My Record Collection 186

John Stewart -The early years.  Well, where to begin.  He was in a hit folk band of the late fifties and early sixties ‘The Kingston Trio’.  He also wrote a huge hit for the Monkees – ‘Daydream Beleiver’, which is still played on oldies radio stations.  In the late Sixties he embarked on a solo career that lasted almost 50 years and nearly as many albums – until his untimely death in 2008.  His first solo release was Signals Through The Glass (1968) credited to John and his long-time partner Buffy Ford.   I would not recommend that any newcomers should start here, but all the same it is a nice album.  I feel that John was still trying to find his style, which very soon became a forerunner to what is now known as Americana, a mix of folkey singer songwriter and country music – in many ways John became the leading exponent of this real American music of the late 20th Century.  Of course, he is barely known, although he did have a couple of minor hits along the way.  He was a remarkable and extremely prolific song-writer, a very competent guitarist and had a voice that could melt ice with it’s warmth.  Best songs on this album are ‘Holly On My Mind’, ’Cody’ and ‘July, You’re a Woman’ (which was re-recorded on his next album and was a big live favourite.  California Bloodlines came out in 1969 and was possibly his first real hit album (though compared to many singer-songwriters he sold only moderately.  In some ways it is his best – the first album was fairly folky, but Bloodlines was real Americana – and the songs were all brilliant.   This is one of those albums you just cannot choose a favourite, but I must mention – ‘The Pirates Of Stone County Road’, Omaha Rainbow’ and best of all the closing track ‘Never Going Back To Nashville’ (where John namechecks the players – the same crew that played on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and John Wesley Harding, and a few others including ‘Bobby Bluebird Dylan’ of course) – this last is a great almost rock track.  1970 saw the slightly gentler Willard album.  In places this is a return to his folk roots but still a few classic Americana songs – ‘Hero From The War’, ‘Oldest Living Son’ and ‘Big Joe’.   Not my most favourite album really, but the following year he released his second masterpiece The Lonesome Picker Rides Again.   Again, he seemed inspired and every song was wonderful.  The sort of record you just have to put back on repeat.  I especially like ‘Swift Lizard’ and ‘Wolves In The Kitchen’ – two rocking tracks, and ‘Crazy’ and ‘All The Wild Horses’ are gentle heartbreaking ballads.  He even reprieves the number one song he wrote for The Monkees, the brilliant ‘Daydream Believer’.  What an album, WOW.  As so often though the follow-up was a bit of a mixed bag really.  Sunstorm , which came out in the holy year of 1972 had a few great songs – ‘Kansas Rain’, ‘Arkansas’ and ‘Cheyenne’ but for some reason the record was never my favourite.  Much better was 1973’s Cannons In The Rain (a reference to as a child referring to Thunder).  In fact, as so often, upon a re-listen I love it all over again.  In fact, this of course ranks alongside California Bloodlines as another classic album.  Best songs are again hard to choose, but ‘Durango’, ‘Hung On YourHeart (Of A Man Back Home] and the rocking ‘Lady And The Outlaw’ stand out as long time favourite songs.   1974 saw a live album The Pheonix Concerts.  Immaculate live versions of these early classic songs – a great concert album.  Just 2 unrecorded songs – ‘Cops’ and ‘Roll Away The Stone’.  Wingless Angels came out in 1975.   A slight move to a more conventional sound, a few more strings and girl backing singers.  Still a very good album; John was now assuming the mantle of the great American chronicler and his songs ‘Survivors’ namechecks a whole load of states.  But my favourite songs are ‘Summer Child’, Ride Stone Blind’ and ‘Let The Big Horse Run’.    For whatever reason John and his record company, RCA, parted ways.  He eventually joined the Robert Stigwood Organisation – known as RSO, which was having huge success with Clapton and the BeeGees among others.  His next few albums were more commercial and were recorded with record sales in mind.  The mid-Seventies, as well as being famous for Punk were also a move to a more disco and dance-oriented sound.  His first album on this new label was 1977’s Fire In The Wind.   Not a bad album, but the rough edges have been knocked off a bit – John’s voice seems smoother, the songs not quite so open and honest.  Still, not at all bad – best songs are ‘Boston Lady’, ’18 Wheels’ and ‘The Last Hurrah’.   2 years later and the best-selling album of his career Bombs Away Dream Babies was released.  I am not sure just why this was such a big seller, possibly the hit single ‘Gold’, but also the addition of Lynsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac to his backing and singing band no doubt helped.   But also, undoubtedly it was the choice of 10 of his best songs which made the record so good.  I am not sure that Stevie and Lyndsey really improved his sound; they certainly made it more commercial and at that time everything they touched seemed to go gold.   John later dismissed the hit single ‘Gold’ as simply made for the money, and he rarely enjoyed singing it in concerts.  My favourites are ‘Midnight Wind’, ‘Runaway Fool In Love’ and ‘Lost Her In The Sun’ – but there isn’t a poor song on the album at all.   1980 saw John’s last RSO ‘commercial album’ Dream Babies Go Hollywood came out, or rather limped out.  Despite it’s similar cover and title the album sold poorly and John was dropped by RSO.  To my knowledge this album has never been released on CD, so I have a recorded version from Youtube, though I did once own the vinyl album.   Relistening after so many years I have to agree that this really is a poor album; either John’s heart wasn’t in it, or the production just swamped the songs.  Anyway, after this enormous flop John went back to his signature rawer, more basic and acoustic sound.  He seemed to have difficulty finding record companies to release his music, however he did release an enormous number of albums….

