Off the Charts

    Yusuf/Cat Stevens: Soundtrack of the Seventies, Still Vital Today

    Issue 158

    His folky, insightful songs, brimming with humor and pathos, helped create the soundtrack to the 1970s. And then Cat Stevens left the field, changing his name and devoting himself to a religious life. He’s back, though, and he seems to want listeners to acknowledge both his spiritual life and his musical legacy. So, he now calls himself Yusuf/Cat Stevens, and at age 73, he keeps on singing.

    The London native was born Steven Georgiou, growing up in the family restaurant and the flat above it. That flat contained a piano, which young Steven figured out how to play. While considering a career in visual arts, he absorbed everything he could about songwriting from Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan albums, got a guitar, and made up a cool stage name.

    He was discovered by industry R&D while gigging at London coffee houses, and he signed with the British label Deram. The title track from his 1967 debut, Matthew and Son, reached No. 2 on the UK charts. The sweet, bouncy sound and the goofy, skiffle-meets-music-hall arrangement of “I See a Road” presents a rare snapshot of Cat Stevens before he quite figured out what he wanted to say.

     

    The label executives wanted to make Stevens a mainstream pop star, but sales of his second album, New Masters, fell flat. Ironically, at the same time his album was failing, he sold his song “The First Cut Is the Deepest” to P.P. Arnold for a few quid, and she had a smash hit with it. Then tuberculosis took him out.

    During his convalescence, he wrote. And wrote and wrote. Once he was better, he brought his pile of new songs to a new label, Island Records. The albums he made in 1970 provide a two-volume textbook on who Cat Stevens is as a songwriter.

    First, there’s Mona Bone Jakon, on which he introduces his bare-bones acoustic sound. Among his small backing band is guitarist Alun Davies, who stuck with him throughout the 1970s. The haunting song “Katmandu” features Peter Gabriel on flute.

     

    The second 1970 album was Tea for the Tillerman. Today, Tillerman is considered essential Cat Stevens, but when it came out it didn’t get much attention. That changed in 1971, when Hal Ashby’s movie Harold and Maude came out. The soundtrack didn’t just use songs from Tillerman, but worked them into the story. Suddenly “On the Road to Find Out” and “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” signified the individual freedom of youth and the righteous defiance of conservative expectations. Teaser and the Firecat came out that same year, and with the listening public already focused on Stevens, they devoured his singles that spoke perfectly to their time: “Morning Has Broken,” “Moonshadow,” and “Peace Train.”

    Catch Bull at Four was released in 1972. By this point, the song arrangements had grown back to pop proportions, with Stevens playing about half the instruments himself. But Stevens was moving forward, not backward, and the role of music in his life was changing. The interplay of Stevens’ songwriting and his spirituality is hinted at in the title: Catch Bull at Four refers to one of the ten stages of progress toward Zen enlightenment. Stevens had not yet found his spiritual path, but he was clearly searching.

    “Boy with a Moon and Star on His Head,” simultaneously delicate and earthy, is a ballad with fantasy elements. It also demonstrates how Stevens knew how to control the many sounds available to him. Mostly, it’s just acoustic guitar, but on certain syllables or phrases he adds bass drum crashes or synthesizer tones. The highlight of the arrangement is at 2:58, when he mentions a social gathering, and suddenly, out of nowhere, there are four bars of what sounds like music for a medieval banquet.

     

    As if to counteract the popular success of his previous two albums, Stevens debuted as a producer while going down a rabbit hole on Foreigner in 1973. The entire first side was something that might be described as prog rock folk, the 18-minute “Foreigner Suite.”

    The following year he returned to an area that Island Records was more comfortable with for Buddha and the Chocolate Box. The American music-buying public agreed, catapulting it to the No. 2 spot on the charts.

    Stevens has never been one to let sales take over his creative output. Yet, unlike some artists of his era, the majority of his fans weren’t willing to join him on his more exotic creative journeys. Numbers showed a huge drop-off in sales; the folks who grooved to “Moonshadow” weren’t keen to delve into a science fiction concept album subtitled “A Pythagorean Theory Tale.” The Numbers album offers one oddity after another, but it’s fun, as witnessed by the humor and environmental prescience on display in “Banapple Gas”:

     

    Having converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusuf Islam, he made one more album as Cat Stevens, Back to Earth (1978). Then he left the music scene altogether, and it looked like it might be permanent. For the next 20 years, he only hit the American news cycle because of controversial comments he made about the Muslim fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie in 1989. The UK press hounded him for years, and he ended up pursuing several libel suits.

    When music is in a person’s soul, profound changes in their life tend to find their way out in musical expression. That’s just what happened with Yusuf Islam; in 1998 he was back in the studio, albeit with a very different sound. In 1998 he contributed two songs to I Have No Cannons That Roar, a project dedicated to the memory of a Bosnian surgeon and composer shot down by Serbs.

    Then he made Footsteps in the Light in 2006. For three decades he had been steeped in Arabic music and had also been creating songs for children, some of which are included on this album. The track list comprises songs he’d been writing since his second greatest-hits album, Footsteps in the Dark came out in 1986.

    The harmonies and melodic styles might be new, but he was still poetically fascinated by the moon. “The White Moon” is a duet with Ben Ammi, who also adapted the Arabic lyrics.

     

    Shortening his name to Yusuf, the songwriter surprised a lot of people by releasing Tell ‘em I’m Gone in 2014 on Legacy Records, co-produced by himself and Rick Rubin. Its songs, while showing the emotional maturity of age, harken back to the style of his 1970s work. Yusuf’s earnestness in tracks like “I Was Raised in Babylon” brings to mind Bob Dylan’s Infidels record.

    In 2017, now using the combined name Yusef/Cat Stevens, he released The Laughing Apple. Much of that album is a re-release of material recorded before his debut album in 1967. Paul Samwell-Smith, who came to fame as the bassist of the Yardbirds, co-produced. There are also a few songs never before recorded, including “Olive Hill,” which is very much in the style of his late-1960s work.

     

    Yusuf’s most recent work includes Tea for the Tillerman 2, a 50th-anniversary homage to his 1970 masterwork, with new arrangements of all the songs. There’s also a 2021 deluxe box set of material to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Teaser and the Firecat. That includes a remastering of the album, dozens of unreleased tracks, a Blu-ray concert, and two books. Nostalgia sells; some of it, such as an old Cat Stevens record, is well worth the price.

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