It might seem odd that in July of 1970 Cat Stevens would meet me in a pub off Fleet Street in order to be interviewed for Melody Maker but the fact is the Red Lion in Red Lion Alley was the venue for many such encounters between MM writers and stars of the future. Chris Welch can recall meeting David Bowie there long before ‘Space Oddity’ and when Jimmy Page dropped by unexpectedly to tell Chris about his new group Led Zeppelin Chris suggested they nip into the Red Lion for a swift half.
This was one of the first interviews I ever did for MM, and in hindsight it reads a bit naïve, but I wasn’t to know – and neither was he – that I caught Steve on the brink of his most successful period, just before the realise of his Mona Bone Jakon LP. The next two years would see him become the UK’s pre-eminent singer songwriter, with the hugely successful albums Tea For The Tillerman and Teaser And The Firecat. Nevertheless Cat Stevens was never really comfortable in the role of rock star and the atmosphere surrounding him seemed quite different from that the others whose albums topped the charts. As I noted in my book about him: “Though constantly surrounded by the rich and fashionable, he maintained an uncharacteristically low profile for a successful musician. There appeared around Stevens an aura of suppressed elegance: he mixed not with the more hedonistic elements of the rock’n’roll world but with society friends, introduced to him by his manager Barry Krost and his publicist, the ever-energetic Tony Brainsby. He was courted by artists and models, actors and actresses, debutantes, dress designers and fashion photographers. Cat Stevens was not – and never would be – a rock’n’roll star with all the overt, often tasteless, machismo that the title has come to imply.”
The other thing I noticed about Steve was that girls adored him, especially rich, posh ones. Beautiful ones too, as I noted to my immense delight when I saw Steve do a show at the Drury Lane Theatre (not the sort of gig anyone else would do) and went to the aftershow at some posh hotel where the other guests certainly didn’t look like the hard headed women Steve sang about.
Last week saw the return of Cat Stevens to the MM chart after a disappearance act worthy of Houdini. It is 12 months since the release of his last single ‘Where Are You’, which failed to register, and even longer since the day when the name Cat Stevens on a record label meant instant success.
Cat has changed since the ‘Matthew’ days. A long spell in hospital with tuberculosis left him helpless for many months – and the convalescence seems to have been endless.
Now the Cat is back – and chartbustin’ in his old familiar manner. There’s an album due for release in September with 11 new songs all written by Cat, and the single ‘Lady D’Arbanville’ is No 21 in the MM chart.
“At the moment we are working on this, the second album, but we have almost finished it,” he told me. “We haven’t decided on a name for it but there are two tracks which may provide a name. It will be out sometime in September. I have just produced a single with Jimmy Cliff called ‘Wild World’ which will be released in two weeks’ time. It’s not a reggae number like his other singles but the song suits him very well.
“They are a very mixed collection of numbers on the album but we are doing it at just the right time. When I started recording the ‘vibes’ were just fantastic. It’s about a year since my last single was out – ‘Where Are You’ a very slow one – and it didn’t get anywhere.
“I had to get everything right before I started again. The situation and the timing was wrong before. There just wasn’t the time to do things and it wasn’t the right time to do the things I set out to do.
“This week I am doing Top Of The Pops and a programme on BBC2 where I sing three songs, and I have got a couple festivals in August in Holland and Belgium.
“I am still forming my own group and need a bass guitarist to complete the line-up. We have Harvey Burns on drums and Alun Davies on guitar, and they are playing on the album. They are just a backing group really.
“It seems as if I am making a comeback but I have never really been away. It’s very strange because the whole attitude changes and everything is turned inside out. Now I am seeing the shiny side again.
“It has made all the difference to me because I had to have that break. If it wasn’t the illness it had to be something else. Before I was almost slaughtering myself working so hard and in no particular direction. Now I feel alive much more than I have ever done.
“There are no plans yet for a follow-up single to the current one. Basically the single was released as a promotion for the album because it is on the album. Of course, we hoped it would get somewhere, but I am more worried about the album than the single.
“The main thing is to concentrate on LP’s now. I only do record producing when I feel like it and when there are artists I want to work with. In my opinion all the musicians that ever take part in sessions are producers.
“The album is my first long player on Island records and it has taken two and a half months to do. With Deram, my old label, we got to the point where I was going in one direction and they were going in another. We eventually decided to quit it because nothing was happening. We just split. They were very nice about it.”
I asked Cat who he was listening to himself. “At the moment I’m a big fan of Frank Zappa and Elton John, but I dig anybody who is making good sounds. For a long time I was feeling very bad because I wasn’t doing anything. I wanted to contribute but the timing was not right. I may have been out of things but I have been listening very intently to what has been going on.”
Cat is currently moving house – from a flat in London’s Shaftsbury Avenue to a three storey house in Fulham which he hopes will be much more peaceful than in the centre of town. “I have been painting a lot recently in the last six month. I am really having a great time with my water colours,” he said.
“Art was what I originally started out to do and music came second at first. I had a year at art college but I left because it was too much like school. I give all my paintings away to people I like.”
He is currently raving over a 21st birthday present, which we can expect to see him experimenting with in future photos. It’s a great hemisphere depicting the sky with the earth, moon and sun revolving around inside. It’s driven by an electric motor and the various stars and planets light up.