Friday, May 28, 2010

"You Should Have Listened to Al"

I got hooked on Scottish folkie/art-rocker Al Stewart pretty early in my album-buying addiction, back in the days when I was buying things like THE BEATLES '62-'70 & the WHITE ALBUM & ABBEY ROAD, & Boston's 1st & Kansas's LEFTOVERTURE & Queen's NIGHT AT THE OPERA & Blue Oyster Cult's AGENTS OF FORTUNE, etc.
In fact, a mix of Al's YEAR OF THE CAT & Kraftwerk's AUTOBAHN helped inspire me 2 write my 1st short-fiction piece that ever got rejected NEwhere -- the story was called "Highwaymen" & was written sometime in early 1977.... (The 1st short story I ever had published was partly inspired by Pink Floyd's live "Astronome Domine" & Happy the Man's "Wind-Up Doll Day Wind" -- the story was called "Waiting for the Wind," was written in early 1979 & published in early '80, & Good Luck finding it....)
NEway, I heard "Year of the Cat" on the radio & liked the cinematic sweep of it + the guitar & sax, & I bot the album after Cing the kinda cute cat-themed album cover -- that was back in the day when my friends & I sometimes bot albums just Bcos they had neat covers ... *SIGH* ... Gryphon's RED QUEEN TO GRYPHON THREE & Genesis's A TRICK OF THE TALE would B good Xamples.
NEway. Bot the album & discovered it wasn't that much like the title song at all. What I mainly heard in a lot of it was a sorta desolation ... appealing desolation, but everything Cmd rather cold & distant, especially on songs like the spooky "One Stage Before," the ominous "Broadway Hotel," & the Dtached "Midas Shadow." There were also greats like the dramatic, mysterious "Lord Grenville," & the cinematic "On the Border," which shoulda bn a bigger hit. I was a sucker 4 "Flying Sorcery," which I thot was about Amelia Earhart, but mayB it was just about a girlfriend of Al's who liked 2 fly.
The album wasn't all great. There was thin, silly stuff like "Sand in My Shoes" & "If it Doesn't Come Naturally, Leave It" -- which un4tun8ly Bcame sorta the wave of the future 4 Al. What I mayB didn't realize then was that some of that distant, spooky sound I reacted 2 mighta bn provided by Alan Parsons' production. But I barely noticed production or musicians' credits back then, & on YEAR OF THE CAT they were down inna corner in teeny tiny type....
Sometime after that I grabbed a cheap copy of Al's earlier 1974 concept album PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE, & I think the 1st time I ever heard it was in the living room of my friend Thom West's house around Xmas '77. I have never bn able 2 get in2 the 1st side of PP&F, but the 2nd side's amazing: "Roads to Moscow" is more gorgeous desolation, w/ a steely gray Nding that will send chills down yr spine. "Terminal Eyes" is a cute psychedelic takeoff. "Nostradamus" is 9 great, swirling mins of guitar & moodiness about the prophet's predictions 4 the Nd of the world, & tho I coulda done w/o the opera singer at the Nd, the rest of it's almost perfect.
I resisted TIME PASSAGES when it came out in '78, tho I bot it NEway. I remember Bing disappointed -- it was 2 smooth, 2 slick, 2 close 2 Adult Contemporary/EZ Listening. The title song wore-out real quick. So did the follow-up, "Song on the Radio." It was obvious Al was developing a hit 4mula -- 6-min-long epics w/ room 4 a semi-wild sax solo in the middle. Hits were fine, but I thot it was 2 bad Al was getting homogenized in2 a hit machine so quickly.
This disappointment made me overlook the good stuff on the album: "Valentina Way" has a great guitar lead & is as close as Al ever got 2 rock&roll. "Life in Dark Water" is spooky & hypnotic. The portrait "Almost Lucy" shoulda bn a hit; very nice choruses. "Timeless Skies" sums up Al's songs & approach in 3 mins. & "End of the Day" is a pretty nice closer. But: "Palace of Versailles" is boring & "Man for All Seasons" is WAY over-written & wears out its welcome.
Good Al was VERY good, so I kept Xploring. Found a cheap copy of his '75 album MODERN TIMES -- his 1st w/ producer Alan Parsons. If PP&F was only 1/2 a success, MODERN TIMES showed mayB what Al needed was the push toward commerciality provided by Parsons. I still think MODERN TIMES is Al's best, most consistent album, w/ a 2nd side as great as side 2 of PP&F. The 1st side is standard+ Al, w/ only the lead-off "Carol" really hitting 4-star levels. But "Sirens of Titan" is a nice nod 2 Kurt Vonnegut, & the other 3 songs R good portraits: "What's Going On?" Cms 2 poke fun at summa Al's friends, "Not the One" & "Next Time" R companion pieces about breakups & lonely lives.
But the 2nd side, whoo.... "Apple Cider Reconstitution" is Al's best-ever piece of silliness, w/ a great rolling melody & marvelous meaningless choruses. "The Dark and Rolling Sea" is its Xact opposite, a tale of pirates & Btrayal w/ a very dark Nding. The title song is an epic about Al meeting an old friend in a pub & reminiscing ... only the old friend doesn't want 2 reminisce. I have my theories about what happens at the Nd (it's not real clear from the lyrics), but there's some Xcellent western-style guitar work from Tim Renwick that the song rides out on. A superb side.
I kept looking. Picked-up the budget-priced THE EARLY YEARS, featuring songs from Al's 1st 4 albums, but Xcept 4 the folkie ditty "You Should Have Listened to Al" & the almost-good "Electric Los Angeles Sunset," I couldn't get in2 it. Tho I was impressed that stars like Jimmy Page & Rick Wakeman played on these tracks, the songs just didn't Cm FINISHED, somehow. Something Cmd 2 B missing....
Al ditched Parsons & co-produced 1980's 24 CARROTS. Some of it was even closer 2 EZ Listening than TIME PASSAGES -- the minor hit "Midnight Rocks" reverted back 2 the old hit-single-4mula. But there was good stuff here 2, like the dramatic opening spy saga "Running Man," & the gorgeous folkie "Rocks in the Ocean," which shoulda bn a hit. Most of the 2nd side was pretty great, even the overlooked closers "Paint by Numbers" & "Optical Illusions." & then there was a classic piece of silliness, "Mondo Sinistro," in which Al Cmd 2 B making fun of himself & his obsessions, in a rather-2-effeminate voice....
Al followed-up w/ a 2-disc set called LIVE/INDIAN SUMMER, 3 sides live & 1 side of pretty 4gettable studio trax. But it didn't sell much, Dspite including a rather good live version of "Nostradamus" which incorporated a new oil-shortage-era # called "The World Comes to Riyadh." Arista Records dropped Al soon after.
I've only heard bits & pieces of Al since then. RUSSIANS AND AMERICANS included a sad farewell 2 a dead friend called "Incident on 4th Street," & a dumb then-current-news/topical rewrite of the '60s hit "1-2-3." THE LAST DAYS OF THE CENTURY Cmd kinda tired, but included another classic piece of silliness, "Red Toupee" -- sorta a "Mondo Sinistro, Part 2."
Lost touch w/ Al after that. Last I heard, he still tours, per4ming in small clubs & adding 2 his wine cellar. His CD-best-of SONGS FROM THE RADIO was pretty well-chosen, but the liner notes almost told me more about the songs than I wanted 2 know. The package DID include "Roads to Moscow" & the live "Nostradamus," tho nothing from MODERN TIMES....
If U've never heard Al, he's worth a try. Tho not as deep as Nick Drake & definitely not heavy rock& roll, if U're an art-rock or British folk fan, a lotta Al's middle-period stuff will likely do its magic on U....


