him well come the time of ‘Mona Bone Jakon’, but even with such a struggle this song still manages to impress. ‘I’ve been pushed around, made to clook a clown’ starts the song, which is clearly aimed squarely at the managers picking up apples discriminately from trees. And yet it’s the next line, the one where ‘it is time for me to start to grow’ that resonates loudest (as well as the later line ‘it is time for me to show what I can be’). This is Cat caught halfway between his ‘old’ and ‘new’ selves, giving us a pointless silly chorus about ‘being king’ with his bride as ‘Queen’ set against the relaities that only you can shape your future and make yourself happy. The effect is like hearing someone thinking out loud, determined not to make the same mistakes and yet making them all the same. I’ll forgive Cat for now, though, because the melody that accompanies this set of lyrics is one of his best, rounded and complete in true Paul McCartney style and yet full of such believable stuttering and worrying like the best Lennon lyric. Cat really did become ‘king’ of this sort of open-hearted, revealing compositional style and even though this is an early stab at that direction, not yet delivered with as muchpanache and sophistication as used later, it’s still an important and moving song, a crucial stepping stone on the path to ‘Mona Bone’ and ‘Tillerman’. Once again, full marks to Des Champ whose melodic and understated accompaniment is just what this hesitant and hopeful song needs and who proves he really was the best of Cat’s many colleagues in this period.
‘Ceylon City’ is one of this album’s rare stabs at something wider than just the narrator and his life. On first hearing, it’s a happy quirky song about escapism, full of quick-witted rhymes and a breezy melody that’s infectious, about a far-away town the narrator knows (Ceylon, which is actually a country not a ‘city’, was part of the British Empire before changing its name to Sri Lanka and becoming independent in 1972, some four years after this album’s release), complete with clichéd wistful accordion to start us off. However, on closer inspection there are sharks in the water: listen out for both the moody links between the verses (played on a bass that sounds like it’s on say-release from a horror film set) and the hint at what the ‘brother’ on the song is up to. First he’s hiding (‘he’s nowhere!’) and later on he’s serving (presumably just the food that his ‘momma’s just served, but could it be he’s a draft-dodger forced to serve in the army? Cat sings ‘my brother will be fighting...’ on the fade too which could point to either a family feud or something more sinister). Cat did have a brother but no sister, so it’s likely that these lines are make-believe rather than autobiographical – and as far as I know he never toured or recorded in Ceylon and certainly wasn’t born there as he sings in the song (although he might well have had a holiday there) – and they’re rattled off in a vocal caught somewhere between fun and sarcasm. A feast for the ears, there’s so much going on in this song it’s hard to tell where to look next. Full marks to the un-credited harmony singer (at least, it doesn’t sound like Cat double-tracked) who does a good job of making this song sound more like energetic and hungry Merseybeat than anything Cat’s recorded up to this point. A bit of fun, with a front that might well be hiding a less innocent facade, this is a delightful pop song with a great tune and the performers at the top of their game.
From hereon in the album is less satisfying, taking the themes hinted at so far and whacking the listener overhead with them. ‘Blackness Of The Night’ is a clever acoustic song, similar to those Cat will go on to write in the 1970s, but without their honesty or depth. As first verses go this is a good beginning: taking a walk in the dark, the fugitive narrator is realising that his life is not what he thought it was and he’s on the run, afraid of everybody. However, the second verse ties the song too firmly to being anti-war (Cat even goes a bit Scottish here, as if he’s been watching too many Braveheart-type films about independence) and to top it all there’s a cheesy organ solo that’s as crass and calculated as anything in Cat’s canon. The biggest mistake of all is the lack of change: all we get are an instrumental and three verses that tell more or less the same story, to the same harmonic pattern. It’s a forgivable mistake for an 18 year old, though a surprising one for a man of Cat’s talents, and suggests that this is a really early song revived in desperation when the deadline for recording came round again. The whole song is meant to sound stirring, complete with a string arrangement that’s designed to capitalise on our heart strings, but the result is too lacklustre and too contrived to get our sympathies. We’ve all heard this sort of piece so many times before it’s hard to get excited about and – compared to the sumptuous textures of the rest of the record – this is deathly dull.
