June 10 – If They Keep Sounding Like This, They Will ‘Stay Gold’

The U.S.A. is a mirage-like beacon for people around the world; one which holds an almost mythical appeal which is often unnoticed by its residents. But not to outsiders. It might in part explain why in the ’90s, Rolling Stone once opined that America’s best band was Canadian (Blue Rodeo). Or why perhaps the best “Americana” act going these days is not even from the same continent! “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America,” as Simon & Garfunkel once sang. Little surprise that Sweden’s First Aid Kit chose that to be one of their signature tunes. The Swede sisters began to hit it big five years ago with their third album, Stay Gold, released here this day in 2014.

The Soderberg sisters had become stars at home in Sweden about six years earlier, initially through homemade Youtube videos. A couple of well-received albums at home had built their following and gotten them noticed at least in Britain. With a record deal with Columbia, worldwide publicity and distribution followed, beginning with Stay Gold. While it carried on where the first records left off – folksy guitar-based tunes with strong melodies and great harmonies from Klara and Johanna – this one added in a fuller sound and better production values courtesy the bigger budget and more adventurous producing from Bright Eyes’ Mike Magis who played everything from banjo to dulcimer himself to back the girls and their guitars but also brought in a full orchestral string section for several songs, including the title track and “Cedar Lane”, a song the Guardian labeled their “finest moment.” Strong melodies, simple arrangements and lyrics of promised lands and loves lost could have just as easily originated from Tom Petty or Neil Young as a pair of young Swedish women, which helped explain the record’s appeal.

While it went platinum and to #1 in their homeland, as the previous album had, it also ran up to #11 in the UK, #18 in Canada, and #23 in the U.S. they sounded a part of (and where it was recorded, in Omaha of all places, adding to its Heartland authenticity.) All were significant improvements in sales over their small-label predecessors. The lilting “My Silver Lining” became their third top 40 hit in their homeland and the first to get notable airplay in North America, hitting #22 on Adult Contemporary radio in the States.

Critics (as well as yours truly here at A Sound Day) generally loved the album. Many gave it about an 80% rating. For instance, Spin and the NME each gave it 8/10; Q and Britain’s The Guardian each rated it 4-stars (out of 5.) The NME were surprised that “even the big old Columbia paycheque can’t bring a smile to the duo’s faces” but that was a “blessing for fans of lush, melodic symphonic emoting.” Rolling Stone called it “sublime drifter poetry” and suggested they “blossomed into an excellent indie-country act,”

Among the fans of Stay Gold was Peter Buck of R.E.M. who helped out on their 2018 album, Ruins which sold a little better still in North America. Currently the duo appear to be on a bit of a hiatus, perhaps because Johanna had a baby in 2020. However, they did put out a new album quite recently, Who By Fire, a recording of a concert they played in 2017 honoring Leonard Cohen.

May 29 – Buckley’s Ill-fated Midnight Dip

A talented artist left us too soon. It takes something special to be listed among the 40 greatest singers ever by Rolling Stone if you only had one album out in your lifetime. Jeff Buckley was that special. Rather like Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley died young and fairly un-noticed but would go on to great renown posthumously.

The folk/rock singer drowned on this day in 1997 at age 30 after going for a swim in the Mississippi off Memphis, where he was staying and working on his second album. His family point out his autopsy showed him free of drugs and alcohol and noted he was in good spirits – he just made a bad decision to go swimming, fully clad, in a huge river at night. He grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, Kiss and Rush (oddly since his dad, Tim was a renowned folk singer) and eked out a living as a session guitarist around the beginning of the ’90s before signing on to Columbia. His first – and only real – album, 1994’s Grace, had won great critical praise (Jimmy Page called it his favorite album of the decade and David Bowie once said it would be the one album he’d take to a desert island) but rather poor sales. It is still ranked among Rolling Stone‘s 500 greatest albums of all-time, with them describing him as the “voice of an over-sexed angel.” As Seth Jacobsen of the Daily Mirror put it, “in an era when the soundtrack to angst was defined by grungey guitars and plaid shirts, Jeff Buckley’s delicate melodies and aesthetic sensibilities set him in a world apart.” Likewise, allmusic rated it a perfect 5-stars calling it “audacious” but full of “sweeping choruses, bombastic arrangements, searching lyrics and above all, the richly textured voice.” However, when he was referenced on American Idol in 2008, when someone sang Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” (which Buckley had recorded in perhaps its finest form), sales took off. the single was downloaded over 175 000 times in one week, the album began to sell and he got the notice not afforded him in his lifetime. His family got ahold of some demos he had been working on which were released posthumously. Rolling Stone now call him the 39th greatest singer of all-time and Song Facts often report “Hallelujah” as their most searched song.

