Mona Bone Jakon (1970)
Lady D'Arbanville/Maybe You're Right/Pop Star/I Think I See The Light/Trouble/Mona Bone Jakon/I Wish, I Wish/Katmandu/Time/Fill My Eyes/Lilywhite
Cat Stevens had suffered from tuberculosis in 1968 and after considerable recuperation, he returned in early 1970 with this highly impressive album. Always a sensitive lyricist, the slightly pop styled songs he had released a few years previously had developed into some seriously reflective, spiritual and wise material. This was going to be his most productive and fecund period as a recording artist.
Lady D'Arbanville is just gorgeous. Haunting and mysterious. Who was she, I wonder? His ex-lover, apparently. When listening to the song I always imagine her as some historical character. It is a supremely atmospheric song. Maybe You're Right is a mid-tempo rock-ish ballad with hints of Bob Dylan from the same era about it. Not sure which song. I Threw It All Away, I think.
Pop Star is blues rocky and sees Stevens already cynical about the pitfalls of fame and the music industry. I Think I See The Light is very early Elton John in style, full of vocal attack and a rocking vibe. This is Stevens at his effervescent, spirited best. His spiritual quest is beginning to be given expression.
Trouble is a laid-back, beautiful acoustic ballad. Again, Stevens did this sort of thing so well. Mona Bone Jakon is a short song in praise of Stevens’ penis, apparently. This was his name for it. Coming from the gentle, sensitive Stevens, it sits somewhat incongruously. I am sure the Lady D’Arbanville enjoyed it, though. I Wish, I Wish is a rocky, vibrant number with a ending drum and piano sound and Stevens ruminating on the pace of the modern world an hoping for a better future. A great guitar solo passage in the middle of it too.
Katmandu is a wistful, airy acoustic and sublime bass-based ballad, with a bit of folky flute thrown in there too. It is a truly beautiful piece of music and vocals. A bit Crosby, Stills and Nash in places. Tapping in to the relaxing, chilled-out folky trend of the era. It is perfect. Time is an almost psychedelic ballad, although it is still acoustic, with some sweeping string orchestration. It sounds like mid 1990s Paul Weller. He must have listened to this. It segues seamlessly into the similarly beguiling Fill My Eyes, another razor-sharp acoustic ballad. Lilywhite is a beautifully orchestrated song, its backing almost classical. A lovely end to a thought-provoking and meaningful piece of work.
Tea For The Tillerman (1970)
Where Do The Children Play?/Hard Headed Woman/Wild World/Sad Lisa/Miles From Nowhere/But I Might Die Tonight/Longer Boats/Into White/On The Road To Find Out/Father To Son/Tea For The Tillerman
This is a melodic and effortlessly appealing album from an artist who was about enter the best few years of his career. Cat Stevens, as you would expect, from his later development, was beginning to express spirituality in his songs, but many of them were also simple tender, romantic and sensitive love songs. Stevens sung also of the conflict between young and old, the search for spiritual satisfaction and he expressed a dissatisfaction with a world he found increasingly soulless and at times abhorrent. However, at the same time as expressing all this angst that found so many eager listeners in student bedsits, Stevens never lost his skill in creating a perfect pop song, honed in the sixties. This was always with him. He had an ear for a melody, for sure.
Where Do The Children Play? questions technological progress and builds up slowly and acoustically, with razor sharp guitars reproduced in wonderful remastered sound quality and ends with a solid rock beat. Just as it starts to up its beat, it comes to an end. Enjoyable though. Hard Headed Woman is tender and sensitive, immaculately sung and played, and Wild World is the incredibly catchy hit single well known to many. Maxi Priest released a credible reggae cover of it, as also did Jimmy Cliff.
Sad Lisa has hints of Elton John’s Sixty Years On, full of sweeping string orchestration and a stark but melodious piano and a typical articulate, gentle vocal from Stevens. There is a darker side to the song, however, as it explores Lisa’s psychosis. Miles From Nowhere is pounding vibrant almost rock song with some stirring piano and drums and a vocal of power and conviction. But I Might Die Tonight explores the same generation gap/advice themes that occur later in Father And Son. Longer Boats is a lyrically incomprehensible mystery of a song, but it has a catchy refrain. Stevens said at the time it was about flying saucers. Yeah, ok Cat. Into White is quiet, introspective and folky. Nick Drake-ish. On The Road To Find Out is a lengthier song about setting out on a spiritual quest, all delivered very tunefully.
Then there is Father To Son. The original, so wise and sensitive. What a song. Maybe Cat Stevens’ finest song ever. It is uplifting, inspiring, heartbreaking and beautiful.
Tea For The Tillerman ends this beguiling and interesting album with a minute’s worth of semi-song that breaks into a bit of gospel and then ends. You are left wanting more from that one, but not from the album as a whole. It is a good one, and so very 1970-71.
