Monday, 26 June 2017

Jefferson Starship "Earth" (1978)

Jefferson Starship "Earth" (1978)

Love Too Good/Count On Me/Take Your Time/Crazy Feelin'/ Skateboard//Fire/Show Yourself/Runaway/All Nite Long

'When I was small I used to stand with my hand on my heart and sing to you...but maybe you're just getting too OLD!'

Back in 1967 Jefferson Starship were the punkiest kids in the psychedelic class. Even for the day they were the weird outcasts of the school, snarling behind their breath when everyone else was talking about peace and love, pointing out hypocrisy and injustice when their classmates were handing out flowers and getting detention for scrawling pro-drug graffiti all over the toilets when everyone else was being subtle and 'cute' about what they were carrying in their lunchboxes every day. The Jeffersons were known as being mad, bad and dangerous to know and came with an anger, an energy and an aggression that made their classmates just that little bit scared of what they might do next (their teacher was often found after class whimpering behind her desk and the Grateful Dead had to be let out the cupboard again after bullying, while they even tried to lace the 'headmaster' with 'acid' on an escapade the school still talks about long after they were 'expelled'). Now fast forward to 1978, with Jefferson Starship (name changed after a custody battle) about to enter adult life at university level. Suddenly the whole place is over-run with punks, every second kid has a mohican haircut and the pupils carry much heavier drugs with them openly now. Everyone is desperate to shock, outrage or surprise, posting notes that say 'no future for yooooo!' on teacher's back when they're not looking or setting the campus guinea pig on fire. Jefferson Starship distantly remembers her wayward youth and smiles - she's still a rebel, but here surrounded by so many natural rebels she's calmed down, lost her edge, just wants to get on with living and make everyone happy. Those lectures on peace and love? Suddenly she 'gets' it. Whisper it quietly but she's now the tamest, squarest kid on the block. What happened?

In truth it was a gradual unravelling. The most punkish kid in the psychedelia era became the most psychedelic in the punk era not because of one particular thing but through a gradual album by album series of changes. The biggest of these had come when Jefferson had changed her name of course, after a 'custody' battle that scared her. Suddenly she was quieter, gentler, more desperate to please. But even then there was an inner anger and energy that made her different from her peers - a kind of crazy look in her eyes that meant you didn't mess with her, even when she was the kid getting high Grade As with her tales of red octopuses and essays about 'Miracles' setting new heights in the college system. Here though, just before another big custody battle, she's coasting. Everything she says is merely re-iterating what everyone else in the playground was saying and often saying better - you know the sort of thing, songs about boys, songs about girls, songs about love as a 'fire' and songs about partying - oh and a song about 1978's biggest craze, skateboards. People who used to know Jefferson were disappointed even as her pay-master teachers breathed a sigh of relief: what happened to the fire in her eyes, the young girl who was going to start a revolution and re-shape the world? Ah, she grew up. Why? For the first time in her life she was popular. Sure she'd always been respected and some of the hip cool things had even flirted her once, round about the time when she was dropping drug lyrics and white rabbits into her essays, but it was a passing moment of notoriety - somehow Jefferson always felt safer in her own corner of the playground making 'v' signs at Vanilla Fudge, beating up The Monkees and laughing at Pink Floyd's attempts to blow up the chemistry lab. Being popular went to her head more than she would ever let on. I mean people were 'square' weren't they? The mainstream was, gulp, full of 'normal' people. But as time went by Jefferson got hooked on the attention and craved it, being afraid to rock the boat or lose her place in the top forty. Suddenly, even in a climate when old stick-in-the-mud The Rolling Stones (sent down for yet another term when everyone was expecting them to 'graduate' at last) and fellow oddballs The Kinks (who'd stayed on for yet another PHD in the 'human rebellion condition as experienced through traditions and cups of tea') had 'got' what was happening in the outside world and 'woken up' to punk, not just in the 'year zero' but the year after, here were Jefferson Starship still trying to be popular and yearning for affection. Well, everybody needs somebody to love, after all.

'Earth' is a funny old album. As late as predecessor 'Spitfire' the Starship were still a band with things to say and things that none of their peers would ever dare to say, with an anger and fire and passion lying behind their latest prog rock takes on Ancient Greek myths and Chinese dragons. But this album has no ambition to be anything other than a 'success', aping their biggest hit 'Red Octopus' to such a large extent that the anger has been turned into forced smiles, the fire has been extinguished and the passion has been hidden under banks of synthesisers. Generally in an album the size of the Jefferson-somethings (usually seven members, sometimes eight) somebody has something to say and takes over the direction of the shop, be it Marty Balin's glorious ballads and social protest, Paul Kantner's sci-fi epics and social protest or Grace Slick's oddball rants about being a human in a world that isn't humane - an idea that lends itself well to social protest. But Grace is distracted, her attention taken up with the new man in her life, Starship lighting director Skip Johnson, while trying her best to stay away from a band that's largely taken her ex Paul's side. She's about to leave the band for good after an escalating drink problem sees her spending half the tour supporting this album flirting with the band's audiences and the other half actively assaulting them ('I didn't mean to hurt him officer, I just wondered to myself if I could really fit my fingers up his extra-large nostrils. And he was in the front row' is surely the weirdest defence clause ever submitted to an act of alleged assault). Paul for his part is barely here, eschewing the custody battle of the band he'd fought so hard for so he can sit on the sidelines, glaring, fed up with the whole thing and wondering himself where the band's fire has gone. And Marty? He's fed up of being in this band anyway. Even after scoring the new-look band's biggest two hits nobody listens to him, nobody cares and he only ever said his 'comeback' was temporary anyway. Marty will leave, just weeks after Grace is encouraged to quit too, just in time to deliver the single most mainstream move the Jeffersons ever made: an appearance in the 'Star Wars Holiday TV Special' so poor it's been blotted out the minds of even passionate fans (on which they mime this album's song 'Fire', a sound which is about as convincing as an ewok ninja running for president).

'Earth' is the Jefferson-anything's emptiest album. It's a record that has nothing to say and band members too distracted or too emotionally wrought to say anything. We get, by turns yet more Slick songs about her and Paul's daughter China growing up (but not as original as before), comedy songs about skateboards and generic songs about 'fire' that couldn't be more wet and parties that couldn't sound less 'fun'. Everything about this album seems fake, from the photo-shopped (or whatever the 1978 equivalent is) of Earth on the front cover to the air-brushed photographs on the back (where everybody looks extra-handsome. Compare and contrast this to the front of 'Surrealistic Pillow' where everyone is aiming for 'weird' not 'pretty' or even the similar back cover of 'Spitfire', an amalgam of the two which comes out 'pretty weird'). This is an album designed to be hung on your bedroom wall to gaze adoringly at, not one with a lyrics sheet full of fingers to 'the man' or 'the headmistress' or whoever. It's an album to be enjoyed and then filed away, not an album to be pored over and discussed for hours during morning assembly because it's  a work so important it's worth risking detention for. The best things here - the only things of any substance - are the two songs at the start written by outside writers and that's probably not a coincidence. Worryingly, though, even though they're the best things here by a country mile they're easily the worst songs from the 'Gold' compilation cobbled together from the first four Jefferson Starship albums to plug the 'gap' between records and the band re-fit in 1980 and the ones I always skip. You get the sense that everyone in the band want to park the Starship by now and go their separate ways.

Well, the Airplane guys do anyway. Actually this is quite a strong album for the Starship guys in the back row who all still very much want to keep the band afloat, even agreeing to the Paul Kantner-led changes in store that will make next album 'Freedom At Point Zero' sound like it's come from an alien planet. Craig Chaquico remains one of the best 1970s guitarists ever and he provides the fire and fuel that the frontline can't or won't, as well as the music for a novelty song about skateboarding which, melodically at least, he somehow manages to make sound the most interesting song on the album. His guitar solo on 'Fire', a gonzo mix of Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, remains the single most interesting moment on the album, brief as it is. Pete Sears is the 'bass player' in the band in more ways than one, fulfilling both the musical function of keeping the band together and the much harder sociable one of keeping them afloat too. He's the only band member willing to go out on a limb to make Grace still feel a part of the band, he and Craig playing out of their skin on Grace's cover of 'Love Too Good' and writing the music for one of Grace's songs and one of Marty's. Drummer Johnny Barbata is about to leave the Starship too along with Grace and Marty but unlike them it wasn't by choice or a lack of belief. Instead poor Barbata will be involved in a nasty car-crash that will leave him incapacitated for a few years and came at just the 'wrong' time when the next line-up of the band was being put together. His playing here though is amongst his best, warm and soulful and inventive in contrast to the lazy writing and vocals. Poor David Freiberg still gets too little to do, largely demoted to piano on an album suspiciously low on keyboards (a glorious solo on 'Love Too Good' aside) in a band where he used to be the band's 'third vocalist' before Marty re-joined full time. This should have been his chance to shine; instead a co-write on the 'it took two minutes to write' song 'Fire' is all he really gets. As for the guys we usually talk about, well, Grace is just Grace but sounding less sure of herself than ever before, Marty is just Marty and sounds just as sure as ever but sadly falling too neatly into his band role as 'the romantic commercial one' and Paul is barely here, one lyric and co-vocal aside.

