Classic Scottish Albums: Al Stewart

Those of you of a certain vintage will remember the era of the TV-advertised Compilation album. Still almost with us but not like the old days. Not for today’s lily-livered consumer 20 Town and Country Greats, Moments In Love or The Shadows Do Dylan. And the stamp-em-out-rack-em-out labels that spawned these compilations, Ronco, K-Tel, MFP, now largely reside crestfallen in dwindling vinyl bins of charity shops up and down the land. My folks, like most folks of their day were quite partial to a cheeky wee TV-advertised compilation album and it is because of this that something life-changing happened to yours truly.

At some point in the late 1970s a compilation album titled Good Morning America appeared in the vinyl rack (a kind of wiry oversized toast rack that held around 24 crap albums) in our front room. A cursory listen revealed that my parents had suddenly acquired stunning taste in music. This shocking development offered only one course of action – to steal the album. Once lashed to the turntable of my Fidelity UA4 record player Good Morning America offered a world of utter wonder. There was At Seventeen Janis Ian’s hymn to loneliness, a version of Van Morrison’s cinematic romp through early 1960s Belfast Brown Eyed Girl, and Randy Edleman’s short story / song Uptown Uptempo Woman. The singer-songwriter (stated hero of this vinyl slab) was clearly some kind of alchemist as I was transported out of the window of 16 Queen’s Crescent Falkirk and into a vivid new world where colour was rendered in the tone of an acoustic guitar and the novelist’s eye for detail. This was not “She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah”, rather “I was wearing moleskin trousers and I had a cup of coffee with one and a half sugars and you cried when I mentioned that I might be going to work abroad in two weeks but cheered up when I bought you a bag of chips with some brown sauce and vinegar on the side and now let’s get onto the second line of verse one”. Rich stuff.

And every time I listened to that compilation album there was one moment that stopped me in my tracks:

On a morning from a Bogart movie

In a country where they turn back time

We go strolling through the park like Peter Lorre

Contemplating a crime

Even in its edited form Al Stewart’s Year Of The Cat was so chock full of lyrical, harmonic, performative and technical detail it was impossible to imagine how it could be over in four or five minutes. Interviewing Al for Classic Scottish Albums it quickly became clear that this reductive art is to some extent God given. Every story, every anecdote was shot through with pin sharp detail. We were there in the bedsit with Al listening as Paul Simon wrote Richard Cory next door, there on the high seas with Lord Grenville and there as Yoko Ono filmed a considerable number of nude bottoms. Al’s words whether in conversation or in song have the wonderful effect of painting scenes and scenarios that seem to actually live and breathe. When I started to write songs and make records for a living, inspired in many ways by that TV-advertised compilation, I always tried to remember that one could aspire to the creation of something approaching another world, another space to walk around in. Songwriters don’t always quite manage that trick but when they do, oh boy, look out.

Year Of The Cat the album creates new worlds every five minutes or so thanks to an amazing marriage of imagination, words, music and the incredible arrangements and production of the albums cast. Please enjoy our tribute.

Lots of treats for you still to come in this series. Keep the comments coming in!

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2 comments

  1. Barrie Ivil

    As a young student in the early 1970’s, I had a couple of pals who loved the early Al Stewart albums (Bedsitter Images, Love Chronicles, etc). I was more into early Bowie (Man who sold the World and, the just released, Hunky Dory). Al seemed too insular, too fey for my tastes. As luck would have it he came to play at our Students Union. My pals persuaded me to go along with them. He was great. A good singer and an excellent guitarist, but he seemed to have found the niche that best suited his abilities. So, a few years later when Year of the Cat was released I was amazed. His work had developed so much, had become much richer, but was still essentially rooted in those early introspective albums.

    About the same time I also had the pleasure of seeing Gallagher and Lyle just after they had left McGuiness Flint. They were superb. I immediately bought their then current album, Willie and the Lapdog. It even had a songbook so that you, too, could play along to the tunes on the album. A great idea! A true lost Scottish gem!

  2. Barrie
    If you do get a chance to hear the programme (when it is eventually repeated, as it surely will be) you’ll hear Al’s own take on the early recordings you mention. In a nutshell – ‘terrible’. It’s interesting to hear an artist’s take on their own early work – often their view differs from the public and critics, who generally seem to prefer the early recordings. Once an artist feels in control of their domain it seems they’ve tipped the scales into self-indulgence, or over-polish. With Al and YOTC there’s absolutely no doubt that the input of Alan Parsons and the arrangers and musicians was critical in reaching a mass audience and with good reason – it’s a beautiful piece of work.
    Gallagher and Lyle are definitely on my wish list for a future edition of Classic Scottish Albums. I was just gifted a lovely triple vinyl edition of Bill Wells / Aidan Moffat’s Everything’s Getting Older by the great Mr Wells – I did some of the very early recordings of piano and cellos (although I didn’t know it at the time) – and it has a songbook too, with Bill’s handwritten scores for the tunes. Very very very, if you know what I mean.
    David

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