Sound like one of those dreadful trailers for a dire VH-1 Behind the Music episode? Yes, having covered the true giants of the pop music landscape of the last quarter century such as Tony Orlando, Rick Springfield, Rick James and Milli Vanilli, VH-1 has finally gotten around to doing “The Cat Stevens Story.”
The program, set to air in October, is timely since the man who once answered to the name of Cat Stevens has begun to work his way back into the public consciousness over the last ten years. This is largely due, it must be admitted, to his rebirth as Yusuf Islam, one of the British Muslim community’s better-known members, among non-Muslims at least.
Ironically, certain un-secular matters in which Mr. Islam has involved himself have inevitably re-ignited interest in the secular career he abandoned long ago and, consequently, his music appears to be enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity. Three compilation albums have appeared in the last two years and—with the co-operation of Yusuf Islam himself—Universal is currently re-releasing much of the Cat Stevens back catalog.
Over the last few months, numerous features on Yusuf Islam have appeared in publications from Rolling Stone to The New York Times. In many of these, the Muslim formerly known as Cat Stevens has talked more openly and less dismissively than before about his past life. This, in itself, is quite a change for a man who, after his conversion in 1977, renounced pop music and its attendant industry as a world of “sin and greed.”
Let me put aside, for the time being, any controversy surrounding Yusuf Islam. The fact that “Cat Stevens” no longer exists might seem to facilitate the task of discussing this batch of re-releases. That his pop music story ended some 22 years ago—after little more than a decade of recording—appears to offer a relatively simple, closed framework for a review structured around the standard questions: What is the place of his work in pop history? Where would it be located in terms of genre? How accomplished was it? And how well has it stood the test of time (i.e., if you’re unfamiliar with his records, is it worth buying them now as anything other than archeological artifacts)?
In 1966, a youthful Cat Stevens was signed by Deram records alongside other hopefuls such as David Bowie. Several hit singles and a successful first album (Matthew and Son) secured him almost instant celebrity. Although his 1967 follow-up, New Masters, delivered the same overproduced, big ‘60s British pop sound that had characterized his debut, it failed to chart and, when he was hospitalized for a lengthy period owing to tuberculosis and a collapsed lung, his career ground to a halt. During that illness-enforced hiatus, however, Stevens regrouped and, subsequently, re-emerged on a slightly different musical path that is documented on 1970’s Mona Bone Jakon (as well as on his ensuing releases, Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat).
While they continued to vouch for his pop sensibility, these recordings saw Cat Stevens re-invent himself more as a folk-rock troubadour. Much of his new material was distinguished by simpler, often understated arrangements that foregrounded melodic keyboard and acoustic guitar, as well as an introspective lyrical vision. In this sense, his work during the early ‘70s bears comparison with that of Elton John, alternating between punchy rhythms and more measured melodies drawing on the English hymnal and ballad traditions, as well as the blues. Other semi-useful comparisons might be made to James Taylor at his best or early ‘70s Van Morrison at his worst.
On the heels of the recent re-releases of Mona Bone Jakon, Tea for the Tillerman, and Teaser and the Firecat—the albums which perhaps define the sound of Cat Stevens at his best for most listeners—the present batch of re-issues from Universal covers the mid-point of Stevens’ career, a period which, arguably, saw his star begin to fade as his material became less consistent and less memorable. Catch Bull at Four, Foreigner, and Buddha and the Chocolate Box re-tread Stevens’ familiar lyrical ground of spiritual yearning, pop-metaphysical inquiry and earnest reflection, rendering such concerns in both buoyant pop and crafted folk-rock formats. However, on the second and third CDs especially, while the plot doesn’t disappear completely, it becomes markedly less interesting.
1972’s Catch Bull at Four came at the height of Stevens’ success and performed the difficult task of following Teaser and the Firecat. Although it doesn’t quite live up to the expectations left by its predecessor, Catch remains a strong album all these years later. Most of all, it underscores exactly what distinguishes Stevens’ more enduring work with songs like “The Boy With a Moon and Star on His Head,” “Sweet Scarlet,” and “Silent Sunlight” encapsulating his talent for delicate arrangements and simple melodies.
On tracks like these, it’s true that the lyrical content is often very much of its time (and that’s a generous way of putting it) but such criticism doesn’t do complete justice to Stevens’ ability as a songwriter and performer. A frequent mistake of his detractors has been to ignore the suggestive, emotive resonance of his vocals—that is, his lyricism—choosing instead to focus on his words as if they were an independent poetic text, which of course they are not.
In contrast with previous work, a distinctive aspect of Catch is the dark and pessimistic tone taken by Stevens on certain tracks: for example, the apocalyptic “Ruins” and the mini-epic of near mental collapse, “18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare).” While the most memorable song is the driving “Can’t Keep it In,” the least successful is undoubtedly “O Caritas,” a track sung partially in Latin that features some delightful bouzouki stylings. As the venerable William Shatner, another vocalist of some note, has been known to ask: “But why?”
By Stevens’ own admission, Foreigner (1973) marked a conscious attempt to reject the folk-rock troubadour mantle that had come to define him within the business. On this album he sought to assert other aspects of his creative identity and to explore new musical avenues, an intent that is evidenced particularly in the incorporation of elements of contemporary R ‘n’ B and soul.