Far from encompassing all of 'Earth' and beyond this record is one of those albums that has precious little in it when held up to the light. There isn't, for instance, much of a band theme at all for perhaps the only time in the band's catalogue (even the reunion album had a half-theme about aging!) There is, if you really wanted to look (and I do - I've got way too much space to fill to get this review up to length!) a half-theme about romantic betrayal. It's not, though, the stinging attacks of the Airplane in the past but more a soggy apology. Grace, via a Craig Chaquico song, opens the album by apologising for not being good enough. Paul, the person in her head she might be apologising too, bookends the album with his response: he didn't notice, he was out chasing girls and getting drunk. In between Marty promises the 'fire' he felt for an old 'flame' isn't over and he's sorry, Grace offers a new partner that they'll be great if they just take it slow and she's sorry for rushing things and Jesse Barish's outside songs 'Count On Me' (which offers to make amends) and 'Crazy Feelin' (which promises an old feeling is still there) also hint at this theme. Only Grace's acerbic 'Show Yourself' about celebrating originality and uniqueness (which sounds oh so wrong played with generic late 1970s prog-rock dom on one of the late 1970s' most prog-rock albums) risks rocking the boat and then it's with a lot of tut-tutting rather than armed with a pistol like yester-years. The second most original and Jefferson sounding, substantial song? It's about a skateboard. Seriously. 'Woah man you took a bad fall...'

The Jefferson Elephant (jumbo jet?) in the room is clearly the disintegrating relationship between Paul and Grace. The pair hadn't been getting along for a while and both were drifting on to partners new. In a very grown-up 1960s way they agreed to equal custody of their daughter China (made easier given how much their jobs overlapped). In a very immature 1960s way, though, their relationship was often full of name-calling and bitterness. The rest of the band, unwilling to choose between their two most recognisable members, were somewhat trapped in the middle. The fact that Grace's permanent someone new was the band's lighting man made band meetings difficult: it must have been tough for Paul and China to watch their bandmate in the arms of someone new so much of the time. Paul got his 'own back' with girls of his own, but none were as lasting just yet. Though the two will make things up, to the point where Grace is greeted back into the Starship no harm done in 1981, at this point in time their relationship which stretched all the way back to 1967 was never lower. Both exes turned to drink and drugs to see them through the pain of losing each other - and characteristically Grace turned it into a competition. She's not just out of the band the following year but seeing a psychiatrist, her next move the glorious and guilty solo album 'Dreams' that shares this album's sense of apology and helplessness but also has an open-ness and frankness that makes it one of the single best things she ever did. Paul for his part, is already planning his 'coup' to skip punk and make the Starship a 'new wave' outfit, with contemporary sounding songs this sleepy line-up of the band could never have managed. The future looks rosy then - but the 'present' has an ugly whole at the heart of this album that no one can fill - least of all Marty, who never wanted the pressure of being a 'band leader' and will quit rather than fulfill that role.

The end result is an album that's crying out for the sessions to be delayed and the band to be overhauled. That will come, with Paul's disdainful lyric on the next album 'I've been too long without being on the run' surely aimed squarely at this flabby, bloated, 'safe' LP. But Jefferson Starship had already delayed this record two years, not passionate enough to do it properly but equally not passionate enough to break the band up either. So instead they drift into their weakest effort (at least until the last in 1989 or the mainstream 'Starship' albums packed with hit singles), a record that has nothing to say and no new way of saying it. Along the way we get the sort of music that could get made by anyone with a glossy production outfit and an access to generic outside songs, full of soppy not-written-for-a-real-person songs about being in love, being out of love, wishing you were in love, wishing you'd never been in love, partying and skateboards. Despite the presence of the loudest, angriest recording on the album there's no 'fire' here, just a bunch of soggy songs nobody believed in when they wrote them sung by a band who didn't believe them when they recorded them and released for an audience who didn't believe them when they heard them. Jefferson Starship have been prematurely grounded, 'earthed' even, not because they have nothing to say but because they have oh so much to say but don't want to say it in public yet (actually Paul and Grace will remain amazingly kind in their songs, with their sniping about each other kept for the tabloids not their lyrics - the closest they come is Paul's songs on the next album about meeting a 'Girl With Hungry Eyes' who reminds him of how Grace used to be and Grace's 'Black Widow' about eating up weak men for breakfast who can't keep pace with her). Jefferson Starship (as opposed to the Airplane) always reminded me very much of Fleetwood Mac: a band that started in a completely different form before hiring new members and concentrating on classy catchy 'hits' and who had more than a few 'relationships' within the band at different times. Recorded at a time of break-up and heartbreak a parallel universe 'version of 'Earth' is their 'Rumours' full of songs written by band members about each other and offering an honesty and integrity behind the gloss. Instead, this album has eight pieces of nothing and a ninth song about a skateboard.

Sorry Jefferson, I understand your need to be popular and that being jilted by your boyfriend coupled together with your need to keep up your street cred left you unable to concentrate in your homework as much as normal. Those excuses don't wash with me though and this record scores a 'D'. See me after class.

The best recording by far on the album - and the one that sounds as if it had the lion's share of the album's finances spent on it - is 'Love Too Good', a collaboration between Craig's music and his friend Gabriel Robles' lyrics. When the song starts off - as a slow, epic cousin to the band's hit 'Miracles' with strings bouncing across the horizon - you assume that this is going to be one of Marty's feel-good romance songs. In the album's only surprise it's Grace who steps up to the microphone and despite not having a hand in the song she clearly identified with the lyric which isn't so much loved-up as shut-down. In a mirror of her own fragmenting relationship with Paul she plays the part of a narrator who knows that she has got to let her ex go if she loves him as 'you and me are in too much pain' and she apologises for her half of the power struggle their relationship has become. Grace, so used to shouting in song to get her point across, sings one of her best vocals on this humble song, a track that's guilty and whispered as she sounds like a cross between a trapped wounded animal and a prisoner begging for their freedom. No one has told the rest of Jefferson Starship this is meant to be a 'sad' song though and instead the backing sounds like the sort of romantic hazy bliss Marty made his trademark. Rather than this being an angry, shouty song about two lovers that have to part, this sounds like paradise still mocking Grace as she pleads to be let go, not from 'prison', but from 'paradise'. Paul's gently nagging backing vocals (one of his rare appearances on the album) are astonishing in context, both fighting and joining in quiet harmony with his ex; Marty's too as he gently glides away at the front of the song and at key moments across it, hinting at a romantic idyll. Pete Sears' electric piano and David Freiberg's slap bass are the perfect mid-1970s prog rock sound (there's even a Sears synth part that's pure Pink Floyd), gliding by on a gentle bed of Chaquico guitars, the sort of cosy song Grace would usually be fighting against, especially during a lengthy solo and fade - instead she sadly ad libs 'can't you see? Set me free!' The result may not be one of the Starship's more typical songs or one of their very best (given her circumstances Grace invests these straightforward lyrics with a lot more care than they perhaps deserve), but it's a great performance of a good song.

'Count On Me', the obvious choice for a first album single, really is a sort of sequel to 'Miracles', although again it's an outside song that just happens to sound like one of Marty's ballads. Band friend Jesse Barrish wrote the song as a sort-of quieter, spacier sequel to 'Miracles' where the two lovers who met through fate against all expectations are learning how to still love each other in the 'real' world. Marty's narrator is keen to show that he's going to love his girl just as much as time passes by and that he will always be there for her to count on, no matter what. The song has a great slow-burning verse leading to a shouty chorus, a strident Balin vocal that does exactly what you expect it to and a nice flamenco flourish from Craig Chaquico mastering yet another guitar solo. But this song feels slightly less special somehow, all too obviously the work of a band barely speaking to each other and maybe passing by each other in the canteen at best.

