Al Stewart is a very well read, erudite wine buff, who must be about 70 years old now. He is also a quintessentially English, brilliant singer/songwriter in the contemporary folk/folk rock traditions. I last saw him perform live in Sheffield about 5 or 10 years ago; however, he was the main act at the first concert I ever went to, at Crewe Hall in Sheffield, on 4 January 1970. I had not gone to see him though, but rather the support act, the Third Ear Band, of which I was a huge fan. I had a pal at school who had a really hip elder brother, and this pal told me about the gig, and we went together. I had just turned 14, and was within days of getting my first record player. I shall be saying more about the steep learning curve I experienced in the 18 months starting in September 1969 in the next post.
I had learned from my pal that Al Stewart’s current LP was called “Love Chronicles”:
This is indeed a splendid record, on which he enlisted the backing support of Fairport Convention. It features the epic title track, which takes up most of the second side, and tells of his various romantic adventures with girls, starting from his first infantile crush and going right up to date. While it is far from being remotely pornographic, it is distinctly frank, and holds nothing back. This, combined with the musicianship of Fairport Convention, is what made the LP a minor hit, particularly with adolescent schoolboys like me. Indeed, it inspired me to write my own version, a piece of teenage doggerel called “Chronological Impressions Of Puberty so Far”. I bought a second hand copy as soon as I could afford so to do.
However, following on from that, it was his next LP, “Zero She Flies”, which was getting all the airplay in the course of 1970 on Top Gear and Jensen’s Dimensions on Radio Luxembourgh.
For me, this is without doubt the best album he ever recorded. It kicks off with a poem set to music called “My Enemies Have Sweet Voices”, which is just mind-blowing. Other notable tracks are these. “Electric Los Angeles Sunset” is a folk rocker to beat all other folk rockers in the contemporary (rather than traditional) mode. It tells of a murder and its aftermath. “Gethsemane Again” is a magnificent song of immense beauty, and a perfect picture of the Church of England in 1970. The title track ends the LP and is an absolute tour de force. It really has to be heard to be appreciated, but the lyrics and melody are perfect, and this is magic of the first order.
However, during 1970, I learned that there had been an album before Love Chronicles”, and that it had a remarkable cover. I eventually managed to obtain a copy, and this is “Bedsitter Images”:
What is strange about this cover (apart from the fact that its title includes the words “The First Album”) is that to the right of the picture, lying on the table to Al Stewart’s left, is a copy of “Love Chronicles”! It seems that hardly anybody bought it when it was first released, and so following the moderate success of the second album, the first one was rereleased, and so it was possible for there to be a picture of the second album on the cover of the first album; as far as I know, this is the only example of this happening.
“Bedsitter Images” is a marvelous LP, perfectly describing life in the bedsitter rooms of London and its suburbs in the middle of the swinging sixties. It includes a short and deceptively simple song called “Clifton In The Rain”, which in fact an amazing gem of a song. It was the only one from the first album that he included in his set when I last saw him, some four decades after he had first recorded it.
Two more excellent LPs followed “Zero She Flies”, “Orange” and “Past, Present & Future”:
Then came the sell-out and his biggest hit ever, with the title song released as a single and him performing it on “Top Of The Pops”. This was of course the 1976 album “Year Of The Cat”:
This was certainly his most commercial album, and why not? It is still good stuff, with all the usual panache and erudition; but it’s not a patch on “Zero She Flies”.
I finish with Al Stewart here for the time being, but he has carried on making albums ever since, and they are all very good. I might just return to him one day.
Next time, I start the next big project.