Sadly, he did follow in his dad’s footsteps in a couple of ways. Both saw their fame and recognition rise after their death and both passed away young. His dad died of an overdose at age 28.

April 9 – The ’60s Song About The Previous ’60s

It’s an important date in American history. It was this day in 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered, with thousands of Confederate soldiers in tow, to General Grant and the Union Army, in central Virginia. That effectively ended the Civil War. It was nearly four years to the day since the opening salvos had been fired by the Confederates at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, and put an end to probably the bleakest chapter in U.S. history, a war which left over 600 000 dead. An important day in history, but how does that pertain to music, you might ask? Well, read on, because that one event in the 1860s probably inspired one of the great songs of the 1960s. After all, it was “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

Not only is The Band song one of the great examples of Americana music from the rock era, it is also perhaps the best example of musical story-telling about the Civil War. As a writer for Rolling Stone at the time it came out said, “nothing I have read has brought home the overwhelming sense of history that this song does.”

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was from The Band’s self-titled, second album, released in the second half of 1969. It came about under unusual circumstances for a song of its nature. The Band was mostly Canadian, and they recorded it in Hollywood – in fact in Sammy Davis’ Jr.’s house, which they rented for a bit of time while he was out of town. The song’s credited to Robbie Robertson, the Toronto-born, half-Native Indian guitarist for them. Some might notice the coincidence that not only did a Canadian write one of the songs most critical of the U.S. South (Neil Young’s “Southern Man”) another Canuck would write one sometimes seen as a strong defence of its ways.  However, not only did The Band have its musical roots in the rural American South, it did have one member from those parts – drummer Levon Helm. Helm was from a small town in Arkansas, and like many from down there, he had an interest in the history of the War. He says “Robbie and I worked on (it) up in Woodstock. I remember taking him to the library, so he could research the history and geography of the area.” He always claimed to have helped write the song, but like many in The Band catalog, Robertson claimed sole rights to it. He says he got fascinated after repeatedly hearing the phrase “the South will rise again” when in the southern states. It took him eight months to write and “Levon’s connection to it was things that he turned me on to…just kind of showing me around” when they visited his home area in the South.

Whoever wrote it, the song is a poignant look at the effects of the war on ordinary, working folk, told through the eyes of Virgil Cain. While Cain is apparently entirely fictitious, many of the things described in the song were real, such as of course, General Robert E. Lee, the “Danville train” (the Richmond & Danville Railroad was an important line for moving Confederate soldiers and supplies) and “Stoneman’s cavalry”, a Union army team that would conduct raids on the train.

Fittingly the country-ish song was sung primarily by Helm, with Rick Danko and Richard Manuel joining in on the chorus. The Band put it out as the b-side to the single “Up on Cripple Creek”, but it turned into a “two-sided single” with both songs getting some airplay on radio in many places. It got to #10 in Canada and #25 in the U.S., making it the highest-charting one for The Band, and helping the album become their biggest-selling one besides compilations. It’s aura and reputation have grown in the time since, with Pitchfork ranking it as the 42nd best song of the decade and Rolling Stone listing it repeatedly among the top 300 of all-time.

The song got a second life not long afterwards when folk star Joan Baez recorded it. She recorded it in a slightly more upbeat fashion (“a little too happy-go-lucky for me,” Robertson says although he admits he likes the attention – read royalty money? – it brought him) with a full chorus of 20 studio musicians, including a not-yet-famous Jimmy Buffett. She didn’t have written lyrics so she sang what she heard, thus a few lyrics were a bit different – “Stoneman’s cavalry” became “so many cavalry” for instance. It became her biggest hit song, reaching #3 on the charts in North America in 1971.

Although there have been some predictable cries of condemnation suggesting it is a racist or pro-slavery song, most hear it as a rivoting tale about the human toll of a nation in crisis. Among the others to record it since are the Allman Brothers, Sophie B. Hawkins and Johnny Cash.