At last a song fully written by the band, although Grace and Pete's 'Take Your Time' doesn't sound much like anything the Starship have put together before either. It's a cosy song of domesticity, a million miles away from even the relatively edgy 'birth' album 'Sunfighter' as Grace turns her back on drugs, rockstars and making music to take advantage of the unexpected break in band affairs (Marty asked to stay at home rather than go out on the road in 1977) to simply bask in being a mother. Grace is, for maybe the first time since her childhood, bored. She doesn't feel the restless creative spirit, she doesn't have any deadlines to meet and she's not interested in meeting up with the band socially after so many years on the road. So she has to find a new way to make 'an hour last just a few minutes' and busies herself doing nothing. In her new world she's swapped 'making a rhyme' for 'plenty of living' and learnt the lesson she spouts in her lyrics about 'plenty of giving' by taking care of someone (who is it she watches 'lie down and take your fun?' It could just as easily be new boyfriend Skip as China). There's a slight sense of tension when people keep telling Grace to 'slow down and take it easy!' and - characteristically - she refuses on principle, snarling 'I'm gonna keep giving till it's done!' And yet the sound of this song is more passive surrender, with Sears' slow-burning groove of a backing track taking it's time to not only stop and smell the roses but pick them, arrange them, have them submitted to a flower arranging class and get eaten along the way. We're used to hearing piano ballads from Grace, but not like this one - usually they're block pounding chord kinda songs, stomping around her inner madness and trying to come to terms with some dumb things mankind is up to now. This song, with Pete at the keyboard, simply trickles with delight, slowly unfolding a layer at a time. Sadly I don't have quite enough patience to go through all the layers as by Jefferson standards this is a very muted, lazy, forgettable sounding song, but at least there's a lyric that fits the melody like a glove this time and once again the Sears-Slick combination proves to be the real 'dark horse' of the band.
Jesse Barrish also wrote 'Crazy Feelin', thus getting more credits on the album than Paul Kantner! It's a slightly more up-tempo song that sounds well suited to Marty Balin's crooning voice as he implores a loved one to keep going because their love is just getting good! Considering that stopping is exactly what they're doing, it's odd to hear Paul and Grace singing together - for pretty much the last time without someone else in the middle, usually Mickey Thomas - duetting on the Fleetwood Mac style 'don't ever stop-pah!'s on the backing. This is Marty's show and it's a song that would have sounded limp without him - though the lyric is a silly generic tale of wanting to be with your lover 'day after day', Balin's vocal is utterly committed. He even drops the song into a sudden plunge of a middle eight as he reflects on how some things should be constants in our life ('Oooooh, turning like a wheel!') that should sound horribly out of place but somehow works. What this album doesn't really have is the same sense of scale and depth that Jefferson Starship usually bring to their music and as the third single taken from the album predictably flopped.

Woah, man, this album's taken a bad fall! 'Skateboard' must be one of the weirdest songs in the Jefferson canon, with a melody by Craig and a lyric by Grace that uses the metaphor of a skateboarder for love for a full song! Most people dismiss this song as a novelty and you betcha it is - this song is deliberately silly and lacks all ambitions, instead cashing in on the latest craze. However, I've often wondered, is Grace really writing about the band here, not a marriage? Jefferson Airplane famously gave their full reasons for breaking up in 1972 as 'Jorma and Jack wanted to go speed-skating in Europe so we couldn't do an American tour!' That was clearly an in-joke; though the pair did like skating, it was more the bad blood in the band they couldn't wait to skate away from. Here, in 1978, another Jefferson band is falling apart at the seams again. Perhaps the 'old' split was on Grace's mind again as she put together a lyric about the thrill of the chase, the excitement of the ride and the power-surge of taking off into the dangerous unknown and never quite knowing if it's all going to go right or all going to go wrong. That, surely, is the perfect metaphor for the white-knuckle-ride that was the Jefferson story, when the band were amongst the loosest players on a rock stage and traditionally headed in different directions but on the moments when it all came together - flying in formation - sounded magnificent. Unfortunately the skater narrator has got too full of herself. 'Dare me!' screams Grace as she goes for a spin she knows she's not going to get away with, winking at the listener that she's doing it to get attention from a lover she both loves and mocks and can't stand ('You know I'd train a fool for that man, I'd train a fool for that fool!') You can see where this is going: she hits the hill too hard, comes off her skates and someone (Craig?) is left to speak-sing that she 'took a bad fall!' This surely is the Jefferson story, the band not expanded to a Starship anymore but reduced to the tiny power of a skateboard, as various band members quit or threaten to quit and the marriage at the heart of the band tips that heart out by the seams as Grace and Paul compete for attention once too often but still can't live without the speed or excitement. Fittingly this silly, stupid song with its 'woah mama!' chorus is the most Jeffersony sounding on the album, with the only full-on rock attack on the album and the stop-start sections nicely nailed, while Marty's hysterical backing vocal works nicely in contrast to Grace's unusually contained lead. Well, that's my take on this song anyway. If it isn't a clever metaphor about the Jefferson story then I have to accept that it's a stupid novelty song about skateboards by a band in their later thirties/early forties and what would you rather think?!

'Fire' is the album's weakest song. A track written by committee (Pete and David wrote the music, probably out of a jam from Freiberg's bass line and Sears' piano chords I would guess, with Marty and yet another outside writer Trisha Robbins 'writing' the lyrics, such as they are), it's a case of one too many bland re-takes robbing the song of all excitement. What should be a song of passion and energy, sounding not unlike a Doors track with the heavy keyboard groove, rattled percussion and a vocal that leads from one line to another repeating itself rather than telling a 'story', ends up sounding like Marty shouting hysterically for no good reason. Come on baby light my fire this isn't though, turning out something of a damp squib with too many overdubs and too much chaos. OK, so he feels a burning fire in his heart for his lady - but that's not enough of a basis for a full song is it? We want to know questions like who, why, when and where - instead all we get is the what, as Marty tells us that he's 'hot' and just can't be 'stopped'. The only part of the song that succeeds is Craig's ridiculous guitar solo which somehow manages to be both prog rock and heavy metal all at the same time, before ending up at the end doing a spot-on impression of a fire siren. Oh yes there's a string part too but - typically of this album's production throwing good money after bad - you only hear it play five notes in total, right on the fade of the song. Ok, Marty, we know you're alight, but calm down will ya?
Grace's last solo Jefferson song until 1984, 'Show Yourself', is another album oddball. Lyrically it's the most Jeffersony song on the album as Grace calls on misfits and the oppressed everywhere to stand up for themselves, no matter how hard it is, to stand and be counted. 'I don't care if you're eight or eighty!' Grace cries, 'Expose yourself, I wanna see ya!' So far so good - if ever there was a band who were about giving confidence to the unconfident to do their own thing it was the Jeffersons and it's good to hear them end their most 'indetikit' years celebrating individuality the way the Airplane did. But this song does not do what you expect. It starts off as a dig at a family member that Grace used to admire when she was small. She really meant it when she stood with her hand on her heart and sang with all the power her little lungs could she manage and she thought the person listening meant it too - but now they don't. Grace could perhaps mean America here, as reflected to her during school assemblies which (Gracie being a posh kid in a posh school) taught her how America would never let 'her' people down (or the rich down, anyway). That certainly fits a second verse as she castigates the land of her birth for events '201 years ago' (circa 1777, The American Revolutionary War) when Uncle Sam 'promised one great gift of freedom' in the constitution - and yet African Americans, Latinos, Women, Muslims and goodness knows who else are still fighting for equality all these years later. So this is a political song then (good, haven't had one of those in a while!), but it's very much sung in the mode of Grace's 'family' songs, especially that opening about being a 'child' and 'getting old' and cynical (Grace is by now thirty-nine) without the passion of Grace's usual rants until she and Craig come rushing out the blocks at the end. Even the song has a twist, as Grace turns nasty on her record labels, asking them to do more for the band and put themselves out a bit, not just for the Jeffersons but for the country they made their millions in: 'Are you RCA? Are you standard oil?' At its heart it feels as if this should be a straightforward song about prejudice in the present day, but the time-jumps, the 'family' feel and the in-joke of record label at the end make this song feel more confused somehow. It's also mixed a little oddly, with even that famous Grace Slick vocal somehow sounding muted and understated, even though she's giving her all by the second half of the song and for once there's not much other productions muggins to fight her way through. This song could have been the highlight of the album, but it got weird too quick - it's a song that, ironically, needed to 'show itself' a bit more clearly.