‘Come On Baby (Shift That Log)’ suffers from the opposite problem. Far from being unadventurous, this song tries to pull off so many tricks at once you want to yell at Cat to slow down. A chirpy acoustic riff gives way to some Indian-style percussion and a slow-burning groove that crawls to a halt in places before being split wide open in the instrumental middle section by some blistering horns that seem to have wandered out of some Stax recording session. The two don’t comfortably sit together, but then that’s meant to be the point: this is a song about being uncomfortable, about the growing tension between partners. Unfortunately for Cat much of his strong opening lyrical observations about the spark of interest in lovers giving way to mundane tasks, until making love is slotted in between moving logs and washing dogs as a chore, is ruined by a low and plodding chorus that makes these inanities comical rather than emotional. I’d love to have heard the backing track for this session – something that sadly seems to be out of fashion now for CD re-issues but used to be the highlights of archive releases for a time, certainly among the Moody Blues re-issues – because it sounds like a cracking one, with measured breaks between sudden excitement and lethargy. Alas, with some of the most complicated lyrics on the album added on top there’s simply too much here to take in, even on repeated listening. Cat shelved an earlier arrangement of this song because he was unhappy with it, starting all over again during one of the album’s last sessions but to my ears he still hasn’t quite nailed the song yet, making it too awkward and angular, rather than surprising and exciting. Cat doesn’t tend to revive many old songs now that he’s called Yusuf, especially from these early days, but I wonder what his more experienced brain would make of this song nowadays with that bit more experience behind him. Full marks for trying, but alas ‘Shift That Log’ tries just a little too hard and until that electrifying middle section can be something of a hard slog for fans.
The album ends on a third and final uncomfortable note with ‘I Love Them All’. For years I didn’t pay this song much attention, assuming it to be a typical 1967-68 era announcement of peace and love – but actually it couldn’t be further from the truth. Cat’s narrator this time is unlikeable, quite frankly, reminiscing about the times he spent with his true love and kicking himself for not spending more time with her and making her happy – only to have a chorus full of passing groupies and the admission that ‘if they came again I would do the same again because I’m that kind of a guy’. This type of song has dated badly and its surprising to hear it from such a forward-thinking man as late as 1968, when –the Rolling Stones and possibly Gilbert O’Sullivan aside – most songwriters had left this kind of lifestyle behind long ago (in their music, at least, if not in reality). Like ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’ the effect isn’t clever or exciting – it just sounds wrong and completely out of tune with the times. A shame, because the tune for this song is particularly strong, led by a boogie woogie piano and a stab of percussion that really highlights the song’s infectious groove and goodtime feel. Again, I’d love to hear the backing track without the words because the musicians sound like they were really on it that day.
Ah well, even with the poor ending ‘New Masters’ is still an album to savour. Whether you’re a Cat fan looking for clues towards his later work, a lover of infectious pop singles circa 1968 or someone in need of something deeper than the usual rock bands-with-orchestras fair this album should be your cup of tea. ‘New Masters’ was the first of Cat’s albums I found and whilst it’s not as deep or weirdly as accessible as what’s to come I can still see what I heard in the album to make me reach out to all the other albums to follow (and one before it). A dazzling ride through some quirky subject matters, it’s all as deep or as shallow as you want it to be, all held together by one of the hardest working (and hardest partying) 18 year olds on the planet. If we had Cat around now I’d fear for his sanity, of having too much fame too young and losing that sparkle of genius that made his songs so loved by so many people. Cat didn’t have an easy journey getting to where he wanted to go, with a history full of illness and rows with record companies and doubts over his religion and spiritual beliefs. But the fact that an 18 year old seduced by parties and the glittering lights of fame should even be thinking of spiritual matters says much for the make-up of one of our greatest musical lights. Yusuf seems to have gone quiet recently, since the release of a so-so comeback and a much superior follow-up that nobody but me seems to have bought. If he was to disappear again that would be a terrible shame because cat’s personal journey from a young bright teenager to a worldy-wise figure is one of the most fascinating stories of all. The collapse from TB and fall from grace on the charts have broken so many promising young talents, even in an era less full of brilliance than it was back then, but as we’ve seen already on this album cat was made of stronger talents than most of the fading wonders around him that year.
A NOW COMPLETE LIST
OF CAT STEVENS ARTICLES TO READ AT ALAN’S ALBUM ARCHIVES:
'Matthew and Son' (1967) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/cat-stevens-matthew-and-son-1967.html