Monday, 14 January 2013
Dear all, there’s not much to add to last week’s lengthy introduction except to say a big thankyou to Dave Emlen and his excellent site ‘Kinda Kinks’ which has brought us a record amount of traffic in the past seven days. In fact last Tuesday is the record for our site(s) - 600 visitors in a single day! – and January is already by far our most successful month in the four and a half years this site has been running, even though we’re not halfway through it yet! A big ‘hello’ to all of you who have joined our site in the past week and for all of you who have kindly taken the time to post comments on our site. I look forward to chatting with you all again soon! We are due to past 42,000 hits before our next post by the way – an astonishing figure considering our small budget and the fact that 3/4s of those hits came in 2012 alone!
Meantime, if you like our work then please nominate us for a ‘social media’ Shorty Award! We posted a longer article about this last week if you want to read more (including our interviews from last year) – but if you want to vote for us then please click here: http://shortyawards.com/alansarchives?category=blogger
I also have two book reviews to add, both of them entirely different (and both of which will also be copied onto our ‘AAA Book special’ for future reference): Pete Townshend’s autobiography ‘Who I Am’ and Neil Young’s book ‘Raging Heavy Peace’.
Pete’s book should have been titled ‘Who Am I?’ rather than ‘Who I Am’ because even after reading the whole of it and knowing his Who and solo work backwards I still don’t know. All of Pete Townshend’s songs have been about identity, each of them extensions of the very first Who single ‘I Can’t Explain’ and it speaks volumes that this book was several decades in the making (Pete starting the work during his years as an editor at book publishers Faber in the early 80s) because you get the sense that there’s still more Pete wanted to tell us. Contemporary reviews have slammed the book for being too self-absorbed and empty, but I actually dispute that: Pete is always honest, at least in his dealings with himself if not always other people and if you’re a fan you’ll want to know all the details about everything in Pete’s life – chances are there’s more extra-curricular projects going on (from bookshops, recording studios and music that never saw the light of the day) than you’d think. Pete is also a very good companion, writing from the heart and admitting his mistakes while also trying to put his side of events in Who life across – the book really skips along from chapter to chapter as you’d expect such an erudite lyricist to do. The problems for me are that Pete doesn’t spend enough time talking about his songs; taking its cue from Keith Richards this book is more a list of the drug abuse and rehab visits than it is a detailed take on when, how and why Pete wrote what he did. Despite being quite a large book there also isn’t as much detail as I’d like – and a curse on the editors for asking Pete to trim the manuscript down to size (as if a generation brought up on double disc Who rock operas want to see their hero cut down to size!) Sadly, too, there’s not as many untold stories in this book as in some others – The Who wore their hearts on their sleeves so often that there’s less to find in this book than in, say, Dave Davies’ or Brian Wilson’s (as much as the latter book can be believed anyway). However, I enjoyed Pete’s book a lot more than all the nagging reviewers seemed to and there are some excellent passages on the band’s early years (when an anxious Pete reveals that he was far more immature than his school friends, John Entwistle included) and on the deaths of Keith and John. Pete is open too about the ‘paedophile’ story that broke a few years back; true fans like me have always said that Pete was only doing ‘research’ for his art and to help come to terms with his own confused childhood, but it’s nice to hear Pete break his silence on the matter when he could so easily just have skipped what must have been a hard chapter to write. If you’re a fan you won’t learn much you didn’t already know, but this is still one of the better Who books around and I for one would love to see a second volume one day with a more detailed look at Pete’s music and early career. Overall rating – 7/10
Neil’s book is as curious and mercurial as the artist himself. The singer admits early on that he’s writing this book not in some big outpouring of emotion but in-scattered half hours between other events in his life and admits too that this book was only written because for the first time in about 50 years there was no great wealth of music trying to push through his sub-conscious (something thankfully healed by the double CD set ‘Psychedelic Pill’ last year, although to be honest that album – like this book – needs a good editor). The chapters come in scattershot form depending on whatever is on Neil’s mind that day, switching quickly from his early years to career highlights to the present day in the same way that his music veers from electric to acoustic seemingly overnight. This actually isn’t as irritating as that might sound (as long as you’re not actually trying to look anything up!) and Neil is a likeable reading companion, much warmer and open than you’d probably expect from the years of no-media and being ‘cushioned’ by his close business pals. In fact there’s more about Neil’s family, friends and colleagues than there this about himself, which is a lovely touch but slightly grating as all Neil can add about his friends are potted biographies or interviews fans will already know inside-out. If nothing else it’s nice to hear Neil being open about his son Ben, born with cerebral palsy and proudly referred to as ‘Ben Young’ throughout, as if Neil can’t believe he’s related to such a strong and courageous fighter. Neil, infamously, didn’t even let his record company or band know how poorly his son was when he was born or how many hours of therapy Neil and wife Peggy spent with him, so its nice to hear Neil talking properly about his very special bond with his son. Elsewhere like so many AAA stars Neil also spends comparatively little time talking about his music: the only song that’s discussed in any detail is the legendary curio ‘Will To Love’ and the story of how that song was born seemingly in one go (when, typically, Neil should have been doing something else) is the highlight of the entire book. Had the other chapters been as good as this one then the curiously titled ‘Waging Heavy Peace’ (‘Broken Arrow’ might perhaps have been a better name as it all means the same thing) then it would have been the book of the decade – as it is Neil’s autobiography feels a little lightweight, exactly something done to fill in the time (and while Neil, sacred of inheriting dementia from his father, can still remember everything) but not definitive. My advice is to read this book alongside the ‘Shakey’ biography if you want a full-blooded and detailed account of Neil’s life and frankly the OTT ‘best music book ever’ reviews of the day are wrong, but for all its rambling nature and non-linear order this book is still of much interest to fans. Overall rating 6/10.