On yet another outside song, the mysterious 'N Q Dewey' provides Marty with a third commercial breathy ballad in 'Runaway'. This may, actually, be the second best song on the album (and did respectably as the second single), a charming song of love and adoration that rings more true than 'Crazy Feelin'. Marty excels as he urges his wannabe-bride to run away with him, pleading 'you don't know how much I love you' and asking to 'come and see you', to close the distance between them emotionally as well as geographically. Even this song isn't 'normal' though: oddly the next line is 'I love you like a son', even though it's clearly written about a girl. A strident middle eight interrupts his coo-ing as Marty reflects on missed opportunities and growing old and impatient and alone in his tiny flat as the seasons change outside his window as he continues to pine away for his lost love. 'Well, here I am' he sighs. 'Missing you', before having one last great chance at changing her mind with a chorus ripped straight out of Del Shannon's better known song 'Runaway' ('We can run, run, runrunrunit!') There's a crib from Hollies hit 'The Air That I Breathe' too when Marty sings about how 'I need you like the air!' Nowadays he'd probably get done for stalking and given an ASBO, but this song is sweet enough: especially the ending where he - apparently - extends the song longer tha anyone was intending with a 'one more time, baby just one more time!' You can hear Grace and Paul and an overdubbed Marty then trying not to get the giggles behind! You'd never say this was the greatest song Jefferson Starship ever recorded - and it's certainly not the most original - but it gets by thanks to an excellent recording where Marty at his most passionate and Craig at his most under-stated both take the biggest bows. I know I'm certainly tempted to 'runaway' after hearing this song. What's Marty's number again?!

There are hopes, then, that the album has turned around and is going to end on a high but - nope! 'All Nite Long' sounds like umpteen previous Jefferson songs stuck together, which might be why all the band gets a credit somewhere for lyrics or music. Paul is clearly in charge of the song though and it sounds much like one of his with an emphasis on keeping a 'feeling' going and the power of music to heal. Unfortunately this re-write of 'Rock and Roll Island' is all washed up, sounding like the most dullest party you've ever been to. 'waiting for the next wave, wondering what it's going to be' Paul ponders, not yet guessing at the new wave of the next album, lost and pleading for 'just a little light to get home' in a phrase he's all again recycle whole-sale for 1984's 'Connection'. Intriguingly, the weakest Jefferson album yet (of them all?) which sees almost half the band leave overnight ends with Paul's yearly report in which he tells the band they aren't good enough, that he's lost 'in the ruins of a once famous castle' and struggling for a light switch now he's made his way through the latest 'doorway' music has offered to him. He kind of has a point, given that Craig is playing that lick, Marty is singing that backing vocal, Grace is doing that warble, Pete is playing that bass solo and Johnny is on auto-pilot, like a sampler of every Jefferson Starship record there's ever been. But Paul is the biggest problem: he's not joking when he says that he's feeling lost and uninspired and this may well be his weakest song in the Jefferson discography (so bad the others had to finish it for him?) Lacking the joy of 'Rock and Roll Music' (while sharing similar lines about the power of music to heal), lacking the exoticness of 'St Charles' (with which this song shares many tales of history and myth-tory) and ending up musically like a weak man's 'Ride The Tiger' (the song with which Jefferson Starship re-ignited back in 1974), struggling to limp itself home, this is an over-long six minutes of nothing. Paul even seems to have lost the ability to spell given the official title (which is just a bit too 'Slade' and un-hip by 1978 standards).

Things clearly have to change - and quickly! Sometimes 'Earth' demonstrates this by being so cosily familiar you may as well be listening to one of their earlier three albums. Sometimes it shows this by proving that the only things the band can do now are light fluffy songs that in the past would have been unworthy of their time and prestige. Sometimes it shows it by talking about age, with wars against politicians still un-won and time passing the characters by. Sometimes it shows it by weird metaphors about skateboarders. And sometimes it shows this by being, to be frank, a bit crap. Both 'All Nite Long' and 'Fire' are the Jefferson family at their worst and most misguided, shouting about nothing because other bands can get away with it, even though they're clearly not like other bands. Even at their best, Marty has become one-dimensional, Grace has lost her originality and uniqueness, Paul swaps his mysticism and tales of future past for a song about dancing all night and the rest of the band edge ever more from 'gimme more' to 'yuck, MOR!' 'Earth' is an album nobody sounded that interesting in making and lacks the fizz and sparkle of the four 'new-look' Jefferson Starship albums to come - effectively the work of a whole new band (they should have re-named themselves 'Jefferson Intergalactic Cruise Missile' or something, just to keep these two very different halves separate) they'll lose this era's subtlety and focus but gain in power and drive. To anyone who ever wondered why the band ever changed so drastically this is the answer: 'Earth' is an album out of time, out of synch, out of practice and out of ideas, with three of the band members out to lunch after making it for all sorts of different reasons. 'Dragonfly' escaped it, 'Red Octopus' dipped it's toe into it and 'Spitfire' delightfully recovered from it, but this is a Starship that's on full cruise alert and heading into anonymity, in the middle of the road (as much as intergalactic spaceships have middle of the roads!) This is a band that always sounded more comfortable in the bushes anyway, but it's a shame too given the best of this album (and especially the three before it) that this band's production shine, unity, brilliance, depth of layers and occasional lyrical nugget of gold is jettisoned through the hatch right here in favour of a noisier, more contemporary attack. As the song says though, maybe it's better to show yourself than waste your time doing what everyone else is doing.Back to school? Again? Well, there's always more to learn isn't there?...

Other Jefferson-related fun and frolics from this site includes:

'Surrealistic Pillow' (1967)

'After Bathing At Baxters' (1967)

'Crown Of Creation' (1968)

'Volunteers' (1969)

'Bark' (1971)

'Blows Against The Empire' (Kantner)  (1971)

‘Sunfighter’ (Kantner/Slick) (1972)

'Long John Silver' (1972)

'Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun' (Kantner/Slick/Freiberg) (1973)

'Dragonfly' (1974)

'Red Octopus' (1975)

'Spitfire' (1976)

'Modern Times' (1981)

'Winds Of Change' (1982)

'The Empire Blows Back'# aka 'The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra (Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship) (1983)

'Nuclear Furniture' (1983)

'Jefferson Airplane' (1989)

Non-Album Songs 1966-1984

The Best Unreleased Recordings 1966-1974

Surviving TV Footage 1966-1989

Tribute Special: Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson

Live/Solo/Compilation/Hot Tuna Albums Part One 1966: 1978

Live/Solo/Compilation/Hot Tuna Albums Part Two 1979-2013

Cat Stevens: Compilations/Live LPs Part One, plus Alun Davies Recordings 1963-1990

Jon & Alun Davies "Relax Your Mind"

(Decca, '1963')

Relax Your Mind Walk To The Gallows/I'm My Own Grandpa/The Poor Fool's Blues/Black Is The Colour/Easy Rambler/I Will Not Marry//Alberta/John B/The Song Of The Salvation Army/Lone Green Valley/The Way Of Life/Sinking Of The Reuben James

"I'll give you more gold than your apron can hold if you'll just let your hang low!"

Our first entry comes not from Cat but from his long-time collaborator and guitarist Alun Davies. At the time this album came out it was 1963, Beatles were still misspelt insects, folk albums outsold rock and pop and Alun had no idea that he was about to find fame with a feline-named singer who in 1963 was a fifteen year old schoolboy (Alun is five years older). Alun was, however, already happier working as a second guitarist and had teamed up with Jon Mark (though his writing credit here is the pseudonym 'Birchall' in true folk tradition), a fellow folk singer-songwriter who has a similar voice and style (to the point where it's hard to tell the two of them apart). The duo only made one album together (though they'll return in the electric band 'Sweet Thursday' in five years' time), which sadly got lost in the sudden rise of Merseybeat and 'Please Please Me' although it's a mystery how the pair got an album out on such a high-profile label as Decca (working with big star producer Shel Talmy, no less!) at all given that both men had no experience and they didn't even release so much as a try-out single before this. Understandably, given the pair's low profile (and their short haircuts, so un 1963!), the album died a death and is ridiculously scarce today - less understandably, given Alun's relatively high profile status across the 1970s it was never re-issued and as far as I know has never appeared on CD (warning to new collectors reading this book in order: don't blow all your money on this LP, there's lots more to come although they're not all quite this rare, I promise!) Is it worth its current ridiculous eye-watering price on E-bay and the like? Well, yes and no. It's pleasant and well made and deserved to become a much bigger hit if only the timing and publicity budget had been right. 

