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Fifty years on: Cat Stevens: Tea for the Tillerman


By Trevor Moore


Above: Neil Mack will be featuring Tea For The Tillerman on his next show. Listen in.

The thing about being a teenager in the 1960s is that it is the decade that largely defined the person I became. The subsequent decades were about honing and refining. Perhaps this applies to everyone as they grow up. But, say what you like and as I say to my suspicious offspring, the sixties were different. There has never been a phenomenon like The Beatles. You just have to go and look at some of those YouTube videos from the time. As Jonathan Richman sang alliteratively in his song Parties in the USA “I’m from the 60's The time of Louie Louie and Little Latin Lupe Lu”. The youth culture of the sixties was defined by protest, fashion and, of course, music. The decade saw popular music grow from the classic boys meets/fancies girl (for example, 1961’s Poetry in Motion by Johnny Tillotson) to deeper commentary (for example 1969’s commentary on the dangers of technology, In the Year 2525 by Zager and Evans. I hold the view that we Boomers were the first youth generation that was able to express itself. We can overlook the fact that we nearly all sold out later on. It is hard to resist The Man.

In 1967 I was quite happy rolling along with The Beatles and The Stones, The Move and The Hollies and then a song called Matthew and Son came along. I was on the threshold of university and that was going to take me one step closer to being a fully paid-up human being (at least so I thought; I’m still waiting). The singer was Cat Stevens, and I was immediately struck by the lyrics. He sang “there's a five-minute break, and that's all you take, or a cup of cold coffee and a piece of cake." I had never thought of pop music as the backdrop to real life. Stevens also sings about “people who've been working for fifty years”. When I finally left university and joined ICI as a graduate there was still a fifty-year service award … and people were still getting it. They had left school at 14 and worked for ICI for 50 years. Unbelievable then and still unbelievable now, except it really happened.


Matthew and Son isn’t interesting only because of its social commentary. Playing bass on the single is John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin fame) and on keyboards is Nick Hopkins (sessions for The Stones, The Kinks, The Who and others). It wasn’t his first single: that was the somewhat prosaically entitled I Love My Dog, which may well have been the case but that single struggled to number 28 in the UK and did not chart at all in Australia. Matthew and Son was an altogether stronger song, both in terms of melody and arrangement and was kept from the number 1 spot in the UK by The Monkees’ I’m a Believer. It is as a songwriter that Cat Stevens’ talents primarily lie. This is not to say that he is not a first-rate performer but songs like The First Cut is the Deepest (covered in 1967 by P P Arnold) and The Tremeloes Here Come My Baby (also 1967). His songs were perfect for anyone learning the guitar: they were easy to play badly and that’s a useful thing for an embryonic guitarist. I know; I was one. Perhaps I still am.

In 1969 Cat Stevens (he was born Steven Demetre Georgiou) contracted tuberculosis and spent several months in hospital. He had little to do except to think. He read and thought about the meaning of life. He stopped shaving. He listened to a lot of music and was particularly taken by 1968’s Switched-On Bach by the American composer Wendy Carlos. It was this period that led, however indirectly several years later to Stevens’ conversion to Islam. As a result of his illness his third studio album, Mona Bone Jakon came two and a half years after his second. This is a very different album to its predecessor, New Masters. Opening with the gentle and beautifully arranged 1970 hit Lady D'Arbanville, it is a more thoughtful Cat Stevens who has returned. He was not short of great songs for only 6 months later, on 23 November 1970, fifty years ago as I write, he released Tea for the Tillerman. This album ended up on every coffee table worth its salt - at least in the UK - in 1970/1971 along with George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Carol King’s Tapestry (actually 1971) and Santana’s Abraxas.


Tea for The Tillerman established Cat Stevens as an artist of the first order. Every song is a winner. Every arrangement is pared back to the absolute essentials so that the melody is right on top. Neil Mack will play every track on his show: he has to play them all as it isn’t possible, in my opinion (which I admit is anything but humble), to pick one track that is better than another. Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) knows the album to be good because he has just released a 2020 version which is sufficiently different in its arrangement to be worth listening to. On the re-cut Father and Son, he double-tracks with his 22-year-old self, appropriate given the subject matter of the song. The album contains some of his best-known songs: Wild World, Sad Lisa and Into White. The title track is a minute long but crams as much into a minute as many much longer songs fail to do and shows that he is a more than competent pianist.


Lay back and listen to Neil Mack on 25 November 2020 on 2EARFM. If you do not know Cat Stevens’ stuff, then he’ll take you through it. He’ll play songs from Teaser and the Firecat, Catch Bull at Four and Buddha and the Chocolate Box. Following his conversion to the Muslim faith at the end of 1977 and he did not play the guitar for 20 years. But over the last decade or so he has returned with some new music. The new stuff is good but somehow it doesn’t match the pure simplicity of Teaser and the Firecat. Brilliant songs. Brilliant arrangements. Brilliant playing. Timeless.

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