Right that’s enough from Jackanory – now its back to music! Meanwhile, please press the link below for our AAA news stories of the week via official AAA news feeds:
CAT STEVENS “FOREIGNER” (1973)
Foreigner Suite//The Hurt/How Many Times?/Later/100 I Dream
‘Come on now it’s the taxman calling, come on over and find yourself…’
When Cat Stevens left the music business behind to become Yusuf Islam I remember reading an interview with him that asked how someone could possibly give up an and just walk away from not just a career but art form that had been such a major part of their lives for so many decades just like that. We know now, thanks to Yusuf re-starting his career in the mid 00s that Cat found it hard and for a long time wondered whether his music was compatible with his new life (the Qur'an doesn’t forbid music as some suppose say, only making money from it or singing ‘immoral’ songs, something you could never accuse Cat Stevens of – well apart from  ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’ in 1967 anyway). However I found his answer at the time fascinating: Cat was giving up music because he thought that an obsession with a simple art form merely filled the gap until something more deeper and meaningful came along in someone’s life – and in his case it was his gradual conversion to becoming a Muslim. Ask him now and he’ll tell you that music is integral to life – that it can help us to teach without preaching, that it helps us understand how the lives of others differ from ourselves and can fill our hearts with hope and love (or hopefully something less pretentious than the way I’ve just put it).
‘Foreigner’ though is when music changed from being the saving of Cat to the obstacle that was getting in the way of his spiritual quest. It’s not that the songs weren’t flowing or that the ideas weren’t there, more that Cat was struggling to put his new discoveries in terms that his audience would understand when they were just looking for another  ‘Morning has Broken’ and  ‘Peace Train’. Cat has, in private, discovered religion. He isn’t yet sure which religion but he knows that someone is calling him to a higher power and he wants to find out more. He is also aware that his audience don’t all want to go on this particular road to find out with him, that he is better off for now keeping his songs ambiguous until he becomes sure of what this path is. This is, however, a problem. Cat has, till now, made a career out of writing from his heart and connecting with people, but now after that great sequence of songs released between 1970 and 1971 about re-entering the world Cat is finding humanity ugly and unfeeling. He no longer feels that connection with his audience he once had or the optimism that things will get better. Just to make him feel even more removed he is an actual exile from everyone – less glamorously and morally as a tax exile in Brazil as it happens, because his accountants have pointed out how much money he will lose to the Government, but it amounts to the same thing: the Cat Stevens of 1972/1973 wasn’t spending a lot of time around people. Suddenly he’s the foreigner in a land of locals, feeling left out, abandoned, lost.
The reason Cat feels so removed from the world as that this is the first categorical moment when he knows that there is a deeper world out there. Ever since he nearly died in 1968 and arguably before that Cat has been searching for something to make his life complete. So far Cat has dabbled in lots of things – astrology, Buddhism, Christianity, romance – without ever really finding something big enough to fill the hole he is looking for. And then his brother David sends him for his birthday a copy of the Qu’ran. This is not yet, however, the life-changing moment it would seem: the Muslim text is merely one of many spiritual and religious hats Cat tries on for size in this period and it won’t be for another couple of years yet that Stevens truly makes the religion his life. However there’s evidence, from interviews and song lyrics, that he starts to hear something calling to him in this period, something bigger than he is, something he wants to explore further even if he isn’t quite sure what direction it will take him yet. Cat feels the tug of what he believes is God talking to him, but he isn’t yet speaking the same language or convinced that he is hearing anything at all. Even so, it’s a game-changer, the moment that making music becomes a distraction from his ‘true’ path rather than a duty to fulfil.
While every Cat Stevens album finds the singer ‘on the road to find out’ to some extent, its ‘Foreigner’ where that spiritual search becomes a crusade. Of all Cat Stevens’ record ‘Foreigner’ is the one that finds Cat at his most confused and the album that is most clearly crying out for some form of deliverance, a guide to help him overcome everything in his life and one where even the music that he used to use to define him has significantly altered. Cat found other sources in which to pour his spiritual soul once he discovered Islam and arguably needed music less and less as he became more and more sure of himself and the decision he made; ‘Foreigner’ however finds him dipping a first toe into these religious waters and trying to work out the direction to take while lost in a new, bold, daring adventure of his own making. ‘Foreigner’ is in essence an album that, from its title down, is the start of Cat’s journey away from superstardom and ‘spokesperson for a generation’ acoustic feel in search for something more spiritually fulfilling, sitting on the sidelines and on the outside looking in.
It’s an album so different in style and substance to the albums that came before it that it’s split fans right down the middle ever since its release in 1973, arguably throwing out triplets along with the bath water in its desire to be always going somewhere new and unknown. To some ‘Foreigner’ is a hard album to take, a very mid 1970s self-indulgent record full of prog-rock suites, r and b posing and hardly anything in common with the Cat Stevens sound of the past (until the last gorgeous song ‘100 I Dream’ at least). To others its one of the bravest records ever made, with the chance to hear a seemingly never-ending song where Cat really bears his soul and for the most part shies away from trying to educate his audience about how to live their lives and to talk more about himself. Certainly ‘Foreigner’ is not an album built for easy listening, despite having even more of a crystal clear sheen than normal, but an inner conversation that it feels like we fans have accidentally overheard and certainly wouldn’t be my recommendation for a first purchase if you’re new to the man’s work. The biggest difference musically is that Cat’s growing realisation that religion is his way forward means that he struggles to contain everything in a three minute pop song. Instead Cat changes how he works, delivering tense lengthy epics, brief snippets that barely get going and complex but compact wordy songs. My view, as ever, is straight down the middle: I applaud this album greatly for taking Cat out of his comfort zone and for the occasional development that really sounds as if Cat is going somewhere exciting and new; but for the most part this is a ‘teasing’ album, a stepping stone towards new directions because Cat knows he has to change – but one where he doesn’t yet know what he’s changed to. In these pre-specific-religion days music is still the closest thing Cat had found to a spiritual balm, even if he’s already begun to doubt the worth of his own muse and is desperate to find something if not better than at least new. Often this album is biting off more than it can chew, without the bite-sized nuggets of previous LPs, but then that’s also the point: Cat has just stared into the abyss and knows a bit more now about the generals if not the specifics of where his life is heading – by showing that he too is maybe biting off more than he can chew he can carry on being honest in his music, even if it ends up overwhelming us as much as his new situation is overwhelming him. At times, as on the title suite, it’s just too much. On others, such as ‘Later’, Cat is barely trying. On songs like ‘The Hurt’ and ‘How Many Times?’ Cat is just being grumpy but without the inherent musicality to make even his bad moods interesting. And then there’s ‘100 I Dream’, the moment when this album finally comes together and Cat delivers one of his true masterpieces that no one else could possibly have written just at the point when you are thinking of giving up on him.
