Al Stewart attained soft rock immortality with his 1976 Top 10 Pop and AC hit “Year of the Cat.” But the Glasgow-born, Bournemouth-raised artist and writer had been recording as a leading light of the British folk revival scene for a full decade by the time of his radio breakthrough. Cherry Red’s Esoteric Recordings imprint has recently restored to print Stewart’s third, fourth and fifth albums for the U.K.’s CBS Records label in newly remastered editions.
CBS had been Stewart’s home since his 1967 debut album Bedsitter Images. (Prior to that, he had released a single on Decca in 1966.) Stewart’s use of history as a lyrical springboard gave him a singular voice in folk circles, as well as his willingness to incorporate rock textures such as electric guitar and his tendency towards confessional songwriting more associated with the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement. Stewart had collaborated with producer Roy Guest on his first three albums, but a desire for a change in sonic approach first led him to Gus Dudgeon (David Bowie, Elton John). The busy Dudgeon helmed a single for Stewart in 1970 of “The News from Spain” b/w “Elvaston Place.” But John Anthony (Genesis, Lindisfarne, Van Der Graaf Generator) was then enlisted to produce the album that became Orange. Among the musicians enlisted by Anthony was none other than Yes’ Rick Wakeman on keyboards. Members of Quiver (including bassist Bruce Thomas, later of The Attractions) joined the sessions, as did Brinsley Schwarz on acoustic guitar and Roger Pope on drums. With this killer band, Anthony and Stewart emphasized the rock part of the folk-rock equation. Often considered a transitional album for Stewart, Orange failed to chart upon its January 1972 release but is today well-regarded among the artist’s early work. Remastered (like all three titles in this series) by Paschal Byrne from the original CBS master tapes, Orange has been expanded with the A- and B-side of the Gus Dudgeon-produced single.
The following October, Stewart released Past, Present and Future, again in collaboration with John Anthony. Stewart’s love of history inspired the concept album, on which every one of the eight tracks delved into a particular period, event or historical figure. The 16th century prophet was the subject of “Nostradamus.” More recent history informed “The Last Day of June 1934” and “Roads to Moscow,” both chronicling events leading up to, and during, World War II, with “Post-World War II Blues” a wide-ranging exploration taking listeners from Stewart’s birth (“I was a post-war baby in a small Scots town…”) through the tumultuous late 1960s (“Now every day just seems to bring bad news…”). “Warren Harding” was named for the U.S. President who served from 1921 until his death in 1923. For Past, Present and Future, Stewart was joined again by Tim Renwick on guitar, John Wilson on drums, Rick Wakeman on keyboards and Bruce Thomas on bass, among others. B.J. Cole joined to add his trademark pedal steel, and Richard Hewson provided string and bass arrangements. The album earned Stewart his first berth on the U.S. Billboard 200, reaching No. 133 and became his best-selling record to date. Esoteric’s reissue adds three bonus cuts: the single versions of “Terminal Eyes” and “Nostradamus,” plus non-LP single “Swallow Wind.”
1975’s Modern Times found Stewart on the cusp of Year of the Cat. His final album for CBS, and his first collaboration with producer-engineer Alan Parsons, Modern Times found Stewart recording at Parsons’ then-base of Abbey Road Studios. Studio visionary Parsons encouraged the artist to take greater advantage of overdubbing, and brought new textures to Stewart’s sound. Unlike much (but certainly not all of) Past, Present and Future, Modern Times was more rooted in Stewart’s own life. Minor U.S. hit “Carol” was based on a New York encounter with a “former groupie,” and “What’s Going On” was Stewart’s none-too-flattering portrait of singer with whom he was acquainted. “Apple Cider Re-Constitution,” like Past‘s “Post-World War II Blues,” took Stewart back to his childhood. Other touchstones on the album included author Kurt Vonnegut and even Jean-Paul Sartre, who inspired the album title. The track “Modern Times” bore the co-writing credit of Dave Mudge; Stewart reveals in the liner notes that he based the song on an unrecorded Mudge composition “Lowly Low.” Tim Renwick once again played a prominent role with his guitar; drummer Gerry Conway (Cat Stevens, Fairport Convention) was among the supporting musicians. The strong, accessible songwriting and Parsons’ dynamic production earned Stewart a No. 30 placement on the Billboard 200, and he would build on that success when he next reteamed with Parsons for Year of the Cat. No bonus tracks have been added to this edition.
All three reissues are beautifully packaged in full-color booklets restoring the original U.K. album artwork with lengthy new essays by Malcolm Dome drawing on fresh interviews with Stewart; complete lyrics are also included. All three of these Al Stewart classics can be ordered at the links below!
- You Don’t Even Know Me
- Songs Out of Clay
- The News from Spain
- I Don’t Believe You
- Once an Orange, Always an Orange
- I’m Falling
- Night on the 4th of Mary
- Elvaston Place (CBS single S 5351-B, 1970)
- The News from Spain (CBS single S 5351-A, 1970)
- Old Admirals
- Warren Harding
- Soho (Needless to Say)
- The Last Day of June 1935
- Post-World War II Blues
- Roads to Moscow
- Terminal Eyes
- Terminal Eyes (Single Version) (CBS single S-1791, 1973)
- Swallow Wind (CBS single S 2397-A, 1974)
- Nostradamus (Single Version) (CBS single S 2397-B, 1974)
- Sirens of Titan
- What’s Going On?
- Not the One
- Next Time
- Apple Cider Re-Constitution
- The Dark and Rolling Sea
- Modern Times