Folk/Rock Legend Al Stewart Talks About His Great Career And Writing His Classic Hit Songs, “Year Of The Cat” and “Time Passages”
With a career that spans over 50 years, British singer/songwriter Al Stewart has been a legendary artist whose albums have received critical acclaim and achieved platinum success. Probably best known for his best-selling albums and hit singles in the 1970s, Stewart has created a large body of work, and he remains active and continues to tour.
Stewart emerged in the UK folk music scene in the late ‘60s, and he released several albums early on. Each one became more successful, particularly Past, Present and Future (in 1973) and Modern Times (1975). Then in 1976, he reached a whole new level, when his single “Year of the Cat” became a worldwide hit, and his album, Year of the Cat, reached platinum status. Then in 1978, Stewart built on that success when he released his follow-up album, Time Passages, which also went platinum and contained the Top 10 single, “Time Passages.”
The singles “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” were two of the biggest and most memorable songs of that era. Both songs had unique, distinctive lyrics accompanied by long, flowing music arrangements. Both songs were six minutes long (with edited versions for radio airplay), and featured soaring saxophone solos, lush strings and other instrumentation. These two records have become classics and remain popular to this day.
Both the Year of the Cat and Time Passages albums have recently been released in new deluxe editions by Esoteric Recordings, a UK label. The new Time Passages edition comes in a 4-disc boxed set, with the recordings newly remastered from the original master tapes by legendary producer, Alan Parsons. The new packages also come with a DVD and an illustrated 69-page book. Here’s a link for more information: Time Passages Special Edition
Stewart, who is now 76, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and he grew up in Wimborne, England. He learned to play guitar, and he played in rock cover bands before developing a passion for folk music. He was influenced by listening to early classic songs by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, and then he developed his own songwriting.
By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Stewart became a leading figure on the British folk scene, and he recorded his albums Bedsitter Images (1967), Love Chronicles (1969), Zero She Flies (1970) and Orange (1972). He became known for his unique and descriptive lyric writing, and he wrote in-depth about literary and historical topics.
Then in 1973, Stewart released his classic album, Past, Present and Future, which he considers to be his best album. In 1975, he released his next album, Modern Times, which contained his first chart hit, “Carol.”
In 1976, Stewart released his breakthrough album, Year of the Cat. Besides the title track single, the album contained the chart hit, “On The Border.” Then in 1978, he released the album Time Passages, which contained the title track hit and “Song on the Radio,” which was a Top 30 hit.
Following these two platinum albums, Stewart focused more on his folk/rock music style (rather than pop). He subsequently released the albums 24 Carrots (1980, which contained the hit “Midnight Rocks”), Russians & Americans (1984), Last Days of the Century (1988), Famous Last Words (1993), Between The Wars (1995), Down in the Cellar (2000), A Beach Full of Shells (2005) and Sparks of Ancient Light (2008).
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Al Stewart. He tells how he got started as a singer/songwriter, how he wrote his hits “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages, and he discusses his songwriting process. Stewart spoke openly about his career, his songs, and key points in his life, and he also told some funny stories.
DK: I read that you were born in Glasgow, and then you grew up in England. How did you get into music and start writing songs?
Al Stewart: Well, those are two different things. Like everybody else, when I was around 13, I got caught up listening to all the early rock & roll stars like Eddie Cochran, the Everly Brothers, Elvis and Chuck Berry. So I was listening to all of that, and I wasn’t writing songs at that time. The next thing that happened was when I left school, rock & roll had launched all these guitar players and rock bands. In England, the Shadows were the catalysts. They were incredibly successful with about 30 hit records; all instrumentals.
When I got a guitar, I learned lots of Shadows tunes, and I joined an instrumental combo and we played at the local village dances. In the midst of doing that, the Beatles came along, and the Shadows were pushed out of the limelight. So we had to learn to sing. Around 1963-65 I was playing in local beat groups in Bournemouth.
Here’s the audio of Al Stewart’s classic hit, “Year of the Cat.”
In the midst of doing that, I discovered this very esoteric American singer named Bob Dylan, who I thought sounded like a farmhand but wrote incredible lyrics. I started buying his records, and as a side project, I started learning his songs.