This album will have big repercussions for the rest of Cat’s career, scaring so many people away. ‘Tillerman’ and ‘Teaser’ were albums that perfectly encapsulated the hopes and fears of their time and generation, with this album’s predecessor ‘Catch-Bull At Four’ making the first small moves away from this lucrative formula, but ‘Foreigner’ is arguably the first Cat album that feels out of time with the period and sadly cat will never again regain the audience he loses here. The sad fact is that Cat has written himself out on the subjects of peace and kindness, he’s a while out of hospital bed now with the thrill of simply being alive again wearing off and he is quickly realising that if he doesn’t forcibly end repeating himself straight away he’ll simply end up in a musical straight-jacket for the rest of this life. Even Cat himself looks different, with a more subdued forked beard on the album cover instead of the full-beard look he’d sported since 1970 (it doesn’t last long as his ‘new look’ but it’s significant that it made the front cover). The other key feature of the packaging which I love is the contrast between the back cover (an exotic tropical beach, marked by a hammock and drinks table, everything you would imagine) and the insert (a polar bear, sketched by Cat himself, and clearly the opposite of everything else the record is trying to tell us). Cat isn’t in exile so much as he’s lost, searching for a direction and the polar bear’s difficulty in adjusting to tropical heat is surely a metaphor for his Western, London-via-Greece upbringing and musical superstardom that couldn’t have been more of a contrast with the life he wanted to swap it for: a dedicated scholarly religious follower.
The biggest change from a fan’s point of view, however, is the overall sound of the album, which swaps the traditional acoustic guitar duets of Cat and Alun Davies for a more R and B soul sound, all rattling power drums, female choirs and synthesisers instead of pianos. In contrast to ‘Mona’ ‘Tillerman’ and ‘teaser’, which are made to sound big by doing very little, ‘Foreigner’ somehow manages to sound small despite doing lots and filling every available note with sound. Cat admitted in interviews of the time that his first musical ‘love’ (away from Leonard Bernstein) had been this sort of soul sound but that somehow he’d found his writing going down a different path in order to please pop fans of the mid 1960s; looking for a new direction after becoming bored with the old one Cat raided his record collection and realised that he’d never really had a go at soul. To be honest he still hasn’t, as by the time this album made into the record ing studio it has been diluted to an odd gospel-blues hybrid only no one has told Cat this as he tries to have a go at soul hollering anyway. This is sa shame because Cat’s always been an emotional performer and arguably he could have gotten away with this had his even bigger batch of session musicians been alongside him. Had Cat continued with the genre he might well have become a soul singer of some note (he even looks like one on the front cover of the record, where his face is in black and white and taken in the shadows), but you can’t learn a new skill overnight and for the most part Cat is trying to sound like, say, Stevie Wonder rather than becoming a Stevie Wonder-influenced Cat Stevens. Sometimes it works though: parts of ‘Foreigner’ are genuinely exciting if you come to it with no prior knowledge of what a ‘Cat Stevens’ album should sound like and there are fleeting moments in the title suite where it sounds as if it has all come together. However like the ‘foreigner’ of the album title Cat hasn’t been in this ‘world’ long enough to let the genre infiltrate his writing and so he ends up sounding like a skilled copyCat rather than an inventive pioneer. Perhaps most curiously (given how similar much of the sound is to his old records after all) Cat also dispenses with the services of producer Paul Samwell-Smith for the first time since moving to Island and records the album himself (Paul clearly didn’t take this personally as he rejoins Cat for every other album until the end in 1978, making this the only ‘classic’ studio Cat album he didn’t have a hand in). Perhaps it’s simply that Cat feels so much on his mind that he doesn’t want a middle man to interpret for him – or perhaps he’s afraid that a middle man would simply point out what we’ve just expressed in the paragraph above? Or maybe Cat really was striving for a whole new sound and lost out by the end. ‘Foreigner’, if nothing else, shows what a steady hand Samwell-Smith had at the tiller: this album sounds as if it needs someone certain to get that extra 10% out of it, whether in the editing suite or the control booth as the performances aren’t quite as sharp as before. Maybe, though, Cat might have been better getting a genuine soul producer to take part?
It is easy to laugh at Cat calling himself an exile when by and large that was self-made through money – what we would nowadays refer to as being ‘so offshore’ and asave a few quid is hardly the most spiritual thing to do. This isn’t your average tax exile though: Cat’s really big point with the British Government was that he was being taxed even on money that he had donated to charity and that had done a lot of good around the world. Cat figured that rather than ‘waste’ money on the taxman going into the pockets of such ‘important’ things as the upkeep of Queen Elizabeth II’s forty-two palaces and fuelling the borderline legal antics of her dodgy offspring he may as well live out in the world and spend his money more wisely that way. He centred on Brazil for reasons of sunshine and because it had a really cooking music scene, with Ginger Baker down the road from his adopted house and a load of other musical tax exiles dotted around. However Cat perhaps didn’t count on feeling quite as isolated as he became, cut off from what he was used to for the first time since 1969. Home is a big deal on Cat’s albums: his next two albums both have wistful songs with ‘Home’ in the title ( ‘Home In The Sky’ and  ‘Home’ itself) and past songs have made it clear that homes are more than bricks-and-mortar: it is where Cat feels safe, able to be himself, a place to think away from the glare of the spotlight. This I think is why he feels quite so cut-off during this album: once the ‘holiday’ feel of the move wore off it must have hit him hard and it won’t be long till he comes back home (celebrated with a return to his old London pad with its ‘red bedroom’ seen on the cover of ‘Izitso?’) For now though Cat is an outcast, an outsider, a foreigner if you will and he’s to some extent ‘homeless’ and at the time it must have seemed like the real end of a chapter for Cat. That is a real problem – not just for Cat feeling lonely in 1972/73 but because, perhaps more than any other writer, Cat needs to see people to write about them, to live amongst them and see the world through their eyes. All he has for this album are his own and for now he’s lost his confidence about telling us about his own life, unable to work out quite what to make of it yet.
