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Date: 19/02/21

Al Stewart - "Year Of The Cat" (1976)

While I'm in the middle of two projects - one to do with interior décor (again) and the other with some background work on the site - which I will clue you in on at some later date, I thought I'd point towards one of the most perfect rock songs ever committed to tape.

I'm not sure why this has lodged persistently in my head for nearly two weeks now, but I am sure that I've had far worse things take up residence in there down the years.

Al Stewart had released a number of albums - starting in 1967 - which had garnered some critical approval but not a great amount of sales. His style of songs - which, like Harry Chapin, were often stories in musical form - varied from the descriptive narrative to the confessional, and were underpinned by a strong sense of melody and atmosphere.

1976's LP Year Of The Cat saw him on the verge of a breakthrough in the US, although his profile in the UK was still minimal. Gathering a new set of songs together, along with top session musicians and producer Alan Parsons (then in the early stages of his ascendancy), it was recorded in Abbey Road Studios, London as the first recordings Stewart made after his move from CBS to RCA.

The story of the title track - the last song on the album - was remarkably convoluted.

The genesis of the melody was from Stewart's tour supporting Linda Ronstadt, where his touring keyboard player at the time, Peter Wood, would play a certain figure over and over during soundchecks. Intrigued, Stewart finally asked Wood if it was alright if he tried to put lyrics to it. Wood agreed.

But then came the problem: Stewart initially wrote a song based on seeing the English comedian Tony Hancock on stage when his (Hancock's) whole life was unravelling around him (he was to kill himself during a tour of Australia not long afterwards). The song was entitled The Foot Of The Stage, but when he presented this to his American label, they said, "Who's Tony Hancock?". Realising that he wasn't going to gain much traction from the song because of this, Al Stewart wrote - in an access of satirical intent - a second set of lyrics about Princess Anne (about whom he was sure that even Americans had heard). This didn't go down any better than the Hancock story had, so the whole idea was dropped.

Then one day, his then-girlfriend left a book about Vietnamese astrology open on a table at the page about The Year Of The Cat. Stewart didn't know astrology of any nationality from a hole in the ground, but he knew a good song title when he saw it, so he set about trying to write a song based around that.

However, he had no more success in doing that than he had had with the previous lyrics so - obeying the title of another song which was to appear on the Year Of The Cat LP - he thought, "If It Doesn't Come Naturally, Leave It".

A little time afterwards, he was watching television when Casablanca was being screened. Stewart suddenly had the idea of pulling Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre into a story and seeing what happened. In short order, he had a song - based on Peter Wood's melody - about a man who, in what is almost certainly one of those parts of north Africa which were then fashionable for the off-beat British tourist, encounters a mysterious woman and stays with her even when that means that he misses his bus out and loses his ticket back home.

That's the tale, and a beguiling one at that (Stewart is a great storyteller), but the arrangement and production add even further value to the track. The strings, guitars and saxophone (about which Stewart wasn't at all sure at first, but it grew on him) and Parsons' lush but clear production help to create one of the finest songs from that entire decade. An edited version became a substantial hit in the US (although it stalled just outside the Top 30 in the UK, and is still Al Stewart's only charting single there) and took his visibility and his career to a new level.

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