There was a revelatory moment. We were a regular band at Bournemouth’s hottest club, and we played there every week. We’d play for an hour and then the rest of the band would go over to the pub, and then come back to play for another hour. I didn’t drink, so I didn’t want to go to the pub. So while the guys were at the pub, I’d play some songs onstage during the interval. I got an acoustic guitar out, and I played “Masters Of War,” which was one of Dylan’s most intense early songs. The whole room froze…you could have heard a pin drop. Usually, when the band played cover songs like “Twist and Shout,” the crowd would dance frenetically but they wouldn’t clap. But when I sang “Desolation Row,” the audience broke into applause. I looked at the audience and I was shocked. But I knew something was happening.
It was then that I decided to move to London. I’d heard that there was a folk scene in London that was beginning to burgeon. So in the beginning of 1965, I toodled up to London and I got lucky. I started going around to clubs, and the first one that I went to was a coffee bar called Bunjies, and I walked in with a guitar. The owner saw the guitar and asked, “Are you a folk singer?” I wasn’t yet, but I smelled a gig. So I said, “Yes.” Then he said, “Well, can you start on Friday?” (laughs). So I started, and I learned all the songs from Bob Dylan’s first three albums. It worked out fine…the audiences liked it.
Then a couple months after I got the gig, I went to another folk club which turned into the biggest folk club in London. And I saw Bert Jansch playing guitar there. It became obvious—he had the tune called “Angie” and if you couldn’t play it on guitar, no one took you seriously. So I had to learn finger style, which is a very difficult thing to do. But I persevered and eventually was able to play “Angie.” It was then that people began to take me a little more seriously.
Then there was another revelation, when I saw Bob Dylan play at the Royal Albert Hall.
Here’s the audio of Al Stewart’s classic hit, “Time Passages.”
He came onstage with just an acoustic guitar and played for two hours. To see 5,000 people packed into the Royal Albert Hall for one guy with an acoustic guitar, it was a game changer.
Then my third revelation, which changed everything, was when I was staying in a place in the East End of London, with a social worker. One day she said to me, “There’s this American singer who always stays here when he comes to London. So you’re gonna have to move out of your room, into the little room next door.” I said, “What’s his name?” She says, “Paul Simon.” I’d heard of him; Simon & Garfunkel had this record called Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.
So Paul Simon moves in next door to me, and I literally could hear him writing songs through the wall. And I can tell you as a songwriter, if you finish something, you have no idea if it’s any good, and the first thing you want to do is to play it for someone. So Paul would finish songs, and he’d come out and look around for someone to play it to. Paul shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well I’ll play it to you.” And so that’s where I heard “Homeward Bound,” “Richard Cory” and “I Am A Rock.” And I thought…How’s he doing this? So I listened carefully, and through the wall I could hear him sing, “I’m sittin’ on the railway station got a ticket for my….” And there’s this long pause, and then I’d hear him say, “Graduation…elation…consternation…jubilation…destination” (laughs). He would just plug in words. So I thought…that’s what you do. You just throw all these words in the air until one fits. And now I had my role models: Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
DK: Early in your career, you released a few albums before you had major chart success. Can you talk about your early albums, before Year of the Cat?
Stewart: Well, the first album was called Bedsitter Images, and it had an orchestra on it. The only reason it had an orchestra on it, was that Judy Collins had a record out with an orchestra that had done well. CBS Records, who signed me, said, “Try to make a record like Judy Collins.” And so we did…we had an orchestra. As it turned out, it was fiendishly expensive, and it took me three years of gigs to pay it off.
Love Chronicles was the second album. I’d said, “Screw it. I’m not doing an orchestra again. I’ll use an established band.” Which happened to be Fairport Convention, because they knew how to play folk-rock. And I managed to get Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin) to play guitar on the title track. The songs were getting a little more sophisticated and ambitious.
Here’s the audio of Al Stewart’s hit, “On The Border.”
With the third album, Zero She Flies, I decided to go folky and acoustic. But I remember hearing the results, and I didn’t like it at all. I thought…God, this is going straight down the toilet. But somewhat remarkably, each album outsold the one before it.