You’d expect that Cat would have recorded his album in Brazil, absorbing the climate and capturing it on tape the same way that Paul Simon did with ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ in 1990, but this was in the days before there was a studio in every country and instead Cat chose the nearest one, which in 1973 was located as far away as Jamaica. Actually, in an interesting twist, Cat took over the studios directly after the Rolling Stones recorded ‘Goat’s Head Soup’ there and like that album the move seems odd to us now: there’s almost no link between these two records and the music being recorded there on a daily basis by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and co. Reggae wasn’t that well known to the Western world in 1973 but you’d still expect to see some sign of it somewhere in these grooves after travelling all that way and being surrounded by the people who worked on those albums for a living: instead this album sounds like it was recorded in Motown-era America, with a very English brass section overdubbed later for good measure. Equally the Stones record an even more archetypically swamp rock Anglicised American record there than normal – perhaps absence from a country makes the heart grow fonder for it?
Cat also had to leave girlfriend Linda Lewis at home. The singer had by now become more of a steady item with Cat after a brief dalliance with Carly Simon and though she’s been in Cat’s periphery since 1970 this is, I think, the first album properly written for her. ‘Foreigner Suite’ is one of the oddest AAA love songs of them all though, without the passion of  ‘Lady D’arbanville’ or  ‘Angelsea’. Cat keeps changing his mind for one thing, wrestling with his conscience as to whether he can morally leave his new girlfriend halfway across the world and alternating between missing her and getting used to life without her. If Cat’s career is, as we’ve had fun putting together in our essay, a series of paths and ‘roads to find out’ then this is the track that finds Cat changing his mind about which one to drive down, committing and then removing himself. Though he ends the eighteen minute opus with an outpouring of love, notably recycled in 2006 as a full-on love song  ‘Heaven/Where True Love Goes’), he takes the long way round getting there and doesn’t sound entirely sure even then (there’s an alternative reading that Cat isn’t singing about a girl at all but God – more on that later). ‘The Hurt’ is a worry too: whether inspired by leaving Linda behind, still hurt by losing Patti D’arbanville (or both) it is the most aggrieved we’ve heard Cat outside  ‘Bitterblue’, only realising too late how much a person meant to him. ‘Later’ meanwhile is an oddly lusty track, Cat dreaming of his lover’s body in her absence and winking at us at home about what he’s going to do as soon as he gets off-mike (though not quite as naughty as  ‘Mona Bone Jakon’, the fact we’re meant to be in on the joke this time makes it so different to Cat’s usual style it feels it comes out of left-field, like so much of this album). This isn’t, then, an album about God – not yet – but an album about love in all its different facets, from someone so far away from home that they are just waiting for a postcard or the phone to ring, desperate for any crumb of affection in their lonely life.
Overall, then, ‘Foreigner’ is an album for fans who want to understand what makes Cat Stevens tick and are particularly intrigued about the life changes he went through circa 1972-73. It’s not an album for casual fans or those who want to hear hit songs and empty repetitive rockers and ballads and it’s not even particularly high on the list of ‘greatest Cat Stevens albums’, although ‘Foreigner’ is not without its good points. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect about this album is that Cat won’t make good on the promises made on this album (especially on ‘Later’) to tell us about his new life and the changes going on inside him; instead it’ll be kept a secret as Cat distances himself from his music and quietly retires in 1978. Although Cat’s albums after this all have their moments (and the next, ‘Buddha and the Chocolate Box’ returns to his very best) you somehow get the impression that this musical career is no longer the be all and end all of Cat’s life it once was and only in 2006 (when Cat came out of retirement as ‘Yusuf’ on ‘An Other Cup’) do we get the ‘end’ part of the story posed on ‘Foreigner’. Alas by then it’s almost too late: by now the religious conversion is no longer an exciting bold spiritual journey but a life that’s been lived for nearly thirty years and is definitely the sound of an older man looking back alarmed on the folly of his youth rather than an artist really getting to grips with the changes going on inside him. Ultimately, perhaps, the demands made by this album weren’t worth the struggle in the end; the fans got scared away, critics began to sneer and the momentum built up over the past few years where Cat seemed to be the perfect writer for his times began to fade away. By the next year (and ‘Buddha’) Cat is back with his old producer, his old backing band, his old English studios and his ‘old’ style and it’s as if ‘Foreigner’ never happened; which is a tragedy because for all its faults ‘Foreigner’ is clearly an album from the heart and one that does a pretty good job at getting across the feeling of major changes in Cat’s life, even if it doesn’t quite pin itself down as to what changes those are. ‘Foreigner’ should have been the start of a whole new lifestyle, Cat emigrating finally to a new land and embracing all of the nuances of a new culture – in the end it turned out to be just an extended holiday. But you know what they say, a change is as good as a rest and perhaps its ‘Foreigner’ that we owe the next great run of albums to, for without this album Cat might simply have repeated his successful formula to extinction. And in the long run that would have been a far worse crime that releasing one eccentric, genre-moulding, patchy album like ‘Foreigner’.
