I read an news story in the Guardian in 1979 showing a blurred photo of a bearded man and veiled woman. The article declared that not only had Cat Stevens become a Muslim, changed his name and got married, but that he’d left music altogether and given away all his instruments.
A few months later I was on the Greek island of Ios on a solo island-hopping holiday. I went for a wander away from the beach following the cliffs. Further and further from the pumping music on the beach, into the silence of scorched bushes. After a while I stopped for a rest and looked toward the sea. I could see the tips of an isolated white villa against the deep blue of the sea, and curiosity drew me nearer to the cliff-edge to look down on it. It was a large house with a couple of rectangular towers. On both white towers I saw very large, ornate Arabic calligraphy. Looking down past the house to its private beach, a man and woman were swimming. I’d heard Cat Stevens had a home in the Greek Islands but knew no more than that. There are a lot of Greek islands. But how many houses with Arabic calligraphy? I’ll never know. The story ends there – I didn’t embarrass myself by knocking on the door!
The Cat Stevens / Yusuf Islam / Yusuf story
Cat Stevens, born Steven Georgiou, to a Greek Cypriot father and Swedish mother, has had four careers, three of them in music. In the mid-60s he had several hits as a teenager, one of which – First Cut Is The Deepest – has become a classic. Possibly as a result of the touring lifestyle, he contracted tuberculosis and a long recuperation led to introspection and an interest in spirituality. He emerged as an acoustic singer-songwriter, accompanied by guitarist Alun Davies, for his most successful period from 1970-78, where he was one of the stars of Island Records. This led to world fame, huge tours and intense interest in his private life. After an experience of nearly drowning in the sea, he experienced a gradual conversion to Islam. Deciding the music business was incompatible with faith, he walked away from it. His third period lasted until the 1990s. He used the money he earned from royalties for philanthropic causes to support the Muslim community in London and elsewhere. He was often hauled out by the media to give a ‘Muslim viewpoint’ on the news of the day, such as Salman Rushdie and the 9/11 attacks; he claimed he was constantly misquoted, misinterpreted and misunderstood and often took to the courts, successfully, to clear his name. Surprisingly in the 1990s he returned to music, firstly Islamic music for charity then, gradually, reviving his old songs and writing new ones. He said in the zeal of his conversion he’d misunderstood what he took to be religious prohibitions on music and he was now ready to return to performing, even letting his old name be used in the billing. Since then he has produced three albums as Yusuf.
My first performance – a Cat Stevens song
Matthew and Son was one of the songs I loved as a young teenager, but I didn’t give Stevens much though until the singer-songwriter period that began with the single Lady D’Arbanville, which coincided with me learning guitar and starting to perform. In fact the first song I played solo at Ayr Folk Club was Where Do The Children Play? Hamish Imlach, playing the same night, did a good-natured spoof of the way I tossed my hair (yes, hair) and closed my eyes to look ‘intense’.
I think it likely that whatever modest success I had with girls in my late teens may have been largely due to a superficial resemblance (which of course I cultivated!) I remained a devout fan until the Foreigner album, after which I found the music becoming too elaborate and ‘clever’.
What I love about Cat Stevens music
Although I wasn’t able to articulate it at the time, I think what attracted me to his music in the early 70s was its European sensibility, as opposed to the American and country influences of the other singer-songwriters like James Taylor and CSNY. I couldn’t have told you at the time, but his melodies and chord structures emerged more from British and European folk idioms than the blues, as did Leonard Cohen’s. What really set him apart musically was the use of strong, pounding rhythms and odd time signatures, both probably drawn from his Greek heritage. He had a way of ending chord sequences with an unusual twist: where a song would normally rest back to a seventh (like a G7 in the key of C), he would substitute a second (a D for example), leading to a new kind of tension and eagerness.
I found later when I got into recording that his albums are legendary for their acoustic guitar sound. Even Bruce Springsteen was quoted somewhere (I can’t find it again) as trying to emulate it on his early albums. I’m certainly no recording expert but I believe the sound is a combination of hard strumming with soft plectrums (giving a lot of string noise) and the use of limiters in recording.
What I learned from Cat Stevens
While his earlier singer-songwriter albums were my guitar school, it was when he moved away from the soft acoustic sound to rockier, percussion-heavy arrangements in Catch Bull At Four that I found lasting inspiration which I still draw on today.
- His use of single drum hits, or single uses of instruments in the right place rather than throughout a song
- Male backing vocals – pretty unusual even now
- Heavily strummed acoustic rhythm guitars
- Choreographed arrangements that still manage to sound rough and exciting, even spontaneous
I have to admit many of my musical friends don’t share this enthusiasm, dismissing his music as twee and his voice as fey. I don’t see it that way – there’s a sweet vulnerability to his ballads like Moonshadow that I find disarming, but I do prefer his more aggressive songs. That seems to be lacking in the music he’s made since his return, although his voice is good. It’s interesting that in the recent concert performances I’ve seen on YouTube the arrangements are almost note for note like the recorded versions. I met someone who’d been in the studio with him who said he was dictatorial, demanding and rude, not at all like his peace’n’love image. So these arrangements were probably hard-won and able to be recalled from memory.
An extract from Silent Sunlight – that kick drum occurs only once in the song, here, just to emphasise one phrase.
An extract from O Caritas, with an unusual masculine backing vocal sound, probably Greek in inspiration although he used it on less Greek-sounding songs too. (He’s singing in Latin here.)
An extract from Sitting, with a very tight arrangement that nonetheless sounds fluent and driving.
An extract from Can’t Keep It In, with that driving acoustic strum
Finally one of my favourite passages of music ever, the instrumental from 18th Avenue. This must have taken days to meticulously organise, but it always sounds fresh and surprising to me.
All these are from the album Catch Bull At Four
Here’s the Cat Stevens influence showing in the guitar arrangement of End of Tears from our album In Another Life.
Having been lukewarm about his first two Yusuf albums, at the weekend I heard Tell Em I’m Gone for the first time and have played it a few times since then. It’s based on blues and R&B and much stronger in tone and production. I really like it.
Photo: William McElligott, Wikipedia