Then I did an album of lost love songs, called Orange. I found a proper producer, John Anthony, who would go on to produce some big singles for Queen. And then I made a conscious decision. I listened to the first four albums and I couldn’t see what I was doing wrong. I knew I was doing something wrong. But Orange actually made it to #11 on the Virgin Records chart, so I knew I was also doing something right. But I hadn’t found my own voice, really. By this time, I was playing concerts and selling out universities, and I was one of “the guys” on the British folk scene. It was gratifying but I wondered…How do I make it better and different? So I looked at what I’d done, and there were too many love songs. I know love songs are popular and I know that people like them, but after you’ve written a song like “Love Chronicles,” which is 18 minutes long, what is there left to say? (laughs). Surely there’s something else.
I was reading lots of books…a lot of literature and history. I would sit up all night reading about Russian history and stuff like that. And I thought…I’ll make a record of historical folk-rock songs. It hadn’t been done…I can’t imagine anyone else even thinking of doing it. And it seemed like commercial suicide, because who would buy such a thing? So I ended up writing an 8-minute song (“Roads to Moscow”) about the Barbarossa campaign and the German invasion of Russia in World War II. And I had an even longer song about the prophet Nostradamus. And a song (“Old Admirals”) about Jackie Fisher, who was the first Sea Lord of the British Admiralty in World War I. All this really esoteric stuff. It really wasn’t a pop record, but it came out and outsold the first four albums put together (laughs). It was called Past, Present and Future. All of a sudden, that took me out of the college circuit where I thought I was doing pretty well, and I started playing at the Royal Festival Hall and places like that, where folk singers had really not gone before. This was a promotion, and I realized that people really liked those songs.
Then I met an English guy, Luke (O’Reilly), who had gone to America and become a disc jockey in Philadelphia. He’d come back to England and was working with Miles Copeland, who ended up managing The Police and the Go-Go’s. Luke had heard of me, and he came out to my show. He saw the queue around the block, and after the show he said, “Would you like me to manage you?’ And I said, “If you can get me a release in America, then you could manage me.”
Here’s the audio of Al Stewart’s hit, “Song On The Radio.”
At that time, the American record companies weren’t interested in British singer/songwriters if they weren’t called Donovan or Cat Stevens. But Luke said, “That’s easy. I was a disc jockey on a big station in Philadelphia, and I know the record company people. I’ll talk to them.” I said, “Fine.” He said, “I’ll co-manage you with this guy called Miles Copeland.”
At some point, Luke (O’Reilly) went over to America and signed me to this tiny label called Janus Records, and they put out Past, Present and Future. And Luke came back and said, “I’ll tell you how it’s done. It doesn’t matter if you go on a club tour in America and get a standing ovation every night. You’re not there do do shows. You’re there to go to radio stations.” So that’s what we did. And he said, “Radio stations won’t play you if there aren’t great guitar solos on your records. We’re gonna make a folk-rock record and we’ll get a great lead guitar player. Then we’re gonna go to every radio station in every town, starting in the afternoon and then doing the show, then going out at midnight and still hitting radio stations.” It was exhausting, but we did it, and the record we made was called Modern Times. It was my sixth album. And the more we went to radio stations, the more they picked up on it and started playing it. We weren’t getting any AM play, but we were now getting quite a bit of FM play. Eventually, to my astonishment, the record hit #30 on the Billboard chart.
So we came home and we scratched our heads a little. What do we do next? Luke said, “Well your historical songs go down really well in the UK, and your folk-rock songs go down really well in the States. He said, “Can you combine them?” (laughs). And I said, “Yes of course.” And so I made a record (Year of the Cat), and it begins with a long, slow song about a Naval battle in 1591, which is about an uncommercial as you can get, followed immediately by a song about the Basque separatist movement and the crisis in Rhodesia (laughs).
Around that time, I got my first American tour opening for Linda Ronstadt, and we hired a piano player called Peter Wood. And Peter kept playing this piano riff over and over again at every single sound check. I’d heard it half of dozen times, when it occurred to me that it could be a song (which would become “Year of the Cat”). I could take the chord order and the riff and write some lyrics to it, which is exactly what I did. But I didn’t know what to write it about. So I had several incarnations of it. The first one was about a British comedian called Tony Hancock and it was called “Foot Of The Stage.” The second idea was a spoof on Princess Anne and I called it “Horse Of The Year.”