My Record Collection 185

Cat Stevens – was a late 60’s pop-star; at the time we never realised that he wrote all his own songs.   By the Seventies he was becoming disillusioned by the pressures to keep having ‘hits’ and changed his style completely and became a leading light in the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement.  He later converted to Islam but has made a slight comeback in recent years.  First up is his first album proper Mathew And Son (1967).  Full of great pop songs and ‘b’ sides.  Along with the well known stuff I really love ‘Granny’ and ‘Portobello Road’ and ‘I’ve Found A Love’.  His first album as a singer songwriter was the delightfully named (and great self-painted cover) Mona Bona Jakon (1970) {Apparently the title refers to his dick}.  A very different style, a small acoustic band featuring Alun Davies (see D) on lead guitar and a gentle vocal delivery and heart-felt lyrics. Best songs are ‘Lady D’Arbanville’ (about his ex-girlfriend Patti), ‘Trouble’, ‘Katmandu’ and ‘Lillywhite’.  A great album which sold poorly at first until his second album of 1970 Tea For The Tillerman – which really was the album that elevated him, strains of which could be heard from bedsitting rooms all over the country.  A heavenly album – the writing just got better and better.  There is the worldly-wise wisdom of ‘Father and Son’; the song about ‘Sad Lisa’; The questing and questioning ‘Miles From Nowhere’ and the haunting ‘Into White’.  Not a poor song on this album – and even the short one verse title closer is a tour de force begging to be heard again.  The following year he brought out a similar album, if slightly rockier Teaser and the Firecat  (possibly named after the painting on the cover.  Again, not a poor song – best of which maybe the nod to his Greek heritage, the lovely ‘Roby Love’, the sad and plaintive ‘How Can I Tell You’, the two big hits ‘Morning Has Broken’ and ‘Moonshadow’ – but possibly best of all was the closing track ‘Peace Train’ with it’s rousing chorus.  Almost impossible to improve on this and a change of emphasis with far more instrumentation came in ’72 with Catch Bull At Four, which may actually be my favourite of his albums; it has an air of excitement about it; the songs roll along. Cat seems to be enjoying himself and widening his palette, a lot rockier and more electric guitar and drums. Hard to pick a favourite really….maybe ‘The House Of Freezing Steel’, ‘O Caritas’, ‘The Boy with The Moon  and Stars On His Head’ and of course ‘Cant Keep It In.’ a wonderful album.  But in a strange volte-face he followed this with a pretty bad record – Foreigner.  Side 1 was one long and complex track ‘Foreigner Suite’ – a bit incomprehensible really, lots of music and not many words.  Side 2 has 4 tracks that are okay but not his best….maybe ‘Later’ is okay.  Cat was always looking for something spiritual, something more than fame and fortune.  He eventually found it in Islam.   But before that he released Buddha And The Chocolate Box in 1974.  Not his best effort; somehow the songs don’t have that charm of his first 4 albums.  In fact the only song I really liked was ‘Oh Very Young’.   So, two relative flops in a row.  Maybe it was the eternal pressure of the record business, the constant need for product, for hits.  It still seems amazing that back in the Sixties and Seventies artist were expected to produce at least one album a yar, as well as constant touring.  But his next album was far better – Izitso; (1977)

