Oh I’m on my way, I know I am Somewhere not so far from here All I know is all I feel right now
I feel the power growing in my hair
Time can play merry hell with even the most rigid convictions. From its release 50 years ago this week – shortly before I turned 15 – until I dived back into it a week ago, I was convinced that the verse and song Cat Stevens chose to kick off his most daring album, Catch Bull At Four, was the last word in positivity. To say I was gobsmacked to return to Sitting, the durable ditty in question, and find it dominated by foreboding would be akin to characterising Vladimir Putin as a bit of an oaf. Then again, taking its author at pretty-face value always was dodgy.
Of all the revivals in the annals of popular music, the one being enjoyed by Cat/Yusuf Islam is one of the unlikeliest. Then again, few successful entertainers have been so dismissive of the showbiz game, or been trapped so helplessly in the crosshairs of public condemnation.
Happily, that Stateside ban for appearing to support the fatwa on Salman Rushdie (‘I was cleverly framed by sharp-toothed journalists’) seems to have been forgiven, if not forgotten. No less refreshing for those of us who once hung on his every utterance, Ron Sexsmith and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy were among the minstrels who, two Decembers ago, toasted the 50th anniversary of the ultimate folk-rock album, Tea For The Tillerman, via YouTube’s virtual CatSong Festival.
Granted, the author’s own souped-up update alienated many diehards, but after four decades of religious fervour, what a delightful relief it was to discover that the bearded bard of bedsitterland had relocated his muse. That his offerings are now credited to Cat and Yusuf testifies to the duality of his life as pop god and preacher/teacher as well as that abiding sense of him as an outsider.
Forgive me, then, for toasting the myriad splendours of Catch Bull At Four (a nod to Zen meditation). Indeed, it says everything about that image-busting album that many of the sublime moments are supplied by some skinbashing Keith Moon would have drunk Canada dry to call his own.
To classmates at my female-free secondary school, lugholes lashed by Zep, Purple and Sabbaff, Cat was ‘Dog’. Girls, my mother included, found him irresistible. Hard as it is to imagine pre-match nerves besetting one whose conquests stretch from Marvin Gaye to David Geffen, Carly Simon’s Anticipation finds her limbering up for a date with the chap responsible for the abysmal Can’t Keep It In, Catch Bull’s lone bum note (but still a hit). To Rolling Stone’s Stephen Holden, her beau was ‘the Crown Prince of British folkiedom’. By mid-1972, eager to flee that claustrophobic pigeonhole, he’d abdicated.
To these ears, Cat was a philosopher, my first musical deity, pipping John Lennon, Elton John and Alan Hull, the composers behind the first four LPs financed by my newspaper round: Teaser And The Firecat, Elton John, Imagine and Fog On The Tyne. Mother, freshly divorced, had bought Tapestry a year earlier, so I was already feeling guilty enough for being born with an Adam’s apple; I wanted to hear from the blokes. Fittingly, Cat opted for the feline approach: understated but, as Catch Bull illustrated, quite capable of scratching out the eyes of those unwilling to board the love ’n’ peace train.
He was born Steven Demetre Georgiou to a Swedish mother and Greek-Cypriot dad. How proudly mother would relay news of her trips to Stavros Georgiou’s North London butcher’s shop. But why Teaser broke my LP virginity still eludes me. Sure, I liked Moonshadow and Morning Has Broken when he performed them on Top Of The Pops, and I fondly remembered most of his early poppy hits – though I preferred The Tremeloes’ cover of Here Comes My Baby and Jimmy Cliff’s take on Wild World. But there was something else – something beyond even the exquisitely heartwrenching How Can I Tell You? That something was Peace Train. Give Peace A Chance’’s less hypocritical brother, it surfaced in the same month as Curtis Mayfield’s We Gotta Have Peace. As war spread, pandemic-like, through Ulster, Bangladesh, Vietnam and the Middle East, only a teenager could fail to be deeply sceptical.
Produced, like its immediate predecessors, by ex-Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith –- whose subsiding Hampstead home I once visited during my shameful days as an estate agent – Catch Bull found favour with critics and punters alike, as much for its variety as its quality. To Holden, it represented ‘Cat’s challenge to himself to transcend poetic eccentricity and come out front with a clearer, more unified, more emotionally direct expression of what he is about. I hope he continues to wrestle with this challenge, even if its outcome is more truth and less beauty’. As XTC’s Andy Partridge later implied, if you want to change the world, uncovering truth means exposing ‘the ugly underneath’.