Despite the presence of moderately convincing Van Morrison-esque numbers like “The Hurt,” this album never really stands a chance from the start, weighed down as it is by the extended and excessive “Foreigner Suite” (which occupied the whole of side one on the original vinyl release). Erring unfortunately on the side of prog, the track occasionally stumbles across a few engaging passages but ultimately fails to hold together in any substantial way. At the end of 18-plus minutes, the listener is left with the sense of having had to sift through a rather colorless morass of bits and pieces that never really coalesce. Especially problematic is a synth in the second and fifth “movements” of the suite that, rather than possessing any retro cachet now, sounds outdated and crudely cartoonish. Still, neither that nor the numerous critical trouncings it received stopped this album from reaching number three in the charts.
Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974) made up for some of the faults of its predecessor and, although it’s clearly inferior to Catch Bull at Four, it stands as a relatively good album. Around the time of its release, Stevens was becoming increasingly unhappy with his pop icon status: “I was standing between the life of an ascetic and the life of a lover of the world,” he says, and this tension manifests itself in the contrast between the profane pop of tracks like “Sun/C79” and “A Bad Penny” and the more meditative “Oh Very Young.”
On this outing Stevens largely returns to the scene of earlier triumphs, rediscovering some of the fluidity and levity absent from Foreigner. The album is occasionally marred by a tendency to reproduce the overcrowded textures of Foreigner, sometimes to the detriment of melodic development. Nevertheless, with tracks like “Oh Very Young,” the balance is just right and the ornate shape of this paen to youth has secured its rightful place in the pantheon of classic songs of the ‘70s.
By the time of Buddha and the Chocolate Box, although popular success had continued to translate into highly respectable sales and sold-out concerts, critical acclaim had begun to wane somewhat. More exacting reviewers became less inclined to sign off on Stevens’ work, opting instead to register their dissatisfaction and impatience. In their view, both the saccharine taste of his ornamental folk-pop and the increasingly bland, baroque flavor of his work in general had become unpalatable.
While fans couldn’t get enough of his meditations on youth, love and the meaning of life, others trashed him for his simplistic, cod philosophy and his poor lyrical skills. Indeed, when the follow-up to Buddha was released—the numerological concept album, Numbers (1975)—the writing was well and truly on the wall. In 1978 Stevens’ career ended amid withering critiques that his final album, Back to Earth, was emblematic of the dubious quality of his oeuvre as a whole, consisting of “glorified nursery rhymes” which sought to pass themselves off as profound and insightful treatises.
What, then, is the final verdict on these particular CDs? In the overall context of Stevens’ output, the material featured on these releases is more often solid than not, yet Catch Bull at Four is perhaps the only one of the three that really stands the test of time on its own. Taken together, these CDs do provide glimpses of Stevens at his most memorable and engaging, above all when his evocative vocal performance is set within simple compositions. At the same time, unfortunately, there’s also evidence here of his propensity for overly busy arrangements that don’t travel so well, if at all.
However, there are still other issues that may complicate your decision to buy or not to buy these re-issued CDs. The death of the author “Cat Stevens” at first seemed to facilitate this review; but in fact a posthumous evaluation of his work is quite problematic. The path followed by Yusuf Islam over the last 22 years since he traded megastardom for an ascetic Muslim lifestyle raises certain questions with regard to what it means to listen to and to buy his music at this juncture. There are a number of political controversies surrounding the former Cat Stevens.
Yusuf Islam was alleged to have fully supported the fatwa proclaimed by the Ayatollah against Salman Rushdie following the publication of The Satanic Verses. Although he has subsequently distanced himself from such sentiments, the man who once sang “I Love My Dog” and “Granny” did state in 1989: “The Qu’ran makes it clear if someone defames the Prophet, then he must die.” (Ironically, in The Satanic Verses Rushdie had a caricature of Stevens—the convert pop star Bilal X—sing “Burn the books and trust the Book; shred the papers and hear the Word.”) Moreover, Islam has also been subject to accusations that he used his royalties to fund the fatwa. When Boyzone had a hit in 1996 with a version of “Father and Son,” Islam publicly denied that monies from the song would end up in Iran. But questions persist about just where his money is going. Last month, he was refused entry to Israel amid further accusations that he had donated tens of thousands of dollars to Hamas.
In an earlier PopMatters review of the re-issues of Mona Bone Jakon, Tea for the Tillerman, and Teaser and the Firecat, Benn Joseph mentions feeling bad about a moment of cynicism regarding the financial motivation behind these re-releases. I’m not sure that he needs to. Neither Cat Stevens nor Yusuf Islam has sold out since, by mere definition, all pop musicians are sell-outs. While some artists might aspire to an ideal of purity in their music or espouse some ethical agenda, they remain implicated in the industry from the start. Not that I think there’s anything particularly wrong with that. As Simon Frith once said of Bowie when he was accused of selling out in 1973, “I know who Bowie’s sold out to; I don’t understand what he’s sold out from. Where is this authentic rock tradition . . . ?”
Besides, it is well documented that Islam has channeled some significant portion of his profits into worthy, constructive causes, building schools, funding charities, supporting orphans in Bosnia, and releasing educational audio-books on his own label. But the question mark still hangs over what else he may have used his money for; it might be something to weigh in the balance as you consider these re-releases.