'Relax Your Mind' is not that cutting edge, though it's a likeable if introverted set, high on moody atmospherics and more like a Peter Paul and Mary or a Bert Jansch album than a Bob Dylan, with lots of acoustic guitar and hummed vocals but not much in the way of protest lyrics or cutting edge pyrotechnics. There's a certain lullaby quality to this recording which becomes quite hypnotic when heard in one go, with little variation between the songs. 'Alberta' is perhaps the best, a pretty song about falling in love with a girl which does all sorts of crazy things with folk-guitar tunings. The Appalachian Mountain song 'Black Is The Colour' is another highlight with some lovely playing, although you'd have to be a monkey with a taste for Spice Girls CDs to mess this lovely song up (I still say The King's Singers do it best though).  I'm less sure about the 'comedy' songs like 'I'm My Own Grandpa' with it's dodgy generation-defying incestuous lyrics ('My daughter was my mother because she was my father's wife!') Clearly Alun took note  from this record and made sure he would spend more time on the spiritual side of this album after this! To be honest it doesn't sound much like Alun's future style with Cat though or anything he will record himself on his 'Daydo' record, but if you like folk and you love Alun (He had quite a following too back in the day) then the steep price might just be worth it: who needs a car or a house to live in if you can buy a record?!. 

"Sweet Thursday" (Alun Davies Band)

(Tettragrammatron, August 1969)

Dealer/Jenny/Laughed At Him/Cobwebs/Rescued Me//Molly/Sweet Francesca/Side Of The Road/Gilbert Street

"How well my eyes do not see, how well my ears do not hear, how well my tears do not fall"

If you've been reading these books in order, dear reader, then a) I'm sorry you're nearly there and you can have your life back again soon, I promise and b) you'll probably know the name Nicky Hopkins rather well. The session keyboard player did, after all, appear on more AAA albums than anyone who wasn't an AAA member, with appearances with The Beatles ('Revolution'), The Kinks (almost everything 1966-1968),The Who ('Love Reign O'er Me'), Jefferson Airplane ('Vounteers' and their Woodstock set) and The Rolling Stones (most of the good stuff). As far as I know, Cat Stevens is almost the only AAA performer he didn't play with somewhere, although he played a major part in the life of Cat's right-hand man Alun Davies.  The pair formed a band, Sweet Thursday, along with Alun's old folk pal Jon Mark and a couple of new friends Harvey Burns and Brian Ogders. For a time it looked as if the band were going to be big: radio previews of some of the album songs had gone down a storm and the record label were so confident of success that they even took out a page advertisement in Rolling Stone Magazine - unheard of for a band making their first record back then. Unfortunately, it all went wrong in spectacular form: record label Tettragrammatron went bust soon after release (the very day, some people say, though there are a few copies out there - more than for the 'Jon and Alun' album at least, suggesting if it was only on sale for one day it was a very successful one day). Sweet Thursday were effectively dead by Friday and the band, frustrated at all that lost time, broke up. Things could have been very difficult in the Cat Stevens story if this album had been a hit, but as it turns out Alun was free when producer Paul Samwell-Smith was looking for a second guitarist to flesh out 'Mona Bone Jakon' during the first half of 1970.

The 'Sweet Thursday' album, meanwhile, gradually grew into a cult hit though the few copies that survived saw great battles between Nicky Hopkins and Cat Stevens fans desperate to see what their heroes were once up to (plus a few Jon Mark fans after his stint in the duo Mark Almond, no not the Soft Cell guy). The album was re-released on CD briefly in 1998 on the MIL Multimedia label, though it's surprisingly easier to find on vinyl than it is on compact disc (near where I live anyway!) It clearly deserves to be heard by a wider audience: though not as consistent or as original as a Cat Stevens record, there's clearly a lot of talent on display here and given a couple more records to gel Sweet Thursday could well have become a major force to contend with. Like many a late 1960s record it's rather ponderous and leisurely at times (the opening track features nearly a full minute of a bass riff and a dum-dum-thwack drum part), but it is also quite a beautiful and moving record, with several excellent love songs. What works particularly well is the tension and build-up across the record: there are only nine songs and most of them are long, criss-crossing between pretty melodies played on pretty instruments and ugly snarling guitar lines that make this more than just another floaty sixties album. Though Alun is clearly a star to watch, with some excellent guitar work (you can see why Samwell-Smith considered him such a good fit) and one intriguing song in 'Side Of The Road', actually it's two other band members who shine the brightest - and no, it's not Nicky Hopkins either (who arguably gets less to do as a fully paid up band member than he does as a guest on other bands' material) . Most of the songs are John Mark's including a real gem in the pastoral 'Jenny'  (a happy-go-lucky 'Lady D'arbanville') and he also sings lead more often than not, including navigating his way around the ten minute prog rock epic 'Gilbert Street' written by band pal Pat Gunning (generally agreed as the album's standout moment). Bassist Brian Ogders also comes up trumps with the psychedelic folk of 'Cobwebs' (harpsichords a go-go!) and the singalong pop of 'Molly' - sadly Oders is the one group member we never heard of again after this, which is poor reward for the sharpest writer in the band. All in all 'Sweet Thursday' is a sweet little album, more substantial than the 'Jon and Alun' record and better arguably than the 'Daydo' record Alun will go on to make in 1972 and far more worth your time seeking out if you're a Davies fan, even if he's not on it an awful lot. Fans of late periods psychedelia (caught right at the nexus point where it's beginning to merge into prog rock) will also enjoy this record, which might not be the best album in this book but will please fans of the genre a lot and more than deserves another re-issue (a proper one this time, that we actually have a chance to buy before it disappears). 

"Harold and Maude" (Film Soundtrack)

(Vinyl Films, Recorded 1971 Released December 2007)

Morning Has Broken/Wild World/I Think I See The Light*/I Wish I Wish*/Trouble*/Father and Son//Miles From Nowhere*/Lilywhite/Where Do The Children Play?*/On The Road To Find Out*/Lady D'arbanville/Tea For The Tillerman*

* = Song used in the film

"You know love is better than a song..."

The story behind the making of 'Harold and Maude' is not unlike the story of Simon and Garfunkel in 'The Graduate', with a film director in Hal Ashby who loved Cat's music and used old recordings as a sort of rehearsal stand-in before falling in love with the songs so much he set about using as much of the old Cat as he could in the film (the first choice was Elton John, who accepted but then had to drop out of the project when other things came up - it was him who suggested his old friend Cat for the film in fact). Cat was even coerced into writing two new songs for the film and while the jaunty 'If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out!' and the sweet 'Don't Be Shy' didn't quite match 'Mrs Robinson' for impact and sales, they're both incredibly popular songs amongst fans and the quiet heart of the film. Even the plot is a little 'Graduate' like, though darker in tone: teenage Harold hates the idea that his family have mapped his life already out for him and - trapped - becomes fascinated by death as a means of escape. He befriends the 79-year-old Maude, through the pair's mutual love of funerals (for very different reasons!) though, who though ill and close to death herself is full of life and bursting with ideas for doing new things. The pair strike up an unlikely relationship and yo-yo between experiencing each other's moods before falling in love in the unlikeliest pairing in film before Kevin Costner and his CGI dancing wolves. Maude, with some inevitability dies and is deeply mourned by her new friend and you think Harold (who attempts suicide seven times across the course of the movie) is going to follow her, but in the end he pays the best tribute to her he can, by vowing to life on and see the world through her eyes. Though a cult and beloved film now, people weren't sure what to make of this film's low budget or dark humour when it was released and the film famously sank without trace at first, before finally becoming accepted as a legend that got away (finally making a profit twelve years after release when the first video of it came out in 1983 and proved highly popular!)