Teaser And The Firecat (1971)
The Wind/Ruby Love/If I Laugh/Changes IV/How Can I Tell You/Tuesday's Dead/Morning Has Broken/Bitterblue/Moonshadow/Peace Train
Cat Stevens released a series of phenomenally good albums in the early seventies. This is possibly the best of them. Back then he had the image of a wandering minstrel/troubadour and delivered wise, soothsayer-style lyrics in that reassuring voice of his.
The Wind is a beautiful, melodic acoustic opener. Ruby Love features the Greek string instrument, the bouzouki, and Stevens singing one verse in Greek (he was born to Greek parents). It is captivating, summery and lively. The Greek feeling makes it really evocative. If I Laugh has a lovely, deep and tuneful bass line and yet another wistful, haunting vocal from Stevens. Yet more crystal clear acoustic guitar and some mesmeric drum work introduces the staccato Changes IV which has Cat rocking out somewhat in his vocal in that stride, strong voice that he could use on such upbeat songs. There tend to be two types of Cat Stevens songs - gentle, tender softly-sung ballads and more aggressive, stop-start acoustic attached songs that usually include pounding drums. Changes IV is one of the latter. The next track, How Can I Tell You is one of the former. It has hints of Elton John’s Elton John album in its almost medieval keyboards. Lyrically, Stevens was either romantic in a child-like, starry-eyed and fascinated sort of way or else he was proselytising on the state of the world or else searching for spiritual fulfilment.
Tuesday's Dead has an upbeat, calypso-style infectious rhythm that sounds very Paul Simon-ish. This album has far more livelier moments than the previous Tea For The Tillerman album, which was more reflective in feel. Cat rocks out a lot more on this album.
Morning Has Broken is maybe my favourite, inspirational hymn of all time. Against a beautiful piano (played by Rick Wakeman of Yes), Stevens delivers in a lovely, gentle, sincere voice that makes it clear just what a beautiful song this was/is. Simply heart-warming, but sad too, in many ways. Just when you are feeling a bit sad and emotional, one of those punchy numbers is back with the rocking Bitterblue. I have to say at this point that the remastered sound is superb on this latest edition.
Moonshadow is one of those almost nursery-rhyme songs that Cat did so damn well. It is just totally entrancing. For me, Cat Stevens’ recordings from the early seventies bring so much joy, so much innocence, yet so knowing and wise at the same time. Peace Train continues in that wise vein - it is upbeat, vigorous and uplifting, full of gospelly handclaps and a vocal full of passionate conviction. Cat tells it as it is. Fantastic stuff. It is probably my favourite album of his.
Catch Bull At Four (1972)
Sitting/The Boy With A Moon And Star On His Head/Anglesea/Silent Sunlight/Can't Keep It In/18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)/Freezing Steel/O' Caritas/Sweet Scarlet/Ruins
This was Cat Stevens' final folky album before he bravely attempted to experiment with the following year's Foreigner. He was at a bit of a crossroads, and he was definitely still trying to put the world to rights. He was never comfortable with being a "pop star" yet he seemed to be able to put out regular, appealing albums that always contained a killer hit single. This was not a "bedsitter" album of poetic tenderness, however, there was far more attack, disillusion and religious undertones to be found in its tracks. Were the old studenty fans still with him? Maybe not.
Sitting is an Elton John-influenced, piano-driven solid ballad with Stevens on customary dominant vocal form. There is an impressive rolling drum passage half way through the song. The Boy With A Moon And Star On His Head has a T. Rex-inspired title and a very America-style acoustic guitar backing. It has a plaintive, poetic hippy-inspired lyric, as one had come to expect from Stevens in this period. It actually is a rather lovely song. however. Anglesea has a rapidly-strummed acoustic backing that reminds me of some of Neil Diamond's late sixties material. The track is energetic and committed and includes some wonderful keyboard riffs and some Greek folk music choral backing.
Silent Sunlight is a plaintively sung ballad with some lovely strings and a moving vocal. Yes, Stevens' voice has always brought accusations of melodrama, but one could never doubt his sincerity or indeed, his ability to move the soul. The jerky, catchy Can't Keep It In was the album's hit single, and deservedly so. It has a captivating organ riff and a typically uncompromising vocal.
18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare) also has echoes of Elton John about it. Surely Billy Joel was influenced by this too. Great orchestration on it and inspirational piano. Freezing Steel is in the same vein, but more quirkily energetic. O' Caritas is sung in Greek (until right at the end) and borrows completely from the Greek folk tradition. It is most atmospheric. Sweet Scarlet is a gentle, tuneful, sparsely-backed ballad. Ruins is slightly reminiscent of David Bowie's acoustically-driven rock from the same period. The thoughtful lyrics and instinctive sincerity that characterised Stevens' late sixties/early seventies work is still here. This is still a good album.