March 30 – Chapman Had Fast Lane To Early Stardom

Neo-hippie singer/songwriters were a dime a dozen around the end of the ’60s. But as the ’80s neared an end, not so much. Which is part of what makes today’s birthday girl so special. Happy 58th, Tracy Chapman!

Not only did Tracy come along about two decades after her genre had peaked, she broke ground as well by being a Black artist in one of the more exclusively-white areas of music. She remembers being given a ukulele by her music-loving mom when she was just three, but wanting to play guitar when she saw Hee Haw on TV! Her mom again obliged, and by eight, young Tracy was learning that instrument. Although she grew up in a poor neighborhood in Cleveland, she was smart and hard-working and won a scholarship to a ritzy private Connecticut high school, which in turn led her to university in the ’80s, where she got a degree in anthropology. She told PBS’ Tavis Smiley that the contrast between the poor, largely Black neighborhood she grew up in and the wealthy and largely-White schools she attended later on had a major influence on how she saw life, and the music she listened to.

After university, she’d become a popular cafe performer in Boston when she got signed to Elektra Records, who went out on a bit of a limb. As journalist Siobhan O’Neill reminds us, in the late-’80s artists like Tiffany, Whitney and Roxette were the rage and “a young Black woman singing socially-aware folk tunes about poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence was the polar opposite of what was topping the charts.” Nonetheless, Elektra gave her room to do her thing, and it paid off. Her self-titled debut album hit #1 in a range of countries, including the U.S., where it’s 6X platinum, the UK, Canada and Germany, helped along greatly by the world-weary “Fast Car”, a top 10 hit throughout much of the world. The song about the struggling waitress with hope for a better tomorrow won her a Grammy for Best Female Pop Performance and helped her snag the Best New Artist one as well, while across the sea, she took home Brit Awards for Best International Female Artist and Breakthrough Artist of the Year. Around that time, she was involved in playing Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday party and concerts for Amnesty International. As VH1 point out, “along with 10 000 Maniacs and R.E.M., Chapman’s liberal politics proved enormously influential on American campuses.”

Although she failed to capture lightning in a jar again – none of her seven subsequent studio albums were chart-topping, although her next three or four still earned various platinum awards – she remained popular throughout the ’90s and as allmusic say, “helped restore singer-songwriters to the spotlight.” Fittingly, she was one of the headliners during the first Lilith Fair tour.

Chapman’s been pretty quiet for over a decade, save for a Greatest Hits CD in 2015, which included a popular live performance of “Stand By Me” she’d done on Letterman’s show. Since then the only time she’s been in music news was when she sued rapper Nicki Minaj for sampling her song “Baby Can I Hold You” on one of her records. Although a judge refused to block Minaj from releasing her own song, she did pay Chapman $450 000 to avoid a trial. However, the private Chapman (she says “I have a public life, that’s my work and my private life.”) is still involved in a number of human rights’ charities, advocating on behalf of her Cleveland’s public schools and even being a judge at the Sundance film Festival.

March 23 – Songs To Seagulls And With Eagles

A few days back we looked at Bob Dylan’s first album and noted while it was the debut of a great artist, it wasn’t necessarily a great debut. Today, the same could be said about the first one from an artist Pitchfork call “Mary Magdalene to Dylan’s folk rock messiah” – Joni Mitchell. Her debut, Song To A Seagull, came out this day in 1968.

By this time, Joni was 24 and had become something of a star in her native Canada, with her spending time in Toronto’s hot Yorkville folk scene, then relocated to the U.S., living briefly in Detroit then “found” and relocated to L.A.’s artsy Laurel Canyon by David Crosby . She’d already established herself as a decent songwriter, with several artist recording her work, including Judy Collins’ who had a hit with her “Both Sides Now” right around the time this album was hitting the stores.

Crosby helped Mitchell get a good contract with Reprise Records, with an unusual amount of control over her own music. The downside was he also got to produce Song to a Seagull, a rather simple, 10-song, 38-minute effort of her own songs with limited outside help. Mitchell played guitar and piano, even painted the cover as she usually did with her records, and Stephen Stills added bass in places. (To top it off, at the time she was living with the other member of CSN, Graham Nash, which prompted him to write the song “Our House (Is A Very, Very Fine House.)” The problem was Crosby didn’t seem to have the knack of producing at that point. He placed mics oddly in the studio and ended up with a lot of ambient noise and hiss on the masters. He sought to eliminate that, mainly by wiping out the high end treble… resulting in what Joni would say made it “sound like it was recorded under a jello bowl”. Wikipedia term it sound with a “flat feel.” (In case you’re wondering, Mitchell eventually re-mixed and mastered it herself, and the better result came out last year on Rhino Records.)

