Last year I did an interview for Velvet Thunder with Eric Bloom and the conversation turned to Blue Oyster Cult’s most famous song, (Don’t Fear) The Reaper. Asking about its longevity, Bloom said that certain songs simply ‘have legs’ and they just keep on getting played and played until they burrow themselves into the public consciousness. We hear that track now and say ‘what a classic song that is!’ but if you look at the charts at the time, it was just another moderately successful song that only made a modest #12 on the US Billboard Chart. It didn’t even make the UK Singles Chart initially, although the unedited album version made #17 two years later. But over the years, the fact that the song has ‘legs’ means that it’s become the band’s signature tune. Al Stewart seems to have gone through a similar process with the song that is indelibly associated with him – Year Of The Cat. It was released a few months after (Don’t Fear) The Reaper, again with modest success, reaching #8 on the US Billboard Charts, and just missing the UK Top 30 at #31. But the song certainly has got legs and is embedded in the minds of people across all age groups. It’s open to debate whether that is a blessing because it keeps him visible as an artist and allows us to enjoy deluxe treatment re-releases such as this one, or a curse because 95% of the population never dig beyond that one song.
But, behind the song Year Of The Cat was also the album Year Of The Cat (reissue also reviewed here) which a bit like the single had a slow start, but on the back of endless touring in the US (where Stewart had relocated after the release of the album), it went platinum in March 1977, propelling Stewart into the mainstream pop spotlight and a new recording contract with Arista that led to the release in 1978 of Time Passages. There’s a wonderfully informative booklet with this box set including plenty of candid statements from Stewart himself. He freely admits for example that he was under pressure from Clive Davis, founder of Arista, to produce another album like Year Of The Cat. That insistence stretched to Davis demanding that he replicate the use of the sax which had been so effective on the track Year Of The Cat. Stewart duly complied, generating two hit singles, both with sax breaks: the title track, and Song On The Radio. For that latter hit, Stewart said the inspiration was triggered by Clive Davis once again, this time because of Davis telling him ‘I need you to write a song that can be played on the radio’. So, that’s what Stewart did, literally. He wrote a song and called it Song On The Radio! Davis never got the joke apparently. While these tales do imply that Stewart’s artistic freedom was slightly compromised by Davis trying to get him to generate the next Hotel California, Stewart’s end product remains of the highest quality. In my view, it sits very comfortably next to Year Of The Cat. Or to look at It another way, it is a cut above the disappointing 24 Carrots album that followed it.
The first disc of this set sees the original album remastered by Alan Parsons. Parsons of course produced the original 1978 release so one could almost say he is fixing his own errors here. Personally, I never perceived any faults in the original production, but this remastering is superb and brings out crystal clear details which had passed me by previously. Listen to the little guitar phrases during the first verse of the title track – something I’d never spotted – or the clarity of the percussion in the exquisite Almost Lucy. Parsons seems to have brought the drums slightly forward throughout the album which injects a little more urgency to tracks like Song On The Radio which were a little sluggish on the original. The overall feeling is of an album that has quietly stood the test of time. Despite Stewart’s misgivings about the title track (it was actually written by guitarist Peter White; Stewart only contributed the lyrics), it really is one of the best pieces he’s ever recorded. It’s also good to hear The Palace Of Versailles again with its memorable synth hook, and despite the West Coast influences being very strong, his folk roots are still present in Timeless Skies and End Of The Day. Stewart’s penchant for bizarre lyrics is also fully revealed in the booklet where he explains how Life In Dark Waters was inspired by the mystery of the Marie Celeste but somehow he wrote a set of lyrics set in the modern day and sung from the point of view of a single sailor stuck alone in a nuclear submarine at the bottom of the sea (but happily with a massive stock of food). Stewart certainly had plenty of imagination! The first disc concludes with a bonus track, Tonton Macoute, which was part of the album recording sessions but was shelved, perhaps wisely since it’s bar-room upbeat feel might have jarred slightly with the mood of the album. Despite the light-hearted feel of the music, this one is about despotic leaders Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti and Idi Amin in Uganda!
The first half of the second disc consists of the shortened single versions of Time Passages and Song On The Radio, and more interestingly, a set of four early demos from circa six months before the recording began. This includes yet another version of Tonton Macoute, and a track called Life In A Bottle which is a piano ballad in the style of Billy Joel. Parsons apparently rejected that one as not being as strong as other material and that was probably the right call even if it’s an enjoyable listen. The remaining two are early versions of tracks that would make the eventual album. Palace of Versailles is already very close to the eventual studio release, but the synth theme seems a little more restrained to me and if anything that improves the song. The last of the quartet is The Hollywood Sign (On St. Stephen’s Day). No, it’s not another new discovery; it is fundamentally Timeless Skies with a different lyric – set in California rather than the English village of the album version.
The second part of the second disc and all of disc three is taken up by the sixteen tracks recorded in Chicago at the WKDX radio station in October 1978 before a (necessarily small) live audience. Eight of the tracks have seen the light of day on the The Live Radio Concert Album, released the following year, but the other eight are issued for the first time here and will give fans plenty of fresh meat to tuck into. On The Border opens the set, the first of six songs from Year Of The Cat – the only missing ones are Sand In Your Shoe and Flying Sorcery (which nobody will burst into tears over, I suspect), and sadly and inexplicably Lord Grenville (to these ears, possibly the best song Stewart ever wrote). While mostly we get straight run-throughs of the songs, there’s a nice touch on Year Of The Cat which opens on piano with As Time Goes By before segueing into the main song. As Time Goes By is of course from the film Casablanca which is strongly referenced in the lyrics of Year Of The Cat. Time Passages is well represented of course with the title track reproduced very well, and both Life In Dark Water and Valentina Way having more vitality than their studio counterparts. The set is completed by a smattering of older mostly upbeat material (Sirens Of Titan from Modern Times is a highlight amongst them), and there’s fortunately space for an epic version of Roads To Moscow. It’s fair to say that Stewart is not going to rock your socks off like the Stones, but it is a fine set and Stewart takes time to introduce the songs and draw the audience in.
The deluxe version of the box set concludes with a fourth disc, which is a DVD 5:1 remix of the Time Passages album. As an alternative to this lavish four-disc set, there is a double CD format, which as well as excluding the 5:1 mix, has just six tracks from the live set – the five from Time Passages (of which, only The Palace of Versailles ticks the ‘previously unreleased’ box) and the boisterous Pink Panther Theme. Whichever version you go for, a slab of Stewart at the height of his powers is guaranteed, so sit back and enjoy a trip down those time passages back to 1978.