In part one we looked at Al Stewart’s humble beginnings, he was just the guy with the guitar, however his fortunes were about to change.
 
1973 heralded a new beginning for Al Stewart with the release of Past, Present, and Future. This was a very different album from the somewhat choppy Orange, clearly there was a new focused Al Stewart, a man with a mission. The other significant change was the studio production team, now headed by Alan Parsons, who had produced such hits as Dark Side Of The Moon, and Abby Road. With Alan in the control booth we start to see a much more grown up and subtle sound.

Maybe the biggest change in Al was the material he was creating, we start to see him transition into very serious, and sweeping saga inspired songs, the theme often times being historical (Nostradamus, Roads To Moscow).

Modern Times (1975) is a much more upbeat album, but consists of many ‘filler’ songs. I am not sure that Al was really ready to get into the studio again. There are two outstanding tracks though, Carol, and the title track Modern Times. Alan Parsons influence is clear throughout the entire album, there is a very significant use of backing musicians, and once again we find Rick Wakeman performing an excellent job on keyboards. Although the music on Modern Times is sophisticated, in my mind it lacks the vibrancy associated with this great musician.

All that changed in 1976 with the release of Year Of The Cat, this without question was his most successful album ever. For the first time Al crosses over into the mainstream and has a huge hit with the title track Year Of The Cat. With extensive radio air play, and an outstanding video Al was everywhere you looked. Following Year Of The Cat, we enter a period of musical stagnation, no doubt at the urging of the record label to produce another album we find Bed Sitter images, dusted off, and rehashed. It is hard for us mere mortals to understand the creative mind, and it must be incredibly difficult to ‘create on demand’, yet that is certainly what he faced.

The next significant album came out in 1980, 24 Carrots which features the great song Running Man, this is a truly haunting tune, and in my opinion should have been an even bigger hit than Year Of The Cat. Here we are 27 years later and I still cannot figure what went wrong, the only thing I can think of is that the record label had moved on to new acts, punk was in, Al was out! Also memorable and worth a mention is the far too short Merlin’s Time. This is a wonderful little tune, and shows Al at his absolute best, great guitar work and superb vocals. Shot In The Dark were the backing band and in this newly re-mastered version of 24 Carrots there are some previously unreleased tracks that really feature them, with Al at the helm as the lead singer. Candy Came Back is a great rock and roll song. If 24 Carrots has a flaw it has to be in the production, it lacks the genius that Alan Parson brought to the table.

1981 was a busy time for Al Stewart, early in the year work started on Indian Summer. Dubbed as a live album this is not quite the case, at least half of the tracks were created in the studio. Indian Summer to me is one of the best albums from this part of Al’s career, it very much sums up the saga stage. It has renditions of The Running Man, Roads To Moscow, Nostradamus, On The Border, and Year Of The Cat,  what more could an Al Stewart fan ask for? Indian Summer also marked yet another significant upheaval in the world of Al Stewart. Friction had been building for some time between Al, his manager, and the Arista record label, Indian Summer brought this to a critical mass, and although Al did go on to produce one more ‘saga’ album later that same year, he started to move in yet another musical direction.

Following close on the much delayed and contentious Indian Summer Al created Russians And Americans, a timely title with the cold war still going strong. I do not know if it was the escape from Arista, or from his manager that is the cause, but we find Al at his very best on Russians And Americans. The vibrancy is back, the music is tight, and the vocals are eerily topical even today. It is really hard to pick a favorite track on this album, they are all outstanding.

Night Meeting is such a powerful song, chronicling a defection to the West, the lyrics are spellbinding. Rumors Of War is a disturbing piece that I found myself humming long after I had heard it. Accident On 3rd  St is a dip into Al’s history, it could have been written by his old friend Paul Simon, the constructs are identical.

Strange Girl, is a rocking song, this one is a toe tapper.

The title track Russians And Americans is a showcase of Al’s abilities. In some ways it is a return to his acoustic roots; it is classic Al Stewart, stool, and guitar that we all loved in the early 70’s. If you do not have this album in your collection you are missing out! The bonus tracks alone should be enough reason to rush out and buy it. In Red Square, How Does It Happen, and The World According To Garp, are all fabulous tunes that somehow have never made it onto CD before now.

It is unusual to find an album that does not have a couple of filler tracks, but this is one.

Russians And Americans also contained clues that showed where his musical direction was headed. But more about that in part three.

Simon Barrett

http://zzsimonb.blogspot.com 

 

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