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Al Stewart

Scottish singer/songwriter Al Stewart has been an amazingly prolific and successful musician across 50 years, working in a dizzying array of stylistic modes and musical genres -- in other words, he's had a real career, and has done it without concerning himself too much about trends and the public taste. He's been influenced by several notables, to be sure, including his fellow Scot (and slightly younger contemporary) Donovan, as well as Ralph McTell, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon -- but apart from a passing resemblance to Donovan vocally, he doesn't sound quite like anyone else, and has achieved his greatest success across four decades with songs that are uniquely his and impossible to mistake.

Stewart was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1945, and was swept up a decade later in the skiffle boom that took young Britons by storm -- he decided to take up guitar after hearing Lonnie Donegan's music. By the early '60s, his family was living in Bournemouth, and he joined a local band, the Trappers, in 1963, and was already writing songs by that time. He was an admirer of the Beatles as their fame swept out of Liverpool and across the country, and even managed once to get backstage to meet John Lennon and play a few notes for him, at one of their Bournemouth performances. He studied guitar with Robert Fripp, no less, and later played keyboards in a band called Dave La Caz & the G Men, who managed to open for the Rolling Stones at the outset of the latter's career in 1963. A true milestone for Stewart took place when Dave La Caz & the G Men recorded one of his songs, "When She Smiled," in early 1964.

It was around this time that Stewart discovered the music of Bob Dylan, who was in the midst of his "protest" song phase -- what he referred to as his finger-pointing songs. The mix of topicality, folk melodies, and the growing prominence of rock instrumentation that he heard in Dylan's music inspired Stewart, who was now prepared to devote as much energy to composition as he had to performing. He went so far as to cut a demo single of Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" backed with one of his originals, entitled "The Sky Will Fall Down." Though nothing came of it directly, the demo and the song, and the tenor of the times, inspired Stewart to head to London in search of success. He failed to interest anyone in recording him or his topical song "Child of the Bomb" -- the "Ban the [H] Bomb" movement in England being a hugely popular and urgent cause at the time -- and retreated to performing for a time, as part of the burgeoning London folk scene, which was already home to such figures as Davy Graham, Martin Carthy, and Isla Cameron. He fell in with some of the younger figures on the scene, playing shows with Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell, and Sandy Denny, and also shared living quarters for a time with a visiting American named Paul Simon, from New York, who had already recorded an album, as well as numerous singles with a partner, and was immersing himself in the English folk scene.

His friendship with Simon led to Stewart's first gig as a session musician on record, playing guitar on the song "Yellow Walls" from Jackson C. Frank's album Blues Run the Game, which Simon produced. By this time, Stewart had also appeared on the BBC, and was playing better gigs and starting to be noticed. Finally, in 1966, he was signed to Decca Records to cut a single featuring an original of his, "The Elf," on the A-side (the B-side, oddly enough, was his rendition of the recent Yardbirds LP cut "Turn into Earth" -- even more curiously, in terms of coincidence, future Yardbirds guitarist Jimmy Page was one of the players on those sessions). Stewart's single was not a success, though the composition has the distinction of being one of the earlier -- if not the earliest -- pop songs inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Stewart was undaunted, and he remained part of the thriving London music scene, and his efforts paid off in 1967 when CBS Records, the U.K. division of Columbia Records in America (which couldn't use the "Columbia" name in England, as it was the property of a division of EMI) signed him to record his debut album, Bedsitter Images. The latter was a superb showcase for Stewart's songwriting, but not for the sound he visualized for his music -- heavily orchestrated and, in his eyes, grotesquely over-produced, he felt his voice and even his songs were lost amid the densely layered accompaniments. But the record generated a massive amount of publicity for him, and put Al Stewart on the pop music map as a contender, and someone worth watching and hearing.

By then, he was known to the music journals, and at his performances he could show off his songs his way (and one of his shows in 1968 featured accompaniment by no less than his former teacher Robert Fripp and several others who would figure large in a group called King Crimson a year or so later). In 1969 came a second album, Love Chronicles, whose epic title track broke ground among respectable recordings for its use of language (a colloquial term for intercourse) as well as running-time barriers, and included Fairport Convention among the backing musicians. Stewart's writing had already showing a remarkable degree of growth from what were hardly modest beginnings, at least in terms of ambition -- his songs were increasingly coming across as something akin to "sung" paintings, mixing topicality, a command of detail and imagery, and distinctive use of language. But with Zero She Flies he took a major step forward with the song "Manuscript," which was his first to draw extensively from history, and also to incorporate sea images. These were elements that would all manifest themselves ever more strongly in his work across the decades to come. Following the release of Orange in 1972, he would turn away from the deeply personal songs and devote an increasing part of his music to sources out of history, plunging into such subject matter in the first person, as almost a musical precursor to Quantum Leap.

