And They’ve Been Working All Day, All Day, All Day! (Cat Stevens)

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 ?

Music And Movies

I love a classy film soundtrack.If I made a Top 10 list there would be 10 more spring to mind that I had overlooked. The greatest of the composers are linked with great directors, Bernard Herrmann with Hitchcock, Nino Rota with Fellini and Ennio Morricone with Leone. Then there are the modern rock age scores, Ry Cooder’s “Paris Texas”, Vangelis “Blade Runner” and Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man”. The bespoke works of Jack Nitzsche for “Cuckoo’s Nest”, Popol Vuh’s “Aguirre” and Philip Glass’ “Koyaanisqatsi”. Missed out some great ones ? Of course I have, I told you I would.

“Easy Rider” was a breakthrough film in many ways. For the first time Hollywood let young people make a movie for the young. While that market was there waiting for such a film the use of rock tracks found a new one. The “Easy Rider” soundtrack LP was the first to be bought by many people, followed by the “Woodstock” and “A Clockwork Orange” albums. Now there is a pick and mix approach to the soundtracks of almost all movies. Sometimes it works and sometimes it’s just crass. If I hear one more Nick Drake song in one more crappy US rom-com it will still be wrong. Here are three random but favourite uses of rock music in movies.

Martin Scorsese has always used rock and roll in his films. He edited the “Woodstock” movie, in “Mean Streets” there is a fantastic selection of doo-wop and R&B along with a couple of Rolling Stones songs. Over 30 years later he shows the touch of a master in his introduction of Jack Nicholson’s character, Frank Costello. The scene is edited to “Gimme Shelter” the ominous Stones’ classic. The monologue ends with Charlie’s drum beats, he leaves the deli to Merry Clayton’s cries of “Rape! Murder!”. I know that “The Departed” owes a big debt to “Infernal Affairs”. I know that the original is probably the better movie. I had paid my money to see the great Jack Nicholson doing his job properly again in a Scorsese flick where wise guys got violent and swore imaginatively with some good music along the way. After this opening scene I settled into my comfy seat knowing that I was going to enjoy this film and be entertained by a great director. The world outside the cinema could wait for a couple of hours.

A battered set of wheels, a beer, a joint and a Creedence tape playing. What’s not to love ? For 40 whole seconds Jeff “Dude” Lebowski is a happy man. “The Big Lebowski” is the Coen Brothers’ rock and roll movie. The Dude, “I bowl, drive around, the occasional acid flashback” is hero for our times. In a film which is more quoted and more quotable than any in recent times “what day is…is this a weekday ?” is the funniest because, in my case, it is the truest. My inner Dude ? Whaddya mean inner ? In 1998 when this film was released I went to the cinema on consecutive weekends to see it.

Joel and Ethan had a top script and got themselves a top soundtrack for the film. Captain Beefheart, Dylan, Elvis Costello, Kenny Rogers, you know, the greats. The Eagles are in there a couple of times. Once to have a delicious dig at them and to get the Dude thrown out of a cab, another the brilliant raucous noise of the Gypsy Kings’ version of “Hotel California”. It is the Dude’s attachment to Creedence Clearwater Revival, music which makes you happy, which makes us smile. This scene is only edited to the music for the final drumbeats. There are those younger than me who were introduced to CCR by this film. “Looking Out My Back Door” is their gateway to their discovery of some fine music. The Dude, indeed, abides.

In the 1970s director Hal Ashby made 7 memorable films. The second of these, 1971’s “Harold And Maude” is a comedy about suicide and love, death and living. It is a brilliant life-affirming experience. If you know the film then this clip, from near the end, will be as poignant as on the first viewing. If you don’t know the film then enjoy the music of Cat Stevens.

Cat Stevens was a teenage pop star, writing his own songs, who suffered a bout of tuberculosis and re-emerged as a sensitive singer-songwriter. His songs of innocence and experience, with a couple written for the film could not have suited the film any better. Ashby was an editor before he was a director. He only needs the music and the images to tell the story and he does it with a brilliance that few have matched. “Harold and Maude” is one of the great screen love stories but was a commercial flop on it’s release. We would see the film as often as we could in the art-house repertory cinemas and loved to introduce it to people who did not know it.

I am writing this on my 60th birthday. I guess that now I am officially old…how did that happen? Thinking about “Harold and Maude” makes me think of Maude, played by the amazing Ruth Gordon. This 80 year old lived a life of extremes but retains an anarchistic (if sometimes illegal) appetite and energy for new experience. It is not just the youth who could use a role model and Maude will suit me just fine for the next 20 years. In her spirit I will add this clip, she would not end with a sad one…because there’s a million things to be you know that there are.