rastronomicals said...

I never bought any of Al Stewart's music, but I was given some of it a few different times. I knew and liked "Year of the Cat." I remember a local AM radio station with the call letters WKAT had adopted the song as its theme for a while there.

But the single I found when going through my father's bag-o-singles one day in 1977 was the follow up, "On the Border." Which I heard on the radio down here, too, but I liked playing it on my record player better. I seem to remember it being on Janus, though, not on Arista . . . .

It was because I liked "On the Border" that I was able to recognize Past Present and Future when I found it in one of my dad's more infrequent album grab-bags. I pretty much liked the album all the way through. "Warren Harding" and "The Last Day of June 1934" were favorites from Side One, though it was apparent that Stewart spent more time with Side Two. And yeah, I noticed that Rick Wakeman had a credit. Along with Argent's Circus, PP&F quickly came to be considered a lost classic in my book.

Funny that I never went out and followed it up with any album purchases. It must have been that I was afraid of the Adult Contemporary tag: I liked "On the Border" and the later (Arista) single I also copped from my old man, "Time Passages," but I also noticed that I didn't really like the other songs playing on the radio stations which played those Stewart tunes.

Probably a disservice to Al, there, but what are you gonna do? Al Stewart was clearly quality music, but my listening habits were just as clearly going in opposite directions.

Funny aside: Middle of high school, say, I remember this Hendrixfan friend of mine started adapting the music he went out and listened to towards those favored by attractive females, let us say.

So one night I made the mistake of allowing him to drag me to an electronic dance music club. He didn't get laid, of course I didn't, and the music was horrible. I guess I didn't have a poker face, because at some point as we're driving home, Jose asked me whether or not I dug any of the music. And I bit my lip and said that some of the Al Stewart they'd played was alright.

Of course it hadn't been Al Stewart, it had been The Pet Shop Boys. :-/

And of course it hadn't been alright, either. But Neil Tennant's voice (and it DOES sound like Al Stewart's) was the only thing that was even the tiniest bit distinctive over four hours of monotonous beat-driven music . . . .

tad said...

R: U're right, a lot of Al's earlier stuff was issued on Janus Records in America -- his 2nd album, LOVE CHRONICLES, was originally issued in America on Epic. TIME PASSAGES was Al's 1st album in the U.S. 2 B released by Arista, triggering a lawsuit that musta gotten more complex when Janus/GRT/Ampex went bankrupt.... Arista re-issued Al's back-catalog stuff while Al was hot, even tho they dropped him later. Always liked Arista's daring in the late-'70s (Al, Camel, Alan Parsons, Happy the Man, Caravan, David Sancious, etc.), but they dropped people 2 quickly....
I'm gonna havta re-listen 2 Side 1 of PAST PRESENT & FUTURE 1 of these years.... -- TAD.

rastronomicals said...

True story: I left the comment I had here at like two in the morning, then went to bed.
I wake up Sunday morning, pour some coffee, and run out the door and go to the pool store. I'd listened to no music at all, until I walk into the store and what do you think is playing on their PA? "Year of the Cat."

I leave the comment then the very next music I hear is one of the songs I left my comment about. Wouldn't be so weird except it'd been at least 15 years since I'd heard the tune prior.

Synchronicity is sometimes unsubtle.