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”

“Why does it hurt when my heart misses the beat?”: an appreciation of Propaganda

Andreas Thein, the co-founder of German synth pop group Propaganda, passed away yesterday, and I wanted to briefly mark his passing. Although they only made one album, A Secret Wish (the dismal post-breakup album 1234 doesn’t count, and neither does the unnecessary remix album Wishful Thinking), Propaganda were a hugely important group to me at a certain point in my musical upbringing. A schoolfriend lent me the “Dr. Mabuse” 12” (the only Propaganda music which has Thein on it) and I was completely bowled over, as much by the Teutonic glamour and sophistication that permeated its every aspect as I was by its juggernaut riffage and stingingly memorable tune. At a time (1984) when the worship of the increasingly hopeless Gary Numan that had accompanied me throughout my entire teenage years was thankfully drawing to a close, Propaganda propagated a thoroughly exciting and, more importantly, credible alternative. Bolstered by the air of intellectual cool emanating from Paul Morley’s text-heavy covers for the ZTT label, Propaganda showed me that synth pop could be as dramatic and challenging in its way as the art rock of Pink Floyd that I was increasingly in thrall to at the time. What’s more, I regarded Propaganda, with some justification, as the hip alternative to their more popwise labelmates Frankie Goes To Hollywood, who were dominating the Top 40 at the time.

Andreas Thein had left the group by the time A Secret Wish came out in 1985, but still I played the record endlessly, hooked on the effervescent singles “Duel” and “P-Machinery” as well as the widescreen epic “Dream Within A Dream”. Even more remarkably, I travelled up to London that year to see Propaganda at the Hammersmith Palais, my first ever live concert in the capital. It wasn’t a very impressive occasion, to tell you the truth. Chronically short of original material, they were only onstage for an hour or so, and wrapped things up with an encore of “Dr. Mabuse”, which they’d already played. Co-founder Ralf Dörper wasn’t even there, but a bunch of session musicians were, who were (understandably) unable to reproduce the glistening perfection of the band’s studio sound. None of this mattered to me, though. I came away from the gig clutching a Propaganda tour programme, badge and T-shirt, the latter of which I wore until it fell apart.

For all intents and purposes, then, the Propaganda story ended with the release of A Secret Wish. I’ve certainly never showed any interest in any of the group members’ subsequent activities. But I’ll always love that album (the 2010 double CD reissue, with its slew of outtakes and remixes, is the one to go for), and especially the savage beauty of “Dr. Mabuse”. Rest in peace, Andreas.

Home Service reunite, world says “Who?”

The news that Home Service are the latest group to hit the reunion trail has not exactly set the blogosphere on fire as yet. In fact, apart from a couple of mentions on the websites of those involved and the festivals where they’ve already announced they’ll be playing this summer, there’s been practically no reaction at all, which makes a brief note here all the more imperative.

Why do Home Service matter? Simply because they are one of the finest folk rock groups England has ever produced, right up there with Fairport Convention and the Albion Band. Their slim recorded output may not stack up against those groups’ in terms of quantity, but in Alright Jack and their music for The Mysteries they produced two of the key texts of the genre. And the history and line-up of Home Service is completely tangled up with those of Fairport and the Albion Band in any event. Thankfully, that history is recounted in useful detail here, so I don’t need to go over it again. The point is that Home Service represent the continuation and full flowering of the best record the Albion Band ever made, 1978’s Rise Up Like The Sun. The creative mind mostly responsible for that masterpiece was not Albion Band mainman Ashley Hutchings but Derby singer-songwriter John Tams, one of the unheralded geniuses of English music. Without wishing to devalue the contributions of anyone else, it was Tams’ work as singer and musical director, plus the superbly eloquent electric guitar of Graeme Taylor, that made Rise Up Like The Sun such a massively ambitious yet successful record.

And, needless to say, it was Tams and Taylor who carried that success into their next group, Home Service. The only occasions on which I ever saw them were three visits to the National Theatre in 2000, when they were the house band for Bill Bryden’s The Mysteries. I am so, so glad I made the effort to go to all three of those mystery plays (albeit in the wrong order, and not all on the same day – which would have been completely overwhelming). Together, they represent by far the most memorable and powerful experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre. These were promenade performances, with actors and audience mingling together on the floor of the theatre, and by the end of each play everyone was dancing together to the joyous sound of Home Service, who were playing somewhere above on the balcony.

I wish I could give more of a flavour of those three wonderful evenings, but there is hardly anything to prove that they ever really took place. The plays were never filmed, but the original 1985 production, of which the 2000 production was a revival, was filmed in its entirety and broadcast on Channel 4. Those precious tapes have, however, disappeared somewhere into corporate limbo. Never commercially released on VHS or DVD, they may once have been traded among enthusiasts, but the arthouse film website of which I’m a member currently has no copies circulating. There is also, or at any rate there used to be, a CD available of Home Service’s music for the trilogy.  It’s well worth getting hold of, but it comes nowhere near capturing the ecstatic beauty of Home Service at full tilt.

At any rate, the reunion of Home Service has to be one of my most anticipated musical events of 2011. I can’t see them coming to play in Vienna, nor anywhere else in continental Europe for that matter, so a trip to England is definitely on the cards for sometime this year.

Swans Are Not Dead

The news that Michael Gira is resurrecting the Swans name for an album and tour this year is scarcely believable but overwhelmingly thrilling. I just want to bump this piece, ostensibly a review of a 2008 solo show in Vienna by Gira, but really some kind of fumbling towards an explanation of why Swans are so hugely important and special to me. For this and other reasons, 2010 is shaping up to be a beautiful year.

Geoff Smith and the fluid piano

My friend Geoff Smith from Brighton (see here for a review of the first album by his former group Attacco Decente, and here for a review of his early film soundtracks) has finally realized his ten-year dream of creating a microtonally fluid acoustic piano, an instrument that is set to revolutionize the way we think about and relate to the piano.

In memory of G.E., 1 February 1931–30 June 2003

Six years ago today, my mother flew away.

I just want to reproduce the text from the Book of Ecclesiastes that I read at her funeral. I first came across this text on Current 93’s “Hitler as Kalki” EP, at the end of which there is a recording of David Tibet’s father reading it.

“Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;

While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,

And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”

Esbjörn Svensson 1964-2008

Just a quick note to mourn the passing of Swedish jazz pianist Esbjörn Svensson, who has died at the appallingly young age of 44. I saw EST twice, once at the Barbican in London and once at the Dome in Brighton. They were awesomely strong both times, with Svensson’s piledriving piano leading the jazz trio into wholly unexpected and joyful places.

Svensson did a huge amount to bring jazz to a younger and wider audience, using the framework of the rock concert to make jazz sound fresh, raw and accessible. His trio were pretty damn unique, and he has left us far too soon.