Al Stewart picked up a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award at last week’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
His music career started back in the mid-1960s. Over the years he’s created lots of great music. But if Al Stewart had only ever written one song — “Year Of The Cat” — that would have deserved a lifetime achievement award all of its own in my book.
I will admit that “Year Of The Cat” is probably one of the least folk-inspired songs in Al Stewart’s repertoire, but it’s such a great song I’ll gladly take any excuse to write about it.
One of my favourite records of the 1970s, it has delightfully evocative lyrics, a piano part that is one of the best ever recorded and a sax solo second only to “Baker Street” in its brilliance…and a very close second at that.
The music for “Year Of The Cat” started off as an improvised warm-up routine by piano player Peter Wood. Al Stewart had heard Peter Wood playing an intriguing riff at every sound-check on a US tour and liked it so much, he asked for permission to write some lyrics to go with the tune. The original riff ended up as the intro for “Year Of The Cat”
It wasn’t easy, and the song that would become “Year Of The Cat” went through a number of iterations, none of which worked particularly well, before becoming the song we know today.
Al Stewart’s first attempt at the lyrics was a song about classic British comedian Tony Hancock. Stewart had seen Hancock at a concert shortly before Tony Hancock took his own life and had a premonition that something dreadful was going to happen to him.
The song was originally called “Foot of the Stage” and had a refrain that went:
Your tears fell down like rain
At the foot of the stage
(You’ll notice that “At the foot of the stage” and “In the Year of the Cat” scan exactly the same.)
Although popular in the UK and Australia, Tony Hancock never made it big in the US. Al Stewart’s record company was probably right to be unconvinced that an American audience would buy a record about a tragic, and by then sadly deceased, British comedian they’d never heard of.
After a number of other, ultimately unsuccessful, attempts Al Stewart came across his then-girlfriend’s book on Vietnamese astrology, which happened to be open at the page for “The Year of the Cat”. Like Chinese astrology, the Vietnamese apparently symbolise each year with a different animal on a repeating cycle.
With a new title to hang the song on, Al Stewart got to work on the lyrics again, but they still proved difficult.
Until one day when he was watching the classic film “Casablanca”, starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and Ingrid Bergman. The pieces fell into place.
The combination of Al Stewart’s lyric writing and one of cinema’s most iconic films led to some of the best opening lines in pop music history:
On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime
The soft, far-away music, the evocative lyrics and the dreamy quality of Al Stewart’s voice all pull together to create a multi-coloured picture of some bustling, exotic, ancient city, where traditional markets teem with spice vendors and carpet salesmen, while the baking heat and intense smells of the orient hang in the air.
Although I’ve never been there myself, I’d be almost certain that Casablanca does indeed have sprawling street markets with vendors of all manner of exotic spices, foods and artworks. However, that doesn’t need to be absolutely true for the song still to work.
Great lyrics work with the picture we already have in our minds about a person or place. If they do that successfully, the lyrics work well even if a few creative liberties get taken along the way.
But back to our story…
Next, we’re introduced to another character:
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolour in the rain
This mysterious lady takes us on a trip through the alleyways and backstreets of this far-off ancient city…or a metaphorical trip through the alleyways and backstreets of our own memories and emotions, if you like…the lyrics work either way…
She doesn’t give you time for questions
As she locks up your arm in hers
And you follow ‘till your sense of which direction
If you’ve ever been in love you’ll recognise this masterly description of the delightful disorientation that falling in love brings to otherwise sane and rational individuals.
Somehow, a door opens to a mysterious, and unexplored, place. You don’t know where you’re going. But at that point in time, more than anything, you want to go wherever the path leads.
Al Stewart keeps the metaphor building…
By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls
There’s a hidden door she leads you to
You walk happily through this hidden door arm in arm with the lady in the silk dress.
What’s on the other side? Who knows…but you walk through anyway, a tangled mess of hope, love, faith and trust.
You take the first steps on a journey. But the mystery hasn’t ended. It’s only just begun…
For me, “Year Of The Cat” evocatively, if metaphorically, describes the process of falling in love, and does so better than just about any other popular song. That’s why it’s one of my favourite songs of all time.
Al Stewart wrote the lyrics and sung lead vocals for “Year Of The Cat”.
But it would be unfair not to mention Peter Wood’s tremendous piano work, and musical composition, which inspired Al Stewart to write the lyrics in the first place. Also Phil Kenzie’s masterly saxophone solo.
Production was by Alan Parsons, a legendary figure in the British music scene of the 1970s, famous for his work on “Dark Side of the Moon” alongside many other great records.
“Year Of The Cat” is a lyrical and musical delight. If you’d like a decent quality audio version of the song, that’s here.
However, there’s also a tremendous live performance by Al Stewart and his band on The Old Grey Whistle Test, which appears below. The musicians are so good live that you hardly notice it isn’t the recorded version…the only clue is the “strings” are from a keyboard, whereas the record uses “real” strings.
That’s a relatively small price to pay for a truly brilliant live performance though. I hope you enjoy “Year Of The Cat”, with lyrics by Al Stewart and music by Peter Wood…
The video is below or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here…https://open.spotify.com/track/0RAPMP5Hm91ug3AiYcOz2m
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.