ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, APRIL 12, 1985
By Steve Newton
In 1976, British singer-songwriter Al Stewart had a massive hit with the title track of his seventh album, Year of the Cat. A smooth and snappy number with a nice piano intro, acoustic and electric guitar solos, a breezy sax break, and evocative lyrics, “Year of the Cat” became a radio favourite and capitalized on the growing interest in Stewart’s music that had picked up with his lyrical tour de force Past, Present and Future and its acoustic epic, “Roads to Moscow”.
But, aside from another hit with the title song from his next LP Time Passages, not much has been heard of from Stewart since.
Up until now, that is.
His latest album, Russians & Americans, was recently released on Passport Records (distributed by A&M) and is a throwback to the lyrical craftsmanship of P, P & F. Stewart’s subtle but keen allegorical touch comes into play on a number of worldly topics, and as usual he’s joined by several fine studios musicians. Clean production, by Mike Flicker of Heart Fame, is the crowning touch.
Al Stewart called the Georgia Straight from L.A. last week, prior to the start of a tour that brings him to the Commodore Ballroom Friday night. He talked about his new album and live show, his “cult” following, and the place of the creative singer/songwriter in today’s world of video.
Is Russians & Americans your most political album so far?
Well I don’t really see it as a political album. It more or less came about as a time capsule. All through my life I have tended to keep a fairly close eye on world affairs, and Russians & Americans is probably what a Martian would write if he were suddenly to land and spend a week watching the seven o’clock news. The relationship between the two superpowers would obviously be the dominating factor, but above and beyond there would be many other world affairs that would be covered, and possibly some human-interest stories and contemporary sociological problems–such as the drunk-driving thing which I turned into “Accident on 3rd Street”.
I don’t think there are any political sides taken. And in fact, in the title song it’s somewhat optimistic. It says categorically that “We will choose the mark that we leave on the open canvas of space.”
You mentioned “Accident on 3rd Street”. Was it the death of a friend that brought about that song?
No, it was an attempt to write a spoof on a country-and-western song. That song was written literally as fast as I could move the pen across the paper. I only corrected one line.
That’s funny, because I thought it would have been a hard song to write.
No, it was totally empathetic. I sing silly! All country-and-western seems to involve some form of tragedy–preferably death, you know–so I figured I’d kill someone in the first line and see where it led.
But instead of leading into a lighthearted thing it went off in this sort of Randy Newman, sardonic fashion. And then it got into a sort of Bruce Springsteen thing, almost, at the end.
What is your live show like?
There will be five of us, not–curiously enough–all on stage at the same time. This is a much more fragmented, shaded kind of show. I break it down into just two acoustic guitars, then add a lead, add a sax and percussion, and build it up, and then break it down again.
Do you do any songs from Year of the Cat?
Yes I do. How could I not? It’s rather like asking Ralph McTell if he ever sings “Streets of London”. Obviously I sing “Year of the Cat”. I think I might be lynched if I didn’t.
How did you happen to choose Mike Flicker to produce the new album? Had you worked with him before?
Nope, never. I think just because he wanted to. He volunteered.
Were you thinking at all about using Alan Parsons, who produced Year of the Cat and some of your other albums?
I’m not sure Alan Parsons is producing anyone, apart from himself, these days. It was my understanding that he just does The Project now.
I wanted to ask you about videos; I haven’t seen any of yours. Have you ever made one?
No. Basically videos cost about 50 grand to start with, and obviously the money doesn’t come from the artist. I don’t think there are many artists around who have that kind of money–at least none that I know [laughs]. And as no record company has ever shown the remotest interest in making a video of me, I’ve yet to make one.
Do you want to make one?
I don’t know. At this point in history I can’t imagine that anyone in their right mind would spend 50 grand on filming a singer/songwriter. It’s completely the wrong musical climate to do it in.
Also, I tend to think videos work best in the sort of slogan format. It’s an Orwellian thing, you know, where basically you’re watching the repetition of the slogan, but you’re seeing a slide show along with it. It’s a combination of George Orwell and Marvel comics, which means that if you have a simple slogan like “We’re Not Gonna Take It” for example–which is terrific for a video–you can spend four or five minutes just giving different images of “We’re not going to take it.”
Now if you’re going to make a video of something like “Russians & Americans” you need a kaleidoscope of historical and sociological images so that you almost need a half-hour video to even begin to get into that song. This is even if I don’t appear in it.
So it becomes something different, I think, with narrative ballads. I think that they are better off conjuring up a private video in your own head.
It’s just that, nowadays anyway, you pretty well have to have a video out to sell an album.
Well you’re approaching it from the point of view that, in order for anyone to survive and prosper in this business, there is a format to follow. But I have long since ceased to work that way, and in fact I’ve probably never worked that way. Basically I operate on the belief that you can build a reputation as a writer, develop a cult following, and probably keep it forever–or in my case for at least 20 years at this point [laughs]. I mean, I still work as many gigs as I ever did.
Do you feel like you have a cult following?
Well I certainly don’t have a mass following! I mean if you stopped someone in the street and asked them if they knew the words to “Roads to Moscow” they might very well say no. On the other hand, if you met someone who said yes, they could probably tell you all the words to it. Which means that people who are involved in my music know all of it. It doesn’t fall into this kind of so-so variety. I mean the people who follow it follow it and to the people who don’t, literally I don’t exist, and they buy Prince albums.
To hear the full 25-minute audio of my 1985 interview with Al Stewart subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 300 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:
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