‘In a way it’s more of a challenge if you don’t have any obvious talents. I can read a wine list and I can rhyme things and that’s about it. I was totally in love with records. I thought what in the world can I do to be a part of this thing that I love? I couldn’t hit the high notes, I couldn’t play the great solos. You have to make the best of what you have, even if what you have is not particularly appealing. One of the key things for me in music is originality in any shape or form. I don’t think my records sound like other people’s and I’m pleased about that – for better or for worse.’
That these humble words come from a man who has both issued multi-platinum albums that have given millions vast pleasure and purveyed a songwriting style that is unique is testament to the essential modesty and niceness of Al Stewart.
Stewart was born in Glasgow in 1945. He is often referred to as a Scottish songwriter, but he points out, ‘I left when I was three so I don’t have a very clear memory of that.’ He adds, ‘I feel sort of international ‘cause I’ve lived in California for about 35 years.’
Before that Atlantic crossing, however, was a childhood spent in Bournemouth. Said coastal town may not sound the hub of the musical universe, but the young Stewart rubbed shoulders there with many a future superstar: he caught the bus with Robert Fripp, nearly formed a band with Greg Lake and bought one of his earliest guitars from Andy Summers.
Stewart was 13-years-old when he obtained his first guitar. ‘I had a ukulele for a year first ‘cause my mother didn’t think I was serious,’ he says. ‘One of my earliest influences was Duane Eddy and the first thing I ever learnt on the guitar was the ‘Peter Gunn Theme’ but prior to that I’d been trying to play it on the ukulele and, I promise you, it doesn’t sound very good.’
He wrote his first song ‘pretty soon after I got the guitar,’ he says. Composition-wise, a powerful early influence was Lonnie Donegan. ‘The first song I ever wrote was called ‘Lay Your Bones Down Jones’ and it was very much in the skiffle vein … I was more of a song person than a guitar player just in the sense that the thing that came most easily to me was lyrics. Coming out of Lonnie Donegan who was singing a lot of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie songs, it was always “What’s this song about?” Whereas most of rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t about content, it was about style. I like pop music. I just was never particularly good at it. I can’t really write 30 words in a song. I write the first 30 and it ends up with 300.’
The first regular gig Stewart had after leaving school was as lead guitarist for Tony Blackburn: ‘Before he was a disc jockey he used to sing every week at the Bournemouth Pavilion. I got paid ten shillings. Pretty much in those days I was in beat groups – ’63, ’64.’
It wasn’t too long before Stewart made a switch from wannabe Beatle to wannabe Dylan. ‘Dylan either saved my life or ruined it,’ he states of an epiphany related to hearing the American’s protest albums. ‘I thought maybe I can do something along these lines. So I sold my electric guitar and moved to London and started playing in folk clubs.’
In the capital Stewart had the good fortune to share a flat with one Paul Simon, still young but already with the album Wednesday Morning, 3am under his belt. ‘I could hear him writing songs through the wall. I guess I was the first person in the world to hear ‘Richard Cory’. I was always uncertain about how to construct a song and by paying attention when Paul was finishing off ‘Homeward Bound’, for example, I thought: “Okay, I think I’ve got the hang of this now.”’
By 1967, in releasing an album Stewart had achieved an ambition he’d previously considered ‘unthinkable.’ However, he is scathing of Bedsitter Images, adjudging it ‘a mess.’ He explains: ‘Judy Collins had recorded an album with an orchestra called In My Life and it was beautiful. Roy Guest who was managing me talked CBS into making a record with me with an orchestra, which I should never have done. I was totally out of my depth. It was a whole mish-mash of different styles. The songs weren’t that great, either. I learnt from it because the next one I did with Fairport Convention as the backing band, and that sounded a lot better.’
Stewart is referring to Love Chronicles (1969), which was, on its 18-minute title track, also graced by Jimmy Page. In said title track, he became the first artist to use a variant of the f-word on a record, although he says he wasn’t aware of the milestone when he wrote it. ‘It seemed to want to be part of the song,’ he reasons. ‘How else do you express that sentiment: “It was less like fucking and more like making love?” It did get me on the front page of the Sunday People.’
Stewart’s tenure as a solo artist could well have ended after Zero She Flies (1970). He reveals, ‘After my third album, CBS hadn’t renewed my contract and I thought at that point of going off and joining a band. There were a couple of bands I had in mind, one of which was Matthews Southern Comfort. There was a delightful folk duo from Ireland called Tir na nOg but I wasn’t Irish and I didn’t really fit. CBS came back to me and said: “Can we have another three albums?”’
With the album Past, Present and Future, (1973), personal and professional trauma led Stewart to deliberately redefine himself as an artist. ‘The girl I wrote the song ‘Love Chronicles’ about, we had a breaking up which left me extremely depressed for a while and I made an album all about the break-up called Orange and got pretty much the first negative reviews that I’d had. I looked around and thought: “What else can I write about?” I’ve always read lots of history. I thought: “I’m going to write an album of the twentieth century in history. Probably no one will buy it but that doesn’t matter. I don’t ever want to write another love song.” The record outsold the first four records put together so I thought: “We’re onto something here.”’
Stewart had stumbled on his calling. His back catalogue is now studded with songs about real-life, bygone battles, administrations, admirals, sailors and explorers. ‘It just works for me,’ he shrugs. ‘I think there’s room for one historical folk-rock artist in the world and I just happen to have the job at the moment.’ He concedes, though, that his trademark gentle voice is sometimes not suited to epic fare like the ten-minute ‘Nostradamus’: ‘I’ve always wanted to sing like Roger Daltrey.