Most of the film takes place in Harold's head, which is a tricky thing for a film to pull off; by and large the only way directors can do this is by finding the right music to go with the emotional tug-of-war in the character's minds. Though Cat isn't really associated with dark humour, his songs fit teenage angst very well and his songs range from the uplifting and world-embracing to the depths of despair anyway, though oddly enough the perfect balance of 'Morning Has Broken' set against 'Miles From Nowhere' only takes place on the record, which is in effect an 'extended' best-of featuring no less than five old recordings that don't appear in the film at all. The ones that do really make an impact though: 'Trouble' sets the early scenes up well, 'Miles From Nowhere' is one of the few songs about death that treats the thing not as a sob story or a big joke (the film isn't really either) and 'On The Road To Find Out' is a good fit for Harold's self-discovery.  Oddly neither of the songs newly written for the film appears on the original soundtrack, but they are added to the 2007 CD edition (now sadly somewhat impossible to find - it was a limited edition - and lacking the non-film songs) and multiple Cat Stevens best-ofs, alongside demo and instrumental versions of the same songs and a 'banjo' take of 'Sing Out' that works rather well. The 30 page 'making of' booklet is rather good too, featuring the first time most of the people involved in the film have spoken about their work on it. 

Alun Davies "Daydo"

(**, November 1972)

Market Place/Old Bourbon/Portobello Road/Poor Street/Abram Bown Continued//Waste Of Time/I'm A Gonna Love You Too/Vale Of Tears/I'm Late/Young Warrior

"There's things he won't ever tell to his wife - so he tells me instead"

With Cat's second adrenalin rush of creativity finally slowing down, his friend and collaborator Alun Davies took the time to record his own album, one that Cat was eager to help out on, providing some distinctive piano parts (although sadly he doesn't sing much except one single 'aaaah' on 'Old Bourbon, perhaps wanting to make sure his friend got the limelight this time). Hearing Alun on his own properly for the first time, you can see why Paul Samwell Smith thought he'd be such a good fit with Cat: this record is just a higher, blonder version of one of Cat's albums and while it lacks the catchy it-feels-like-it's-been-around-centuries melody of Stevens at his best, he shares the same musical curiosity, intelligence and perfectionism (even Cat, long considered a perfectionist, got fed up of his friend spending ages getting soundchecks just right and re-testing studio equipment!) 'Daydo' (named after Davies' school nickname!) has a distinct 'Jethro Tull' feel at times too, especially that band's Medieval period with its flutes and baroque still guitar playing. The production is this album's strongest suit in fact, with several perfectly judged arrangements that feature a Brian Wilson-style touch in the combinations of weird instruments and the way that songs are made up in 'chunks', each leading naturally to another. What it lacks is a voice as pretty or distinctive as Cat's and his old partner's energy and drive, with several songs ending up stuck firmly into place tempo-wise once they start without the variety of choruses and middle eights, the changes (IV?) all coming from the instrumentation. Cat fans will want to own it though, if only to hear Alun's sadder, slower take on Stevens' 'Portobello Road', a song written and released long before the pair met. Sadly not many people bought this album, despite a sizeable publicity drive and an eye-catching sleeve featuring a big-handed Alun playing marbles, the perspective in the image all wrong (because this is the sideman's first album as a frontman?)

'Market Place' is pretty, but pretty basic too. The opening flurry of criss-crossing guitars is lovely and the 'Portobello Road' style lyrics as Alun relates an old love with a rummage through the jumble are strong, but there isn't much of a tune and everything is awfully slow.

'Old Bourbon' features much 'Miles From Nowhere' style piano from Cat and this is perhaps the song here closest to Cat's own style as Alun looks after a 'black dog' from the black night (depression?), though the twist is he drinks to keep his new 'friend' company, which would never happen on a Cat Stevens record (well not in the Island era anyway!)

The cover of 'Portobello Road' is a good one, slowing the original's giddy gait into a sad and mournful tone that brings out more of the words ('Growing old is my only danger!') There's a quirky banjo part that keeps interrupting the action, rushing off at double-speed, which is quite effective: the narrator has nothing else to do and the hint is he's older than everyone else here anyway. Clever - not better than the original perhaps, but equal and certainly different.

'Poor Street' is oddly Alan Hull-like, a shouty R and B song played on folk instruments about a literal place called 'Poor Street' where the people are 'pulled down' with the buildings. Unfortunately there's a bit too much chugging 12 bar blues about this song and Alun's not a natural fit for the aggressive vocals, but you can tell the band are having fun with this one at least (and is that Cat I hear singing the one word 'baaaaack' in the, err, baaaaackground?!)

'Abram Brown Continued' is the weirdest song, an old folk tune that opens like a Madrigal and turns into a silly but elaborate pop song complete with orchestra. The title character is a loveable drunk (not unlike our own AAA canine mascot Bingo), looking for someone to tell stories to and to prop him up. The recording all sounds a little too sober, though, if anything and a little bit detached.

'Waste Of Time' sounds not unlike 'Portobello Road' too, a slow and mournful piano ballad with Cat the only one keeping busy on a slow meandering melody about wanting to 'lay me down in countries that I know'. This is another of the album's most Cat Stevens-like record (especially the slow burning epics of the 'Catch-Bull' era), but you spend a full four minutes waiting for something to arrive that never quite does. Not quite a waste of time, but worryingly close.

'I'm Gonna Love You Too' is one of the weirdest Buddy Holly covers I've ever heard, with Alun's complete polar opposite of Buddy's pop vocal (deep, gritty, unusual) still singing in his trademarks, while a Victorian brass band and some very 70s synth sounds compete for attention. Alun's meddled with the original melody too, while Gerry Conway's heavy-handed drumming is slightly distracting. Cat may well be one of the many voices in the background, which certainly has a 'Cat chorus' feel about it, but there are so many it's hard to tell.

'Vale Of Tears' is my favourite song on the album, a sweet and poignant solo track that's closest in feel in Cat's catalogue to 'How Can I Tell You?' and 'Lady D'arbanville'. The narrator's feeling depressed but escapes by dreaming of fantasies of falling in love ('We know each other very well, mademoiselle'), while fully aware that it can never happen in real life. Davies' lead vocal is impressive.

'I'm Late' is this album's 'Sitting', with a lyric taken from The White Rabbit in Alice In Wonderland (Teaser and the Firerabbit?!) and the album's rockiest, heaviest feel. It's quick-stepping silly rhymes feel more like Gilbert O'Sullivan than the folk vibe of the rest of the record and you can't help feeling that if the narrator spent less time yakking and more time getting on with things he might not be so late after all.

The album ends with 'Young Warrior', another album highlight with some impressive guitar and a spooky 'Foreigner' vibe with crashing piano chords and a trippy production. The warrior is only a warrior on the battlefield - at home he's broken several hearts, with a three-dimensional intelligent lyric and an unusual, quirky riff adding up to the album's most memorable recording.

Overall, though, 'Daydo' is a patchy record with a great single on it, with Davies showing promise that deserved to be more fully explored (sadly this is his last album as anything more than guitarist and backing singer), without quite making some long lost classic or an album equal to his 'day job'. Still, the few fans who bought this record really cherish it and there was a lot of pushing to have this album finally come out on CD in 2010 - by which time it sadly sank without trace a second time. If an album can be measured in terms of the love and affection fans hold for it, though, this would be a #1 as equal as any of Cat's biggest sellers and though in a different league you can see why: intelligently made, with several excellent ideas and a couple of classy vocals when the material is right, the world should have been playing this record all the Day-do long.  

