In 1966 17 year old Steven Georgiou had got it going on. He had a new name, Cat Stevens & he had a new wardrobe too. The Carnaby Street boutiques were just a short stroll up Regent Street from his family’s Soho restaurant. The current thing was the Edwardian Dandy look, velvet suits, ruffed shirts. Young “Cat” had a few of those. He was also recording his first LP, all his own songs with a little help from heavyweight friends Leon Russell & Kim Fowley.
“Matthew & Son” was in a UK chart Top 3 along with “I’m A Believer” & “Let’s Spend The Night Together”. England was swinging like a pendulum do & Cat Stevens was smack dab in the middle of this whole new thing. The Beatles & the Stones had grown up with Rock & Roll & the Blues respectively. Those musicians who were part of the great creative rush of the British Beat Explosion had been born in the Second World War, Cat was the first of the post-war Baby Boomers, the Beatles fans, to make the scene. For him it was no big deal that he was a singer who wrote his own songs or that those songs drew from Dylan, the musicals in the theatres next door or anything else that took his fancy. Pop Art had been around as a theory & a movement for 10 years. By 1966 these young Brits were making Pop Art up as they went along.
Cat’s music sounded new, fresh & bright on the new. fresh…you get me… pirate radio stations. His mentor & producer was Mike Hurst, one third of the hit folk trio the Springfields (alongside the wondrous Dusty). Hurst had a hook up with Decca to launch a new “progressive” label Deram. His flamboyant, biff-bang-pow productions were of the moment. There could be a touch of novelty rather than innovation about them but hey, it was Pure Pop, the young me was impressed & liked to hear them.
The first Cat Stevens LP, also called “Matthew & Son”, is full of folk-rock melodies boosted by imaginative instrumentation & arrangement. It is, more than many of its contemporaries, in the orbit of “Rubber Soul”. I know, I’m not claiming that it is of the same quality but it is from a time when British pop music was let loose in the toyshop, when it was Mod, flash & fun. It is a gem & announces a new talent.
Cat had a lot of songs & Hurst kept him busy in the studio. A second LP was released just 9 months later in December 1967, a post-Sergeant Pepper music world now. The cover of “New Masters” registers that things have become a little more serious, the teenage singer going for gravitas but looking solemn. He’s a pop singer for flip’s sake. “The First Cut Is The Deepest”, a pop-soul classic, is still around today. This live clip, Cat with a band & happy doing what he’s doing, obviously rocking his new furry coat, captures him at his best in this early stage of his career.
Things were happening too quickly. The quirky singles were not on the LP. There was a split between Cat & Hurst as the singer wanted more control & less whistles & bells. The label & the lawyers had too much say in what went where on the record & it was not a success.
Blimey ! Where is the fresh-faced young man from earlier in the year ? As a solo singer, a rare thing at a time when it was all about the groups, Cat often seemed awkward & adventitious selling his big, busy, beaty balladry on a conveyor belt of unsympathetic European TV programmes. Stood standing by himself, lip-synching, what can a poor boy do ? A young man’s first attempt at facial hair is never a good look & Cat just seems tired. He was not living healthily, he needed to keep those hits coming & he was getting ill.
I used the money from my paper round to buy my copy of “A Bad Night”. I played it as much as you do when you only have a small stack of vinyl. The grooves are packed, the tune a little lost but I really did like a bit of polished baroque pop back then. I knew that these everything & the kitchen sink productions could be, in the wrong hands, a hard way to go. From the sappy children’s chorus of “Excerpt From A Teenage Opera” to the crappy melodrama of “Bat Out Of Hell” culminating in the counterfeit classicism of “Bohemian Rhapsody” bombast & superfluity produced some strictly ersatz music. But OK, I reckon that Mike Hurst & Cat Stevens fall on the right side of imaginative here & I still like “A Bad Night”
There was no more music from Cat Stevens for 3 years. He contracted tuberculosis & needed a long period of convalescence. When he did return everything was new. There were a bunch of new songs for a new label. He was a man now, a serious singer-songwriter riding the acoustic swell which was becoming an international thing. His facial hair was convincing this time around too. That young Mod singer had been replaced. It was the first of Cat’s musical lives & there were to be more in the future. I liked some of his new music, certainly admired the principles he has adhered to in later years. I liked the cocky young teenager & his new pop songs too. We were so much older then…you get me ?