1970 was perhaps the most important year in Cat Stevens’ career. It brought with it a change of record labels, a new producer, and most importantly, new songs that became classic in the singer-songwriter genre. In this article we will discuss the circumstances that brought that drastic turn in his career, review two albums he released that year and hear from the artists who realized these recordings.
In 1968, after two years of teen pop stardom and hits including I Love My Dog, Matthew and Son and I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun, Cat Stevens contracted tuberculosis. A promo package released by A&M Records to announce his album Mona Bone Jakon in 1970 explained the circumstances of his career up to that point: “The boy became very famous, worked very hard at his new job, traveled a lot, appeared in a lot of shows, and wrote songs for other people, who in turn became famous. But all the time the boy became more and more unhappy. The songs people wanted him to sing were not the songs he wanted to sing. He was writing songs which were far better than the ones he was famous for, and try as he would to change their minds, the people who controlled his fame and fortune did not want him to sing those songs.”
Stevens spent three months in a hospital and six more convalescing after his illness. The sudden break from the music business machinery gave him ample time to rethink his career and write songs with a new perspective of life: “I’d just been through a very traumatic experience of contracting tuberculosis and being hospitalized, maybe only weeks away from death, so that also definitely spills on your consciousness and your understanding and knowledge of what life means when you’re trying to hold on to it.” These songs were stylistically in direct conflict with the persona he projected to his 1960s fans. He later said: “I discovered a lot about Cat Stevens the pop singer. For example I always thought I had a very different image to the one I actually had — apparently people thought of me as a manufactured star.”
The new melodies and words he was writing came from a vast array of influences Stevens was soaking while recuperating. He was reading books about spiritual self-discovery, one of them in particular contributed to the direction he was taking: “The book that really turned me around was called The Secret Path, which is by a Buddhist convert called Dr. Paul Brunton, a really amazing soul who could speak to the Western mind with an understanding of Buddhism — which would make it easier to understand, make it easier to comprehend.”
Musically Cat Stevens was listening to an eclectic collection of albums: “There’d be Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, The Band, Neil Young and maybe a record from Joni Mitchell. And then I’ve got my all-time favorites, which would be Nina Simone. I’d be into electronic music like Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos. And I’d also be into some very ethnic music, like I’d have a record by an Armenian choir. Paul Samwell-Smith was really into Van Morrison, so he put me onto him and Astral Weeks as well.”
Frustrated by his record label and lack of artistic control over his recordings, Cat Stevens turned to Chris Blackwell, known for his ability to spot unique talent outside the mainstream of popular music. The Island Records executive, familiar with the singer’s previous repertoire, was not thrilled about the prospect of featuring that kind of material on his label. After listening to demos of two songs he remained unimpressed. Blackwell picks up the story: “He said the third song was from the Russian musical he was writing, and it was called Father and Son. As soon as he sang the opening line, ‘It’s not time to make a change,’ everything did change. Perfectly simple, and perfectly lovely, it caught me by surprise. He played it through in such a way that time seemed to stand still, and I started to notice his powerful dark eyes and something compellingly melancholy in his voice, which I suppose had been prematurely aged by his dreadful illness. When he finished, I immediately told him that because of that one song I would like to sign him.”
Cat Stevens’ first album with Island Records was released in April 1970. Mona Bone Jakon came with a cover featuring an illustration he drew and named The Dustbin Cried the Day the Dustman Died. He said of that album art: “I suppose the garbage can was just illogical. I was trying to fight off the old image and just put a garbage can on there and let people work it out for themselves. I was being a bit sneaky! I like garbage cans, I mean nobody thinks about garbage cans, so why not. It’s a lonesome garbage can.” The use of the enigmatic drawing was a conscious decision to “deliberately not have a photograph on it, so that people wouldn’t accuse me of going back and doing the teenybopper thing again. I didn’t want that.”
The change of artistic direction Cat Stevens took after his illness is very clear upon listening to the tracks on Mona Bone Jakon. Chris Blackwell did a marvelous match–making job between artist and producer: “I thought it would be great to hear what Paul Samwell-Smith would do with Cat. That was one of my great rolls of the dice, although of course I had a hunch the odds were in my favor.”
Paul Samwell-Smith is known as a founding member and bass player with the Yardbirds. You can hear him singing background vocals on hits such as For Your Love and Heart Full of Soul. With that band he also branched out to composing the Gregorian chant arrangements and lyrics of songs like Still I’m Sad, and he co-produced his last album with the band in 1966, Roger the Engineer. After he left the Yardbirds he focused on music production, and one of his first projects was Renaissance’s self-titled debut in 1969. That album was released on Island Records, and label head Chris Blackwell remembers: “He’d produced the first Renaissance album in 1969 for Island, which was the non–Led Zeppelin side of the Yardbirds, the folkier, trippier part, formed by founding members Keith Relf and Jim McCarty with Relf’s younger sister Jane. It was beautiful, extremely ambitious, and anomalous, a lost Island Records masterpiece. There were all sorts of things going on, classical, jazz, prog, but without the music getting lost in itself—it was exquisite, authentic baroque.”