She dedicated the record to “Mr. Kratzmann,” her grade 7 teacher, “who taught me to love words.” And while the album, seemingly her first impressions of L.A., didn’t have any hit songs or ones which live on widely – unlike the one she wrote for Collins – it got her noticed as a fine singer/songwriter, with songs like “Night In the City”, “Pirate of Penance” and the title track for the seabird. Although it barely even nicked the top 200 album chart and was one of only a few of her early records not to go gold anywhere, it got her on her way and by her next album, Clouds, with the single “Chelsea Morning” she began to become a significant artist on the charts and radio.

Perhaps Joni felt a bit sentimental about March 23, because 20 years to the day after Song To A Seagull, she put out her 13th studio album, Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm. The 1988 album was quite a departure from the first (and many of Joni’s albums), because it had some glossy production, courtesy Larry Klein who co-produced it and co-wrote several of the songs with her . For it she called on a number of her famous friends… Tom Petty, members of Prince’s backing band, Benjamin Orr of the Cars and more. Particularly of note were Willie Nelson, who sang with her on “Cool Water”, Billy Idol and his guitarist Steve Stevens, who appeared on “Dancing Fool” (“it was for the contrast he provided,” she said about having Idol on the record. “He brings real life to the part”) , Don Henley, who sang on “Snakes and Ladders” and Peter Gabriel. Gabriel joined her on the single “My Secret Place”, a song she recorded in Gabriel’s studio in England. The album mixed straight-forward love songs like that one with more socially-aware ones like “Lakota”, about disappearing American Indian culture, and “Beat of Black Wings”, a lament of Vietnam vets with PTSD.

This one got middling reviews. Both Rolling Stone and allmusic rate it 3-stars.The former noted that somehow “as Mitchell has grown older…the assumed priority of words over music has reversed,” suggesting the music was largely for the tunes and beats more than her poetry. Allmusic note “Mitchell uses vocal firepower over spare tracks, heavy on percussion” which now “already begins to sound dated.”

That notwithstanding, the public took to it better than some of her releases. It got to #23 in Canada and #26 in the UK, with “My Secret Place” being a minor hit single in Canada, where the album did go gold, no doubt to the relief of Geffen Records. That made her first gold record anywhere since she’d joined that label at the start of the decade.

Alas, Joni didn’t keep the trend going and release an album on this day in 2008. In fact, her last album of new material came out in 2007 and she’s said she’s retired from music, lately splitting her time between L.A. and Canada and spending much of her spare time painting or drawing.

March 19 – Village Kid A Good Find For Columbia 60 Years Ago

A debut of a great artist but not necessarily a great debut. That’s one way to summarize Bob Dylan‘s appearance on the scene 60 years ago! His self-titled, first album came out this day in 1962.

Dylan was at the time only 20 years old, and a newcomer, but rising star in the New York Greenwich Village folk music scene. He’d moved to the Big Apple about a year earlier, in no small part to be able to visit his idol and inspiration Woody Guthrie who was very ill in hospital there at the time. He’d built up a small following playing his blues-inspired folk around cafes and clubs in the city and when he wasn’t playing them, he was either watching other singers or listening to folk records most of the time. Producer John Hammond met him while he was doing session work playing harmonica on an album by another New York folkie, Caroyln Hester. Hammond was so impressed he got Columbia Records to sign Dylan right away. He then got to produce Bob Dylan…which might have left him rethinking his choice, at least for awhile! “Bobby popped every ‘p’, hissed every ‘s’”, he’d say later, “he habitually wandered off mic. Even more frustrating, he refused to learn from his mistakes.”

Be that as it may, they managed to get the album recorded at Columbia’s own studios in three afternoons for a cost of $402. They recorded 17 songs, of which 13 made it onto the debut. There were 11 covers plus a couple of originals, “Talkin’ New York” and “Song To Woody,” an ode to his musical muse Guthrie. Among the covers were a number of blues standards, at times re-arranged by Dylan, including “In My Time Of Dyin’”, “Gospel Plow,” “House of the Risin’ Sun” and “Pretty Peggy O”; and covers of old bluesmen like Curtis Jones “Highway 51.” The album was about as basic and solo as can be, with just Bob, his acoustic guitar and harmonica for a feeling very much like one would have gotten watching him in one of those early-’60s cafes.