 a much happier sounding record – almost joyful – certainly much better.  (incidentally, he also released Numbers in 1975, a children’s fairy story – pretty uninteresting).  Cat was still using a lot of electronic synths, but still retaining the simplicity of his best albums.  Favourite songs are the big hit ‘Remember The Days of The Old School Yard’, ‘Killin Time’ and the autobiographical ‘I Never Wanted To Be A Pop Star’.  Just before the release of his final album as Cat Stevens he converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusuf Islam.  The album Back To Earth (1978) was his last under his (also assumed) early name.  the record is a bit subdued, even though there is a return to his earlier small acoustic band.  The songs just seem to lack that earlier magic.  It just shows what a fragile gift creativity really is.  Best songs ‘Father, Oh Father’, ‘Bad Brakes’ and the more upbeat ‘New York’ – but maybe best is ‘Never’.  28 years were to pass before Cat, or Yusuf as he was now known would release any “Western Music”. 

An Other Cup – came out in 2006.  Quite a shock to all his old fans who thought we had lost him forever.  W ell, a strange little record, an artifact almost.  A couple of re-recordings (I Think I See The Light), a slightly subdued version of the old Animals hit ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ and the other songs seem half spoken and are almost prayers; best of which is ‘Midday (Avoid City After Dark).  The whole album feels like a toe in the water, which maybe it was.  Better was 2009s Roadsinger.  The songs seemed a bit more rounded – but still a long way from his earlier output.  Best are ‘Every time I Dream’, ‘Roadsinger’ and ‘All Kind Of Roses’.  He ha released a couple more since but I am still catching up.

Lastly 2 of the many compilation albums….Remembering Cat Stevens (Whp could forget) and ‘Moonshadow’ – both similar and excellent.    One can only wonder what he would have had he not converted to islam….but maybe better this way.

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My Record Collection 184

Squeeze – were the quintessential English, or London actually, band.   Fantastic songwriting from Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook.  The band also contained at times such luminaries as Jools Holland (see H) and Paul Carrack.  They wrote and performed great and individual songs – and sung in an English accent too.  They had a handful of hits.  They spanned the late Seventies through to the early Nineties, and are still going I believe.  I have 2 collections – first up is Greatest Hits (1992) which covers their best known period.   So many great singles  – ‘Take Me I’m Yours’, ‘Cool For Cats’, ‘Up The Junction’, ‘Labelled With Love’ and ‘Pulling Mussels From A Shell’.  But really almost every song is a blast.  Great stuff.  I had picked up a couple of later CD singles and then saw Up The Junction – a much later collection of their tracks – most were not hits, but good anyway; best of which are ‘Goodbye Girl’, ‘Annie Get Your gun’ and ‘Electric Trains’. 