Here’s the video of Al Stewart’s classic song, “Road to Moscow.”
The record company in America didn’t like these ideas, but they liked the tune and the piano riff. So in despair, I had a girlfriend at the time who had a book on Vietnamese astrology. It was opened to a chapter called the Year of the Cat, and that meant nothing to me. I thought…I can’t write it about Vietnamese astrology. So I just thought…I’ll just go on a riff. Because I love movies, I’ll throw in Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, and see where it goes. And so we recorded the whole album, and right at the end, Alan Parsons, who was producing my records, said, “Why don’t we put a saxophone on ‘Year of the Cat’?” And I thought…that’s the worst idea I’d ever heard. I said, “Alan, there aren’t any saxophones in folk-rock. Folk-rock is about guitars. Sax is a jazz instrument.” And he said, “Well, let’s try it.” And I said, “Fine, go ahead,” and I was just humoring him. And in comes Phil Kenzie, who was a session sax player. Phil didn’t want to come to the session because he was watching a movie. He only lived around the corner from Abbey Road Studio, which is where we were recording. So he rushed in, listened to the track once, he played it through twice, and then ran off to watch the end of the movie and thought no more of it. And frankly, I didn’t like it either. It sounded like a wounded cow. But Alan said, “Well, sleep on it.” So I slept on it, and in the morning it didn’t sound as bad as I remembered. And Alan was adamant that it was an integral part of the song. So I said, “Okay, fine, we’ll go with it.”
So I remember, we finished mixing “Year of the Cat” around 9 o’clock in the morning and I went home. I’d been at the studio all day and all night, and I was dead tired. But I got the tape of all the master mixes, and I remember the last thing I did before I went to bed, was I played them and thought, “You know, this sounds pretty good” (laughs). It’s done at Abbey Road with first class musicians with Alan Parsons producing. And I thought the songs were strong. So I thought…I can’t do any better than this. Then I played it to my best friend, and he said the same thing. He said, “If this isn’t a hit, then I don’t know what is.” So with that, I went off and slept and forgot all about it.
Then Year of the Cat came out, and because of the FM airplay we got on Modern Times, it went up the charts based on FM play. But the record company was convinced that if they did an edit on “Year of the Cat,” it could be a single. So it came out as a single and to everybody’s amazement, it started going up the charts. I wasn’t even trying to be commercial; I’m just trying to sell albums and make a living. But lo and behold, both the single and album went into the Top 10 in America. And then of course the following album, Time Passages, did the same thing. So I think for a period of about 18 months, I was sort of an ersatz pop star and I never tried to be one. And I don’t think I was very good at it. But it caused a lot of confusion because there were people who loved “Year of the Cat” and they loved the saxophone. So they would sit through my concert waiting for that. And I was still playing “Roads To Moscow” and “Nostradamus,” which nobody understood on the pop side (laughs). But on the other side, I had a lot of folk-rock fans and they wanted “Roads To Moscow” and “Nostradamus.” So eventually, it was like A Tale of Two Cities. A tale of two audiences, and never the twain shall meet. Long story short, eventually I thought that I’m not good at this pop star business, and I’ll go back and be a folk singer again, which is exactly what I did and I’m still doing.
Here’s the audio of Al Stewart’s hit, “Midnight Rocks.”
DK: Time Passages was a strong follow-up to Year of the Cat. What was it like to put out Time Passages and have another hit?
Stewart: There are things that I loved on the record. There’s a song that ends the record called “End of the Day,” which is my favorite track. But by then, Luke had signed us to Arista Records, and it was the first serious money that I saw in my life. Clive Davis (CEO) was running it. He said, “I want some midtempo ballads—120 beats per minute with a saxophone on it.” And I thought…I don’t know what he’s talking about. I’m a songwriter—what is this beats per minute nonsense? So basically with “Time Passages,” I just cloned “Year of the Cat.” Then as an afterthought, and in order to see if Clive had a sense of humor, I wrote this clever spoof and called it “Song on the Radio.” Clive kept saying, “We need something that can be played on the radio.” If Clive had a sense of humor and I’m not sure he had, he would have seen that I was actually making fun of him, As it turned out, that song went into the Top 30 as well. So I suppose the joke was on me (laughs).