There was another breakthrough with 1975’s Modern Times. ‘That was the first proper record,’ he says, attributing much of this to his new producer. ‘Alan Parsons didn’t just record one acoustic guitar track. He would overdub it four times or eight times so you had this huge acoustic guitar sound.’
The next leap forward was a quantum commercial one. The multi-platinum success of Year of the Cat (1976) took Stewart into the ranks of the superstar. He recalls, ‘Year of the Cat was this irresistible force. I never had had a hit single. This was the seventh album. So it was just remarkable. You never see these things coming.’
Although the album was a hit in his home country, the title track climbed no higher than no. 31 in the singles chart. ‘In England they used a shorter edit,’ Stewart recollects. ‘The album track was six minutes 40 seconds and the single in the rest of the world was cut down to four minutes 20 seconds. RCA still thought that was too long so they did a hatchet-job edit to get it down to about three minutes which left out all the good bits. It was a hit single in pretty much every other country from Brazil to Peru to Hong Kong to South Africa to Australia…’ Another fondly remembered part of the album is the revolutionary’s anthem ‘On the Border’.
Year of the Cat saw Stewart employ a modus operandi which, although peculiar, he has used several other times: leaving the lyrics until last. ‘It really is a tightrope walk because if for any reason you get writer’s block, you’re done. At this point we’d spent $175,000 on making all the music and I didn’t have a word of it. So I just basically sat around for three months and wrote lyrics. ‘Year of the Cat’ itself was called ‘Foot of the Stage’ when I started. It was about Tony Hancock. For a while it was called ‘Horse of the Year’ – Princess Anne was in there somewhere. But I like the idea of being able to do rewrites and to write lyrics on radically different subjects.’
Time Passages (1978) was another very successful album, spinning off two US Top 30 singles in the title track and ‘Song on the Radio’. However, despite his admiration for Parsons and his new level of success, Stewart wasn’t completely happy about the “easy listening” path down which he was being taken. ‘I was never a big fan of saxophones,’ he reveals. ‘I thought the saxophone was a jazz instrument. Alan Parsons insisted that we have it on Year of the Cat and it worked I suppose but I’m doing shows and I’ve got a saxophone playing in my ear and it’s an annoying noise.’ Of ‘Time Passages’, he says: ‘I was never that fond of the song. The final insult was I got into an elevator in a department store and I thought: “Oh, God – there’s a muzak version of ‘Time Passages.’” Then it dawned on me that it actually was the record and I thought: “That’s it. That’s the end. I’ve made muzak. I’ve got to get back to my roots.” So I gradually began to phase out saxophones and mid-tempo ballads.’
24 Carrots was another well-regarded effort but after that 1980 album, Stewart became considerably less prolific. ‘I took ten years off to study wine. I did do a few gigs in the 80s and two albums but my mind was elsewhere.’
Between the Wars (1995) was a departure for Stewart. ‘We thought we’d try and play 30s swing a la Django Reinhardt and see what happened if you put lyrics to it.’ It was the first of four Stewart albums on which Laurence Juber was his producer and accompanist. ‘When you talk about acoustic guitar, Laurence is about as good as it gets,’ Stewart enthuses. ‘When I first saw Bert Jansch and John Renbourn it was wonderful, but Laurence can do all of that on one guitar and make it sound like there are four of him. He would play all the lead parts and he would leave me alone to write the lyrics. In fact, the last two records we made are two of my favourites of all the records I’ve ever made, especially A Beach Full of Shells.’
Another collaboration with Juber was Down In The Cellar. This release from 2000 had a bizarre genesis. ‘A record company approached me and they wanted me to do an album of songs based around wine. I [wrote] oblique songs in which wine featured. The idea was to sell the record in the Napa Valley. Millions of tourists go there every year and it has hundreds of wine-tasting rooms. As soon as I finished it, the company went bankrupt. The album ended up not being released in America at all and it certainly didn’t get to any of the wine stores, but EMI picked it up for the UK. So it looked to the outside world as if it was just the latest Al Stewart record.’
Stewart toured the UK in October. The shows were all-acoustic except for a star-studded event at the Royal Albert Hall where he played Year of the Cat in its entirety. ‘The agency that I work through in the UK were aware of the fact that there was a big market for people coming out and playing quote-unquote classic albums from beginning to end.’
‘The Royal Albert Hall is my Achilles Heel. I’ve played there four times and two of them were two of the worst shows I’ve ever done in my life, one because I had food poisoning.’ However, he won’t be fretting that if he’s below-par he has messed up a unique concert: ‘I’ve just become totally philosophical about bad gigs. Everybody’s gonna screw up sometimes.’
Sadly, it’s not inconceivable that Uncorked (2009), Stewart’s exuberant live collaboration with Dave Nachmanoff, might be his last release of any kind. ‘When they re-open all the record stores and people start buying them again, I’ll make another one. I haven’t lost the knack of writing songs. It’s just that not enough people are buying them to make it worthwhile. I don’t mind playing new songs live but hauling a band into Capitol Studios and blowing $75,000 making a record that no one then buys, it’s outside of my budget.’
He remains admirably philosophical about this situation. ‘A lot of people that I grew up with in Bournemouth had basically a two or three year run, then they were back working for the local car company,’ he reflects. ‘The fact that I’ve made a living at it for half a century, you absolutely have no right to be ungrateful.’
Al Stewart: a multi-platinum artist no more, but evidently a nice guy forever.