Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Anno Tom-ini

Feline groovy?  This could be the song for you...

As Louis Armstrong once intimated about Jazz, somehow you just know the difference between a song which is a classic, and a song which is merely old - when you hear it.
Glasgow-born Alastair (Al) Ian Stewart's Year of the Cat is part of the soundtrack of my immediate pre-teenage years (along with many far lesser songs of that time). Released in early 1976 (!) but slow to make an initial impression, it charted well in many countries towards the end of that year and into 1977. Wikipedia tells me that it reached #15 in New Zealand, but I seem to recall it being as prolific as a top ten hit.

At a time when school was barely touching on analysing poetry and literature, Stewart's lyrics created vivid images in my mostly empty head: 
"She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a watercolour in the rain"... immediately paints a clear picture in the mind.  Similarly the "blue tiled walls near the market stalls" which Stewart sings about in the next verse conjure an image of a North African/Moorish village more palpably than any number of travel brochures.
But mostly, I just liked cats, so this song stuck in my mind.

Many years later, I was coming to the end of my days as a student and my flatmate bought Al Stewart's compilation album Songs From The Radio, on vinyl. One of our many flat parties was winding down and Year of the Cat found its way onto the turntable.  Not a dance-able number, to be sure, but when the lengthy instrumental break reached the electric guitar section one of those rare, unplanned, but perfectly-synchronised moments occurred:  
A couple of friends suddenly balanced on one leg and held the other horizontally; to mime strumming those soulful chords with as much 'Rock Star posturing' and gurning as this precarious stance would allow.  A diverting enough sight, but when the guitar segued into the equally emotive sax solo the 'guitar legs' suddenly became saxophones; and  knees simultaneously rose to their mouths with dangling foot sticking out like the 'bell' of that instrument.  Despite losing balance, one of these accomplished virtuosos gamely continued to 'rock' that imaginary saxophone from his new position: rolling about on the floor with knee still determinedly held to his puffing face.  It was too much and by now I was also rolling about on the floor.
A tradition was born, and even now the impulse to accompany Mr Stewart in this fashion is nigh on irresistible. 

Now about that instrumental break: to call it famous is not hyperbole and it certainly elevates what would otherwise have simply been another folksy Al Stewart number to classic status.
Legendary sound Engineer Alan Parsons at Abbey Road studios and equally legendary guitarist Tim Renwick apparently instigated this: a progression of solos transitioning from cello and violin, to acoustic guitar then electric guitar (both played by Renwick) and finally saxophone which elongates the song well beyond the standard airplay length of the times.

Stewart began working on the song itself almost a decade before it's release, inspired by seeing Tony Hancock on stage in the mid-sixties, and the flash of insight he experienced of the comedian's great inner unhappiness. Hancock's subsequent suicide was among the factors causing Stewart to rewrite the lyrics to those we are familiar with, and rename the song after a sign of the Vietnamese zodiac. Year of the Cat is taken at face value as the story of a random romantic encounter during a visit to a foreign town by most, but some try hard to ascribe hidden meanings pertaining to drug use, while others get hung up on the Casablanca references.  Personally I think the best approach is suggested by this on-line comment: 
"This song is magic. I just wish people would stop trying to analyse it and simply feel it..."

A very accomplished 'fan-made' video to accompany this song.
Of course, most of us have our own Year of the Cat imagery,
so you might prefer just to play the track.

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