The second part on my chapter about Yusuf's early career.
The first editorial mention of Cat Stevens to appear in the London pop press was in Melody Maker on October 22. A brief anonymous feature revealed that his real name was Steve Adams, that he had written over 40 songs and that his ambition was to write a musical. “‘I Love My Dog’ was written some time ago,” Steve told the MM’s interviewer. “I had the melody but I didn’t want to waste it on corny lyrics. Despite what some people say I don’t think the song is corny. It has a meaning for me. Actually I can’t own a dog… it is unhygienic in a restaurant. I did have one called Columbus but I had to get rid of it.”
The MM feature also revealed that negotiations were under way for Stevens to visit America and that TV dates had been fixed in Belgium, France and Germany. “Plans for a tour and an album are being held back until we know how big a hit ‘I Love My Dog’ will be,” added Steve.
In the event, Steve played his first live dates as a recording artist in November but Hurst, as his manager, was in two minds about adding his protégé to a package tour. “He was not a good live performer. He did not add anything to the strength of his records because he was still so nervous, totally edgy. He admitted to me many times as he smoked his Woodbines, forty or fifty of them a day.”
As a warm-up for bigger things, a short tour of Scotland was arranged for November to be followed by club, ballroom and cabaret dates in December. “We used a group called George Bean and The Runners as a supporting act and they backed Steve for his part of the show,” says Hurst. “He hated it… absolutely loathed it and I didn’t blame him at all. They were virtually living in a van all the time… most uncomfortable.”
The Scottish dates were followed by appearances around Tyneside and at Epping, Morecambe, Huntingdon, Birmingham and Trowbridge before Steve flew to France for three shows at the Paris Olympia in mid-December. These turned out to be a pre-amble for Steve’s most important showcase to date, a two week season at Brian Epstein’s Savile Theatre in London sharing a bill with Georgie Fame, Julie Felix and Sounds Incorporated. The season was called “Fame in ‘67 Show” and, by all accounts, there was a pantomime atmosphere to the 14 concerts. The run opened on Boxing Day.
“I was petrified because I knew it wasn’t going to be comfortable… that it was just what Steve didn’t like,” says Hurst. “I advised him to do something crazy on stage, to act weird by sitting on top of an amplifier cross–legged, to do something eccentric.
“He said that’s what he would do but when it came to the opening night he didn’t do any of those things. He was dressed in black velvet suit with a frilly white shirt but it was just a very negative performance that didn’t help him at all.”
Cat Stevens’ second single ‘Matthew And Son’ was released by Deram in the first week of January 1967. Inspired by the London firm of Foster Wheeler Power Products, Steve took the title Matthew And Son from a sign he had spotted on his travels around the city. The lyrics were based on a Dickensian theme in which oppressed labour suffers at the hands of dictatorial owner management. It was unusually socio-sympathetic for its time.
“We did a demo of it with just Steve on guitar and I took it to play to Tony Hall who was the head of promotion at Decca,” recalls Hurst. “He didn’t like it at all but I went ahead and recorded it anyway with about 25 musicians, strings and everything, even a harp. Still Decca didn’t like it, but they released it anyway and I took the first promotional copy to Allan Keen at Radio London who had been very helpful at plugging the first record. He didn’t like it either but he agreed to play it for a week to see if it would catch on. I remember having a bet with him for a pint of beer if it was a hit.
“That same week Cat did Pop Inn for the Light Programme at the BBC’s Paris Studio in Lower Regent Street and while we were there recording the show Tony Hall came rushing in to tell us that ‘Matthew And Son’ had sold 30,000 copies in one day.”
By a not so curious coincidence, ‘Matthew And Son’ was reviewed in Melody Maker’s Blind Date feature by Georgie Fame and Julie Felix, the two artists who shared the bill with Steve at the Savile Theatre during the post-Christmas run. Here are their comments: Julie Felix: “I have to get ready for my spot when I hear him sing this one in the show. I put my dress on and go to the wings”; Georgie Fame: “The other side is great as well. It’s got a good trumpet thing that comes out better in the show than on the record. It will definitely be a hit. It’s a strong double-sider. I was never anti-Cat Stevens but now I’m completely knocked out. Unanimous hit.”
‘Matthew And Son’ entered the charts a week after release and rose to number two, the highest position a single by Steve would ever reach in his home country. Occupying the top position at the time was ‘I’m A Believer’ by The Monkees, the US teenybop outfit whose star was firmly on the ascendant and whose British born lead singer had jetted into London from California that same month to grab the headlines by revealing that the group did not play on their own records. The revelation did little to curb the hysteria amongst their teenage fans.
