By Hans Ebert
It was a track called “Into The Lillywhite” on the album “Mona Bone Jakon”, which, like many of his next few recordings was produced by former bass guitarist with the Yardbirds Paul Samwell Smith, that really introduced me to the work of the artist named Cat Stevens who was born Steven Giorgiou.
I had heard some of his music when with Deram Records- often over-produced and almost bombastic records like “Matthew And Son”, “I Love My Dog” and “I’m Gonna Buy Me A Gun” and the very honest “The First Cut Is The Deepest” written for singer PP Arnold for around thirty quid etc. But it wasn’t until he signed to Chris Blackwell and his co-founders’ then-fledgling Island Records, did I actually start to seek out the music of Cat Stevens.
Truth be known, I bought everything released on the Island imprint. Chris Blackwell was, to me, a musical visionary. How else would you describe someone who had the foresight to hear that certain something in the reggae music of Toots and The Maytals, and Bob Marley and the Wailers?
He also believed in and signed up King Crimson, U2, Roxy Music, Robert Palmer and so many more.
The label’s first hit: “My Boy Lollipop” by Millie Small with an unknown Rod Stewart recorded playing harmonica.
Many years later, I had the opportunity to listen to Chris Blackwell’s stories over a dinner in a Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong.
Other than my interest in his group of luxury resorts- my then-wife was very much part of the Amanresorts brand- The World’s Most Interesting Man took the small group of us music executives through his incredible journey into music.
In his soft-spoken manner with moments of wry humour, Chris Blackwell mentioned the advice he gave Cat Stevens on how to get out of his contract with Deram and sign with Island. It was along the lines of not bathing nor combing his hair for a couple of weeks and then going and telling them how he wanted to make a very very ambitious and expensive ‘concept’ album with a full orchestra along with all the bells whistles. How Deram would baulk at the production costs, think he was way too much trouble to deal with and release him from his contract. It worked.
Cat Stevens left Deram and released his most successful albums with Island. Blackwell was also open enough to admit over dinner that one of his worst business mistakes was allowing the singer-songwriter to own his publishing.
At that time, I didn’t realise the intricacies and various webs of deceit woven around the ownership of Publishing Rights.
Today, I understand what Chris Blackwell was talking about when it came to the incredible catalogue of songs owned by Cat Stevens. Cat Stevens not only owned the publishing to his songs, he owned and controlled the way they were interpreted- really stripped down and with him becoming the storyteller.
His unique voice drew one into “Lady D’Arbanville”- his American girlfriend for a couple of years and the subject matter for many of his songs at the time- “Wild World”, “Where Do The Children Play”, “Morning Has Broken”, “Moonshadow” and “Father And Son”.
All were introspective songs which, somehow, sounded more intimate when performed in concert. Watching him in concert at the Royal Albert Hall with only Alun Davies on guitar at his side was a life-changing experience. I wanted to be him- Cat Stevens.
This led to a couple of years of writing songs for every girl I dated, wearing similar clothes- paisley shirts, velveteen jackets, leather wristbands, denim boots- growing a beard, growing the hair out and, whenever possible, taking out those fragile looking flowers who weren’t what they seemed and moved in the same circle as Lady D’Arbanville.
Alas, efforts to woo singer-songwriter Carly Simon, who wrote “Anticipation” for him, and became a couple for a while, escaped me. Life can be cruel.
Meanwhile, albums like “Tea For The Tillerman” and “Teaser And The Firecat” with the cover art being his work remain some of the most perfect records produced.
One thought that this work was leading to a musical concept record like Harry Nilsson’s brilliant “The Point”, but this never materialised. Though there were the commercial hits like “Catch Bull At Four”, critics were confused with albums like “Buddha And The Chocolate Box”, later, “Izitso”, and the ambitious “Foreigner”.
The latter was a record that had a huge influence on me. Guess I was going through various personal changes and could hear one of my favourite artists possibly growing tired of those years of being the Cat.
Then came a near death experience where he nearly drowned and made a promise to himself that if he survived, he would give up the pop star lifestyle. He did. He became Yusuf and embraced Islam.
Cat Stevens who started life as Steven Georgiou was now known as Yusuf Islam. And with all the paranoia that followed 9/11, it had to have impacted the life and career of the artist who still wanted to travel around the world and share his music.
There were visa problems trying to get into America and even when he did, he was met with a media with a preconceived narrative, but Yusuf Islam explained everything he was going through and had gone through as honestly as he could to interviewers like Larry King. It couldn’t have been easy.
Going back recently and listening to much of his work as Cat Stevens, there are telltale signs of an artist searching for something greater than what is placed in front of us. Especially moving to me was listening to “Oh Very Young” and then returning and listening to where it all started for me with this artist: “Into The Lilywhite”.
Music is such a personal journey. More and more, what I hear makes no impression on me. Most of it sounds like something else that’s grown out from something else and is filler fodder. At least, it is for me.
These days, it’s not that much about who’s creating it, but how it’s affecting the inner self, perhaps even spiritually, and to where it’s all leading.
It’s not unlike Lennon singing, “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream” on “Tomorrow Never Knows”.
Tomorrow really is another day. So enjoy whatever is here in the Now while you can. It’s certain to not be here nor what it is today- tomorrow.
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