of the week

This song was requested almost 10 years ago and it was done in 2014. It was asked for again and so, it has thus been done and updated.

The Year of the Cat is not one of the animals that appears on the shengxiao or the Chinese Zodiac as we know it. The Zodiac refers to the circle of 12 animals that measure the cycles of time. Signs or animals are determined by the lunar year in which you were born. The 12 animals are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig and legend has it that a God beckoned all animals to bid him farewell before his departure from Earth. They were selected through a race and each were given a place of honour in a year based on the order of arrival. No one actually knows exactly when it began but it can be traced back to the 14th century B.C. So, did Al Stewart base his song on the Zodiac and added a cat or not? Let’s find out.

Al Stewart, who was born in Greenock, Scotland in September 1945 but grew up in Dorset, is a singer/songwriter who combined both folk and rock and included real stories and various characters to bring his songs to life. In 1966, he befriended Yoko One prior to her meeting John Lennon and he got to know Paul Simon when he was living in London and then ended up sharing a flat with him.

Stewart’s first single, The Elf, in 1966 and his first album, Better Sitter Images, the following year went fairly unnoticed, but the follow up album Love Chronicles a couple of years later brought him much more attention. In 1973, he released the album Past, Present and Future that led him to begin touring the States the following year. He was invited to be a support act to Linda Ronstadt. During the tour, one of his songs from Past, Present and Future called Roads to Moscow didn’t go down well and the crowds began thinking he was a communist.

During the rehearsal and warm-up sessions for the concerts, Stewart’s keyboard player, Peter Wood, began playing a few notes and chords, no more than six notes, which Stewart liked. “I was touring in America in 1975 and Peter [Wood] continually, at every soundcheck I ever went to, he played this riff on the piano,” Stewart explained during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. “After I heard it about 14 times I said, ‘You know, there’s something about that. It sounds kind of haunting and nice. Can I write some lyrics to it?'” He said, “‘Sure, go and write some lyrics.'”

The original inspiration was the English comedian Tony Hancock. Stewart had seen him performing live in Bournemouth in 1966 and, “I came up with a set of lyrics about him and I called it, Foot of the Stage.” Stewart recalled the Hancock show in his memoir Al Stewart: The True Life Adventures of a Folk Rock Troubadour explaining, “He came on stage and he said ‘I don’t want to be here. I’m just totally pissed off with my life. I’m a complete loser, this is stupid. I don’t know why I don’t just end it all right here.’ And they all laughed, because it was the character he played. I looked at him and I thought, oh my God, he means it, this is for real.” In an interview with songfacts he said, “He committed suicide in Australia and I saw him right before he went there and I knew there was something terribly wrong. And so, I wrote this song about him and the chorus was, ‘Your tears fell down like rain at the foot of the stage.’ Al’s American record label told him that they had never heard of Tony Hancock, so he said, “Well, that’s annoying so I’ll take the piss out of them, So, I wrote a song about Princess Anne called Horse of the Year which went, ‘Princess Anne rode off on the horse of the year.”

He cleared his mind about the Hancock and Princess Anne lyrics, but the melody was still there and one day, Stewart’s girlfriend was reading a book about Vietnamese astrology and had left it open on a page with a paragraph called the Year of the Cat. Those four words fitted the open four notes so almost had to include the word ‘of’. Stewart was a Bob Dylan fan and remembered a number of Dylan songs with that word, One of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later), Chimes of Freedom, Gates of Eden and two songs from his Blood on the Tracks album, Simple Twist of Fate and Lily, Rosemary And The Jack of Hearts, so there was the title.

The song’s opening line, ‘In a morning from a Bogart movie, in a country where they turn back time, you go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre contemplating a crime’ came to him when he sat down to watch Casablanca on television. In addition to Bogart, the film stars Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre and Dooley Wilson as Sam, the pianist from which the line, ‘Play it again Sam’ although that line is never said in the film. The actual line is “Play it Sam” which Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) asks the pianist to play As Time Goes By which he replies, “Oh, I can’t remember it, Miss Ilsa. I’m a little rusty on it,” so she hums it for him. The plot focuses on an expat American who now owns a cafe and is unable to decide whether or not to assist his former girlfriend and her husband escape from the Nazis in French Morocco. So the opening line sets the nostalgic scene. The next line in the story we meet an enigmatic woman who, ‘comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a watercolour in the rain’ likening it to a watercolour painting that is being rained on. Each verse’s last line is the song’s title which seems to act as a da coda to weave the verses together but leaving an air of mystery for the listener to interpret.

The song was produced by Alan Parsons who had recently worked with John Miles, Pilot and Steve Harley’s backing band, Cockney Rebel and he used the latter’s rhythm section on the recording which was made at Abbey Road studios. Peter Wood’s original intended instrumental served as the opening 67 seconds before Stewart launched into his story. The album version ran to almost six and a half minutes but on the single version it was cut down to three minutes and 18 seconds with only the first two seconds of just piano is heard before the beat kicks in. To make the song really come to life, Parsons added a string section. Once it was ‘almost’ finished, Parsons had the idea to add a saxophone solo which Stewart wasn’t keen on, but relented and that solo was the same length as the intro on the album version and, thankfully, it remained, in its entirely, on the single.

In the States it went to number eight becoming the first of two top 10 hits for Stewart, the other being Time Passages in 1978 which bettered it by one place. In the UK, it stalled at number 31, but thanks to radio, it didn’t become a long-forgotten song.

Stewart was not a man who craved fame and was happy to remain fairly anonymous when in public, “I was able to walk down Sunset Strip and go into Tower Records, and no one recognised me,” he explained in a 2016 BBC interview. “I’ve always liked that. I’m not the sort of person that wants to have people chasing me down the street with autograph books. I like to be completely anonymous, frankly, because if you’re going to be a writer, which is more what I am than anything else, you need to be the fly on the wall. You don’t want to be the centre of attention – you want to be the one taking it all in.”

Another man who was more than likely in the that position was Bertie Higgins, whose only real hit was Key Largo that also happened to reach number eight in the States, but only number 60 in the UK, but both songs were inspired by the same 1942 film.