The late great Viv Stanshall – first came to fame in The Bonzo Dog Dooh Dah Band.  The Bonzo’s were a regular feature in The Sixties and included Neil Innes (see I), sadly passed away too.  Paul McCartney (see M) produced their biggest hit – ‘I’m The Urban Spaceman’.  Viv was the main vocalist and occasional ‘Euphonium Blower’; he even appeared in the film Magical Mystery Tour, singing ‘Death Cab For Cutie’.  I saw him solo one night on The Old Grey Whistle Test, a crazy comic genius.  But after the Bonzo’s split in the early Seventies Viv was a bit lost.  He wrote songs for Steve Winwood, and did the famous ‘Outros’ on Tubular Bells – but, a chronic drinker, he struggled to record much.  He had a few bands which struggled with his drinking and inconsistency.  He also recorded a few comic sketches with Keith Moon for John Peel  – one of which ‘Sir Henry’ was deemed good enough for a whole album – Sir Henry At Rawlinson End (1978) was possibly the best thing he ever did.  With a cast of weird characters – all voiced by Viv – and a handful of ribald and esoteric songs, the album is a treasured part of my collection.  Sir Henry was a brilliant caricature of English landed gentry, full of prejudices (those nancy-boys are on the lawn) with his unforgettable manservant ‘Old Scrotum’, the wrinkled retainer.  An absolute tour de force.  A few years later a film was made of this starring Trevor Howard (I saw this and was disappointed). But the album remains as a testament to this frail genius.  An album of songs Teddy Boys Don’t Knit came out in 1981.  This is quite esoteric, to say the least.  A few whimsical ditties sung in a falsetto, a couple grunted in a quite rocky style – and the occasional banderole nod to eccentricity.  Best are ‘Ginger Geezer’, ‘Possibly An Armchair’ and the delightful and melodic ‘Terry Keeps His Clips On’ (bicycle clips, which seem to have intrigued Viv no end).  Only for the cognoscenti, not the faint-hearted.  His final recorded album was a feeble and almost unlistenable ‘Sir Henry At Ndidi’s Kraal’.  The music is actually mostly quite good, but Viv’s vocals are often mumbled or so out of tune with the music as to be hard to discern.  The story is that Sir Henry is sent on an expedition to South Africa to negotiate with an undiscovered Zulu tribe.   Many of Sir Henry’s jokes are both unfunny and racist.  And I only play the record out of respect for a lost spirit.  Viv died in a house fire in the early nineties, probably caused by a cigarette and drunkenness.  A sad end to a remarkable talent.

Starsailor were, and possibly still are, a band formed in the late 90’s.  Their only real success and my only album is Silence Is Easy (2003).   A remarkably easy listen, this could have been written and sung any time since the early Seventies to now.  It is also famous as the last record in which Phil Spector was involved in producing before his conviction for manslaughter and subsequent unhappy death.  He was I believe supposed to roduce the whole album but only manged 2 tracks.   A really nice record, but  a touch samey.  Best songs – the title song, ‘Some Of Us’ and ‘Four To The Floor’ 

Stealers Wheel – Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty (see R) were friends growing up in Paisley.  Both had been in local bands.  In 1972 they got together with 3 other musicians and formed Stealers Wheel.  They recorded their eponymous album in 1972.  It was an instant hit, and one of the singles ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ was much later picked up by Tarantino and became a hit all over again.  It was a brilliant record.  Great songs and produced by American team, Leiber and Stoller.  I did have this album and the follow-up Ferguslie Park, by which time they were a duo.  At the time I didn’t even know they had made a third record.  I bought their Greatest Hits on CD (and have just ordered a box set of their three albums – unplayed as yet).  Well, what a pleasant record…I do like (because I know so well) the songs from the first 2 albums. Especially ‘Late Again’, ‘You Put Something Better Inside Me’ and ‘Johnny’s Song’.  What a pity that the band suffered from bad record deals and poor promotion, and maybe a touch of irascibility from Gerry, who went on to some success as a solo artist.

Steely Dan – I first heard them on a cassette called FM, a compilation of new American music in 1976 (Tom Petty also featured), the title track was by Steely Dan.   I have heard the few hits over the years, but never bought any albums.  I do have a Greatest Hits – which is okay.  But far from essential.

Stereophonics – another one of those bands I thought I might like…based largely on their version of ‘Handbags and Gladrags’ (which is very similar to that of Rod Stewart (see S).  I bought the album Just Enough Education To Perform.  It is okay but I get tired of the whiney voice and samey sound.

VIV STANSHALL John Peel 6th April 1991 - YouTube