Foreigner Suite/The Hurt/How Many Times/Later/100 I Dream
After four folky, sensitive, acoustically-driven, wordily titled albums in Mona Bone Jakon, Tea For The Tillerman, Teaser And The Firecat and Catch Bull At Four, Cat Stevens decided to change direction somewhat. Possibly inspired by contemporaries in the prog rock genre, he went experimental, releasing an album containing only five tracks. The original "side one" was one continuous "suite" lasting eighteen minutes. All very ambitious. The problem with ambition is that it can over-reach, and to a certain extent that was what happened here. The concept didn't really work and, tellingly, the next album, Buddah And The Chocolate Box saw a return to the previous blueprint.
In many ways, the Foreigner Suite's content could have been divided in to four four minute-something songs, as opposed to an amalgam of tempting, teasing vignettes. Stevens also employs a group of New York session musicians in the place of his regular ones and the quality is good, powerful but it loses some of the previous albums' homely, folky appeal. This is muscular, solid stuff. Much of the sound is keyboard-based (as opposed to acoustic interplay) and there are sweeping string passages, Beatles-esque brass sections and even some funky, rhythmic parts straight out of a blaxploitation soundtrack, plus some Jethro Tull-influenced flute. Some Elton John piano is in there too. I remember at the time that the whole "concept" of this didn't really catch on with the public.
The "second" passage at about five minutes in, the "freedom calling" passage, would have made a fine Elton John-ish track. Each singing bit is linked by some impressive instrumental breaks. Stevens' voice, when it arrives, is strong and committed, the lyrics concerning his feelings about being considered something of a "foreigner" due to his Greek heritage, or so it sounds to me anyway. Stevens himself says it is about feeling a foreigner in attempting to play material influenced by black music. I'm not convinced by that, to be honest. While it has soulful aspects, it is certainly no exploration into black music.
The "there are no words" passage is evocative and Stevens' vocal is moving. This would have made a good track too. It is uplifting and inspiring, in a gospelly way at times. As I said earlier, there are several winning parts to this suite. The final piano part is infectious too. The whole suite is listenable, its eighteen minutes do not drag, due to its many changes of pace. Fair play to Stevens for attempting this.
The Hurt is a staccato rock tune with lots of female backing vocals and a strong vocal. How Many Times is a yearning ballad, with a solid bass, piano and drum backing. It is another emotive song. Later is probably the most "black music"-influenced number, with some funky wah-wah guitar and a pounding funk drum rhythm. It is a distinct change in style from anything Stevens had recorded previously. 100 I Dream has a catchy, almost country rock feel to it, the one throwback to his previous material. It is instantly recognisable as Cat Stevens and is a fetching track. It also has a few subtle soulful/funky touches as well.
This album is currently available very cheaply, particularly to download. It is well worth it.
Buddah And The Chocolate Box (1974)
Music/Oh Very Young/Sun/C79/Ghost Town/Jesus/Ready/King Of Trees/A Bad Penny/Home In The Sky
After the experimental five track only album in Foreigner that perplexed critics and fans alike, Cat Stevens returned with an album that was far closer to his previous ones. It proved to be one of his most successful and fondly-remembered offerings.
This is slightly less of a folky album than its predecessors, though, carrying more of a rock thump to it in places. The old Stevens subtlety and unassuming beauty is omnipresent, however.
The opener, Music is a vibrant, drum, guitar and piano driven number. Very “rock”. Even Oh Very Young, the melodic hit single, has a catchy, mellow rockiness to it when it kicks in. The tune is just so typical Cat, though. So mellifluous. The piano is sumptuous. The song is simply beautiful. Sun/C79 has an intoxicating rhythm and pulsating attack from Stevens vocally and with his firmly strummed trusty acoustic guitar. Ghost Town is almost bluesy in places, with a harmonica backing and resounding drum sound.
Jesus is a short rumination upon the character of Christ and Buddha that unfortunately ends before it has truly got going. Many of the songs on the album were full of religious imagery, however.
Ready is another short but catchy number. King Of Trees is longer - a lovely piano-led melody, full of cadence and harmonious backing vocals, a full minute or so before Stevens arrives. It seems allegorial about the environment. These songs are so sincere, so intense, so serious, but so appealing too.
That familiar medieval-style keyboard is used on A Bad Penny to great effect, as it always is. Cat’s vocal is excellent on this one, as is the backing. Home In The Sky starts with some a capella vocals before a churchy piano and organ lead us into an infectious slow and beautiful closer. Beautiful is a word I have used a lot. “Music is a lady that I still love” sings Cat. Yes, and she is beautiful.