"Saturnight - Live In Tokyo"

(A&M, November 1974)

Wild World/Oh Very Young/Sitting/Where Do The Children Play?/Lady D'arbanville/Another Saturday Night//Hard Headed Woman/Peace Train/Father And Son/King Of Trees/A Bad Penny/Bitterblue

"Beneath the shade he gave shelter from the rain"

Cat's first official live album came at a time when the singer was at the start of his 'religious' phase and struggling to work out how to balance his music commitments with his higher calling. Making music for charity was the perfect balance, with Cat using his talents to do good for other people and this concert is one of his first charity gigs, a concert for Unicef that he played in Japan. In time Cat would forge ever stronger ties with the children's charity, becoming heavily involved in their 'year of the child' in 1978 and several other charitable events, while Cat will - in his guise as Yusuf - become a teacher (well, a headmaster who gives a few guest lectures on the side). This record was the only live Cat album available right up until the 21st century and as it was only ever released in Japan (it's still never appeared on CD!) has become one of Car's most sought after records. In all honesty, if you can't find it you're not missing much - this tour is the one before 'Majikat' so there aren't too many differences in arrangements or set listings (every single song performed here is also performed on that longer album) and - perhaps because this concert is a one-off and the other a compilation of multiple shows - this one sounds more rushed and under-rehearsed, with Cat performing so fast that his backing band struggles to keep up with him, while Cat himself often sounds puffed. There are also seven songs from the original concert that were sadly cut from this set (which would have made an even stronger double set) such as an excellent 'Wild World' 'On The Road To Find Out' and a growly 'Miles From Nowhere'. Still there are some nice moments here: a lovely 'King Of Trees' that's gorgeously brittle and rough round the edges compared to the version on 'Buddha', a heartfelt 'Lady D'arbanville' that's so fragile and humble against the other often heavier songs and a jaunty version of then-brand new single 'Another Saturday Night' from which this album gets it's rather weird title. If Cat ever re-issues this album on CD on behalf of Unicef it's well worth getting - however till then you're best off saving your money than buying this now rare vinyl and investing in 'Majikat' instead, perhaps with a bit extra to Unicef too. 

"Greatest Hits"

(A&M, June 1975)

Wild World/Oh Very Young/Can't Keep It In/Hard Headed Woman/Moonshadow/Two Fine People//Peace Train/Ready/Father and Son/Sitting/Morning Has Broken/Another Saturday Night

"Though the stars may fade and mountains turn into sand, I'll love you"

With 'Numbers' the first real flop in the Cat Stevens catalogue, it was with a certain inevitability that Island would license out his best tracks to partners A&M to release. This couldn't have come at a worse time for Cat, who was struggling to come to terms with his religious values versus his money and fame as a musician and he did as little publicity for the album as he could get away with, leaving all decisions up to the record company. That shows, in both the pretty obvious track selection (featuring every single released in any country to date along with fan favourites like 'Hard Headed Woman' and 'Father and Son') and the rather ugly cover where a poor drawing of Cat's face flies on a white flag pictures against a blue sky. Typical standard record company best-of fare then - and yet this album feels more substantial than a mere cash-in somehow. Perhaps because it was the first Cat compilation, this album has become beloved by an awful lot of people and is still a strong seller in the CD age, despite being outclassed by a lot of longer and more thorough compilations on the market. It does, after all, reflect well what Cat is all about, featuring a nice balance of uptempo rockers and sad ballads, while even though it's restricted to Cat's most melodic and hummable songs his daring selection of singles down the years mean this set also feels stronger and deeper than it perhaps should. Collectors still like it too, as the easiest way of tracking down the rare and then just-released single 'Two Fine People' and it's predecessor 'Another Saturday Night'. 


(Eagle Vision, Recorded February 1976, Released September 2004)

Wild World/The Wind/Moonshadow/Where Do The Children Play?/Another Saturday Night/Hard Headed Woman/King Of Trees/Sun-C79/Lady D'arbanville/Banapple Gas/Majik Of Majiks/Tuesday's Dead/Oh Very Young/How Can I Tell You?/The Hurt/Sad Lisa/Two Fine People/Fill My Eyes/Father and Son/Peace Train

"In any event the perfect illusion has to be the result of a definite reality..." (From The Original Tour Booklet)

Though Cat never announced it as such at the time, the massive 'Majikat' tour feels in retrospect a final goodbye to the rock star trappings before Cat took off for more serious issues and turned his back on music. Though Cat had been a regular performer down the years in all eras, he tended to be a short-tour, six-bookings kind of performer, playing gigs here and there. This tour, though, was on a massive scale and took up much of the first half of 1976 (with no new album out this year for the first time since 1969). Though may fans prefer the 'acoustic' years with good reason it's great to hear Cat backed by a full band for perhaps the only time on record. This band – who by and large are the same men who worked on all cat’s albums of the 70s – are also a wonderful bunch, especially guitarist and unsung hero Alun Davies, and it’s fascinating being able to watch the band making their distinctive sound up close.  Though billed as an 'Earth Tour', it basically consisted of American shows plus one-off gigs in Canada, Slovenia, Germany Croatia and Austria played in much bigger arenas than before though everything was glossy, even the booklet (re-created in full for the DVD, complete with Alun Davies' mock insults at the rest of the band - though not Cat, notably). The tour was a big success, being well received by fans and this gig seemingly picked at random towards the end of the tour (Williamsberg, Virginia on February 22nd 1976 - not the last show of the tour as is sometimes said but the17th out of 26) was professionally recorded on both film and audio so it was clearly being considered for release at one point. It may well be that, along with Cat's recent conversion and the recent 'Greatest Hits' compilation the singer was trying to get through the rest of the time on his contract quicker to get on with 'other things'.  However something seems to have happened to change people's minds: maybe Cat got cold feet about short-changing his audiences with a live album or dreaded sitting through the tapes so soon after making them. Anyway, whatever the cause this fine set was left in the vaults for a full twenty-eight years before being lovingly restored for CD and DVD

Not many performances are all that different to the original records ('Sad Lisa' is perhaps a bit huskier and 'Banapple Gas' more manic), but unlike some live albums where this is a problem you can still tell that this is a concert recording and the tight band do a good job of adding extra power and grunt to the songs originally performed near-solo or acoustic without getting in the way. The track selection is pretty much spot on, concentrating on songs from the 'classic' 1970-1972 eras but featuring many album tracks rather than just the hit singles (while 'Morning Has Broken' is the one obvious track conspicuous by its absence). While most of the track selection could be heard on tours before and since, there's also just enough to keep this tour feeling 'special' too: unique live recordings of a slightly sloppy 'The Hurt' (from 'Foreigner'), a particular mournful 'King Of Trees' and a spine-tingling 'Sun/C79' (both from 'Buddha and the Chocolate Box') and two period singles long ago relegated to 'greatest hits' sets, 'Another Saturday Night' and 'Two Fine People'). Not to mention a unique 'tour theme song' in the instrumental 'Doves' which was played over the tannoy as the band warmed up and which was later recycled as a B-side in 1977. Oddly Cat seems to have played two songs from the 'Numbers' album he was meant to be promoting (a slightly rushed 'Majik Of Majiks' and a bonkers 'Banapple Gas') and in fact has still never played any other track from that record live ('Jzero', surely, was born for the stage?)

As for Cat he's on good if occasionally OTT form throughout, performing a little breathlessly for most of the set as if he's been running a marathon at the same time, although he always manages to connect with his songs and bring out a feeling of reality about them. Take for instance, the highlight of the set 'Lady D'arbanville', a beautiful acoustic track that suffered a little through Cat's nerves at returning to music after such a long gap and worrying perhaps a bit too much about getting the vocal spot-on. Here, after so many nights on the road and so many years singing that song, Cat knows it inside out and wrings out every last emotion from his Medieval lover with this humble and simple song keeping the audience spell-bound. A faster 'Where Do The Children Play?' also adds much gravelly humour to the original and an impressively intense 'Hard Headed Woman' manages to be both tough and gentle all at the same time. Cat is in a slightly nervy form during the early set, but gets sharper as the gig goes on and by the end of the show is treating the audience like old friends, revealing some strange and rambling stories about three of the last four songs. 'Sad Lisa' was, apparently, written 'about a real friend but sometimes when I write songs I think I'm talking about myself - quite a lot, maybe, what you read in other people's faces you maybe read into yourself!' A defensive Cat admits he 'stole' part of 'Two Fine People' from the earlier 'Wild World' but adds, 'well, hey, it is mine!' Cat also says that he wrote 'Peace Train' was written on a train while thinking about Alfred Hitchcock's chin and how the world would be a better place if everyone came to love it - which is either a revelation of how weirdly Cat's creative mind works or evidence of how well the booze was flowing by the end of the tour! (The reviewer at Allmusic wonders whether Cat had the Hitchcock film 'Strangers On A Train' in mind at the time, although that murder-filled railway line couldn't have been less like 'Peace Train'). The end result is a good set welcomed with open arms by many fans who still remembered the gigs vividly and found they stood up remarkably well. Of course 'Majikat' is no substitute for the original records and is only really a curious extra rather than an essential purchase for those who already own them all, but this is a good band playing some excellent songs and it's all far too good to have sat in a vault for over a quarter of a century and is pretty Majikatikal all round. If you have a choice, though, I'd go for the DVD set which contains the spectacle of what was going on around the music as well as the performances themselves (the most recent issue of the DVD includes the CD as well anyway).