Few noticed it when it hit the shelves. One exception was Billboard, which looked to be brilliantly prophetic by stating him to be “one of the most interesting and disciplined youngsters to appear on the folk-pop scene in a long time.” While they were only lukewarm to his many covers, they liked his two originals and thought “when he finds his own style, (he) could win a big following.”

Which, six decades and one Nobel Prize for literature later, it’s fair to say he did. But this album didn’t do it for him; it failed to chart in the U.S. – ever. In Britain, it did reach #13, a few years later after he’d become successful.

More recent reviews have been kinder. Entertainment Weekly graded it a “B” and allmusic gave it 4-stars. They compare it to the first Beatles and Stones records, in that it is “outclassing most, if not all, of what came before in the genre, but similarly eclipsed by the artist’s own subsequent efforts.”

And a lot of those have been around. Dylan put out his 39th studio album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, in 2020, remarkably still on the Columbia label. They also put three of the outtakes from the sessions on an official “bootleg” (Bootleg Series, Volume 1) in 1991, including one more Dylan original, “Man on the Street.” And through curious variations of international law, the Columbia copyright for the record expired in 2012 in the E.U. (it didn’t in North America) so a small company called Hoodoo Records put out a deluxe edition of it that year, with a second disc of early live recordings and the single “Mixed Up Confusion” , which was out about the same time as the album but not included on it.

December 20 – Denver Jetted Trio Up To The Top

Airports are traditionally very busy this week with all that “home for the holidays” travel, perhaps making it all the more appropriate John Denver’s career really took off this day in 1969. That’s when Peter, Paul & Mary hit #1 in the U.S. with the Denver song “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Interestingly it seemed to end up marking the beginning of Denver’s illustrious career but the tail end of the trio’s.

Peter, Paul & Mary were the New York-based folk trio of Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey and Mary Travers. Influenced by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, they’d been tremendously popular earlier in the ’60s with hits like “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”, both of which hit #2 in 1963. But by the end of the ’60s, things like psychedelia and Beatlemania had made them seem comparatively out-of-touch and irrelevant to the masses. This song represented a major comeback for them and in fact was their only #1 single. Denver on the other hand had been in the New Christy Minstrel Singers and was an aspiring singer/songwriter yet to have much commercial success.

Peter, Paul & Mary put the song on their album entitled Album 1700 (the odd title referring to the record company’s catalog number for it) in late-’67. It was unusual for them since they had written almost all the rest of the album. But their producer, Milt Okun would also go on to produce some early John Denver records and knew him, heard the song and recommended it to the trio. They did it, with Yarrow playing 12-string guitar, Stookey, regular acoustic guitar and among the session musicians, drummer Skip Prokop who’d soon join and lead Canadian band Lighthouse.

The album did moderately OK for them but by 1969 was largely forgotten when John Denver put out his version as a single from his first comparative hit album, Rhymes & Reasons. Although it wasn’t a chart hit, it did catch people’s attention and Warner Bros. Decided to resurrect their artist (Peter, Paul & Mary) version and rushed that out as a single. With the public’s slight level of familiarity with the song and the existing fan base of the folk group, it quickly took off… like a jet. It got to #1 in a little more than a month and also did the same in Canada and rose to #2 in the UK and Ireland. However, they probably realized the writing was on the wall when it came to their brand of music and they broke up a year later. Denver on the other hand would score his first major hit two years later with “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and would hit #1 four times in the ’70s. Ironically he became a pilot and sadly died in a crash of a plane he was flying.

Although it was a prototypical folk song, it had – apparently – a bit of a showing in new wave years later. Denver and his publisher sued New Order in 1989 over their song “Run 2”, claiming the guitar bits in the song plagiarized “Leaving on a Jet Plane”. Here, we’ll say it would take a rather imaginative ear to hear it, but they did reach an out of court settlement and Denver was added to the song’s writing credits.

November 29 – Sales For Weeks Were Weak, Music Wasn’t

The Velvet Underground and Big Star have shown that critical praise and the admiration of fellow artists isn’t always enough to ensure a commercial hit. Van Morrison found it out as well, on (or soon after) this day in 1968. That was when his second album, Astral Weeks, came out…to very little fanfare or notice. Although many consider it one of the finest pop/rock albums of all-time, it fared only moderately well in the record stores and failed to produce any well-known radio staple.