Cat Stevens also remembers that album and its influence on his music: “Paul was recording a group called Renaissance and I listened to the album and I loved it because it had a sort of English madrigal simplicity and acoustic folk flavor, which I really love, because most of my songs were written on a guitar acoustically. So I entered into this acoustic universe, which is how I wrote my songs. And he saw that universe and said, ‘That’s what I’m going to capture.’ And that’s what he did. He didn’t have to do very, very clever things. He just used to sit me in the right place, put the microphone in the right position and everything, just to be able to capture me performing a song to the best that I could and that would be it.”
Mona Bone Jakon’s opening song was released as a single and climbed to #8 in the UK singles chart. Lady D’Arbanville features a prominent acoustic bass part, a conscious decision by Samwell-Smith, one of the early producers in rock to focus on the lower bass frequencies with the advent of better home stereo equipment.
Stevens wrote the song about his then- but soon to be ex- girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville while failing to maintain a relationship across the Atlantic. During that time she became part of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene. She said about the song: “Stevens wrote that song when I left for New York. I left for a month, it wasn’t the end of the world was it? But he wrote this whole song about ‘Lady D’Arbanville, why do you sleep so still.’ It’s about me dead. So while I was in New York, for him it was like I was lying in a coffin… He wrote that because he missed me, because he was down… It’s a sad song.”
Cat Stevens – guitar, keyboards, vocals
Alun Davies – guitar, backing vocals
John Ryan – double bass
Harvey Burns – percussion
While Mona Bone Jakon was a good start for Cat Stevens’ newly adopted musical style, it was just an appetizer for his next album on the label, released in November of 1970. Tea for the Tillerman is a masterpiece album in the singer-songwriter category, featuring many classic tracks. The first is the song that got Cat Stevens his Island Records contract, curiously with roots in the Russian Revolution. Stevens tells the story: “I had the idea of writing a musical. And I got together with a scriptwriter called Nigel Hawthorne (later Sir Humphrey of Yes Minister) to write this musical about the Russian Revolution. It had a background of Nicholas and Alexander, and for that, as a songwriter, you enter into a whole new kind of world where you take on the characters that you’re singing and performing the song. And so I had these two opposing kind of views. One was the father who lived on the land, who was a peasant and his family had all grown up for generations on that land. But the son had heard about the revolution and he just couldn’t hold himself back, he wanted to join the march.”
The concept of a musical was shelved when Cat Stevens got hospitalized, but the song survived. Upon its release in 1970 it captured the minds of youths across both sides of the Atlantic. While many think that the song is autobiographical, Stevens said in 1972: “I’ve never really understood my father, but he always let me do whatever I wanted—he let me go. ‘Father and Son’ is for those people who can’t break loose.”
Tea for the Tillerman goes beyond the introspective themes of its predecessor and covers a varied array of topics. The song Longer Boats touches on a topic favored by many science fiction authors: “I wrote the song as a plea for human unity in face of external (possibly extra-terrestrial) threats. There was also a lyrical inference to say that we should look closer at the beautiful and mystical nature of the earth, and watch out for adopting inherited wisdoms from people who claimed to be masters of the high, moral ground.”
And speaking of preserving earth, we come to the wonderful album opener Where Do the Children Play? Cat Stevens wrote in the liner notes for the 2008 Deluxe edition release of Tea for the Tillerman: “Tillerman’s message was justly critical about the destruction of the natural world by mass industry, greed and commercialism. Where Do the Children Play? is a passionate plea for the planet.”
It is time to introduce perhaps the most critical musical contributor to Cat Stevens’ albums of the early 1970s. One of Paul Samwell-Smith’s first moves once he got assigned to work with Cat Stevens was to bring in another musician to compliment Stevens’ acoustic guitar. He recalls: “Right from the start I wanted a second guitar player to help lay down the tracks, to give color and rhythm to the basic song. My initial instinct was to ask Jon Mark to come and play for me, as he had already come to the studio to work with Jim McCarty and Keith Relf (fellow Yardbirds members) on some earlier recordings we had made. He was brilliant but said he couldn’t do the sessions as he had prior commitments playing live, so he recommended a friend of his called Alun Davies.”
Like Chris Blackwell, Alun Davies was not enthralled by the prospect of working with Cat Stevens. He remembers: “The first meeting was at Olympic studio on a Sunday afternoon. It was as straightforward as being booked for a session and dragging myself there a little unwillingly because the last thing I remember about him, he was in a white suit on telly doing ‘I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun’ and I wasn’t that impressed with the image really.” But his impression of the singer-songwriter changed during the next meeting in which Cat Stevens proceeded to play many of the songs he wrote during and after his forced hiatus from the music scene. Davies remembers listening to tens of new songs that comprised the next two albums, Mona Bone Jakon and Tea for the Tillerman. The two musicians became not only great musical partners, but also close friends. Alun Davies played on all of Cat Stevens’ albums from 1970 and 1977, as well as touring with him extensively during that period.
