Al Stewart (born Alastair Ian Stewart on September 5, 1945, Glasgow, Scotland), is a British singer-songwriter and musician. He is best known for his 1976 single “Year of the Cat” and its 1978 follow-up “Time Passages” (both of which were produced by Alan Parsons).
Stewart grew up in the coastal resort town of Bournemouth, Dorset, England. He moved to the United States in 1977 and recorded/produced most of his work in Los Angeles during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.
While studio albums are now few and far between, he still tours extensively throughout the United States and Europe. Recordings of concerts are often made available through his fan clubs. Stewart’s career in music has spanned over 40 years.
Stewart’s first record was the single, “The Elf”, which was released in 1966 on Decca Records, and included a pre-Led Zeppelin Jimmy Page. Stewart then signed to Columbia Records (CBS in the UK), for whom he released six albums. The first four of these attracted relatively little commercial interest, although they contain some of Stewart’s most incisive and introspective songwriting, and he became popular on the university circuit. Stewart’s debut album, Bed-Sitter Images, was released on LP in 1967; a revised version appeared in 1970 as The First Album (Bed-Sitter Images) with a few tracks changed. Its dramatic string orchestrations by Alexander Faris arguably stifled the songs somewhat (Stewart premiered the album with a full orchestra at a concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London). The album was reissued on CD in 2007 by Collectors’ Choice Music with all the songs from both versions.
Love Chronicles (1969) was notable for the 18-minute title track, an anguished autobiographical tale of sexual encounters which was the first mainstream record release ever to include the f-word. It was voted Folk Album of the Year by the UK music weekly, Melody Maker.
His third album, Zero She Flies, followed in 1970 - this time with a larger number of shorter songs which ranged from purely acoustic ballads and virtuoso instrumentals, to a couple of rockier songs with snarly electric lead guitar. The acoustic ballad “Manuscript” sees Stewarts’ muse flirting with Europen History, which would soon blossom to become virtually a personal genre. These first three albums (including ‘The Elf’) were released as the two CD set, To Whom It May Concern: 1966-70.
Orange (1972) was very much a transitional album, combining songs in Stewart’s confessional style with more intimations of the historical themes that he would increasingly adopt (e.g. “The News From Spain”, with its progressive rock overtones, including dramatic piano by Rick Wakeman). Perhaps the most prophetic song is the ballad “Songs Out of Clay”, which would not have sounded out of place on Year of the Cat.
The fifth release, Past, Present and Future, echoed a traditional historical storytelling style and contained the song “Nostradamus,” a long (9:43) track in which Stewart tied into the re-discovery of the claimed seer’s writings by referring to selected possible predictions about twentieth century people and events. While too long for mainstream radio airplay at that time, the song became a hit on many US college/university radio stations, which were flexible about running times. Nevertheless, Past, Present and Future is the album where Stewart’s ‘history genre’ intimations reached full bloom, with songs about American President Warren Harding, World War II, Ernst Rohm, Christine Keeler, Louis Mountbatten and Stalin’s purges.
Stewart followed Past, Present and Future with Modern Times, in which the songs were lighter on historical references and more of a return to the theme of short stories set to music.
Stewart’s contract with CBS expired at this point and he signed to RCA Records in the UK and went to Janus Records in the US (later Arista when Janus folded in 1977). His first two albums for RCA, Year of the Cat (released on Janus in the US) and Time Passages (released in the US on Arista), set the style for his later work, which many feel is less incisive than his early 1970s work with CBS, although Cat and Passages are generally agreed upon to be his best work.
Stewart himself claims to have never really cared for “Time Passages”. In an interview with Acoustic Storm, he stated:
“I’ll tell you a funny story. I have never really cared for that song; I know it was a big hit and all that. It was just one of those things where the record company asked me to write something that sounded like “Year of the Cat” and we ended up doing that. But I didn’t realize truly how bad a song it was until one day I was in an elevator and I was listening to what I thought was Muzak. About 30 seconds went by, and I finally began to recognize it and said to myself, ‘this sounds pretty horrible’. Then, horror of horrors, I heard my voice come on, it actually was the record. So I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, what have I done, this is terrible’! Hopefully in the last 25 years I’ve redeemed myself with other things, but “Time Passages” has just never thrilled me.”
The overwhelming success of the songs “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages”- both of which still receive substantial radio airplay on classic-rock/pop format stations -overshadows the depth and range of Stewart’s body of songwriting. Stewart managed to adopt the traditional folk idiom of documenting real events to produce contemporary songs.
For a singer and songwriter whose work is suffused with history and detail, Al Stewart follows no creative timetable. It’s been ten years since his last US CD of new material and almost 30 years since his “Year of the Cat” single and album became unforgettable international hits.
A Beach Full of Shells, Al’s Appleseed debut and first new US release since 1995’s Between the Wars, finds Stewart in timeless form, presenting thirteen new songs that span centuries and continents, autobiography and fiction. As he nears the 20-album mark, Stewart remains a distinctively literate and vivid storyteller, time-traveling and teleporting from World War I battlefields to Sixties bedrooms, from ships to airplanes to ice floes, from the specific to the mysterious.
Musical settings that encompass electric folk-rock and acoustic ballads, colorful dabs of classical and Eastern music, and even a touch of Little Richard-style piano pounding, are as varied and imaginative as Al’s subject matters. The CD’s producer, Laurence Juber has enhanced Al’s elegant Scottish drawl, nimble acoustic guitar-work and keyboards with his own Grammy-winning guitar playing, string arrangements and percussion and a flexible rhythm section.
“The Immelman Turn” kicks off the CD in a style reminiscent of Fairport Convention, with spirited violin and barbed electric guitar sweeping us into the tale of a doomed pilot’s last flight. Then we fall down the genteel rabbit hole of “Mr. Lear,” a tribute to the 19th Century nonsense poet, before landing in the veiled intrigue of “Royal Courtship.” Elsewhere, we are taken “Somewhere in England 1915”; into the freezing bleakness of “Out in the Snow”; to visit party girl “Gina in the Kings Road”; to the frenzied rock ‘n’ roll past of “Class of ‘58” and a peaceful, nostalgia-filled old age in “Katherine of Oregon.” And that’s just part of the tour on “A Beach Full of Shells.”