 ‘The Foreigner Suite’ is undoubtedly a song close to its author’s heart. The passion Cat puts into his vocal and the length he went to record and re-record it in several complex edited sections shows how badly he wanted to get it right and to boot Cat also personally asked that a section of it (around 12-15 minutes in) was added to his first post-career ‘best of’ CD (not to mention Cat recycling one of the melodies for a song on his 2006 comeback). However, the trouble with this epic rock suite is that this song is so personal we listeners feel like ‘foreigners’ in this land, unable to translate all the little messages in the work and unsure about the final destination. On first glance it’s a love song: Cat is pouring his heart out to someone (Linda Lewis?) that its taken him a long time to be sure but he is ready now to pursue them after a series of nightmares and living through their absence. This is bigger than just a love song though: there’s a whole middle about what it means to be ‘free’ and how easy it is for man to get distracted off his true path thanks to wealth. My guess is that this song is also Cat the spiritual seeker finally realising that God is knocking on his door and wondering whether to ignore it and hide the curtains or to embrace it and let him in. This is why this song has to be so long and so epic: because it matters so much, the decision on which the rest of cat’s life will depend. He awakens from a nightmare and realises that his mind reaches out to someone ‘over to that sunnyside road’ which is surely a metaphor for Heaven (a point made much clearer on the re-make  actually called ‘heaven’). He is worried to ‘face up to the light’ but has really turned in this direction, embracing the ‘freedom calling’ that allows him to ‘find myself’ while there’s ‘only one freedom for you’. By the end of the song Cat has lost his doubts and gort his gospel shouting out of his system: he doesn’t need to tell the world of his conversion and he’s not even sure what that is yet; he just needs someone to take his hand and lead him there. By the end the two strands of the song have become one, Cat reaching out to a girl because ‘heaven must have programmed you’ – he at last feels after much soul-searching that this was a path he was fated to take. Even so, the genius of ‘Foreigner Suite’ and simultaneously the most frustrating thing about it is that it is a song we’re not meant to understand, something that makes it not just open to even more interpretation than usual but is also about a discovery that cannot be put into words just yet. On paper the idea of cat bearing his soul across an entire side of vinyl without restriction should be brilliant, but somehow the end result is cold and distant for all the free-form shouting and passion.
All that said, there’s some lovely scenery here in the moments between the realisations: despite the lengthy running time this is the closest we get to hearing Cat at his most basic and raw, aping the r and b sounds of his childhood. The way the music builds up layer by layer is classic Cat too, the singer unsure of his journey ands the song unsure of its chords or melody as it keeps switching gears before gradually getting to grips with where he’s headed and why. The best part of this song are the points where cat shuts up and lets his band play: the groovy jazz shuffle around the two minute mark where Cat’s synth playing, Jean Roussel’s boogie piano and Gerry Conway’s cymbal-heavy rocking hit each other head on; the moment 3:45 in when Cat has built up to an emotional climax and the musicians all keep going, rattling into an impressive improvised jam session is especially thrilling, the tempo building up to a real climax before it slides sideways, the horns and strings superbly arranged by Jean join in and fight the dark minor key piano chords that try to drag them down while Phil Upchurch digs out a wah-wah pedal for his guitar; the surprisingly funky six minute mark that features a riff being thrown between synths and piano like a pass-the-parcel that’s radioactive; finally the rocking groove across the lengthy fadeout that plays the main tune with a real groove and which actually sounds better without the lyrics Throughout Gerry Conway (later part of both Jethro Tull and Fairport Convention) is a heavy presence in the mix and ‘sneezes’ his way all through the song, with a tricky hi-hat shuffle that sounds more like jazz than rock and roll. Goodness only knows why Cat replaces him for the second half of the song, where the drumming by Bernard Purdie isn’t quite as alive or in-the-moment. Cat’s regular sideman Jean Roussel is along for the ride too, adding some distinctive synthesised chirping to go alongside Cat’s piano playing although intriguingly he also plays a bass part. I’m less keen on the female choir who crop up near the end (turning this song slightly too far into ‘gospel’, when it should be ‘soul’) and it’s sad Alun davies couldn’t make the trip to Jamaica as the album badly misses him. Overall, though, you only have to glance at the sheer amount of changes in personnel in the vinyl or CD booklet to realise just how much effort has gone into making this track – and how impressively joined together musically it all is, each quarter of the track segueing effortlessly into the next. . If the suite works at all – and it sort of does, without being the masterpiece it tries to be – then it is because of this tight band who all play out of their skins here on a track that must have been hell to record (and edit – let’s hear it for the engineer John Middleton!)
The musician credits suggest that this is an eight part suite but in reality it’s more like four: we start off with the narrator struggling to work out what’s going on in his life and trying to translate his ‘dreams’ before finally bursting forth with joy at the realisation that he’s on the right path (‘over to that sunnyside road’; I could write a whole essay on the metaphors inherent in that sentence (Heaven? Facing North where the sun is?) but I’m willing to bet its something more simple, like the name of Cat’s new address in Brazil taken as a lucky metaphor. The second (approximately 5 minutes in) is more universal, a surprise return to the ‘hippie dream’ that we can all be ‘free’ if we choose to and the state of our health, bank balances and occupations can’t divide us if we all come to spiritual enlightenment in our own way. The third (about nine minutes in) is back to the personal and sounds more doubtful, the narrator describing how beautiful the new ‘love’ in his life is although it’s interesting that its sung not with conviction but with awe mixed with concern (does the narrator deserve this good change in his life?) The fourth (which starts around twelve minutes in) is probably the weakest and sounds a little forced to me, as if Cat realised his epic song needed a better ending, so he simply tacks on a slow torch ballad procession about how sure he is that this is the right part. A sudden swirling musical flourish (‘Heaven must have programmed you!’) then rounds things off, though too late for my taste (I’d rather have had this brief finale as the complete last quarter of the song).
Alas the same can’t be said for the lyrics, which do sound like four separate songs stapled together without that much to link them really. The ‘foreigner’ idea of the title isn’t really explored – it comes and goes as the narrator feels pulled towards or away from the new life opening up in front of him. The first section is a little clumsy by Cat’s standards, the words falling over themselves and struggling to develop any further than the opening ‘there are no words I can use...’, an idea already used to better effect on  ‘How Can I Tell You?’ Some of the rhymes are quite clumsy too: ‘choose’ and ‘you’, ‘night’ and ‘fright’ and ‘met’ and ‘respect’ aren’t as inspired as Cat clearly wants to sound. He has just woken up from a nightmare though so I guess he’s allowed to be a bit below par – I wonder if this is a repeat of the nightmare heard on  ‘18th Avenue’ and whether Cat has fallen back into his wild partying ways.