The Irishman, relocated to New York state, had already become well-known for his work in Them and his first hit, 1967’s “Brown-eyed Girl.” However, his relationship with his label, Bang Records had soured, and he was tied up in legal issues with them, which made him temporarily set up a base in Massachusetts, where he played his unique brand of folk in coffee houses, eventually gaining the attention of Warner Bros. After a lot of wrangling and an almost Machiavellian story in its own right, Warner got to sign him and buy out his Bang contract involving Morrison recording deliberately bad songs for Bang and back-alley payoffs including alleged underworld characters.

Finally under the Warner banner, he got down to recording his first record for them. However, the new company’s faith in Van wasn’t as wide as the ocean between Ireland and the U.S. Funding was limited for the album, and as Morrison put it, “I was totally broke…I didn’t have time to sit around pondering.” As it ended, the spur-of-the-moment approach seemed to work! Astral Weeks was finished after three all-day sessions. For the most part, Morrison just wanted a couple of jazz musicians accompanying him and his acoustic guitar – bassist Richard Davis, on stand-up bass as it were, and drummer Connie Kay. Kay remembers Morrison being “shy” and unfocused when it came to the music. He was told to “play whatever I felt like playing. We more or less sat there and jammed.” For all his taciturn nature, Morrison was impressed. “Those types of guys play what you’re gonna do before you do it. That’s how good they are.” Warner added some overdubbed string bits, which annoyed the singer, who declared “they ruined it. They added those strings. I didn’t want strings!”

His opinion changed though as he soon after said “I thought it was closer to the type of music I wanted to put out. It still is, actually.” Many agreed with him. The album consisted of only eight songs, but four of them were seven minutes or longer and the diehard fans consider all of them classics. Among the best-known tracks are the title track, which he describes as “one of those songs when you can see the light at the end of the tunnel…I don’t think I can elaborate on it anymore than that” , “Cypress Avenue” which he often uses to close out his shows, and “Sweet Thing.” However personal the lyrics might appear, Van says “it’s not about me. It’s totally fictional,” adding some tracks he wrote out of a stream-of-consciousness.

Not that many publications noticed it upon its release. The NME did but called it a “pale imitation” of Jose Feliciano. Rolling Stone though compared him to Bob Dylan and called it “unique and timeless”, a position they maintain. They’ve rated it as high as the 19th greatest album of all-time, describing it as “music of such enigmatic beauty that (it) still defies easy, admiring description.” Allmusic and Pitchfork have both given it perfect scores, the latter noticing “an undercurrent of melancholy and desire runs through ‘Brown-eyed Girl’…Astral Weeks brings that yearning to the forefront.” Among its many fans are Elvis Costello who said “there hasn’t been a record with that amount of daring made since.”

As well-received as it is by modern critics, it wasn’t a huge hit. Part of that might come from the minimal advertising Warner did for it, perhaps because there was no obvious radio hit to follow-up “Brown-eyed Girl.” The album hit #55 in the UK, and #27 in Ireland but failed to make the U.S. charts. Eventually though (2001), it did get certified gold here, while in the UK, it’s consistently sold slowly and is now triple-platinum, the best of his non-compilation records.

November 23 – Tea Time With The Cat

Being 22 is sometimes difficult. Being 22, a rising star and an entertainer with ordinary emotions but a desire to make sense of everything spiritually, more difficult still. Such was the background for Cat Stevens‘ critically-acclaimed fourth album, Tea for the Tillerman which came out this day in 1970.

Stevens recorded the 11-song album in various British studios earlier in ’70 with producer Paul Smith (formerly the bassist from the Yardbirds) and a small group of studio musicians including a violinist. Cat wrote all the songs and played piano and acoustic guitar, an art school student, also did the album cover illustration of a tea party. The songs were memorable and melodic with lyrics that showed the mental puzzles he was dealing with, as allmusic puts it “about living in the modern world but rejecting it in favor of spiritual fulfillment” – fulfillment he presumably found later in the decade when he converted to Islam and changed his name to “Yosuf.”

Several songs are considered classics by his many fans, including “Sad Lisa”, “Father and Son” and “Where Do the Children Play?” but it was “Wild World” which put him on the map internationally as a star folk musician. Up until that point he had a good following at home in the UK but was largely unnoticed in North America or Oceania.