A month later Stevens was back in the British charts, albeit in the bracketed small print reserved for composers beneath the name of the performer.
‘Here Comes My Baby’, the début hit by Brian Poole’s former backing band The Tremeloes, was one of the first songs that Steve had ever written, well before he encountered Mike Hurst. It was written at a time when Steve considered his potential as a songwriter far outweighed his chances as a performer.
Later the same year, during May, he would score further success as a songwriter when P.P. Arnold took a Mike Hurst production of ‘First Cut Is The Deepest’ to number 18 in the charts. This same song, of course, provided Rod Stewart with half of a double A-sided Number One (coupled with ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’) in April 1977.
While ‘Matthew And Son’ maintained its lofty chart position, Stevens was interviewed by Chris Welch of Melody Maker. “I remember the occasion well,” says Welch today. “Cat announced that he had given up drinking and smoking. Then he promptly ordered a double vodka and chain-smoked for an hour and a half. He said they always tasted better if you’d given them up. We had several rounds but he never paid once. I thought he must be a tight-fisted fellow, especially since he must be making a bit of money from those two hit records.”
The subsequent feature was peppered with the kind of enigmatic quotes for which Steve would later become well known. “You have to be yourself to stay alive in the business,” he told Welch. “You mustn’t start believing what people say about you or you’re in trouble. Believe in yourself – that’s very important.
“I’m not worried about having an image or not. I want fans to like the good things about me and forget the bad things. I suppose they see me as someone new and wonder what I’m like. I think new artists can injure themselves when they start knocking people before their feet are on the ground. That way they can fall over. It’s very good for me that there have been so few solo artists around compared with the number of groups. I’m learning from other people’s mistakes but I’m lucky. Material is the most important thing and I’m lucky because I’ve got Me and Me writes songs for myself. I love writing songs. When I feel down I start to write.
“Two years ago when I was just playing guitar I thought I was ‘it’ and if anybody said anything against me I was terrible and I had it in for them. These days everybody is trying to do something or other and how do you knock that? I think it is a very healthy scene at the moment. Everybody is growing. The scene will change and people will get more sophisticated. Teenagers in particularly want their tastes recognised.
“They loved it when parents liked The Beatles. This is great and the day of the rebel thing is over. I think we all want to be one happy mass and teenagers want to be part of swinging England. There is now less of a division between young and older people.”
During the same month, Steve was the subject of Melody Maker’s Pop Think In – an extended word association test in which artists gave their views on random subjects. On the subject of Brian Epstein, Stevens expanded his remarks to include managers in general and commented on his relationship with Mike Hurst. “We are so good for each other,” he said. “When we sit down to work out arrangements we just click straight away.”
His comments on various other topics provide an interesting insight into Stevens’ thought process at the time. On “depression” he said: “I get a lot of that at parties and big gatherings. I’ve got to be really stoned to really enjoy a party. I write songs to get out of depressions – I believe that to write a good song you have to feel a bit hurt. I don’t write many happy tunes. You will be thoroughly depressed after you’ve heard my LP – but please buy it before you shoot yourself. At art school I used to get depressed and go on to the fire exit stairs and play guitar. They found out… that’s why I had to leave.”
On “restaurants” he said: “I used to work in my father’s place when I was about ten, waiting on customers. I grew to really hate it. Now I tip waiters too heavily because I know what they are going through. I like eating in good restaurants like Isow’s.”
On “sport” he said: “I used to love sports. There is a swimming pool opposite our place and I used to go every day and increase the number of lengths each time. But in cold weather I got this thing where my hands went yellow and I had to stop. Pop stars need to be fit. It’s very important to build yourself up.”
On “smoking” he said: “I smoke too much. I force myself to throw my matches away so I don’t have a cigarette too early in the morning. Once I start smoking I carry on all day. I daren’t count how many I smoke. I keep wondering what the inside of my lungs look like. Still, smoking calms me – though that’s probably psychological.”
On “Folk music” he said: “That’s where I came from. I still have a tinge in me. The sort of melody in folk songs used to get me – when I write a song it’s the melody first. I used to write folk songs and maybe I’ll release them on an EP. I was never really accepted in the folk world because I was too progressive – they only want Dominic Behan and the traditional stuff. Next year they will be singing the same things and the year after. I can’t stand that.”