Cat Stevens – European folk-rock

Cat Stevens / Yusuf Islam

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 forthcoming album.


UPDATE 17/07/2017

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.

See also

Brad Warner and Cat Stevens in Glasgow

Brad WarnerHad an enjoyable Friday night in Glasgow at a talk by Brad Warner. Brad’s the only Zen Buddhist teacher I know who’s also a punk bassist, worked on monster movies and writes occasional articles on Buddhism for a porn site.  He’s funny and self-deprecating but has a straight down the line serious attitude to Zen practice.

I was interested to hear that in Akron, Ohio where he grew up, the punk scene contained a strong element (I think he said they were called Straight Edge bands) who frowned on drink and drugs and barred any fans who’d damaged the previous venue. But these were the bands playing the most ferocious music.

The lady interviewing him started off with the reputedly unanswerable question ‘Well, what is Zen Buddhism?’.  It reminded me of the night way back in 1973 or 74 when Cat Stevens launched a European tour at Glasgow Greens Playhouse (or it may have been called the Apollo by then).  He’d decided to get closer to his fans and, for an interlude, walked to the front of the stage and asked if anyone had any questions – ‘Anything you like.’   Quick as a flash in a strong Glasgow accent came ‘What is the meaning of Zen?’  Poor Cat backed off, politely avoiding it, and that was the end of the Q&A.

One day I’ll also tell the story of the Maharishi at Easter Road, but that’s for another day.

Brad Warner’s site:


Inspirations: Desert Island Discs

Some months ago, a discussion on the Out of the Bedroom board invited readers to choose their Desert Island Discs – the albums they would take with them if they were to be marooned on a desert island with the best sound system available (so that’s plausible, eh?). It’s a fun exercise, so I picked albums that aren’t necessarily favourites or most influential, but ones that I could live with and come back to for an extended time. For some reason, classical music, compilations and live albums were not to be included.

Revisiting the exercise now (November 2004) I’ve only changed one of my original list. Most of them have Amazon links where you can listen to snippets and – if you want – buy them!

Smiling Men with Bad Reputations Mike Heron
Innervisions Stevie Wonder
Catch Bull at Four Cat Stevens
U The Incredible String Band
Ten New Songs Leonard Cohen
Bel Gabriel Yacoub
Abbey Road The Beatles
The Equatorial Stars Fripp and Eno
Rhythm of the Saints Paul Simon
Time out of Mind Bob Dylan


Smiling Men with Bad Reputations: Mike Heron

Smiling Men cover.

I’ve said enough about this album elsewhere. An early 70s superstar session featuring John Cale, Richard Thompson, Pete Townshend and Keith Moon among others, plus the some of the best material Heron has committed to album. Smiling Men on Amazon


Innervisions: Stevie Wonder

Innervisions cover.

From the initial charge into Higher Ground through the gruff choirs of Living for the City to the sublime title track, the whole album proclaims the sheer joy of singing. The friend who introduced me to it, however, said at the time, ‘Never mind the singing, feel the rhythm!’ It’s all there. Innervisions on Amazon


Catch Bull at Four: Cat Stevens

Catch Bull at Four cover.

This was the album in which Stevens began to leave behind his more innocent-sounding acoustic ditties and get into some more complex arrangements. His voice also got harder and more soulful. Even listening to it now I find new touches of percussion or backing vocal I hadn’t noticed before. I never fail to get a thrill from the surging arrangement of Eighteenth Avenue. Catch Bull on Amazon


U: the Incredible String Band

U cover.

With my lifelong association with the ISB it’s hard to pick an album but I have to pick one. The trouble is I know most of them so well, there’s little left to hear in them. This is the one I think I could listen to for a few years more. It has two of Robin Williamson’s finest songs Queen of Love and Invocation plus the feel of all the different periods of the ISB’s development up to that time, with sitars, shanais, comedy songs, challenging poetry and Mike Heron just beginning to explore his ‘rock’ voice. U on Amazon


Ten New Songs: Leonard Cohen

Ten New Songs cover.

I select this over other favourite Cohen albums for the obvious Zen influence, the unified and consistent mood and the wonderfully-recorded deep voice. It’s a long way from his early stuff, which I also love, but it conveys more than its explicit message, and seems to change the atmosphere of the room in which it’s played. Ten New Songs o n Amazon.


Bel: Gabriel Yacoub

Bel cover.

An album of traditional-influenced original songs by a French folk-rock pioneer of the 70s (with his band Malicorne). Biting acoustic guitar complemented here and there by pipes or a string quartet. This came out in the early 90s, followed by a couple of albums which I found bombastic and over-arranged. This simple collection of short, emotional songs leaves you wanting more. Bel on Amazon. ( There are no audio samples on Amazon but you can hear Bel here. )


Abbey Road: the Beatles

Abbey Road cover.

I wanted some moptop in my collection but it was a tough one to call between this, Revolver and McCartney’s Ram. In the end I picked this as the final flowering of the partnership with such wonders as I Want You, Something and the ‘side two medley’. Abbey Road on Amazon


The Equatorial Stars: Fripp and Eno

equatorial stars cover.

This is the only one I’ve changed since my first list, reluctantly bumping the Handsome Family’s Twilight. This came out in the summer of 2004 and is a series of tentative, exploratory guitar solos against crystalline backdrops. Sounds cold? It isn’t – Fripp’s phrasing has a yearning quality that reaches to the heart. This album is  available from EnoShop where you can hear a couple of samples.


Rhythm of the Saints: Paul Simon

Rhythm of the Saints cover.

Simon’s follow-up to Graceland, working with African and Brazilian musicians to make what must be his most musically and lyrically complex work. It would take years of satisfying listening to tease out all the strands of The Coast, Further to Fly or the title track. A masterpiece. Rhythm of the Saints on Amazon


Time Out of Mind: Bob Dylan

Time Out of Mind cover.

Sure, it’s not as well-written as Blood on the Tracks or as exultant as Desire, but again I’ve almost drained them dry from listening, and this album, while flawed, has the advantage of those crepuscular arrangements and a great grumbling-old-man vocal. Plus it’s got Highlands! And the cover picture sums up the music perfectly. Time Out of Mind on Amazon

© Norman Lamont 2004