The second section is more intriguing, if only because it’s so different compared to Cat’s ‘usual’ work. The song pauses too often for my liking, raising and dropping the tempo before finally going full throttle but when this part of the song finally kicks in (‘You can live in the largest house...’) it’s probably the most satisfying part of the song as a whole. It starts the way you’d expect, Cat mocking those who live their lives greedily, reaching out for money and status symbols when they haven’t even started their spiritual journey. ‘well you can live in the largest house, and eleven apartments too!’ cackles Cat, but you can be more lost than, say,  ‘The Tramp’ if his spiritual house is in order. Cat is then playing hard-to-get with either his new love or his new God, telling us ‘I love you and I think about you sometimes’, but suddenly the song goes into overdrive when cat is with them again and realises how powerful the feeling is, that ‘when you’re with me boy it chokes my mind!’ Suddenly we’re moving off the personal into the universal and into a call-to-arms is a dead ringer for John Lennon circa 1971 (with the feel of ‘Give Peace A Chance’ ‘Instant Karma’ and especially ‘Power To The People’), sounding like a marching band driving forward into ‘freedom’. It all sounds so good that you half believe that freedom really is calling and cat cuts this part short far too soon as his doubts creep back in again. This is a different meaning of ‘freedom’ to overthrowing Government though, this is Cat calling on the world to be free to be themselves, before re-thinking what this means. People will always need someone to lead them, he supposes, but what gives one person the right to think they need freedom more than anyone else? He sees too many false leaders ready to lead people ‘away’ from the true path and so has second thoughts about driving us on to be with them. So instead he goes back to the standard Cat Stevens message that nobody can save us but ourselves, reflecting  ‘But I Might Die Tonight’ as he argues, perhaps more to his younger self than us, ‘why wait until it’s your time to die before you learn what you were born to do?’ There’s only one freedom he realises, but instead of confirming that it is to be true to ourselves he leaves us hanging with the words ‘I can’t wait to be with you tomorrow night’. So man can’t save himself them but needs other people?
Cat is desperate to break away from the rest of humanity, living his life for a purpose rather than to fill in time before he dies and he’s adamant that we should follow him – although he doesn’t actually know which direction he’s turning to yet. That comes (sort-of) in the third section which is pretty much a standalone ballad. Cat sings alone to his own lovely piano accompaniment, with a real tension that runs round and round in bursts of emotion before finally landing flat and leaving us (briefly) in silence. A worried Cat is having doubts about his spiritual quest and begs the listener ‘Won’t you give me your word that you won’t laugh?’ as he bears his soul and admits that he is now fully committed. Without his love or perhaps his God his life would be empty and ‘my life would be without sound’ (a very scary thought for us AAA fans) before adding that this love he feels is so wonderful that ‘heaven must have made you on a Sunday’. In a sweet passage he feels the sky ‘glitter with Gold when you’re talking to me’, an image that recalls cat’s last love song  ‘Angelsea’ (given the idea that this girl came from Heaven its interesting how similar the two songs are). Cat gradually builds up both musical steam and certainty in his quest, however, returning to the opening gambit that ‘there are no words I can use’, but this time to describe the wonders of devotion rather than confusion. He’s left us behind, unable to tell us in a simple song what it means to have stepped into the world of being a believer – or singing about the depths of real true love. Indeed he steps away and refuses to write more, knowing that his worse would be an ‘abuse’ of what he feels now. Somehow though cat keeps going, telling us that while he looks the same as he always did the changes aren’t in his face but in his heart. ‘Will you?’ this section ends over and over, a plea to both God/love to take him up on his offer of commitment and to us for not laughing. As per the music, this is lyrically the weakest part of the song, slowed down to a crawl and the section is just that tiny bit too long.
The last section then rounds off the song with a seemingly straightforward declaration of earthly love, adding that ‘I’ve seen many girls before’ but only this one comes direct from ‘heaven’. After eighteen minutes Cat finally feels certain and the song, which has been trying to find its way to this central theme for so long but kept being interrupted, is now free to play out on a rocky jazzy version of the tune that lasts for quite a few minutes. Alas after such a build-up this simplest part of the song is not enough to be the pay-off such a lengthy song needs and even after eighteen minutes the ending seems premature, Cat fading off without having really convinced us of his true emphatic joy, however many soul hollers he adds over the fade-out.
However even Cat couldn’t escape the ‘material world’ altogether. In 2009 Cat’s music publishers sued Coldplay (along with Joe Satriani) over claims that they had ‘borrowed’ the melody line from the final section of their song for their hit single ‘Viva La Vida’, one of many legal wranglings Cat has been involved with down the years. To be fair Cat claimed to keep his distance from the whole affair and claimed he’d like to meet the band ‘over lunch’ to discuss the claim rather than sue them, but he rather pointedly re-used the melody himself for the song ‘Heaven/Where True Love Goes’ on ‘An Other Cup’ as if to stake his claim to the track. That all seems a bit of a petty come down for a song that really does sound as if it has the ability to fix lives and offer ‘answers’. Unfortunately ‘Foreigner Suite’ inevitably ends up trying to pull off more than it can and the end result is a mixed bag, with a strong opening and middle section that simply goes on too long and runs out of ideas by the third and fourth parts. However, you sense it’s a song that Cat had to get out of his system: that there was simply so big a change in his life at the time he couldn’t possibly contain it in a regular three minute pop song and it’s for its sheer depth and complexity that many fans love this track. I love the opening, with its darting soul and r and b dances and its sudden drive forward at the five minute mark after building up to a climax (only Pink Floyd’s superb ‘Echoes’ matches ‘Foreigner’ in the respect of a long tense build-up), but the ending arguably needs more work or a good editor. Or at least it does so here on the record – live versions of the song (in all its 18 minute glory!) are a little subtler and livelier I’ve found. There’s also something slightly cold and unwelcoming about this song if you sit through it to the end, a sense that we’ve gone through all the emotional weight of the start for little return and that in this journey only Cat himself can progress – we ‘foreigners’ are left to find our own way through the spiritual maze...