Paul Samwell-Smith knew how to match them, and he talked about Alun Davies and his contributions to Cat Stevens’ albums: “He just had an extraordinary sense of rhythm. It’s a great art, this ability to strum and accompany. The way Alun strummed was extraordinary. He used the flat bit of his hand that goes from the little finger up to the wrist up against the bridge to dampen the strings at the same time as he was hitting them with the plectrum. It was lovely stuff. I don’t think that either Cat Stevens or Alun would have been the same without the other. They were a complete fit.”
One of the best examples of this perfect fit is another single from the album, a song about which Cat Stevens said: “I was trying to relate to my life. I was at the point where it was beginning to happen and I was myself going into the world. It wasn’t me writing about somebody specific. It was more about me. It’s talking about losing touch with home and reality – home especially.” Wild World was initially written for another Island Records artist, Reggae singer Jimmy Cliff. Cat Stevens produced that recording which was released as a single several months ahead of Tea for the Tillerman.
Paul Samwell-Smith has a vivid recollection of how he recorded Cat Stevens’ version of the song: “The initial backing track – consisting of Stevens’ Ovation electro-acoustic and vocals, plus the Guild acoustic of his right-hand man Alun Davies – was cut live in Morgan Studio One. The Ovation was recorded in stereo. It’s just a wonderful sound that. It just has crunch and it’s got a great presence to it. My impression of Wild World has always been, ‘What an extraordinary up-in-yer-face guitar and voice it is.’ It jumps out of the speakers! It’s a very simple, uncomplicated track but everything comes through very audibly.”
Tea for the Tillerman features a lovely album cover drawing courtesy of… Cat Stevens. The art follows the scene mentioned in the lyrics from the album’s title track. Stevens recalled how he came up with that curious title: “I was looking in the dictionary and I was just looking for inspiration. You sometimes do that as a songwriter; you’re looking for a word that will kind of ignite some idea in your mind. And under the letter ‘T,’ I found Tillerman. Then I kind of constructed this scene around the Tillerman. I didn’t see him as someone who prattled a boat. I always took the meaning that this was a man of the earth. Tillerman became the character, and then I surrounded him with all these other characters that were in my head at the time, and then came the illustration.”
Cat Stevens attended the Hammersmith School of Art with the ambition of becoming a cartoonist, prior to focusing on music. In a 1970 interview he said: “Art was what I originally started out to do and music came second at first. I had a year at art college but I left because it was too much like school. I give all my paintings away to people I like.” In a later interview he expanded on his art: “My ability to create pictures never went away with music; I simply transposed them into songs with stories. I wanted to be an artist. So when I was able to combine my music with my art by painting the covers of my albums, it was a dream job. As a medium, art is much slower and takes longer to make an impact. Music is instantaneous. It also employs our imagination, which creates more possibilities for the brain to unlock valuable emotion and insights.”
Time to introduce one more excellent contributor to the sound of the album, this time supplying wonderful orchestral arrangements. Del Newman was in the early phase of his great career as an arranger, before he scored memorable songs including Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Ten Years After’s I’d Love To Change The World. Cat Stevens remembers him fondly: “He was a beautiful man and such a gentle soul. He spoke with a velvet voice very quietly. You get some arrangers that shout at the musicians, you know, be dogmatic and he was nothing like that. He was just a pure, gentle soul, and that was reflected. He used to listen to all the songs, and he developed and sort of nurtured this arrangement out of whatever was there in its simplicity and its bareness. But he never ruined it. He never overcrowded it.” We heard his arrangement on Where do the Children Play? and we get another opportunity on the last song for this review, and my favorite on this album, Sad Lisa.
Sad Lisa was written about a real person, an au pair who lived in the singer’s family house. Cat Stevens continues: “She was from Sweden. One day my brother came back, and he’s an elder brother so he’s a bit bossy. He came back and he found that she hadn’t cleaned, she hasn’t provided the bed, and so he got rid of her. So that’s why she’s very sad.” With Del Newman’s fantastic orchestration, we can hear one of Cat Stevens’ major influences: “I love that song because it is part of my classical upbringing, my love of classics, the classical composers. And so there’s something about that. It’s almost Bach-like.” The beautiful violin solo is played by Jack Rothstein, a classical musician who can be heard as part of the string ensembles who acocmpany the Beatles’ songs I am The Walrus and Within You Without You. In 1970 he also guested on albums by Quatermass and Colosseum.
We end the review with another quote from Chris Blackwell, recalling the first time he heard the tapes coming from the studio after the recording of Tea for the Tillerman completed. The compliment he gives the album is of the highest order, given the amazing number of classic albums that Island Records released over the years: “They played the songs without the running order yet decided. They played the first song—it was great. Second song—great. The next three—great, great, great. Really great. I was thinking, well, they have played the highlights first, and now we are going to get the also-rans. Those first five are already enough for a great album. The sixth song turned out to be what would be my favorite Cat Stevens song, Where Do the Children Play? which became the opening song. All the songs were so good, and at the time I thought it was the best album Island had released.”
Cat Stevens Interview in Goldmine magazine, November 2020 issue
Tea for the Tillerman, Deluxe Edition 2008 booklet
Categories: A Year in Music