I have a theory that it is possible to slice up the combined works of Al Stewart into three very distinctive periods, and the early beginnings of this great musician I would call ‘Just Al and a guitar’. His first album Bed Sitter Images, is a very folk rooted work. Although Al was only 23 when he made this album you can already see the complexity in his words and music. This was to become his trademark in his later compositions. While the rest of the British music industry was happy with the meaningless ‘Verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus’ formula, with little thought to the actual words used, Al was already breaking away. All of his songs tell a story.

The song constructs that Al Stewart uses are unique, the words are as important and the music that flows with them. In the sleeve notes to Bed Sitter Images there is a good sized quote from Neville Judd’s autobiography Al Stewart: The True Life Adventures Of A Folk Rock Troubadour, and it transpires that for a period of time in 1965 he shared a house with Paul Simon, another complex wordsmith. I had never made the connection before, but although their deliveries are very different, the meter, and depth of story in almost every song is very similar.

My favorite tracks on this album are the title track Bed Sitter Images, which is a slightly dark song of loneliness. The Carmichaels, which a very sad piece about a marriage with no love, and the haunting ballad Clifton In The Rain.

Two years later the world was introduced to Love Chronicles, and we meet a much more complex Al, although he was still very much the guy with a guitar while playing live, this studio album has much more subtle backing. Not too many people would draw a comparison between Al Stewart and Pink Floyd, but like Pink Floyd’s album Meddle, Al opted to put the title track on the ‘B’ side, and at 18 minutes long it became his theme song for quite some time. Unfortunately Love Chronicles received zero air time from the then only radio station operator in the United Kingdom, the venerable BBC because of mention of one four letter word. While you can today turn on the Food Channel and hear the likes of Gordon Ramsey or Jamie Oliver say it twice a minute, back in 1969 this was taboo. What was the word? I hear you ask, well it rhymes with ‘plucking’ in the song.

In the two years that Al spent putting Love Chronicles together, he had toured extensively and met many influential artists, in particularly the folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention, and some of them are part of the studio backing. Even the infamous Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame makes an appearance. Named ‘Folk Album Of The Year’ by Melody Maker Al was up and running. In many ways the lack of air time from the BBC was more than compensated for by the publicity over the ‘F’ word. And I have to admit that this was the very first time I heard it used on a record.

1970 saw Al Stewart back in the recording studio, and the release of Zero She Flies, in some ways Zero is my favorite album, it is superbly executed. It has a folky feel, and yet is incredibly complex in its make up. Once again Al has some of his friends from Fairport Convention sit in as session musicians, in fact on this new version of Zero one of the bonus tracks is ‘Lyke-Wake Dirge’, a staple for the Fairport fan. Without doubt my favorite tracks on this album are the hauntingly beautiful Gethsemane, Again, and the very powerful Electric Los Angeles Sunset. Once listened to, you will want these on your iPod.

Zero was produced during a time of great turmoil in Al’s personal life, his then long time girl friend, Mandi had decided to leave. Mandi was much more than a passing fad, and her departure certainly colored much of this album. In what was becoming an Al Stewart trademark we again find the title track buried on the ‘B’ side, but it is well worth the wait. I wonder if Zero She Flies was Mandi?

Al’s fourth album was Orange. I have always thought this an oddity that does not really fit into the catalog. The songs are very much in the pop category, with little depth. Al openly admits that once Zero was laid down he was completely out of material, and it was time to re-evaluate direction. You can however clearly see some influences coming through, a good example is Amsterdam that I could easily see coming from the pen of Paul Simon. Even though he enlisted the assistance of keyboard ‘all time great’ Rick Wakeman to add musical depth (News From Spain) this is an album that floundered. In music critic circles the term ‘filler’ is often used to describe tracks that ‘fill’ out an album, this is an entire album of filler.

With no real direction, or focal point, I was disappointed when Orange was first released in 1972. Another quote from his autobiography, “Orange is one of the few words in the English language that has nothing that rhymes with it”. I think that sums up this album quite well.

On the up-side, Orange was a transitioning point in Al Stewart’s career, as you will see in part two of this review.  

All of these albums are available through Collectors’ Choice Music.

Simon Barrett

http://zzsimonb.blogspot.com
 
 

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