Yet as Holden also noted, Catch Bull boasted an expanding sonic palette. New collaborator Jean Roussel’s Hammond organ and electric piano add texture and depth, ditto Cat’s synths, most notably on Angelsea and the lushly orchestrated, McArthur Park-ish 18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare). All told, Cat himself plays nearly 20 instruments, from mandolin and electric guitar to pennywhistle and drums.
Freezing Steel is a quirky, bouncy rocker; O’ Caritas out-bouzoukis Teaser’s Rubylove; Silent Sunlight makes Morning Has Broken sound half-hearted; Sweet Scarlet recounts a dead romance, quite possibly the one with Patti D’Arbanville, the ‘Lady’ of his 1970 smash. A love song that, unusually for Cat, kicks bottom, Angelsea also features the aforementioned drummer, Gerry Conway, a loyal servant ripping off the chains as if he was Samson, channeling his inner Moon the Loon.
And then there’s Ruins, the closer, a plea for ecological sanity before green was groovy. Witness the concluding lines:
I want back, I want back
Back to the time when the earth was green
And there was no high walls and the sea was clean
Don't stop that sun to shine, it’s not yours or mine, no
The key song, though, can be found at the opposite end of the album. Sitting is a jaunty piano-driven statement of intent riven by insecurity. After those illusory early Top 20 hits had been followed by a grim battle with TB, Cat was doubtless surprised at how quickly his star rose afresh. That self-doubt is laid bare in the fourth verse, where he alludes, among other follies, to sharing a pre-gig gin with Engelbert Humperdinck that left him so woozy he dropped the weapon he’d carried onstage to add dramatic authenticity to I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun:
Oh I’m on my way I know I am
But times there were when I thought not
Bleeding half my soul in bad company
I thank the moon I had the strength to stop
While the overall tone feels defiant, this is no proclamation of invincibility:
I’m not making love to anyone’s wishes
Only for that light I see
'Cause when I’m dead and lowered low in my grave
That's gonna be the only thing that's left of me.
And if I make it to the waterside
Will I even find me a boat, or so?
Recorded for Ricky Gervais’s terrific movie The Invention of Lying, Elvis Costello’s cover is startlingly different, partly because of the Duane Eddy-ish guitar licks, mostly because his voice is so much more assertive. Trouble is, this is a song that demands a measure of modesty and mirror- confronting, and with the exception of that touching rendition of Charles Aznavour’s She on the soundtrack to Notting Hill, Costello’s tonsils are seldom convincing when it comes to self-effacement.
Come the final verse, Cat seems to be anticipating the twists that would soon derail his career and transform his life:
Oh life is like a maze of doors
And they all open from the side you’re on
Just keep on pushing hard boy, try as you may
You’re going to wind up where you started from
You’re going to wind up where you started from
Such fatalism served pop’s premier peacemonger well. The title of his next 33-and-a-thirder, 1973’s Foreigner, would encapsulate that perennial outsiderhood. In Brazil two years later came another brush with death when he almost drowned. As the current dragged him beneath the waves a second time, the way he recalls it, he struck a deal with Him Upstairs: spare me and I’ll devote my life to Islam.
‘I never wanted to be a star,’ he would declare on 1977’s Izitso, an experimental and deceptively chirpy affair buoyed by Herbie Hancock’s electronic tinkling and the last of his albums to compel repeated listening. By then, punks had swollen the ranks of caustic non-believers. Once the Rushdie story had gained traction, this fully-qualified Jew found it incredibly difficult not to join the chorus of betrayal.
When I finally heard Cat purr onstage, at the Albert Hall in 2009, all reservations vanished. He’d supported the Small Faces there in 1966, doing his dandiest to raise shillings and half-crowns for the Aberfan Disaster Relief Fund. The cause this time was the climax to the first tour for 33 years by the artist who, as the Financial Times reviewer claimed in needlessly tabloid fashion, ‘quit pop for Allah’.
Among the treasury of tracks from Teaser and Tillerman, I didn’t expect him to drag Sitting out of mothballs, but, glory be, he did. Smiling softly, a shade sheepishly, he delivered those depressing final lines as if disowning them. Seldom can a father of teenagers have been whisked so swiftly back to pubescence.