Rolling Stone, at the time applauded it and said “the songs resonate beyond their artfully simple lyrics and hooks” They note it sounds quite “unhurried”. Years later that magazine would consistently rate it as one of the 300 greatest albums of all-time, considering it “one of the British folkie’s most ambitious” works but, unlike many who found confusion and spiritual quests in the lyrics, propose that it is largely about “condemning his ex, Patti D’arbanville, who later shacked up with Mick Jagger.” Whatever the inspiration, it was an album that was liked by critics and radio listeners…and record stores apparently. In 2007, the National Association of Record Merchandisers listed it as one of the “200 Definitive albums of all-time.”

In Europe, Island Records handled it, over here A&M. The companies chose different singles to heavily promote. In Britain and Europe, “Father and Son” was the selling point, in North America, “Wild World” got to #11 (and #14 in Canada), his first hit in what would quickly be a string of soft-rock classics in the first half of the decade. In the UK, it wasn’t a hit for Cat, but was for reggae star Jimmy Cliff the following year, and again in 1988 when Maxi Priest took it into the top 10 there. Tea for the Tillerman got to #20 in his homeland (where it went gold, as it did in France), #2 in Australia and on this side of the ocean, #8 in the U.S. where it’s triple-platinum, tying it for his most successful record besides his Greatest Hits compilation.

Stevens/Yosuf has often ignored conventional music business wisdom – exhibit A, changing his well-known name to a religious one which potentially could alienate many listeners – so it perhaps is little surprise he did things differently when this album hit 50, last year. Rather than do a somewhat to-be-expected “anniversary edition”, with perhaps a few live tracks and remastered sound, he re-recorded the album entirely. Tea for the Tillerman 2 has the same songs, but as he now imagines them, something Under the Radar magazine correctly declared “a risky move”, especially given the original being an “unqualified classic.” “Father and Son’ is now a duet, with an asterisk. Stevens mixed his current voice with the original vocal recordings to make it sound, presumably, like father and son speaking. The same publication gave it a rating of 7.5/10, finding that except for a reggae take on “Long Boat”, most of the new versions work. Stevens has chosen a slightly less-risky approach to mark the 50th anniversary of the release of the album’s follow-up, Teaser and the Firecat. He’s issuing an anniversary box with some demos, outtakes and a copy of the children’s book of the same name added in to the original album.

July 10 – It’s Arlo’s Day. Maybe He’s Fishin’

Happy 74th birthday to one of the most iconic figures of the ’60s Hippie movement – Arlo Guthrie. The folk singer seemed to pick up the musical torch left by his dad, folkie Woody Guthrie, and run with it. Woody, of course, was arguably the Father of Folk Music, writing counter-culture standards like “This Land is Your Land” , hanging out with John Steinbeck and later being a major influence on artists like Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen and Joe Strummer. Multi-talented Arlo (he can play guitar, piano, banjo, autoharp and flute among other instruments) rose to prominence in 1967 with his debut album Alice’s Restaurant (his most successful, being his only platinum one in the U.S.) and the title track, a more-or-less autobiographical 18 minute song about his friend Alice Brock’s restaurant, the Back Room in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, him avoiding the draft and getting a criminal record for dumping trash. The song was then made into a 1969 counter-culture movie favorite, in which Arlo played himself and was joined by other folk artists like Pete Seeger. It opened only days after his appearance at Woodstock.

Three years later he’d have his biggest hit song “The City of New Orleans” a top 20 hit in the U.S. and Canada. One of the great American train songs, it was written by Steve Goodman and would also be a hit on country charts for Willie Nelson years later. Ever the musical family, his sister Nora is a music producer and oversaw the Wilco-Billy Bragg collaboration, Mermaid Avenue , which featured Woody Guthrie’s songs and all four of his children are in music. His daughter Cathy is in a band with Amy Nelson – Willie’s daughter.

To date he’s put out 20 studio albums and nine live ones, a couple with his dad’s musical friend Seeger. The former anti-war, anti-nuclear power advocate shocked his fans in 2008 when he declared he was now a Republican, something he’s seemed to backtrack on in recent times. Last year Guthrie put out a new song, “Hard Times Come Again No More”, but said he was retiring from touring after having a couple of minor strokes. “Time to hang up the ‘gone fishin” sign,” he said. May he catch a big one today!