Side two is at least a little more accessible than side one, even if only one song is truly up to Cat’s highest standards.  ‘The Hurt’, sadly, isn’t it despite being probably the best known song from the album (and a minor hit single). The song is really just an extension of a less exciting part (the third) of ‘Foreigner Suite’, dismissing those who sit at home expecting spiritual enlightenment to come to them without effort or those who turn to false prophets who don’t demand the same effort. Cat is at his most sarcastic here as he paints a picture of someone who thinks they can learn the true ways of the world alone without any help and then turn to ‘false prophets’ without any ability to see through them, sipping wine at home and ‘waiting for a miracle to come along’. A nasty song in many ways this feels like cat turning on ‘us’ for not following him through the door that opened for him on the last track – although it also sounds a little like cat laughing at his old agnostic and atheist self (what’s the difference? I don’t know and I don’t care. That’s not me being rude, that really is the difference between the two viewpoints). However Cat doesn’t really tell us why we should listen to him any more than these other ‘spiritual peddlers’ and the whole atmosphere is rather uncomfortable – as if our favourite teacher is turning on ‘us’ simply because we haven’t had his experience or a chance to prove ourselves yet. I liken this song to many of George Harrison’s from the ‘Living In The Material World’ album – it would be fair enough if a spiritually enlightened soul turned on ‘us’ for not even trying, but turning on your audience (who by and large have proved their interest in spiritual matters by listening to your records) for not ‘getting’ the answers to life as fast as you when they’ve only just got ‘it’ themselves seems churlish and uncharitable. What are we meant to do? So many of Cat’s songs tell us to work out the answers for ourselves that it seems doubly unfair to be attacked for not taking ‘this’ journey with Cat (who for all know is another ‘phoney mouth selling pace and religion in between karma chewing gum’). What’s weirder is that this lyric feels stapled onto a chorus out of another song entirely, one where Cat tells us that he only knew the meaning of love after he got hurt and lost it. That’s a shame because the wistful melody on this track is one of Cat’s best with a lovely use of minor chords that are still too angry to become full-on sad just yet and this is also probably the best performance on the album to boot, with a superb use of pedal steel (you can even hear one of the musicians let out a ‘whoop’ some three minutes in he’s enjoying it so much). A rather lacklustre and patronising middle eight aside (‘Don’t let me down, young son’) ‘The Hurt’ is at least rather ear-catching and is slightly less demanding than the songs around it on this album, but the lyrics of this song do hurt more than a little if you care enough about Cat to follow him to here on his most heavy-going album.
Well done, you made it to the latest ‘halfway song in the book’ moment – and on this of all albums you need an excuse to celebrate something in all the misery, so well done!  ‘How Many Times’ is another strangely grumpy song that’s close in spirit to Ray Davies’ songs about boredom and mundanity. Slowed to a crawl, this ballad sports a really lovely melody line again but is swamped by a lyric and vocal that are both stretched to breaking point (and repeat the title line too many times for comfort). The narrator doesn’t sound spiritually enlightened here: instead he sounds fed up, turning to spirituality only for something to do in between eating, drinking, sleeping and ‘shining my shoes’. My guess is that this is Cat, following his first religious awakenings, getting impatient that after offering himself up to God nothing has happened yet. He tells that every day he walks past ‘your place’ but that he doesn’t have an invitation to enter yet; this will come. The chorus sounds downright peculiar, the song finally breaking into a trot on the line ‘nothing could ever ease the pain’ – even a belief in a greater power isn’t enough to overcome the daily grind of routine and boredom. The result is a song that deliberately sounds apathetic, with Cat becoming passive in his quest for answers, which may be clever but doesn’t make for very exciting listening. The old days of Cat investing so much effort into his songs, of giving them all strong hooks and middle eights that other writers would have made into whole songs if not entire concept albums, seems to be long gone. You think this song is at least getting somewhere by the end, as Cat sings of how he will do anything because ‘I want your loving again’ but alas the recording just ends up fading onto a tinkly piano solo and one of the longest fade-outs in AAA history (some forty seconds or so). The song has a distinctive soul flavour and might have sounded powerful in the hands of a Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye, but Cat isn’t that type of a singer and doesn’t have the power to sustain a song that revolves so much around his voice. The result is one of his weakest pieces of the 1970s, disinterested and boring. Had the lovely melody been sped up a little and given a sort of ‘then and now’ between the two worlds it might have been a winner; as it is the listener is left asking ‘how many times am I going to have to sit through this song every time I play the album?’
 ‘Later’ is much better, with a catchy vibrant feel that’s easily the best of the three ‘soul’ songs on the record even if this a song where again the words never come close to matching the melody. The song has a strut the equal of Mick Jagger and for once on this album the massive production really suits the song, giving the ominous riff dark shadows that fleet across its skies, thanks to a backing gospel choir that appear and disappear in clouds of production magic and a swirling orchestra dubbed low in the mix. One of the greatest grooves Cat ever wrote, it’s just a shame that he didn’t come up with a song to match this initial idea. The whole song revolves around the title phrase, which is a sort of double-edged joke, promising both spiritual enlightenment and more earthly sexual needs ‘later’, mixing the heady sexual urges and desire for change until they’ve become one indistinguishable whole. My guess, though, is that this started off as a more spiritual song pleading again for revelations before Cat changed into something his audience would relate to more (I’m surprised it wasn’t the single actually, performing a similar role to  ‘Sitting’ from the last album). Cat wants to talk, to get his message to someone who isn’t listening before, erm, ripping all their clothes off (bearing souls?) but knows he has to wait. The sound is an unusual one for Cat and loser in style to the sort of funk style of a George Clinton or Isaac Hayes and some fans dislike it for being so basic in both theme and lyric. Actually it’s a logical step from  ‘Can’t Keep It In’s manic energy even if the song is saying quite the opposite. The re-write though means that it is as if the more spiritual Cat’s interests get the more he’s trying to work out why he should have had to endure the earthly plain at all and thus pays more attention to his bodily needs. ‘Later’ is a mixed bag then; it sounds great and certainly livens up an occasionally sluggish album (especially this second side) but would have been better still with more developed ideas and lyrics to match.