Note that unfortunately the set runs just four minutes too long for the running time of a single disc so 'Ruins' got cut though it appears on the DVD in its proper place near the end in between 'Father and Son' and 'Peace Train'. Confusingly, opening CD track 'Wild World' was actually the encore and appears separately on the DVD in the 'extras' section. 'Time', usually performed as a medley with 'Fill My Eyes', is cut from both and though we don't know for certain if it was played that night that sounds suspiciously like an edit at the start to me.

"Footsteps In The Dark: Greatest Hits Volume Two"

(A&M, '1984')

The Wind/(I Never Wanted) To Be A Star/Katmandu/I Want To Live In A Wigwam/Trouble/On The Road To Find Out/If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out!//Where Do The Children Play?/Daytime/Don't Be Shy/How Can I Tell You?/Father And Son/The Hurt/Silent Sunlight

"Wherever I am, I'm always walking with you - but I look and you're not there"

Herein starts a long period of musical silence for Cat, broken only by the occasional compilation he didn't have much to do with. Island had licensed much of their material out to A&M by the 1980s and they could by rights simply have started again from scratch a full nine years after 'Greatest Hits' which remained at the time the only Cat Stevens compilation out there. Impressively, A&M decided to assemble a 'second volume' rather than simply replicate what had come out before and they managed to include an interesting collection of album tracks, non album B sides (such as the charming 'I Want To Live In A Wigwam') and the first appearance on record of two much-discussed songs from the cult film 'Harold and Maude' (a work that was growing in reputation year on year). Most of the other selections here are sensible fan favourites that will feature heavily in most future compilations - tracks like 'Where Do The Children Play?' 'Father and Son' 'How Can I Tell You?' and 'The Wind'. Others are rarely featured on compilations but deserve to be: 'I Never Wanted To Be A Star' from 1977 sums up Cat's conversion better than any other track could, 'Trouble' and 'Katmandu' are welcome picks from the under-rated 'Mona Bone Jakon' and Catch-Bull's 'Silent Sunlight' makes for a fine finale. Oddly four legitimate charting singles released since 'Greatest Hits' were passed over for older songs: 'Two Fine People' 'The Days Of The Old Schoolyard' 'Was Dog A Doughnut?' and 'Banapple Gas' (although 'The Hurt' is here, a top forty single that even more oddly didn't make it onto 'Volume One'). Interestingly there's a particularly haunting and melancholy air about this collection, which is unusual for a best-of and is perhaps referred to in the unusual album title 'Footsteps In The Dark' (which was, reportedly, Cat's own idea and his comment about his years of musical 'ignorance' pre-conversion - he released his own companion of Muslim songs 'Footsteps In The Light' in 2006). Cat also drew the rather weird cover (his last drawing on a release to date) which features a waxing (or waning?) moon on a stark dark background above what appears to be the wall of a Mosque. The overall result is depressing but really stood out amongst the colourful commercial best-ofs of the mid-1980s and the record sold pretty respectably considering Yusuf gave it no promotion whatsoever. He had, after all, moved on to much 'higher' things by 1984 and his musical career probably seemed like a bad distant dream by then. For fans starved of product, though, this set was welcome and only added to Cat's reputation with a chance for collectors to get their hands on lesser known gems that shone every bit as bright as the more famous works. So far this compilation has only been released on CD in America, although you can find everything on it on a wide range of other compilations in the digital age. 

"Classics Volume 24"

(A&M, '1987')

On The Road To Find Out/Moonshadow/Sitting/Silent Sunlight/The Wind/Trouble/Peace Train/(Do You Remember) The Days Of The Old Schoolyard?/18th Avenue/Where Do The Children Play?/Father And Son/If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out!/Ghost Town/Tuesday's Dead/Morning Has Broken/Katmandu/Oh Very Young/Novim's Nightmare/Ruins/New York Times

"So nice to see you coming back in this town again..."

This rather strangely titled compilation refers to the fact that Cat was the 24th act chosen to celebrate record label A&M's 25th anniversary, with a compilation related to each of their 'years'. However Cat's presence at all suggests the record label were getting a little desperate towards the end of the series - Cat had no close ties to the label, after spending his years on Decca and Island, though his tracks had been licenses out to the label for past compilations. Anyway, what you get is a rather good little entry in the series containing 20 tracks - long enough to include a few extra that don't always get an airing (it's good to see 'Novim's Nightmare'  'Ghost Town'and 'Katmandu' here for a change), but not so long it feels like A&M have just thrown everything here for the hell of it. Other compilations feature more of the 'hits' though, with the likes of 'Wild World' and  'Can't Keep It In' conspicuous by their absence. The track listing is also a bit random, with no sense of chronology or development, though even this is made with some care as 'On The Road To Find Out' is a worthy set opener and 'Ruins' a near-perfect near-ending. Released at a time when Cat's profile was its lowest, nine years into his 'retirement' and a couple of years before the Salman Rushdie debacle put him unwillingly back in the spotlight again, this was a welcome reminder of just what a talent the 'roadsinger' was.

"The Very Best Of Cat Stevens"

(Island, '1989')

Where Do The Children Play?/Wild World/Tuesday's Dead/Lady D'arbanville/The First Cut Is The Deepest/Oh Very Young/Rubylove/Morning Has Broken/Moonshadow/Matthew and Son/Father and Son/Can't Keep It In/Hard Headed Woman/(Remember The Days Of The) Old School Yard?/I Love My Dog/Another Saturday Night/Sad Lisa/Peace Train

"Hrisi san iliahtida - Gold as a sunbeam"

An important and popular compilation, this first of two sets titled 'The Very Best Of' features one of the best front covers (the back of 'Teaser and The Firecat' with the pair waving goodbye) and was the first to mix Decca and Island recordings. Though slightly superseded now by later, longer compilations this has pretty much everything a Cat Stevens beginner could wish for: no less than eight UK hit singles (effectively everything that charted in the UK except for 'A Bad Night' and 'I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun', which to be fair doesn't really fit with the rest of the 'peace train' style canon) and a further bundle of US-only top thirty hits like 'Wild World' 'Father and Son' and 'Moonshadow' (though 'Sitting', an American top twenty hit, is a curious absentee). All that plus well loved and carefully chosen album tracks such as 'Where Do The Children Play?' 'Sad Lisa' and 'Rubylove'. A shame they're not in the 'right' chronological order, mind, but actually even this varied running order is more sensibly chosen then most: 'Children' is a strong and natural opener and 'Peace Train' a similarly good fit as a closer. There is, sadly, no room for rarities such as single-only track 'Two Fine People' or a few non-album B-sides, but then this is very much a compilation for a curious newbie rather than a committed fan. If you're one of the former then you'll love it fine just the way it is; if you're one of the latter you might want it anyway for its above-average intelligent track listing and packaging. 

"The Very Best Of Cat Stevens"

(Polygram, January 1990)

Where Do The Children Play?/Wild World/Tuesday's Dead/Lady D'arbanville/The First Cut Is The Deepest/Oh Very Young/Rubylove/Morning Has Broken/Moonshadow/Matthew And Son/Father And Son/Can't Keep It In/Hard Headed Woman/(Remember The Days Of) The Old School Yard/I Love My Dog/Another Saturday Night/Sad Lisa/Peace Train

"Switch on summer from a music machine"

This set is confusingly given the exact same title as a compilation released ten years later, although this one is very different in terms of both track listing and 'feel'. This is a light and airy collection, with a front cover that recycles a still from near the end of the 'Teaser and The Firecat/Moonshadow' short, with owner and cat waving at the moon. This is a straightforward collection which features all the usual hits with a couple of unusual differences. 'Sad Lisa' and 'Rubylove' are particularly worthy additions, while this is the first Cat compilation to mix the Decca material in there too with appearances for 'I Love My Dog' and 'The First Cut Is The Dppest'. This set doesn't quite live up to later years' worth of compilations though, missing  a couple of gems such as 'Land O'Free Love and Goodbye'  and the extract from the 'Foreigner' suite for instance, so if in doubt and you have a choice I'd go for 'Remember', even though the packaging's much better on this set without the weird kid on a flying carpet!