The Fine Art Of The Unnecessary


Yusuf/Cat Stevens: TEA FOR THE TILLERMAN 2 (Cat-O-Log Records Records)

When Cat Stevens burst onto the pop scene in 1966, he was that rare thing for the time, an overnight success. His debut single "I Love My Dog" cracked the UK Top 30. The handsome, fresh faced boy from London was a ready-made star. Long before his Deram Records label-mate David Bowie sniffed success, or his Decca Records contemporary Marc Bolan wore a hint of glitter or effeminacy, Cat Stevens was what they wanted to be. A proper pop star. Born Steven Demetre Georgiou on 21st July 1948 in London to a Swiss mother, and a Greek Cypriot father, he was brought up above the family restaurant in the city's Soho district. In 1965 he began performing in coffee bars as Steve Adams, eventually opting for the name Cat Stevens on account of a girlfriend remarking that he had eyes like a cat, and that his Greek name would be too much for the public to either remember or say. 

Discovered by Mike Hurst of The Springfields, Stevens had a bold and dynamic, heavily orchestrated sound, and a slew of hits followed in the form of "I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun," "A Bad Night," and "Matthew & Son." However, when his second album, the modestly titled New Master tanked, despite containing the astonishingly mature "The First Cut Is The Deepest," and as the later singles began to fop and flounder, he became dissatisfied with his direction, and blamed what he saw as Hurst's lush production values. He confesses to making unrealistic demands for orchestrations, and being difficult, as means to alienating Hurst, and being dropped by the label. The ploy worked. Having toured with artists as diverse as Jimi Hendrix and Englebert Humperdinck, Stevens was a young artist in search of greater success, but when he was diagnosed with TB and a collapsed lung, the pressures of instant success had taken a heavy toll on the teenager, and hospitalised for six months, a period during which he almost died. He took to meditation, yoga, and introspection, and became a vegetarian. The year he spent convalescing and writing songs would provide him with a raft of material that would sail him through the 1970s, and pave the way to international acclaim and stardom.

He hired a new agent -- Barry Krost -- who secured him a deal with A&M in the US and with island Records in the UK, and one that more importantly allowed him to work on and release whatever he liked. With former Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith on production duties he began constructing what would become Mona Bone Jakon emphasising his new introspective stance that perfectly suited the vibe of the new decade. The album's odd title was his affectionate pet name for his penis. That mattered little. The record was a critical hit, and a modest commercial success. However, the haunting first single, the madrigal-like "Lady D'Arbanville" struck No 8 in the UK charts. An unusual song about a lost love for the American actress and model Patti D'Arbanville, but one in which her loss is dealt with as a transposed elegy to her death. A brave song, and one that resonates still with is chill of sorrow. However it was with the release of Tea For The Tillerman that saw Stevens literally become a stratospheric success. Within two years he would release a quartet of albums that set the benchmark for quality and confessional introspection, the final being Catch Bull At Four. All featured his highly distinctive artwork, iconic and illustrative, proof that his one year course at Hammersmith School of Art hadn't gone to waste.

More albums and huge success followed, but by 1977 his career was on the skids once more, a near mirroring of his '60s dilemma. Stevens was feeling the pressure of, and dissatisfaction with,the rock and roll lifestyle he had embraced with tremendous vigour. Again he withdrew. This time auctioning off his guitars, he converted to Islam under the moniker of Yusuf Islam, and little was heard of him. He relinquished music completely. Sometimes aspects of religious conversion can mirror the symptoms of a breakdown, the extreme changes in personality and appearance, and the desire to be as far removed from one's old reality as possible. Over the years he courted controversy with comments that are on record over the fatwa issued to Sir Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses, and again his rather humourless and devout persona was at odds with who he had once had been. It has been suggested that "Bilal X," the born again, former pop star character in the book is based on Stevens. His denials at being misquoted are hard to take seriously when reports and video evidence is viewed. 

The common problem with the newly devout of any faith is they've had their cake aplenty, and then resolutely condemn others for partaking in what they once so patently enjoyed. There was no reason for him to entirely abandon his former song-craft, it was not a requirement of his new faith, but was more a reflection of his inner conflict with his past. Gradually as Yusuf Islam, and then Yusuf, and finally Yusuf/Cat Stevens, he crept back into a lesser limelight. Even with Rick Rubin on production duties on Tell Em I'm Gone from 2014 couldn't hide that the voice wasn't what it once was. The albums have sold respectfully, and better than many who've hit the comeback trail, but the glory days were way back then, and the lost years have taken their toll. And then we arrive at thorny issue of birthdays. Are they a milestone or millstone? In truth they are both and Stevens has in his wisdom decided to entirely re-record his calling card album Tea For The Tillerman to mark its fiftieth year. His recordings were amongst the myriad of master tapes engulfed by the Universal Studios fire of 2008 which means have any existing demos or outtakes  have been incinerated, and the barrel was thoroughly scraped for the fortieth anniversary double cd. It is an act of rewriting his personal history. It could have been neatly re-issued in an emphera laden limited edition, and that would have been celebration enough.