The album then closes with  ‘100 I Dream’, the highlight of the album and a last return to Cat’s traditional style, as if to prove to his fans that he was still capable of sounding like he’s old self, he simply had bigger fish to fry. The warmth and humanity absent from the rest of the record is back in spades, with Cat back to the role of a kindly elder brother, putting his arm round our shoulder and telling us the best course to take through life as he has found it. The opening even sounds like a Biblical text (‘They brang us up with horns...’ , truly one of the strangest opening lines for a song on this whole site even if its just an archaic word for ‘brung’ and mentions of ‘ ‘old leader’s bones’ and a land formed by a ‘bluebird on a rock’), as if the whole song is a discovery passed down through epochs of time. The title, indeed, may be a ‘mock homage’, as if it’s an extract from Cat’s bible (but instead of ‘Deuteronomy Chapter I’ its ‘I Dream Chapter C’). Cat seems to be addressing the 1960s/1970s generation as a whole, teaching them that what came before them was based on ‘lives built before us’ that ‘we had no choice’ in changing – and yet ‘when they’re gone we’ll be the voice’, able to determine the next chapter in human living and (hopefully) one more cut out for spiritual beliefs. It’s as if everything mankind has been through in the past was to prepare us for the ‘now’ (or the 1973 version of ‘now’ at any rate), with the creators of the universe whispering to one and all to ‘rise up and be free – and in this way you will awake!’ Cat adds that the path is open to all if we can throw off manmade shackles, embrace nature and can ‘silently soak up the day’, seeing the world as it was meant to be seen before capitalism and class and the like got in the way. By the end of this fourth verse Cat has been sounding like a wise old scholar, passing on wisdom with the fumes of library dust and studies still in his voice and he indeed sounds a lot older than he does on his comeback albums as Yusuf. However, hard as Cat tries to be a distant omnipotent narrator, he fails – his real discoveries didn’t come through books but from the pain of living and suffering and struggling. Suddenly the tune which has been gently rolling along runs off a cliff, the song turns sharply on a chord change and Cat drops his scholarly voice to scream. The result is one of his greatest verses as he tells us that even in ‘exile’ and as a ‘foreigner’ we are still responsible for our actions and have to treat each other with care. ‘Pick up the pieces you see before you, don’t let your weaknesses destroy you, you know wherever you go the world will follow, so let your reasons be true to you’. Cat then urges us to be kind to our friends, to keep them close and nurture them. Only then, after passing on the wisdom we’ve received from life and helping other people is our mission truly accomplished and we can die ‘happily’, without the need to be re-incarnated for work we did not do in this life. This is the central idea Cat’s been trying to pass on since starting his writing career and it comes out in one unexpected rush of energy and passion that turns the whole song on its head and brings out of the classroom and into real life. Cat then brings things to a close with a last angry snap of ‘come on, come on and awake!’, the song now turned into a chugging funky riff-based number as he urges us out of our slumber, not to follow him down his religious path but to pass on kindness wherever we go. The brilliance of this song for me is that it starts like a Biblical text and ends up like a hippie manifesto, the lines between the two blurred as if mankind was always building to this point of freedom in the mid-1970s, but that Cat still needs his audience to grow for the song to work, leaving it in our hands for a change instead of telling us what to do. There’s also no one point where we fail (well, until we elect a baboon called Donald Trump and follow Brexit anyway); if cat gets to a hundred he can still dream that it will happen because the urge to be better is there and has always been. Only then, after dwelling on his funky tune a little while, does the song ends suddenly, the last paving slab of our spiritual journey stretching out ahead of us like a question mark, waiting for us to walk on it and follow. So ends one of the greatest Cat Stevens songs of them all on one of the strangest albums of them all, one last great message of wisdom and power.
Having finally given his message to the world, Cat Stevens’ musical career wound down after 1973 as his own religious beliefs took over (mind you, Cat still wasn’t entirely sure about Islam in this period – hence the fact that the next album is named after Buddhism and has a Christian-themed song named  ‘Jesus’ as one of its songs). That leaves ‘Foreigner’ out on a limb – it’s the last place where we ‘travelled’ with Cat on his journey with him ‘on the road to find out’ that properly got started in 1970 with ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ and hereafter Cat will spend his songs looking over his shoulder from the heavens, trying to see he can get us to follow him there. This road is often painful, full of traps and snares and maya (illusions) and none of its stretches are more treacherous than this last road in a ‘foreign’ climate, but the journey is all the more reading when you are there. To be honest ‘Foreigner’ is a step too far for most fans – me included – and arguably changes one too many things in the traditional Cat Stevens sound (the r and b flavour together with the harsher, more distant lyrics, the longer running times and the bigger production values makes for an uneasy, uncomfortable ride into the unknown). The eighteen minute opening suite is all but designed to put off fans who aren’t committed and I know several casual Cat Stevens fans who don’t understand this record at all – and even if you pass that first hurdle many of the side two songs are equally harsh and uncompromising in their world view. However, this album is far from the ‘failure’ it is often pointed out to be. The truth is this album is hard to judge compared to another record – the whole point is that Cat is both more sure of his spiritual path and less sure about his musical one compared to his past albums and on those terms it is a success at reflecting his confused mindset. It’s as a listening experience the album falls down, but if any artist’s work was about being more than a mere listening experience then it’s Cat’s. If you are a fan interested and invested in his work as a whole then you need this album to hear when so much changed for him; it won’t however be the album you play to your new neighbour to show how much you like Cat Stevens (well, not unless you want them to never come round for tea again). There is much to love about ‘Foreigner’ (‘100 I Dream’ especially) and even more to admire, with points on for ambition if points off for musicality. There are people out there who love this album for its slightly edgier feel, its more soulful tones and its cold detached air (it’s certainly less schmaltzy than other Cat Stevens records about peace and love) and who knows you might be one of them; for me, though, this record is a fine place to visit, a trip to foreign lands that broadens the mind and reveals the sights (and sounds) of an entirely new culture; I just wouldn’t want to live there and I’m rather thankful ‘Foreigner’ proved to be a one-off experiment rather than the start of a whole new sound.