Stewart made the leap in October of 1973 with the release of Past, Present and Future, an LP's worth of songs that would explore past lives (and the future by way of the past, on "Nostradamus"). The latter song and "Roads to Moscow" also gave him his first major exposure in America, where FM and college radio stations quickly picked up on both songs. Suddenly, from being all but unknown on the far side of the Atlantic, Stewart had a serious cult following on American college campuses, especially in the Northeast (where New York's WNEW-FM radio gave all of Past, Present and Future, and especially the two songs in question, lots of airplay). He followed this up in the fall of 1974 with Modern Times, produced by Alan Parsons, which was thick with contemporary, historical, and literary references.

It would be a full year before his next album showed up, but when it did, that record completely altered the landscape under Stewart's feet, and far beyond as well. Year of the Cat (1975) turned Al Stewart from an artist with a wide cult following at America's colleges into a fixture on AM radio, the title song rising into the Top Ten in the U.S. and, ultimately, around most of the world. In the United States, in an effort to capitalize on his sudden fame -- as not only "Year of the Cat" but "On the Border" also charted high -- a double album of tracks from his four prior British LPs was issued. And in the fall of 1978, Time Passages, his newest album, was released to great success, including a Top Ten single for the title track. A year of touring to huge audiences around the world followed, all of it very strange when one considers how far removed from the dominant late-'70s sounds of punk, disco, and new wave Stewart's music was. In the summer of 1980 came his next album, 24 Carrots, but neither it nor any of the singles pulled from it were ever able to repeat the success of those three prior LPs or their accompanying 45s. Indian Summer (1981), a mixed live and studio album, also failed to perform up to expectations.

Stewart, who had been a mainstay of Arista Records in America for the last three years of the 1970s, was dropped by that label soon after Indian Summer's release. He didn't disappear, however, either on record or in concert, and continued to tour and record. The much more overtly political album Russians & Americans (1984) and the lighter Last Days of the Century (1988) kept his name out there, and he also recorded another concert album, the all-acoustic Rhymes in Rooms (1992). And in an increasingly rare sort of gesture, in 1993 he released Famous Last Words, and album dedicated to the late Peter Wood, who had co-written "Year of the Cat." He also continued to explore history in song with Between the Wars (1995), which dealt with events between 1918 and 1939. Stewart's 21st century recordings include A Beach Full of Shells (2005) and Sparks of Ancient Light (2008). When he isn't recording or touring, he keeps busy with his hobby of collecting fine, rare wines. His post-1980 work is less easy to find than compilations of his hits from the mid- to late '70s, which are downright ubiquitous, and in 2007 his British CBS albums were released on CD in America through Collectors' Choice. Stewart was also given the comprehensive box set treatment by EMI in 2005 with the five-CD set Just Yesterday. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography

Comments

How about adding Al Stewart's Past, Present and Future to selections. A lot of great songs on it.
luval22
The song: Night of fourth of July is actually May
perry2097
This song takes me back I love to listen to it.
Great song! Love Song on the Radio too!
iramoe4
WTH? why do they leave off some of the best music ? Where is Modern Times?
Yes Modern Times is his best.
garammasala1 9 6 8
One of my favorite songs ever.
pjheberling
Al is still touring. He's come to San Antonio the past three years, and I'm hoping he comes again this fall. Check his website for your area -- he visits some interesting places -- not just the usual venues, which I think is just what you'd expect from him. He's just as amazing today as he was in the 70s. Some of his recent songs like Immelmann Turn or Catherine of Oregon are as inspiring as YOTC or Post World War II Blues.
Roads to Moscow is genius. Better East Front history in 10 minutes than most people know ever.
luval22
I agree, I have the LP's with Stewart & Page. Al is very underrated as a songwriter and performer. Of course Peter White is also a great guitar player.
If you like Al's music and wine, check out his CD, Down in the Cellar. It's up there with the PPP, Cat, and Time Passages albums. I've been fortunate to work with Al a few times and something that rarely gets mentioned is his guitar playing ability. He actually taught Jimmy Page a few things when they were friends early on.
This freaked me out This isn't fake. Apparently, if you copy and paste this on ten comments in the next ten minutes, you will have the best day of your life tomorrow. You will either get kissed or asked out. If you break this chain you will see a dead girl in your room tonight. In the next 53 minutes someone will say I love you or I'm sorry This freaked me out This isn't fake. This freaked me out This isn't fake. Apparently, if you copy and paste this on ten comments in the next ten minutes
It's nice to hear an artist that can play music and write intelligent lyrics. More current artists should take notes.
Al is a true bard....I love his use of Plantagenet in a man for all seasons....s o r t of a mirror to my life
Great lyrics!
chrisdickson 1 2 8
Year of the Cat and Time Passages are both iconic in my memory; I can't hear either without being transported to a different time and place. I never understood why, but reading Al's bio this evening was enlightening . . . My Dad was Glaswegian, and I ended up living in Minnesota - the place where Bob Dylan (IMO) acquired so much of his matter-of-fa c t (OK.. unforgiving - but never outright cynical) nature. I guess there's a wry/dry aspect to both which makes me feel at home... Al - thanks !
Time Passages and Year of the Cat as a small child. I loved those songs from the first, yes these two songs really have a special time and place with these two songs and others by Al Stewart. Al thanks for the great music & he great memories.
Reminds me of going to Idaho State University in the mid 70's.
Year of the Cat is probably my 2nd most loved song - #1 is Baker Street.
I was born in 1974, and I heard Time Passages and Year of the Cat as a small child. I loved those songs from the first, and now, almost 40 years later, they instantly connect me to that time and place. Thanks for such great music and memories, Mr. Stewart.
Truly a great artist with so much talent.
bishpo0
I have seen many of his concerts dating from the early days in america. I had the fortune to see the concert that he introduced Peter White doing three of his own songs in his first own mini concert. Al and Peter...alwa y s great!
Some of the most treasured music of that time period and still today. Just great music!
I head Year of the Cat as a teenager and was hooked!
Thank you Al, i have truely enjoyed your music through out my life & continue to this day, appreciating your gift! Jay Hutchins, a fan for life!
lance.groth
Al is a wonderful storyteller. His songs are intelligentl y written and well informed by history. I've been a fan since the 70's and still dig out Past, Present & Future, and Time Passages from time to time.
paulm57
Seen Al and his accoustic partner Dave Nachmanoff play in the Rhythm Room in Phoenix the last couple of years. Couple of the best concerts I've been to (and I've been to alot over the past 45 years)His voice and musical ability has not diminished (unlike many artists from the 60's and 70's)and in a small venue like the Rhythm room (300) he shines. He is a true artist and entertainer, which is a hard combination. I listen to his accoustic live recording of "Last Day of the Century" almost ever
276440579
what is better than modern times?
The Year of the Cat puts my head in another world, the reality of the dream world, no matter what I'm doing or where I am when I hear it.
Possibly the best.
raycline1954
Al Stewart, I can't thank you enough for all the enjoyment in my all kinds of Time musicical appreciayion . Your style and lyrics deserve unequalled mention.
brings back so many memories when i was a kid. al stewart is one of my favorites and always will be.
Kinda sparse selection from Al but having him here at all was what convinced me to join up. Been a fan since the 70s and actually met him once backstage... shame he hasn't the acclaim he deserves by and large
luciawolf
...memories, memories...
elaufer4
I have always been a sucker for the 'confluence' of accoustic, rhythm guitars with a fantastic balance of violin and saxaphone and finally unequivocal lyrics...Jus t can't find this anywhere - Great Artist!
man this guy is good!
Brilliant, just brilliant song writer!
Pandora needs more of Al's work in their mix of music. I've created "Al Stewart Radio" but get few of his songs on it. His library of great songs goes back a long time but continues with much of his new and lessor known work.
gilikin
Al has come out with a few albums not listed here (hence the 70/early 80's photo); Lawrence Gruber (former Wings guitarist) and Al have done some remarkable collaboratin g as well. Al is just as good as you expect on tour - he really tells the story about the historical research of his songwriting.
georgec6
He is such a wonderful musician, I love his songs because they take me to distant places. Also I appreciate his ability on the guitar. No one else is really comparable.
"Two broken Tigers on fire in the night...flic k e r their souls to the wind"
So much imagery in so few words.
Past, Present and Future has, for many years, been my favorite album of Mr, Stewart's... a n d one of my top three of all artists. It's a collection of epic ballads that should have a place among the great oral histories... a n d it's great music, too.
woodward.tra v i s
The photo was sooo long ago...hard to believe we were that young.... It has been a long road. Al is a great musician, writer and too his hobby is Russian history so yes, he would have made a great historian. Always stay cool, Al ...you are the greatest.
Trav
love "Year of the Cat..." sigh...
you don't have his best album on your list and that's MODERN TIMES
jparlett
Al Stewart should make a remake of every song so I can hear him sing each song and that would be perfect. :)
Al Stewart is the History Professor of Rock. If he had no musical talent he would be an historian.
Won't someone update Al?
schufty
I realize it's hard to classify Stewart, but I'd hardly compare him to James Taylor or America. And Steely Dan is a stretch, especially when you consider Stewart's later work.
wowthe review told me alot i didn't know about this dude. quit a history. interesting talent
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