Songs out of Clay: an appreciation of Al Stewart

It seems unlikely that Al Stewart will ever play a concert in Vienna, which means I’m not going to be able to write a live review of him. But I still feel the need to write something about Stewart, since by now I’ve covered most of my favourite artists on this blog but never said a word about him, and since there are times when I feel that there is no greater lyricist and songwriter.

I can remember the first time I heard Al Stewart very well. It was in 1984 or thereabouts, in the spare room of our family home in Salisbury which I had converted into a nerve centre for A-level revision. I could never listen to music while studying, it was too much of a distraction, so I must have been taking a (not exactly rare) break from the delights of English, French and History in order to listen to Anne Nightingale’s Sunday evening request show, which was broadcast on Radio 1 in pristine FM sound quality right after the Top 40 show. This programme regularly served up a diet of smart, listenable music I instinctively liked, music that I couldn’t find anywhere else on the dial – not on daytime radio, not on John Peel and certainly not on the execrable Friday Rock Show (whose use of Van der Graaf Generator’s “Theme One” as incidental music was its only redeeming feature).

Anyway, one evening Anne Nightingale played a song that immediately made me sit up and pay attention – one of those that, when you hear it on the radio, you make sure you’re listening to the presenter at the end, because you absolutely need to know the artist and title. This song was ten minutes long, lyrically intricate, driven by mile-high acoustic riffing and a compelling air of drama and mystery. At the end of the song Anne Nightingale helpfully told us not only that it was called “Nostradamus” by Al Stewart, but also that it came from an album called Past, Present and Future. I had never heard of Stewart, but I had to own this record, and so I set off to find it – something easier said than done, since, like most of his back catalogue at the time, it was long deleted.

I can’t remember where I finally tracked down Past, Present and Future, but it would have been some second-hand record shop in London or Brighton. I fell in love with the LP instantly, and it’s still one of my top three favourite albums of all time. (The others, since you ask, are Still Life by Van der Graaf Generator and In My Tribe by 10,000 Maniacs – another group I must write about sometime.) My taste in music at the time was clearly heading in the direction of folky singer-songwriters, with Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Vega (although not Bob Dylan) both getting repeat play on my turntable. But Past, Present and Future had something that both Cohen and Vega lacked – it rocked, and it was that delightful mix of folk and rock music that really sealed the deal for me. Like no record I’d heard before, it was brimful of winning tunes, inspired guitar work and infectious, propulsive rhythms.

And the words! Rich in metaphor and clever wordplay, yet stirred by narrative drama, these were the most literate and eloquent lyrics I had ever heard, delivered in a distinctive, coolly precise voice that made you hang on every word. “Nostradamus” was the highpoint, of course, but every song on the record was a gem, from the moving and autumnal “Old Admirals” via the witty historical rollercoaster of “Post World War Two Blues”, to the towering epic that was “Roads to Moscow”. There was something uncanny about the cover as well. Wearing a three-piece suit, leaning stiffly against a mantelpiece in a room full of antiques, paintings and fine china, Stewart looked more like a young aristocrat than a musician. Meanwhile, the Old English lettering and filigree tracery reinforced the impression of the album as a historical document rather than a mere collection of songs.

Over the next few years I hunted down the rest of Stewart’s extensive and mostly deleted back catalogue in those same second-hand record shops. Modern Times, the follow-up to Past, Present and Future, was another masterpiece, and indeed I regard those albums as two of the greatest, and most overlooked, achievements of British folk rock. I eventually completed my collection with a mint condition original copy of the first, not terribly good album, Bedsitter Images, which is probably the rarest record in my possession. Each album was replete with Stewart’s unique songwriting talent, blending personal and historical narratives in songs that resonated with striking imagery, radiant melodies and that wistful, mellifluous voice. I’ve listed ten of my favourites at the end of this article, but I could easily have named a dozen others.

The first new Al Stewart album to be released after I discovered him was 1988’s Last Days of the Century – not one of his best, admittedly, but still perfectly listenable, featuring a then unknown Tori Amos on backing vocals. On the back of this record Stewart toured with a full band, giving me the chance to see him live for the first time at the Town & Country Club (now the Forum) in Kentish Town. It was a hugely enjoyable concert, featuring a generous cross-section of his songs and also, I recall, a fine uptempo version of Leonard Cohen’s “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong”. Funnily enough I was wearing a Leonard Cohen T-shirt that evening, which I had purchased at his Royal Albert Hall concert earlier in the year. With a few other diehards I hung around by the Town & Country Club stage door after the show, and met Stewart for an autograph or two. He commented favourably on the T-shirt and told me a story of a time when he had met Cohen. The details of this encounter are unfortunately now lost to me, other than that the old groaner said to Al: “I’m waiting for Suzanne.”

Not long after that (in 1989, maybe), I made the short journey along the south coast from my home in Brighton for my second Al Stewart concert in the unglamorous surroundings of the Assembly Hall in Worthing. This was also a full-band show, but the only thing I can remember about it is that the bloke playing saxophone left the stage and wandered around the hall while taking his solo on “Year of the Cat”. I’d like to think Stewart played “Manuscript” that night, probably the only song in the world that namechecks Worthing, but I honestly can’t remember whether he did or not.

I saw Stewart a few more times after that (the Royal Festival Hall in 1991 among them), but these were all solo or duo acoustic shows and therefore bereft of the electric dynamics of Stewart at his folk-rock best. In fact, with the exception of a full-band show at the Royal Albert Hall in 2013, I’m not sure he’s played with a proper band (meaning electric guitar, bass and drums) for years. His recent albums, since 1993’s excellent Famous Last Words, have also tended to err on the side of unplugged caution. This is a real shame, since these songs are certainly at their best with the amps turned up and the pulse of a rock beat going through them.

I’ve written this article because Al Stewart has given, and continues to give, enormous listening pleasure to me, and I wanted to set down some of my experiences of being a fan of his over the past 30 years. His songs are like no others; they are lucid, moving, clever, funny and endlessly quotable. Here, for example, is a beautiful and perfectly balanced couplet: “And had I but known last summer what I now understand/I’d have never set my foot inside this bleak and bitter land.” There are so many others, but don’t take my word for it – listen for yourself.

Ten great Al Stewart songs that are not “Year of the Cat”

“Gethsemane Again”
“Songs out of Clay”
“Nostradamus”
“Apple Cider Reconstitution”
“The Dark and the Rolling Sea”
“Rocks in the Ocean”
“Accident on 3rd Street”
“The Coldest Winter in Memory”
“Trains”
“Three Mules”

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