Al Stewart, iconoclast of the Folk scene has released a total of 17 albums in his long and illustrious career. Collectors Choice are about to reissue 13 of them that have been digitally re-mastered, this puts all 17 back in print. I had an opportunity to talk to Al about his music and his life.

13 of your cd’s have been remastered and released, with bonus tracks. I think the sound quality is superb, are you happy with the result?

To be truthful I have not listened to them yet. But I am happy that they are all back in print. It is frustrating talking to fans and not being able to tell them where they can buy the albums.

You certainly have led an industrious musical career that is entering its fifth decade. From being a guy with the guitar singing a very folksy style to musical sophisticate your career has seen it all.  Is there a favorite era for you?

My career has had its ups and downs, and when I am looking to create new songs I do go back and listen to my earlier works, primarily to find mistakes and other things to avoid. Of the 17 albums, I like 8, I dislike 8, and there is one that I can’t make my mind up about.

Out of your huge catalog of songs, do you have a favorite?

That varies day by day, and when you have played a song like ‘Year of the Cat’ so many times it becomes difficult be objective about it. I suppose my favorites are among the songs that I don’t get to play much, and so don’t hear very often. I love the sea songs, Old Admirals and The Dark and Rolling Sea, I also am very fond of Optical illusion, tho no one else seems to like it. The lyrics to these songs are very understated, maybe that is their appeal.

I am in the process of putting together an interview with Rick Wakeman, who I believe played on a couple of your early albums. And I was interested in a comment he made. How the advent of rap and punk left the prog rock bands out in the cold. Although I doubt many people would label Al Stewart as prog rock, you did actually have some commonality, you dumped the 3.5 min 3 verse 3 chorus song in favor of saga like ballads. Did you feel the bite from punk?

Say hello to Rick from me, yes he worked with me on ‘Orange’ and ‘Past Present And Future’. My roots are in folk music, and many traditional songs are long, so no, it was not the Prog Rock influence, in fact Love Chronicles was written well before the Prog Rock movement started. As to the ‘bite from punk’, that is a difficult question to answer. I was leaving England right at the time that the Sex Pistols were taking off. All I remember is an explosion of people with safety pins in their noses. My problem had more to do with American Radio, my arrival coincided with a big change in how radio operated. For years the stations had featured singer/songwriters, then almost overnight they were replaced by what I would call ‘Power Pop’. Of course even without this change in format some of my music likely would still not have been aired, the tracks were too long.

So no, it wasn’t the Sex Pistols that got me, it was ‘Loverboy’! And of course there was also MTV, ‘video killed the radio star’.

The good news though is the Folk scene, and maybe the Jazz one also, is not so dependent on radio or mass media in general, much more important are concerts and word of mouth. If you look at the performers from that era, Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, Ralph McTell, they are all still going strong, well, unless they are dead. And none of them care about air time, or being on the cover of Melody Maker.  

I understand that you are still actively touring, are you recording as well?

My last album was Beach Full Of Shells in 2005. Yes I am still touring and I have a supply of songs that could make an album if someone offers me some money. Which they do from time to time. Incidentally Beach is one of my favorite albums, it may actually be my absolute favorite.

One of my favorite albums is Love Chronicles, the title track I believe holds the distinguished record for being the first time the F word appears on a mainstream recording. Today it is passé, but I imagine you took some heat for it back then.

No, you are wrong! I was not the first, I have been asked this question several times. I was not the first, however you can’t actually hear the word on the first, they mixed it right down to be inaudible. It was Bob Dylan on Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.

Actually the record label didn’t seem to have any problem with Love Chronicles, but it certainly made the press. It was front page news in the Sunday People, with a headline that read ‘Banned From The BBC’, although even without the F word the Beeb would never have played an 18 minute song on their stations. There was some talk about releasing the Album stateside, now that was a different deal, they wanted the word replaced. In the end tho I don’t think the album was released.

If my memory serves me correctly you left England in the mid 70’s and moved to the US, I did a very similar thing a couple of years later. I was fed up with the direction England was headed in. What were your motives? Purely musical.

No, it was all quite accidental. We had just wrapped up a European tour that had been pretty successful, and we planned a 6 week 20 gig tour of North America to coincide with the release of ‘Year of the Cat’. When we started the tour Year of the Cat was gradually inching it’s way up the Billboard charts at an agonizingly slow pace. We could not go home while it was still climbing the charts, so we stayed and played, it ended up taking 6 months for Year of the Cat to peak, so instead of 20 gigs as we had planned it was over 100.

The hotel bills were mounting and I actually ended up renting a small apartment. At the end of the six months I thought about my situation, and it was not a difficult decision. I could stay in sunny Southern California, with the great weather and all the pretty girls, and here I was a singer with a big hit on my hands. Or I could go back to rainy, dreary London, which incidentally was the one city that Year of the Cat was not a success in. No one cared less about it. It was also 1977, and as I recall England was largely on strike around then.

Some artists, get stuck in a rut, about 4 years ago I had the opportunity to watch Hermans Hermits, and got to chat with Barry Whitwam (the only original member), He was very blunt about what people wanted, they wanted the old stuff, and as a result Barry has been doing the same drumming for 40 years, day in day out. You on the other hand have always been moving in directions, you explore one route, and when it has ‘run it’s course’ you hang a left. The difference between Orange and Past Present Future is a great example.

You are right, there is a huge difference between the two albums. You know I said that I had 8 albums I dislike, well all four of the first albums, Bedsitter Images, Zero, Love Chronicles, and Orange are on that list.

I am surprised, I would have thought that your first album ‘Bedsitter Images’ would have a special place in your heart.

Oh, it was special all right, none of us knew anything about making a record, the sound quality was awful, it was done on a 4 track. It has some horrible drumming, and the orchestra was out of tune. So yes it was memorable, but not for the right reasons. Past Present and Future on the other hand is one of my favorite albums, everything worked well on it.

Thank you Al for talking with me today, and I have to say that I found some of your answers different from what I would have expected. One final question though. The very first time I saw you play was at the Chelmsford Folk Festival around 1971(ish), you claimed that that was going to be your last live rendition of Love Chronicles, was it?

Oh probably not, but I did start easing it out of the set. I had lots of great new music like Nostadamus that i much preferred to play. So yes, I was lying! But over time it did go.

Postscript – If you want to see a grand master at work, I urge you to take in an Al Stewart concert. You can find out more about his schedule and discography on his web site.

Simon Barrett

http://zzsimonb.blogspot.com

 

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