There are simple reasons why old albums don't get re-recorded, the artist is either too busy with new songs, can't be bothered, or has expired. It is also a profoundly bad and perilous idea. A strange and glaringly apparent absence is evident when this album is approached. There is no name on the cover, only the title beckons with an additional '2' to delineate it from the original. An implicit arrogance is at play with this conceit. At least three generations wouldn't know what Tea For The Tillerman was or is, such is the ephemeral nature of pop memory, or they might assume it is the name of a new band. Had Stevens not gone through such a drastic identity transfiguration this wouldn't be necessary when approaching an aspect of his past. Cat Stevens/Yusuf is printed on the cd, but call me old fashioned, surely it should be gifted the common courtesy of a full frontal acknowledgement. The artwork has been redrawn. The Tillerman has a space helmet and the world is a deeper, darker shade of blue in the background. A Proustian acknowledgement that things are not as they once were and as the music begins we are gifted the familiarity of a strange contempt in action. If it ain't broke it does not require the art of repair. The whole enterprise brings to mind the old lady who took it upon herself to restore a peeling ancient fresco in her local church, and in the process created a Christ that resembled a baboon. Stevens has regrouped some of his original players for the enterprise, another aspect in the remembrance of things that have passed.


And thus we begin. "Where Do The Children Play" is nice enough, but the flatness of delivery, a failing of his voice with age that did't need revealing is cringeworthy and painful to hear when pitch and tone is required. With "Hard Headed Woman" he has updated the lyric to represent his happiness with his wife, but again the voice sounds weary and strained, and the dynamic backing doesn't carry the proceedings. There is a Tom Waits-like jauntiness to "Wild World" with a semi-calypso fairground motif. A conversational cover version, sufficiently different to the original to be included as a new song in its own right, a rare moment of joy in an otherwise turgid exercise. "Sad Lisa" is one of the most beautiful songs he ever wrote. Melancholy and riven with empathy it is a masterpiece in its original airing. The version that emerges sounds like an old geezer warbling in the bath, and the sorrow is for the damaged beauty of the original, and not the unhappy girl portrayed there-in.

"Miles From Nowhere" begins an almost carbon copy, but the pitch isn't there, it becomes a turgid rock wank-out, a song of utter defeat trying to claim back old ground, and faintly embarrassing to behold. "But I Might Die Tonight" has a spirited air, but becomes plodding and lack lustre in its delivery despite an inspired arrangement. Again the vocals falter and grate and the overall impression is lumbering and limpid. With "Longer Boats" things sound faintly acceptable at the outcome, but again a sense of weariness sneaks into the artificial stridency he attempts to vocally achieve and a risible jam and latent rap is laughable and doesn't work unless he wanted to make an absolute mess like a grand-dad trying to be hip, but farcically floundering. It simple saunters off at the conclusion, lost and unresolved.

"Into White" is another of his plaintive masterpieces, and one of the few that that works in these new clothes. It sounds like a hymn to encroaching death, instead of hope, and is a hard song to ruin. "On The Road To Find Out" has a bluesy vibe and clunks along ok in way a bar room blues fashion and pretty much works, like Canned Heat on a mellow turn, and one of the tracks that stands out as it suits where his voice currently resides. "Father And Son" always had an overwrought quality, and seemed to be trying too hard -- a song riddled with self-conscious introspection and earnestness, and on this outing sounds horribly middle of the road. As things close with the achingly brief "Tea For The Tillerman" there is also is an impression of what the actual point of the lamentable process has been?

It seems to me that this record is the folly of a rich man with too much time on his hands. A train wreck enterprise, and one best to have been dismissed as a passing thought rather than being gifted actuality. Yusuf should have left the cool Cat that he was in 1970 well alone. There is a gap between that person and the man who made this abortive travesty, and he has nose-dived into the canyon that now divides them both. Stevens/Islam has become his own tribute act, and a rather poor one. He should have used the time spent here to record new material that would suit the voice that he now possess. Take a trip back in time and love the genius implicit in the original. If a cat has nine lives on this airing the tenth one awaits. A fascinating folly and one worth exploring if you care to, but for all the wrong reasons. It doesn't reward the listener and has simply saddened this one. We can learn from the mistakes of others so let Tea For The Tillerman 2 be proof that the past really is a foreign country, and remembering it is better than trying to recreate an aspect that was near-perfect anyway. It is a sad affair, like an old man asking his younger self "Who was I?" because, like most of us, with time flying by, he isn't altogether sure.

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