DK: Well, you delivered exactly what he wanted…a song on the radio.
Stewart: Yes. I gave him a couple midtempo ballads with sax, and then the rest of the album I wrote basically for me. There’s a song called “Life in Dark Water” that’s about being trapped in a submarine on the bottom of the ocean for 50 years. That’s more up my street than “Time Passages.” I always liked the more obscure things anyway.
A lot of people did like “Time Passages.” If someone likes anything that I’ve done for any reason, then I’m extremely grateful for it. And of course, it sold lots of copies and you can’t knock it. But if you asked me if the song stands up as well as “Roads To Moscow,” I’d say not.
DK: I want to ask you about your songwriting process. You’ve written many songs that are literary or about history. When you sit down to write a song, do you usually compose the music first, or do you write the lyrics or title first?
Stewart: I think I did something that I’ve never heard of before. All those albums— Modern Times, Year of the Cat, Time Passages—were all done the same way. I went in and I had the music, and we created backing tracks for everything. And with Year of the Cat, I hadn’t written a single word. I had the entire album musically, but not the lyrics. Then I would bring it home and in the morning, I would play the backing track and say…What does this want to be about? As I said, “On The Border” goes through the Rhodesian crisis and the Basque separatist movement and the decline of all of the British Empire (laughs). It had Spanish guitars…it just seemed that it wanted to be about Spain. So it was pretty straight forward. “Lord Grenville,” which opens the album with the naval battle, it had that slow, stately thing. It wanted to go back to the 16th century.
Here’s the video of Al Stewart’s classic song, “Nostradamus.”
In general, you write 90% of the music and then you write the lyrics, and then you put the vocals on it which is the last thing you do.
DK: Over the years, you’ve recorded and released many albums. There are music fans who know your Year of the Cat and Time Passages albums, but they might not be familiar with your other albums. So for those fans who want to dig deeper, which of your other albums would you recommend they check out?
Stewart: Past, Present and Future is probably still my favorite, so I would definitely recommend that one. Of the more recent ones, there’s an album called A Beach Full of Shells that I like a lot. It’s got a pretty good standard of lyric writing on it. So I can recommend those two.
DK: Thank you Al for doing this interview. Is there anything that we haven’t talked about yet that you’d like to mention for this article?
Stewart: This singer/songwriter thing, in the age of rock & roll, a lot of people are saying that it was great, but it’s basically gone now. The other day in an interview, they asked Bob Dylan, if he was starting all over again, would he be a singer/songwriter? And he said, “No. I’d be a teacher.” So there’s your answer. I think by good fortune, a lot of us were born in the right place and exactly the right time (laughs). It doesn’t mean that you’re particularly great. It means you’re extremely lucky. Because when the Beatles broke through, and pop hit a peak around about 1965, all these bands were doing fabulous business and it was new and exciting. But it was only new and exciting for 5% of the world. Logic says that there’s got to be at least 20 other potential Bob Dylans who were in Mao’s China or the Soviet Union or Africa or in the Arab world. None of them got a chance. What it means is that a tiny bubble of people in England and America were able to dominate the charts for an extremely long time, which happened to be the course of my lifetime. So frankly, I think we’re all lucky.
DK: Al, you’re being modest to say you were lucky to be at the right place at the right time. All the music fans who love your albums and your famous songs, they got joy out of hearing those songs. So they might feel lucky that they got to hear you. I think it’s a good situation where everybody’s happy, because you’ve had a great career and music fans enjoy your music.
Stewart: Yes, I can’t disagree with any of that, and if I could go turn back the clock, I would do it all again. I can’t think of anything better you can do with your life than write songs and travel around the world playing them. To me, it still seems like a wonderful job. It can be a lot of hard work, but at this stage of my life, it’s too late to take up professional basketball, so I’m probably stuck with it (laughs).